Communication Policy Must Be Re-Looked-Shobanjo | Independent Newspapers Limited
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Communication Policy Must Be Re-Looked-Shobanjo

Posted: Apr 5, 2016 at 2:05 am   /   by   /   comments (0)

A calm and reflective demeanour typifies the mood in which Steve Omanufeme and Olamide Bakare met the man fondly referred to as Professor of Advertising, Biodun Shobanjo, as he ushered us into his expansive office where we engaged him on the marketing communication industry, how he has managed his business behemoth and the challenges hindering government communications among other issues.

 It is almost 17 years that democracy berthed in Nigeria and yet we are still crying for foreign direct investment, why has it taken so long for the marketing communication industry to attract foreign direct investment like the one Publicise Group just concluded with your holdings?
They have invested already. I thought I needed to make that correction. Why has it taken so long? It is very simple. The Nigeria market is very small for our business. In 2015 alone, total billing is about 150 billion naira which is less than $1 billion. So, when you look at global players who generate revenues of say for example, Publicise, exit 2015, generated a revenue of about $9.7 billion as revenue. And you are talking of total billing of $1 billion for a market that is less than the revenue of a single agency, it does not really motivate them. Secondly, they have also heard of issues of what is happening in our country that relates with rule of law, security issues, transparency and the ability to operate in an environment they are used to. All of those things must have played at the mind of most of the multinationals. They look at corporate governance issues even by those who practise our business. They will want to be sure they have found people who will be able to conform with processes and systems they are used to globally. I think those kind of things would have weigh them down. But with the coming of this administration, that they believe is very transparent, that they believe is genuinely fighting corruption; they are now having a rethink. Without sounding immodest, I think they found it very comfortable with our group because they have carried out a lot of due diligence on us. What a lot of people do not know is that from start to finish, this partnership took over three years courtship with both parties were feeling each other out, carrying out their own investigation and due diligence. So, that explains why it has taken so long. We can understand them.
Based on my own understanding of the partnership, Publicise group would have 25% equity share in Troyka holdings. For you as a business, what is the vision behind this arrangement?
The vision behind it is that when we started 36 years ago, we have always wanted to be a global player. There is no better way of fast tracking that objective than suddenly becoming part of a global organization. Today, what it means is that this company now have access to 108 countries where Publicise operates. As a matter of fact, we are part of Publicise. We are their 109 companies. So, we immediately become part of that global organization. We are part of 76,000 professionals in these various countries. So, when you add our own numbers, the figure expands. So, if I were to drop dead today, this business goes on. If I may ask, what are the challenges local businesses tend to have. If you cast your mind back, there have been a lot of companies that were started by Nigerians and no sooner than those Nigerians died, those businesses die. With this partnership, it is not going to be like that anymore. For us, that is the major achievement. If all our shareholders dietomorrow, the business continues. It is a very major achievement. For me, the high point of my career.
Foreign investment has been stalled in this industry for the number of reasons you have highlighted. Now, it is natural to ask that what is in it for you as a business and Nigerians in terms of employment opportunities and other accruables?
Personally, the satisfaction that we have been able to pull through this stage is something I consider a good achievement. Like you asked, what is in it for Nigerians? One, is the acquisition and acceleration of skills because, through this deal, you will find that our people will acquire much better skill than we have been able to do on our own steam. Secondly, we would have access to tools which we would never have been able to get. Thirdly, our processes would become better because we must align with the processes that Publicise use in all their offices. So, it makes us better equipped to service clients more than we used to do. By so doing, it makes our people more knowledgeable, more skillful. And this will reflect in the service we deliver to client. Outside of that, how does it cascade, you may ask? You must understand that firstly, within the industry, there is a lot of interaction. We have interacted with other agencies through training programs. Those knowledge and skills will also be shared with people who are not necessarily in our business. Secondly, we are not unmindful of the fact that people who worked with us would leave at some point for whatever reasons. The knowledge they have acquired get transferred to other people. So, it goes on and on like that. We would hope, by the way, because of the superior skills and knowledge that would impact what we deliver to client, it also helps galvanize more successes for our clients. If we do something much better, we would expect that it would reflect in the sales of our client. So, the advantages are numerous.
Apart from knowledge transfer which you spoke eloquently about, one of the key benefits in the IMC industry that goes on when partnership or affiliation comes into play is naturally managing the business of the foreign partner. But I am aware that Starcomm media still retains Heineken which is managed globally by Publicise despite the partnership arrangement. With the conclusion and take off of this partnership, what follows with regards to the Heineken business?
