Ilonah: Our Target is the Biggest Billboard in the World

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As the management of Lona Media prepares to inaugurate the biggest outdoor billboard in Africa to commemorate the 10th year anniversary of the outdoor company, the founder and chairman, LONA Group, Mr. Idoko Kingsley Ilonah, has outlined the company’s plans for the future and the potential in the nation’s advertising industry. Raheem Akingbolu brings the excerpts:

How did Lona Media Limited start?

Lona Global Resources started like a joke; initially we started with LONA Petroleum and Gas which is registered as a marketer with Pipeline Product and Marketing Company (PPMC), a subsidiary the Nigeria National Petroleum Company (NNPC) in the upstream sector. In the process of looking to diversify into other potential viable areas, I traveled abroad during this period to South Africa. While there, I fell in love with the LED digital advertising which was not yet in Nigeria. On my return to Nigeria, it also happened that Mallam Nasir el-Rufai, the then FCT Minister decided to sanitise the outdoor advertising business by setting up the department of outdoor advertising to bring sanity and order to that sector in the FCT. I see el-Rufai as the father of modern advertising in Nigeria because; his innovative policies and revolutionary approach in that regime became a template for other states across the country. It’s on records that Lagos sent his officials to Abuja to understudy the el-Rufai innovations and LASSA was born. Thus with the sanitised environment in the FCT which coincided with our readiness, we launched LONA Global Resources in 2006 by inaugurating the very first LED digital displaying billboard situated at Labour House in the Central Business District (CBD) Abuja. At the end of the day, a staff of the department of outdoor advertising, Mr. Adewale Adetona approached us and suggested that our billboard was not strategically located and would not attracted the eyeballs that we intend it to attract. Thereafter, we applied for a new location and were relocated to the Transcorp Hilton junction after meeting the requisite environmental regulations. That was how we got our big break.

At 10, can you stress on the success story of the agency?

The company as stated above is a subsidiary of our conglomerate of companies known as Lona Group. It is an indigenous company that specialises in outdoor advertising. We are unique because of our sites and functional billboards that dominate the Federal Capital Territory (FCT)’s landscape. We have been in active business since 2006 and were formerly known as the Lona Global Resources but have now rebranded to Lona Media.

What is the unique selling point of the brand?

Lona Media is a premium advertising firm. We in Abuja are not as loud as our Lagos counterparts; it is on record that Lona Global Resources (now Lona Media Ltd) is the first to introduce outdoor LED digital billboards in Nigeria. Amongst many pioneer steps we took is the installation of the first outdoor LED digital Billboards in Abuja by Transcorp Hilton junction, also in Lagos at the Murtala Muhammed International airport (MMIA) at the arrival gate, first to build the biggest billboard (20m x 40m) in Nigeria at Abuja International Airport Road by Nelson Mandela University of Science & Technology and also the the first to build the biggest billboard in Africa (30m x 90m) at the Abuja International Airport Road by Lugbe Interchange.. Our uniqueness is embedded in the fact that since our debut in 2006 to date, we maintain the best location and deploy state-of-the art billboards across the FCT and pan-Nigeria. We pay huge attention to aesthetics features of our billboards and also the environment around which we operate and deploy our billboards. We maintain 24/7 services to our clients in billboard maintenance across Nigeria and ensure that there is no downtime.

How have the challenges of doing business in Nigeria affected your company?

There are very many challenges and I must say Nigeria is the most difficult place to start a business. Banks are not ready to fund startups but are willing to fund already made billionaires and their businesses. I don’t know the policy of the present administration on its funding support for startups or entrepreneurs but the administration of Jonathan initiated the YouWin scheme. In Nigeria, unlike in other countries, a policy for funding a business from scratch is not in place. For instance, in a country like the U.A.E, (Particularly Dubai), government deliberately formulates policies to encourage their citizens doing business with funding to ensure they grow entrepreneurs and create jobs and wealth for the people.

How can government intervene to provide ease of doing business in Nigeria?

I think government should adopt similar policy currently in force in Dubai and also reintroduce the YouWin scheme and ensure that the programme and its beneficiaries are closely monitored to ensure compliance in paying back the loans. There should be a department that should be specially delegated to oversee new start-up ideas. The present stringent conditions attached to loan applications by banks are not favorable to new businesses. Nigerians are highly talented and resourceful and should equally be supported by government to help them realize their full potentials through a special agency that would make it easier to secure funding for new businesses through the banks. Banks can fund start-ups innovatively by getting involved all the way in the value chain, monitoring their projects and the beneficiaries on a 24/7 basis. Bank officials are lazy and fail to do what they should do. They give you a loan and go to sleep instead of getting involved and ensuring that the beneficiaries stick to the plan of action so that they don’t default on the loans at the end of the day.

