A former president of the Association of Advertising Agencies of Nigeria Mr. Rufai Ladipo, in this interview with Raheem Akingbolu, revealed how practitioners can creatively turn the recession to opportunities. He also evaluated the various positioning measures being undertaken by the current administration to launder the image of the country. Excerpts:
How would you assess the state of the Nigerian advertising vis avis what we have now and in the past?
I must admit there has been marginal improvement, but as I have always said, we still have many milestones to cover if we are to rub shoulders with global creative giants. For starters, aside from a handful of some stunning work coming out of two or three creative agencies here, ‘am not convinced we are there yet. But the question we ask ourselves is why has lacked of creativity persisted. In my view, it could be attributed to lack of relevant exposure. See, the creative mind is not conventional. It cannot be. Creative types are known to be wild. They do the unexpected and break all barriers. Let’s travel down the memory lane of one of the earliest MTN and Guinness television ads: “Mama Na Boy,” and “My Friend Udeme.” These were classic ads that have stood the test of time. They are memorable, funny, educative, entertaining and above all, informative. These ads were beyond your regular cause and effect proposition that is predictable and expected. Creativity has moved beyond where we are today and if our industry is placed on the Global Creative Competitive Index, I doubt if we can score above average.
So, what’s the way out? Exposure. That is, exposure to great works, extensive reading, letting the mind go and creating something out of nothing. I have seen a recycling of ideas. Originality is lacking in some instances and to be creative you must free your minds and allow your imagination run wild. Yes, training is also key, but you just have creativity in you. Yes, you can have the rudiments, but it cannot take anyone far.
The economy is currently going through a difficult patch called recession, with the fear that marketing budget will be the first victim, how best do you think practitioners can make themselves attractive to brand owners at this period?
I have a different view. In fact, this is the best time for practitioners to make some good bucks. This is the time brand owners want to spend less for more; so any ad agency can take advantage of this window of opportunity that the economic slowdown has presented to us. But the Nigerian psyche is somehow different. We want it the old ways of “brand manager arrangement,” where merit takes the back seat; where anything goes as long as the Piper from his or her “exalted” seat continues to dictate the tune for personal enrichment and aggrandisement. For me, it’s not about big budget that some of us crave, it’s about quality work that can stand the fullness of time. Prove yourself to the client. Your budget will be on the increase and the cash register won’t stop ringing. It’s the natural law of business. Our clients want value delivered timely with handsome returns on their investment, at least for those of them in tune with the cycle of business operation and profitability.
The current administration is making frantic effort to reposition the Nigeria project, what role do you think Marketing Communications can play in the process?
Our industry can play a big role if professionals are given the chance to do what they know best. But ‘am afraid it may not happen. Let’s go back into history a little bit. Remember former Hon. Minister Chikelu and the former president Olusegun Obasanjo’s sound bite on TV? That campaign died naturally. Then came Professor Dora Akunyili of the Professor of blessed memory. Her “Great People, Great Nation,” hurriedly put together by two or three agencies also died for lack of real content that can evoke any emotions, both internally and externally. In fact it was dead on arrival. Maybe a few other ones saw the light of day in between; but former President Jonathan didn’t even bother, despite all efforts by the industry to assist him. I think he had other “interesting,” mantra now haunting him and his cohorts in the last dispensation.
As if we’ve not had enough, our dear friend, the current Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed who is closer to our industry, must have convinced the President to approve another image campaign as a call to duty for all Nigerians. Something in the mould of “War Against Indiscipline” when the current president was the maximum ruler in uniform. This time, they named it, “Change Begins With Me,” in alignment with the self-serving change mantra of the ruling party. Good conceptual thinking one might add, but bad and awful process that led to the evolution of the campaign, which cannot deliver on its promise of instilling a new way of thinking among Nigerians. You cannot preach change. It evolves as a culture and a set of values that must come naturally and not forced.
But the last we heard was that over a billion naira was spent on an image campaign that lacks any emotional connection with the intended target audience — just like the previous ones. The question then is; don’t we ever learn? The industry can only come to the rescue if allowed to do so. For now, it’s the usual “man know man,” which has not paid off, and which will never pay off as long as the sun rises from the East and sets in the West.
What would you say is Nigeria’s greatest brand building challenge?