We are not an affiliate company. Publicise are part owners of Troyka. So, it is natural that the global clients that they work for demand particular level of service. If I may ask, why does a client gives its business to one particular network? The answer is simple. The whole idea is to get seamless quality of service delivery regardless of the location of the client. Whether the client is in Paris, or London or you enter the Chicago office of that client, you would expect a particular level of service delivery. So, if you are an affiliate, you will only try. As an affiliate, the global organisation does not open its door for you or makes its tools available for use. Affiliation is like a half bread situation. Ideally, they want to be in that market but are not there. Since the partners are not there, they won’t give those things. Now that Troyka is part of their business, what do you think will happen naturally? I don’t have to answer the question.  Heineken is a global client and that business is handled by Publicise group. Now that Publicises group is here, what do you expect to happen? Your guess is as good as mine. However, sometimes this global client may say that you have invested in a company who does not necessarily have the skill and knowledge that would reside in your London or Chicago office. For example, if the local Heineken client here feels that we do not have the knowledge and skill that they require, they may refuse to allow their business to transit. That is why it is also very important that whichever multinational wants to acquire equity in a local business, it would want to be sure that they are putting their money where their mouth is. Sometimes, it may not be easy. That informs why you hear some of them say they have local representations. If they feel that the company cannot deliver, global company can say it does not want to go there again.
Business sustainability is a crucial part especially in an environment like ours where business owners invest heavily in providing infrastructure, electricity and so on, how have you been able to successfully pilot the Troyka group?
It has been very difficult. I am certain the multinationals are also aware of that. As a matter of the fact, one of the things Publicise group have said in our favours among many other things is our ability to survive in such a difficult environment. According to the organisation, the fact that we have been able to do this is absolutely incredible because we know how difficult the terrain is. If you would hear the sound, you would notice the noise of generator. If you look at it, some of the things that apply here, global organizations never experienced anything of such. Take for example, if you tell a global client that you are spending a particular amount on generator, they are always surprised or you say you have to provide cars to certain categories of staff, they wonder. However, our own experience has not been particularly different. I remember many years ago that we pitched a major client and thereafter, they wrote a letter that the agency it chooses must be able to reach them by telephone, by fax, and the accessibility of roads. I remember in those days in my office, we don’t have a telephone. Every time we pay NITEL, the phone will work for one week, and go off. And they said they would visit the office either before or after the pitch. With that situation in our hands, we had no choice but forced to relocate from our first premises. I remember there was a sugar company in that neigbhourhood then, such that when trucks begin to offload, the entire street was blocked. So, we have to relocate within 8 weeks because we had 12 weeks to do the pitch. Thankfully, we won the business but it was a risk. One of the investments we made then paid off. So, you would see that such won’t happen in the kind of environment most of these global players operate from. It won’t happen at all because, world over, you find purpose-based office building where you can move to. That is not the case in Nigeria. Now, if we look at the issue of talents, it is one big challenge you may also want to consider as a business. The question is where do we find talents to work in this industry? Is it product from our universities? As you already aware, the quality of graduates in our higher institution of learning is nothing to write home about. But in spite of all those challenges, we still have to operate and operate professionally. And I can tell you that over the past 36 years, we have never stopped investing in people. One of the secrets of our success is that we keep taking new people and training them. In fact, there is nobody in our industry that trains as much as we do. That is why we are called the university of advertising. That is why everybody comes here to poach staff, both our competitors and clients so much so that we have an alumni association. But we know that if we stop investing in people, then we are dead. I must say that it costs a lot of money to carry on. Now, that we are now part of Publicise group, it is even going to cost us more because we can decide which of the offices we want to send our people to for training purposes or exchange programmes. With the partnership in mind, those in the Publicise group will come, which then allows our guys to visit their offices in order to be better exposed and build confidence. Through the exchange programme, they see how it is done in more sophisticated environment. Apart from that, it would even help us to up our game and deliver superior service to our client.
Is the 25% equity investment subject to regulation or the Publicise group would have wanted more?
Obviously that is the regulation as put forward by APCON. Secondly, we have to see the benefits of this marriage first and then proceed according to the rule of the game. Today, the rule is very simple which states that foreign participation should not be more than 25%. If it changes tomorrow and we see that the change continues to meet the benefit of our people and clients, we would consider the proposition at that stage with the support of our shareholders.