How has your company contributed to the Nigerian economy?

We have created employment for many FCT residences, we contribute to the revenue base of the FCT, we are improving daily to the aesthetics outlook of the federal capital, and with our pioneer and innovative achievements in the outdoor sector, we have brought prestige to the FCT and the country at large.

We intend to meet with the FCT Minister to discuss areas we feel we can further contribute towards the community by implementing our Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) as it’s done in accordance with global practice. The Abuja Environmental Protection Agency is doing well but we want to also help ameliorate their burden by taking up some streets for the provision of aesthetic value in the environment around Abuja through the planting and maintaining of trees and the beautification of the ambience wherever we deploy our boards.

What informed your decision to venture into outdoor business?

I am a geologist by profession but I grew up in a family of business people. My grandfather was the first Igalaman to go into oil and gas and my late father also followed suit. So, growing up, I saw my father as a mentor and an idol and decided also to do business but in a different way not as my father. I decided to carry out some research and finally settled for geology as a course of study in the university. My initial plan was that, after I graduate, I will proceed to Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to undertake a post graduate degree in geophysics and then return to join the oil and gas sector in Nigeria. My dream as a very motivated person changed halfway because I envisaged that I didn’t want to work for anybody. The LED billboard I saw during one of my trips to South Africa fired my business imagination and laid the foundation for this business today. This imagination coincided with the period when el Rufai was the Minister of the FCT who decided to sanitise outdoor the outdoor advertising sector in the FCT and by extension Nigeria.

My plan or desire was to follow the path of Ted Turner the owner of CNN, whom I greatly admire, by working in the oil and gas industry to raise money and then go into media business. I wanted to establish a one stop media empire comprising of radio, television and newspaper, but God’s plan worked the other way round.

You just built a large bill board that is put at 30m x 90m size, why this extra-passion?

It was good I discovered my call very early, had I followed my initial dream, perhaps I would have been unhappy today. I am a pragmatic man full of workable ideas and don’t believe that everything good must come to us from abroad. I just sat down one day and thought about innovating something fresh and new. What we are doing today is the product of a five year plan because we want to be the Kings of Innovation in the Nigeria outdoor advertising climate.

I have been across Nigeria and we know the nationwide trend, so based on what I saw, we decided to be at the forefront of innovation, change and to create unique quality products to capture our clients’ imagination and be ahead of our competitors because we are a premium advertising brand.
Four years ago, we built the biggest billboard measuring 20m by 40m and deployed it along the Abuja international airport road by Nelson Mandela University of Science and Technology. Right from that day, our target has been to build the biggest billboard in Africa. Our target is to put the FCT on the world map and we intend to further push the boundaries of innovation by building the biggest billboard in the world. These are our grand plans for the years ahead. Our plan now as an innovative company is, how we provide added value to our client so that they can get both the value and money back in terms of revenue generation.

For instance, our titanic billboard Lugbe, a city with over 600,000 populations, comes with a garden and we are offering our clients a viable platform to provide hotspot for residents in the Lugbe area. Today, we want to create value where we can innovate by using aesthetics, business intelligence and technology to give our clients cutting edge advantage in the market place.

What is the future of Lona Media?
I envision that our future is bright because we aspire to be the most innovative billboard company in the world.

What should your customers expect in the next five to ten years?

They should continue to expect the best from us but what we promise is that we shall remain the best company at the forefront of developing local content to achieve and deliver full value to our clients.

Tell us how Lona MEDIA is making its workforce happy with this great achievement and their job satisfaction in the industry?

Without blowing our trumpets, we have staff that have been with us for 10, 9, 8 and 7 years and that simply shows you that they are here because they are satisfied with their conditions of service. Let me state that our staff are highly motivated. The group and its subsidiaries pay our staff salaries and allowances as at and when due and we have very competitive package that attracts and retains the best hands in the industry. We place premium on training of staffs both home and abroad and also have welfare, holiday packages including periodic car giveaways. Our staff can attest to these facts and in fact they should be better placed to speak for themselves.