Ayeni: PR Agencies Need to Re-invent to Remain Relevant

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Ten years after the establishment of Black House Media, a public relations firm, its chief executive, Mr. Ayeni Adekunle, in this interview, spoke on various stages of the agency’s growth and the need for practitioners to always aspire to sharpen their skills. Excerpts:

Ten years after the establishment of Black House Media, how has the experience been?

The experience has been good. As a matter of fact, if I knew then that things would turn out this way, I would have dreamt bigger dreams. I think a lot of people are limited by the lack of understanding of the power of possibilities. A lot of people are limited by their natural circumstances; they think they could not achieve their heart desires because they don’t have money, yet to bag MBA or have no godfather somewhere, who could influence things in their favour. They then imagine that these things are beyond their reach. So my lesson in the ten years of running an agency is that, anything you genuinely wish for and work towards, entire manifestation of the universe would conspire with you to make it happen.

Our story is that of impossibility. I didn’t study Public Relations or Mass Communication; I studied Microbiology at the University of Ibadan. With this background, I came into journalism and was reporting entertainment. Again, my crossover from entertainment to brands management and PR also appeared strange.

We are where we are today because of the support from my immediate family, my wife especially and the first set of staff who sacrificed their blood, water and sweat. There are some clients we had in the early days that we didn’t know. The pitch was on the phone and we got the business. In fact, out first multinational account was on the phone and we didn’t have relationship with them before. Finally, I think we have enjoyed tremendous support from the media.

You spoke about how you came into the world of journalism, what prompted the move?

Perhaps a little background will be necessary. I started working very early. By the time I was 19 year old, I was employing people. That was before I went to the University. I grew up in Okokomaiko. I was organising shows and was close to a lot of musicians. I used to organise an award called Youths Award for Excellence in Music. It used to take place on Allen Avenue and attracted the like of Daddy Showky, Pasuma, Sunny Neji and others. I left that and went to the University at a time parents wanted their kids to be doctors, engineers and so on. I was admitted to study Microbiology but my five years in school showed me that I had fallen in love with the media. I knew I didn’t want to go back to doing show because I had fallen in love with writing. When I left the university in April 2004, by June of the same year, I resumed at Encomium Magazine.

One day, some of my close friends called me and said they wanted me to assist them in talent management. I agreed. We went to their label -Kennys Music, and another respected brother there said you this man, you write very well, you shouldn’t be doing talent management. You are going to be a publicist. I’ve never heard the word publicist before but I’m a listener and leaner. When I got home, I went to study. I am a writer anyway and this is still in line with what I wanted to do. So that was how I started. Back then, Artistes pay me to help them write their profile. Once Tuface Idibia called me and some others also called, I started doing it for them and by then, I had gotten a two page column in THISDAY on Sunday. Soon, with small money from my wife, we decided something on our own. We started sharing a space on number 4, Ogundana Street, where a friend, gave me a table and chair in a room just for me to leave home every day and come and work from there. Then after a while, he had to leave the room for us because I had three more staff. We started with a brand name ‘AYENE Entertainment’ (All You Ever Need in Entertainment). Butagain, some friends convinced me on the need to change the name. Their arguement was that if I don’t change the name, I may not be able to do big business for banks, telcos and the multinationals. So in 2009, we agreed and rebranded. Black House Media came from a Yoruba proverb that says ‘Inu ikoko dudu ni eko funfun ti n jade’ meaning; the white pap comes from a black pot.

The PR industry has been on for years but still seems to be lagging behind. What do you think is responsible for the slow pace of progress?

I like to provide some context. Today, a lot of companies are facing challenges based on the disruption that technology is facing. Marketing communication is one of them. It’s a media problem not just PR. The same thing is applicable to a lot of businesses. A lot of giant strides are being made by technology companies. I would say that industries and organisation reinvent and recreate themselves from time to time. I think PR in Nigeria has done amazing works over the years. I think a time came few years ago for the industry to either reinvent itself or die. Last year we did a campaign tagged ‘PR is dead’. We wanted to shock everybody and we did. We were able to create a conversation around it. What I realised is that digital marketing which is a PR function is now acceptable and mainstream. What you find is that the social media which is an aspect of PR is functioning. So traditional PR now has to refresh a lot of what it knows, relearn some of those things and adopt a lot of new skills to function today. What I see globally, is that the PR industry is experiencing the challenge of having to contend with amazing new thinking. Ideally, the social platforms that you have today should have been built by PR agencies or media agencies. We are the story tellers and these platforms help people tell stories better. But these platforms were created by technology people, so we came late to the party. That’s why newspaper sales are dropping while blogs and websites are rising. Newspapers and magazines are playing catch up. Using a BHM perspective, what I see is that the combined skills an agency needs to have today goes beyond understanding strategy, how to write, client service or community management.

Today, the PR agencies that want to survive needs to understand blogging, technology, social media, psychology, entertainment and basic things that would help a brand thrive in today’s market place. The boom that is coming would be greater than the one PR experience some years ago as long as we do the right things and play at the high level. To raise the bar in the industry, BHM, has in recent time, introduced few initiatives to boost knowledge and provide data for researchers, who want to know about PR practice in Nigeria. They include; smart PR, a campaign initiated to showcase the good works that Nigerian PR agencies have done. We did that on twitter, facebook and instagram. We launched Nigerian PR report in February this year and before then we have launched BHM app, where industry players can access relevant information. In 2014, we developed what we called the three Cs: compensation, capacity and convenience.
It’s in our 10 years road map that we want to pay more than anybody else in our industry and we want to pay what the best of our clients are paying their staff. In terms of capacity, we want to give our staff the best training on earth.

Some agencies see affiliation as a ladder, anytime they are dreaming of moving to another level, is BHM considering that too?

We are not interested in affiliation. We won’t seek affiliation. In the next ten years, we want to give foreign agencies affiliation. We want them to be proud to be affiliated to us. If there is good money on the table, we can talk about that but it is not in our plan. We want to be the first local agency to become a global agency. WPP did not become what we know today by chasing affiliation. We truly believe we have an opportunity to build a national, regional and a global agency. I don’t care about affiliation.