I understand that Investment Promotion Act allows for 40% investment by foreigners, why is APCON rule different?
I cannot answer that. It is left for APCON to provide such answer. But the guideline, as at today, is that organization that wants to invest in marketing communication industry in this country would not have more than 25%.
As someone who has paid his dues in the marketing communication considering your level of experience, among affiliation, merger or acquisition, which one pays best?
I think clearly merger and acquisition is the best way to go.
Because if you are an affiliate, you are a very distant cousin. So, as a member of the ‘family’, once in a while you help in training but subject to conditions. As an affiliate, it is easy for you to give excuse. We started the affiliation thing way back in 1981.We got affiliated to Tellbase in 1981.Thereafter, Base was bought over and later on, we became affiliate to Grey. While with Grey, the relationship took about 18years. So, we understand and know that there is so much you can get being an affiliate. You can either merge, take for example, with foreign company or merge locally. If you merge locally, you probably may become stronger as a local player which gives you an advantage. In fact, it has been canvassed in this market that some of the smaller agencies in this industry can merge to become stronger because with merger comes more strength. But I must state that the ultimate is partnership. It is the Roll Royce of relationship. In that stage, you are a genuine member of the other partner. Come to think of it, the day the announcement of our partnership was made, you would be surprised the number of mails we received from different Publicise offices. Mails of congratulations were coming from different quarters stating that they were happy to hear that Troyka has become member of their family. I cannot imagine the amount of mails and enquiries from different Publicises offices and clients saying they are ready to do this and all. Yet we have been an affiliate of this Publicises at one point. We have been talking for three years with no result. I am almost overwhelmed by the enquiries that are going to our different companies and CEOs. It is only natural as a member of the family to get such huge opportunity. I honestly hope we see more of this partnership in this market because there is nothing monopolistic about it. I believe more of this is going to happen. The truth is that I don t want to kid anybody, it is a tough call because these guys are going to carry out a lot of due diligence on you. You begin to wonder, do you really want to go through this. At the end of the day, all these companies which are public quoted would want to be sure that people’s funds are invested rightly, so that it does not go up in flames. What that means is that they want to know if your company is strong on its own, and that you have the right resources of who can take the game and improve on it.
With this development, how would you see the marketing communication industry in the next ten years?
Firstly, let’s take a look at Nigeria itself, a country of 170 million people.  Although, Africa is going through its difficult path now but it would have to be the next destination as a continent. So, these multinationals know and understand this fact. So, they want to invest in Africa particularly in those countries that follow democracy where rule of law prevails, where corruption is eliminated or there is genuine attempt at fighting corruption. They want to come here because we have numbers but they also want to do business with serious minded organizations. You cannot pay lip service to seriousness and commitment as a business person. So, if you want them to come, you have to pay attention to these factors. And when they come, it would help in the exposure of the marketing communication industry. By that, it means that if we see the desire of government to make us look inward, you can imagine that Nigerian brand will begin to evolve through a combination of support that integrated marketing communication services give to manufacturer. Take for instance, Erisco Foods, if you see the value chain that can be created in the area of agriculture or you imagine a situation where Nasco Cornflakes becomes an explosive brand because it has opportunity to redefine itself supported by first class marketing communication services. Imagine people who begin to put groundnut on cans instead of bottles with the package branded. Of course, there will be a hub in communication services through all of these.
Nigeria will become a hub for West Africa and Central Africa. However, we need to develop the skill and knowledge that would be able to match up the requirement needed globally. This is necessary because we are part of a global village. Take for instance, you may find an investor who says the likes of Erisco is getting  his heart together and is ready to invest, when they put their money behind such a venture, they would expect that the tomato paste that is produced matches anyone in the world. Ditto, they would expect the marketing communication support to be of same standard with what obtains globally. So, if you don’t have the skills, there is going to be a challenge. In such situation, you would find a client demanding the advertising to be done for them in New York or London.
There has been argument from stakeholders on the level of creativity in the advertising industry in this contemporary time. There are those who believe that creativity in the advertising industry is on the decline while some seem to hold contrary views. Besides, you also see professionals copying foreign ads and yet find it difficult to domesticate what they see abroad. As someone who has been in the industry for many years, what do you think has gone wrong?
