Lolu Akinwunmi: I Married at 30 but Waited for Eight Years to Have a Child

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As he looks in the mirror – almost dressed up – a beautiful woman hugs him from behind. His face beams with pride and prospect. It is his first day to start a new job. His heart beats with excitement as the beautiful woman – his wife – gives him a reassuring kiss. He responds with a knowing smile as he puts on his shiny shoes, looking sharp decked in a checked shirt and denim trousers. It is his first day at work at his own newly established company. With eager, brilliant face munched by anxiety, he arrives the nondescript building that will be his office complex. It is 1992. But a decade ago, he had started out well with Lintas and Promoserve. With his new enterprise, he went to town begging for briefs from one company to the other with no positive outcome. In a twist of events, after running from pillar to post to get accounts, he ran an awareness ad campaign for his firm – an unforgettable one: “We’ll take your briefs to town”, displaying a set of underwear, punning on the word, “briefs”. The ad campaign got him the Crystal Bank account and many others. Like a business fairytale, by January 1993, with his brilliance and ingenuity of his team, his firm became the first ad agency to run a six-month campaign on CNN with Crystal Bank TVC – even Ted Turner found it irresistible, giving his firm free spots for about two months. Shrewd, sincere and systematic, Lolu Akinwunmi, Chairman of Prima Garnet Advertising Group, is one of the most creative and pragmatic professionals alive. A man of many parts: ex-President, Association of Advertising Agencies of Nigeria, former Chairman of Advertising Practitioners Council of Nigeria, APCON, Chief Executive of the Rebranding Project and a delegate at the last National Conference. In this interview with
Samuel Ajayi, Lolu as he is fondly called talks about his struggle to survive in a highly competitive industry, his long wait for a child and why he thinks the All Progressives Congress and the Federal Government are failing in their ‘change’ message

Established in 1992, Prima Garnet belongs to third generation of indigenously owned advertising agencies. How will you describe advertising at that time and now?
As you know, we look at our own history. We have two periods. The period between 1992 when we started and when the advertising industry began to experience some transformation. When we started, it was a monolithic agency as everything was done under one roof. But there had been developments outside Nigeria that indicated that the media was leaving, PR was leaving, and event planning was leaving. All these were driven by business consideration and not professionalism. I sat on the board of Ogilvy for Africa. I was aware that the decisions we took were driven 95 per cent by financial considerations. There were those who thought it could never happen. I remember the first major meeting we had in Sheraton then. That was AAPN.

How long ago was this?
It was shortly after we joined AAAN; this was in the ’90s. People did not understand the whole concept of media independence. They saw media independence as competitors but forgetting that you still have the whole thing under one roof. It was a rowdy meeting. But a few people did (understand); like George Thorpe and Biodun Shobanjo. It was a long and noisy meeting. It was after this that many people began to understand that you can run a media independent agency under the mother agency. If you follow the period of interregnum things have not been too bad. We grew from one agency to five or six operations. And I want you to know that the global depression is cyclical. It usually happens between eight and 10 years. Unfortunately, when the global depression was ending, ours was deepening: drop in oil revenue, large-scale corruption, impunity and so on. These have effect on business. Therefore, when those we were competing with were recovering, we were not. But we will recover though at a huge cost. I envisage a situation sometime next year, certainly not this year, when the Nigerian economy would pick again and show signs of growth once more. Advertising runs on the back of commerce and right now, commercial activities are slow but happy days will be here.

Prima Garnet was one of the agencies that set up second-line agencies and yours was very successful. In fact, there was a point when people felt 141 Worldwide was doing better than the parent agency, Prima Garnet. What’s the key to its success?
Let me talk about what we did. We may not be privy to what others did but in our case, we tried to make 141 totally independent from day one. There were some connections and I was one of those plus one other director. We did not operate as a group. We did not operate a central account. In our blueprint, we positioned it to compete with Prima Garnet. We were handling BAT here and I wrote a memo by 2am to Ogilvy Worldwide and by 7am, I got a response from head of Europe, Africa and Middle East that I could go ahead. So that was why we set it up and separated it from Prima Garnet with separate office, staff and separate board.