I believe this has been covered. But to recap, we can overcome any brand building challenge this nation is facing if we allow those who know the nuts and bolts of the business handle it in a fair and equitable manner. My brother, this is not rocket science. Today, we have 36 states plus Abuja in the federation. Not a single state has developed an image campaign of worth. Oyo State and a handful of others toyed with it, but never saw the light of day. Our leaders are not ready to turn Nigeria into an institution — a nation with quality brand essence, but never taken seriously. Instead we concentrate on building personalities that cannot move us forward in terms of brand equity and global competitiveness. The professionals must be put to work and change the negative perception the world holds about our great nation. Nigeria is not about corruption, we have several positives ready to be harnessed and campaigned for the world to see.
There are schools of thought that believe that government is not keen about engaging the services of marketing communication professionals to drive public communications but some also hold the view that the practitioners themselves are not doing well enough to engage the public sector. What is your take?
I totally disagree. If you recall, our industry has always championed the cause of building a great Nigerian nation through tested and proven methods induced by insight. If you recall, the AAAN President, Mr. Kayode Oluwasona led a delegation to the Vice President Prof. Yemi Osinbajo, sometime this year, even though the impact of this visit is yet to manifest in concrete terms, but that doesn’t mean it won’t. We just have to keep trying and drumming it in the ears of our leaders that they cannot do the same thing repeatedly and expect different results. It won’t happen. Cast your mind back into the current corruption allegations facing some first class judges. The Nigerian Bar Association has stepped in as experts in matters concerning law. Within any reasonable expectations ad practitioners must be given a collective responsibility of creating image campaigns that can work. Every step taken by the industry always hit the brick wall because of special interest.
Do you think government is doing enough to create enabling environment for marketing communication industry to grow?
I do not think so. Aside from not giving ad practitioners any audience in the way information is managed, the government of the day doesn’t seem to care about our profession. For example, with the dissolution of the APCON Governing Council over a year or so, the federal government is yet to reconstitute the Council. As a regulatory body for the advertising industry, APCON equally trains students across all cadres and professional levels. And by the Act of Parliament setting it up, not much can be done without a standing Council. But we heard the Minister in charge of recommending the appointment of an APCON Chairman to the president has put it in the back burner without considering the implications of his actions on the professional well being of ad men and women, especially students.
What are the memorable moments and campaigns undertaken under your watch that shook the marketing landscape?
There has been quite a few during my days at STB McCann. They are all in the archives for you or anyone to see. While at the agency we won several LAIF awards up to Grand Prix. Now at Agile, and in less than three years of operation, we have shot over five television commercials and a music video shot in India featuring Patoranking as brand ambassador for Dabur Green Gel and another for Dabur Herbal Toothpaste. Work is in progress on others coming out soon.
Looking back, how can you describe your professional sojourn and how did you eventually settle for advertising?
I trained as a journalist. I worked as a senior reporter and producer at Concord and Broadcasting Corporation of Oyo State (BCOS) respectively before travelling to the United States of America in 1980 for further studies. While there, I practiced my trade at Chicago Defender, then the only surviving black newspaper that evolved from the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s, even the newspaper pre dated that period reporting on issues that mainstream publications like the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun Times wont dare cover. But race relations today have gone beyond segregation at least to the naked eyes. An African American president and several giant steps being taken by black folks.
I worked at Allstate Insurance Corporation in the State of Illinois handling marketing support communications for our agents. That was where I got exposed to advertising through Leo Burnett, then the agency of record for Allstate. I got so fascinated with the way they carried themselves, and the stint I had at the agency from my company got me thinking. A career change was in the offing and when the opportunity presented itself to come and work in Nigeria, I didn’t hesitate. Today, I have made my mark in the profession and still agile to do more for the industry that has made me.
Finally, what is your view about pitch fee, foreign incursion into the market and affiliation?
Pitch fee is a must, but the AAAN is yet to get it right. We’ve preached it over the years, even when I was AAAN president, but maybe the message will sink someday as the industry grows and the economy opens up more so that fifteen or twenty agencies are not chasing a single business. On foreign collaboration, which I think is the right description, I still believe it is needed for our growth and capacity development. But it must be done right and ensure foreign partners follow the rules and understand the administrative protocol. We need each other to build capacity and our business.