I think it is skilled acquisition. A man cannot give what he does not have. When you look at the quality of productions, you need to benchmark that against what you see in the world. Once upon a time, it used to be a case that there is a competition where you  as an affiliate have access to a lot of commercials from different part of the world which creative directors judged as among the best from within themselves and this still goes on. From the array of commercials, you can always tell that the commercials produced from developing markets do not match the ones from developed markets. Secondly, when you look at the ways the stories have been told, you will see the difference. One thing you must realize is that when you watch a TV commercial, you are basically telling a story to the consumer. When you watch commercials that tell different stories about products or services, you can see that there is a gap between most of the stories that have been told in developing countries and the ones told by developed countries. But overtime, we now started seeing a shift such that in countries like Brazil, India, they are now telling their stories much more creatively. And you ask yourself why is this so?
What they have been able to do is that those stories are told from the perspectives of their countries but told in a much more creative manner. Sometimes, you don’t have to listen to the sounds; the picture alone tells the stories. And you ask yourself how did they think of this? We need to do a lot more in Nigeria. I believe there is a desire but I think we need to teach our people. I think there is a gap between those who are teaching and those who are supposed to learn. I think there is a gap. Somebody needs to teach our young people, who are very desirous to learn, the art of storytelling. There has to be someone who will teach them how to tell a story in a much more exciting manner. I looked around, I asked where are the Ted Mukoros of this world, Banjo Solarins of this world, Kehinde Adeosuns of this world. Those are the people who were very versatile in teaching people how to tell a story. I don’t know who is playing that role today. I may be wrong because I am not longer in business. Even from the outside, I am scratching my head to see if there is anyone teaching anybody now. However, being a partner in a global organization where we have such fantastic storytellers that will can bring here, we would identify talents in various offices within the Publicise group and ask the person(s) to come to our office for two weeks to come and teach people how to tell stories that are more exciting. That is the benefit of the partnership. I hope that we would do a lot of that. In fact it has started already. Our guys have been going to different offices already. As I speak, our people have gone to Chicago office, someone just came from the UK office, another is in South Africa as we are speaking. These guys are acquiring the knowledge and the skills which will be shared with their colleagues. And I think that is going to help the process.
You are doing this training within the work environment but it is often said among employers that Nigerian graduates are not employable. Don’t you think it would be better off to go visit schools to train the students rather than having people like you spend a lot of resources to train the students when you eventually employ them? In the same light, how can we help bridge the gap between town and gown?
We are not averse to that. Some of our people get invited to some of the higher institutions. Personally, I have been invited. As a group company, we collaborate with Pan African University to organize a classroom, formalized session for students. It is not just for us but for any kind of people. Nonetheless, we realized that we need to play a serious role in bridging that gap. It is costing us money. If you ask them in Pan African University, they will tell you that the program that has been developed between the school of Media and Troyka holding is quite enriching. Although, it has not started running, but it will commence this year. It is a serious point you have raised. I think what we would also like to see is some interactions in the industry and the institutions. One would like to see Art Directors go to College of Technologies that are developing the students in the area of creative art so that they teach the students. So, when you come into an agency, they give you a task and you start producing. It is not when you joined that we will start to teach you how to write copy or how you cast a headline, or the appropriate type face for this kind of product. This is necessary because these are things you need to know.
Stakeholders have argued that for government to get its communication right with its publics, there is need for a review of its communication policy. What is your take? Secondly, one wonders that for someone of your caliber particularly in this industry, there has not been any time you have been called upon to provide expertise in public sector communication as a consultant. How do you feel?
To be honest, I steer very clear of government business. I don’t want people to misunderstand me. I have very strong comment when it comes to government communication. As I told some of my colleagues, communication is so important that, in US, it resides with the Presidency. You will be surprised that there is no secretary of state for Information over there. When you go to Britain, there is no Minister of Information.    The responsibility resides within the Prime Minister’s Office. In Britain, they clear all information from what is called the Central Office of Information. And the man who drives it as the same power as the Prime Minister but carries out the responsibility in conjunction with the office of the Prime Minister. From that foregoing, it tells you that information is key.
On the issue of policy review, I think there is a need for it to be re-looked. The policy driving our communication needs to be relooked.