Some would agree with you that okay, you did well with the structure of the way you set it up. But they will also argue that you had a very juicy account to take off with. Isn’t that correct?
Yes. But many agencies also took off with very juicy accounts as well. I won’t want to mention a particular agency’s name, for obvious reasons, but they had Coca-cola account to take off with. Taking off with a good account is one thing, but sustaining such account is another thing entirely. The BAT account, not only have we succeeded with it, we have been given additional markets in West Africa to manage it. These things and the grace of God have helped us and if we are to start a third agency today, it would probably do better than 141.

Promoserve used to be very good and a reference point in agency business. Kehinde Adeosun, the owner, was more or less a patriarch of the industry. There was a belief that those the man trusted actually betrayed him.
Let me say this: I had left Promoserve before the decline; maybe a year or two before the decline could be seen and felt. Promoserve was a big agency with very good accounts. Some of the people who left talked about management issues. But I think at some time, there must have been system failure and collapse and they did not do what they were supposed to do. I had my issues with the agency when I was there. In actual fact, Prima Garnet started because I did not want to remain in Promoserve while complaining about what was happening there. I had no intention of starting an agency. I was an advertising technocrat trained by Lintas. Someone, one day, would say if you knew so much, why didn’t you start your own? After I had left and the agency had practically gone under, Uncle Kenny Adeosun came to meet me at Prima Garnet and offered Promoserve to us and for about nine months, I used a financial services firm to audit Promoserve and the firm gave us a report. I showed Uncle Kenny the report and Promoserve’s account was in the red. If we were to buy Promoserve over, the amount of money being owed would help us to set up two new agencies. Though Promoserve had the heritage and the name, its liability was massive to inherit from a company you wanted to buy. He asked if we weren’t going to buy and I told him the board would never approve of buying it – and that was it.

Let’s come back to your management style at Prima Garnet. There was a time you were paying salaries twice a month.
Yes; we noticed that between the regular 30-day cycle, staff always got broke and started asking for IOUs. So, we sat back and asked how we could stop that; we introduced giving them something at the middle of the month. We did that and the request for loans stopped.

Did you divide their salaries into two?
We went a step further. Business was good so we did not touch their salaries. We just worked out something extra for them.

Like I mean someone earning N100, 000 you give him N60, 000 by month end and by middle of following month give him the balance – N40, 000?
No. We did not do that. You can ask them. We simply worked something extra for them and the demand for loans and IOUs stopped.

What is the strength of the Prima Garnet Group?
Under the Prima Garnet Group, we have about five or six outfits. There is 141 Worldwide, which is a full-fledged agency but quite good in experiential. We also have MediaShare, which is a media buying agency. We have Lampost, which is an event and experiential marketing agency and we have Cutler Comms, a PR and media relations agency. We just started our foray into project management. We never set up an outdoor firm that would require us joining OAAN. But there are opportunities that are coming that have to do with outdoor without necessarily joining OAAN; like wanting to build a new mall and they want a project marketing management company that will manage the mall in terms of advertising opportunities and pay the revenue to government. We have about five of that on our hands now. So we are diversifying. It is still under the larger marketing communications business.

We can’t do an interview like this without mentioning your issue with Barat over the Ogilvy Africa affiliation in Nigeria. We know the issue is in court but some felt you were using your influence in APCON.
Our problem had never been with Barat as a person. Our issue was with WPP and especially with Ogilvy and Scanad because Ogilvy own majority shares in Scanad and we have been in court since 2011 and 2012 and that is why I cannot say much. It was mere coincidence. When I became APCON, I just finished my tenure as AAAN president and towards the end of that, I became the chief executive of the Rebranding Project. I also became APCON chairman. AAA always had reforms we could not push because we were just an association without any bite of the law. One of the things we had always wanted to do was to review the Advertising Code. May Nzeribe (now late) did so much to review the code; he worked on it and sent it to the Ministry of Information which in turn sent it to the Ministry of Justice and it did not come out. We took what Nzeribe had done and with Willie Nnorom (now late), who was appointed as the chairman of the review committee and we got a good lawyer, a senior advocate of Nigeria, and with the whole industry. It was just a coincidence. We did not do it because of Barat or anyone.

What exactly was the issue?
There was a very weak control of who could be an advertising practitioner to the extent that a teacher could finish teaching and put on signboard and become an adman. What we did was to work with Nigeria Advertising Association and others and we said this would be a yardstick to become a practitioner. We looked at other countries and markets. It does not matter if you have PhD in advertising, you cannot practise in India. Even in some African countries. While we will not shut out any practitioners, let us look at best global practices. Today, managing directors of companies are now sitting for APCON exams. So it is not against practitioners.