Secondly, it seems to me that when people from marketing communication go to government, perhaps the impression government officials get is that they are looking for money. You can have communication expert work for you for free. All you need to do is to pay the media cost because they don’t own the media. Let them help you develop the communication first. But because they think it is job for the boys, friends are often hired to handle those tasks. We do very little government business. It didn’t really bother me at all. But if the truth be told, information from government is one in which you are engaging the people. After all, democracy is about government of the people, by the people and for the people. So, how can government be embarking on a program and people don’t understand? People don’t understand because you have not communicated it to them. Take for example, government just announced that VAT will go up and the people who are meant to know were not properly engaged or not engaged at all. For the people, they see it as being punitive. You cannot say you want to increase VAT without firstly letting people know why that has to happen. It is when they understand that they will buy into it willingly. You cannot say to them that tariff will go up when they don’t understand why. Everything that government does is for the benefit of the people. Why are you denying them that privilege?
It is not enough for one minister going around to meet people, they will see it as propaganda. Propaganda is different from communication. As far as I know, it does not matter what it is, is it health, agriculture, you need to centralize your communication. Take for instance, Britain, the ministries go to the central information’s office to demand that they help them sell programs to the people. In the central information’s office, we have PR, Advertising professionals and other relevant elements of the marketing mix working to develop the communication. Anywhere in the world, that is the way it is done.
As someone who has worked with the media for many years and who is aware of lingering media debt issue, what is responsible for media debt?
Industry debt matters have been with us for as long as I have worked in this industry. Many years ago, I took it upon myself to investigate how this business operates in Africa. I went to Zimbabwe, South Africa, Kenya and other major countries where I thought marketing communications were doing well. I came back with a report. In the report, I discovered that in some of these markets, if you owe a media for more than a stipulated or agreed payment period, they would stop trading with you and ensure that all your clients are not allowed to use the media. The implication of this is that if it was the client that was owing, if you thought that you are smart enough to go to another agency, the media will still not accept your ad. But the bottomline of all these is that you are owing one agency, you have to pay. If that situation operates in Nigeria, everybody will fall in line. I think the issue for me, even though it may be a hardline to take, can be resolved if all the critical stakeholders take the matter seriously. Even for the media owners themselves, are they willing to bite the bullet? But often time, you find out that when the media owners say that it is a particular company that is owing, client will take the business out of the agency and give it to another agency or sometimes deals directly with the media owner. I think if things continue like that, it will not work. The media owners are at the centre of it all. So, they must decide how they want to address it. However, there is a fallacy that a client usually pays while the agency just decides to hold on to the money. I think that is not true. I found out that the trading terms that client adopts in this market is totally unacceptable. In most cases, you see agencies deliver services to clients and at the end, the client will not pay at the agreed time. In fact, when you tell your affiliate or partner that client don’t pay for X number of months, they wonder. Having said that, I must also not be unmindful that client pays some service providers who will sit on the money and divert it for other purposes. I am not saying all parties are clean. I know that, almost invariably, all the stakeholders are guilty. All of those stakeholders must come together to bring an end to the issue. That is the only way the business can grow, it is the only way media owner can invest in their kind of business. I must say here that media owners are lagging behind. That is why media rates are the lowest in Africa. Media rates in Nigeria are the lowest in Africa. The reasons are not far fetched. As people who work in the press, what is the circulation figure? In a country of 170 million people, there is hardly any paper that circulates up to 30,000 copies a day now. And you go to other countries, they are circulating 100,000 copies, some are circulating 500,000 copies per day and they have a quarter of our population. The content itself is almost the same in all the newspapers. It didn’t use to be the case. My father, anytime he bought the Daily Times, he read it a whole day because there is so much content. Today, stories are not covered in depth, investigative journalism does not happen anymore.
So, there is also the need for knowledge and skill acquisition on your own divide too. It is not just people in marketing communication, what about journalism? If we are investing in training, what about training for your staffs?
On the area of management style, I think what we have done is to find the right people, train them on how to run the business. In our companies, there are no favoritism. It is all about meritocracy because the KPIs are there to check if you are doing the right thing.
What is the magic wand that has kept your organization to retain some staff for almost four decades?
I think if you start an institution and you are very clear about what you want to do, and you find people with like minds to work with, over a short period, they will understand what your desire are, your goals are. And they are trained along the line. Someone like Jimi Awosika have been with me for 38 years. That is a long time to serve an apprenticeship. Dr. Ken Ikpeali, Sam Osunsoko have been with us for a number of years. That is the beauty of our business. They stay with us because they believe in what we are doing. Apart from that, they also believe in the leadership.