Some said it was also about issue of account with Ogilvy and so on.
Our issue with Ogilvy was this: Technically, we are the affiliate agency of Ogilvy and the law says that as long as Prima Garnet is the agency of Ogilvy in Nigeria, you cannot affiliate with any agency or start another agency in Nigeria. They breached that and we wrote them and they ignored us. We went to court and we got an injunction. After we got to court, they now wrote us saying they had sacked us and the court said no; you cannot do that.

Are you still affiliated to Ogilvy?
If you say so, you are talking correctly under the law because that is what the injunction was emphasising. We always tell everyone that we had a life before Ogilvy. It was because they liked what they saw in us that was why they came to us. Without them, we had been surviving and we will continue to.

Let’s look at the present government. There seems to be problem with communication. What is the cause?
Lai Mohammed is not my friend but he has a reputation. He has been a communication person for years and he is a lawyer. He is intelligent. You just have to hear him speak. Those that governments usually appoint to manage its communications are mostly journalists. They are not communications people. They report government and return fire on behalf of government. Do they ever sit down to plot communication strategy? No. So what are you running on? Meeting with journalists? Sending out press releases? It will work for some time but you are not seeing your assignment as a brand custodian. Buhari is a brand and Osinbajo is one. How do you manage these brands? Is it to go and meet Nollywood people? With due respect to Lai, we are not close and we have never talked, but I don’t know any holding strategy being planned. Maybe there is one and is not being projected. One of the things I think they could do, which on my own I prepared a document, they had a strong platform called ‘change’ though not developed locally. But change as a brand slogan was strong. I saw the way they managed ‘change’ because as APCON chairman, I saw these things. The way they managed the ‘change’ campaign was quite strong. But the moment they became the party in power, I expected them to make change the property of the administration and develop a strategy and let it dovetail to all of government activities.
People waited for months and nothing of such. Someone has to be in charge of the ‘change’ message. You promised so much on platform of ‘change’ and you need to put someone in charge of communicating that ‘change’. I had written in some of my articles on Facebook that change is a double-edged sword. If you promised and communicated change and don’t take ownership of it, it becomes an albatross. They are making the task of PDP easy for 2019. They don’t have to work too hard. All they need to ask is this: where is the change? Bring all the campaign materials of 2015 and lay them bare. APC’s rationalisations make sense and they are genuine: economy is in bad shape, drop in oil revenue, monumental corruption and so on. They are genuine excuses. But other areas about social mobilisation to make people understand these excuses have been ignored. And they might have lost that opportunity. This is my thinking as a marketing communication person. But I think they have been working on a platform of arrogance and combativeness. Demonising critics and creating the impression that the last regime caused all problems of the country and arrogantly creating the impression that everyone, except them, is bad and corrupt.

What are APC and the government trying to communicate to people?
I cannot see it. That is where the blame game comes in, rationalisation, excuses and accusations of corruption and so on. But if you have your message, you treat opposition as competition and not enemy. That is the point.

Have you always wanted to be in advertising and communications?
I have always wanted to be a lawyer but that did not work out. Another best thing I thought I would want to do was to be a journalist because my late father was one. But by the time I got to 300 level in the university, I came across some successful advertising guys who were working in Lintas and I made enquiries. Even though it took about a year between the time I applied and when the interview was concluded, I waited. I am not sure I can do any other thing again. Maybe I can still do law because I am still passionate about law.

Like how many years have you spent in the industry now?
I got in on September 1, 1982.

So, by next year you would have spent 35 years?
Wow! You are making me afraid. So I have spent that long?

Do you have role models in the industry?
People like Sly Moemeke, Segun Ogunbunmi, Mark Obviageli, Chris Doghudje and Dele Adetiba. These were giants of the industry then and in various ways impacted on the business. We have also people like Biodun Shobanjo, Jimi Awosika, Akin Odunsi, and the late May Nzeribe. Collectively, they have impacted on me and inspired me by interacting and working with them; not to forget Uncle Kehinde Adeosun.

You hardly talk about your family.
(Cuts in) Because people hardly ask me. I have a small family. I have a wife who is a lawyer and I have two boys.

If they were still in school, it means you married late?
I married at 30. But the first child did not come until about eight years after. That is why the first is just about 19 and the second is 17. By now, my friends are now grandparents. One wants to be a lawyer and the other wants to go into entertainment and communication.