By Akin Odunsi
In Nigeria’s advertising industry, Chief Akin Odunsi stands tall among the doyens who have made their marks. The trio of Odunsi, Tunde Adelaja and Steve Omojafor, who were course mates at the Department of Mass Communication, University of Lagos, in 1969, floated Rosabel Advertising Agency, in 1978. In this interview with Femi Ogbonnikan, Odunsi, the governorship candidate of the Social Democratic Party in 2015 in Ogun State, and an erstwhile Senator who represented Ogun West district between 2011 and 2015, goes back memory lane on how he concealed an admission into Teacher Training College because he didn’t want to become a local man. Excerpts:
What is your background?
I come from Amodu Giwa family, Imapa Compound in Ota, Ogun State. I was born into this illustrious family on July 23, 1945. My father, Badiru Ishola Amodu, and my mother, Saratulai Abike, both of blessed memory, were also born and bred in Ota. I grew up in Ota and I spent all my early days in Ota. I attended the Ansar-Ud-Deen Practising School in Ota. And from there I attended the Secondary Modern School briefly before transferring to the CMS Grammar School, Lagos. I did my Secondary School Certificate examination in the school. I did the GCE A/Level and I was in Lower Six and passed three subjects at A/Level before the Higher School Certificate (HSC) examination. But I waited to finish because I was the Head Boy of the school during that period and I finished in 1968. I taught briefly at Gaskiya College, Cardoso, Ajegunle, Apapa, and later went to the National Broadcasting Corporation (NBC) then, where I was studio manager before moving on to the University of Lagos to read Mass Communication. I also attended the University of Illinois and studied Advertising at the Postgraduate level. I obtained my Master’s degree in Advertising in August 1973. Thereafter, I spent some time in an all-black leading agency in America at the time called, Vince Cullers Advertising Incorporated. I was there for one year plus, and got married when I was in America to my childhood love. I went to England to get married and later returned to America. After working in Chicago for a year, I decided to return to Nigeria. I returned to Nigeria in September 1974 and I started work immediately, with Grant Advertising International. So, that’s basically the little I can say about myself while growing up.
What inspired you to have a university education?
Well, as I said, my family is not wealthy but illustrious. My father was a product of Abeokuta Grammar School and he was an Accountant by profession. He was a Certified Accountant and he rose to become a Chief Accountant of Tate & Lyle Company in Ilorin. My mother was a stark illiterate but very well informed. And my uncle attended St Andrews College, Oyo town. He is late now. He was Andrew Odunsi and he was a tutor at Government College, Ughelli, before he came back to Ibadan where he became Vice Principal at Government College, Ibadan. So, we had education as bedrock of our family. So, growing up in Ota, against the background that we had people who actually achieved, we had no choice but to surpass them, if we could. But we enjoyed growing up in the town. It was fun but we never lost sight of our dreams for serious education.
Did your parents or an uncle influence your career?
Not in my chosen career but like said, growing up in Ota, we saw my uncle, the Late Chief Odunsi as our role model because we always spent most of our holidays around him and he was living in Ibadan. He encouraged us to achieve that. For me, he was my role model, as it were, growing up. And he played a very important role in my education because when I got admitted to the CMS Grammar School, Lagos, he, it was that I ran to, to support my ambition because my father was not in Ota at the time; he was in the North. My uncle wanted me to go to the Teacher Training College but I didn’t want to go. At the time I got the admission letter to CMS Grammar School, I already had admission to the Teacher Training College. So, I kept the one from the Teacher Training College and went to Ibadan to tell my uncle that I had an admission to CMS. He gave me money to pay the deposit. It was after paying the deposit that I came back home to announce to my uncle, the Late Alhaji Hassan Ahmed that I had been given a place at the CMS Grammar School, Lagos. So, that was how Uncle ATO Odunsi played that magnificent role in the choice of where I was going next, and that was to CMS Grammar School. I can never forget that singular privilege.
Why did you choose to conceal the admission to the Teacher Training College?
It was because I didn’t want to become a teacher. Most of my colleagues, let me say many of them, ended up becoming teachers and I felt I didn’t want to be a local man. My sight was set in the big cities and I said I wanted to go to Lagos. Otherwise, I would have done my primary, secondary and teacher training college, all in Ota, but I wanted to see the bright side of life. One of my uncles, my mother’s brother, lived in Lagos and so, I always came to Lagos to spend time with him. And that, in a way, was how I was introduced to Lagos.
Tell us about your early days in advertising?
When we were at the University of Lagos, three of us were very good friends, very close friends – myself, Tunde Adelaja and Steve Omojafor. The three of us were very close. We were in the same Department of Mass Communication at the University of Lagos and we nursed the dream that one day, we could do things together. We didn’t realise it would be in Advertising, but we knew we wanted to set up something together before we grew up. So, when I finished my first degree and, by that time, I had made up my mind that I was going into Advertising, encouraged by people like the Late Prince Kehinde Adeosun, who I saw then as my role model. He had gone into the Advertising practice and I used to visit him and he used to talk about his life and I loved his lifestyle and I liked what he was doing; I felt this was something that I would like to do. So, when I finished and went to America, I was in touch with my colleagues, Steve and Tunde. Tunde also went to the UK and did a Postgraduate degree programme in Advertising. Steve alone was with the Daily Times newspaper. He went back to the Daily Times but before I came back to Nigeria, and he had moved from the Daily Times to Lintas Advertising, ditto Tunde Adelaja, who had come back from England, joined Lintas. So, when I came back to Nigeria naturally, I also had links at Lintas but I did not just want to go to Lintas and I looked at Ogilvy Benson & Mather (OBM). Those were the leading agencies at that time. But I read about Grant Advertising which was another agency in town which added a Canadian flavour to it. So, I decided to Google and check out Grant Advertising, but whilst I was still going through the procedure for getting absorbed into Lintas, I went into Grant’s and immediately, the General Manager at Grant Advertising, a Canadian called Ian Johnston took to me when he was told that he was going to have an American trained graduate in his office. He said I should come and start work on Monday. So, I could not wait for the Lintas procedure and I just went to start work in Grant. And when I got to Grant, I found some good friends there, like Biodun Sobanjo, who had worked with me at the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) and some other new friends I met there. So, it was very easy for me. Sobanjo offered to share his office with me when I got to Grant.
As an advertising doyen and a technocrat, so to say, how did you find yourself in partisan-politics?
I was born into partisan politics in my family, let me say so. My uncle and guardian in Ota, the Late Alhaji Ahmed Hassan was the Action Group (AG) Honourable in the old Western House of Assembly. He was the first Action Group member, from Ota, in the House. In those days, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, Samuel Ladoke Akintola and the rest of the Action Group chieftains, were entertained in our family house in Ota, when they came on campaign. So, being in a political environment, I have always been interested in politics. Even as a student, I was involved in Students’ Union politics. But this one that we are talking about came about just because I had retired from Advertising in 2003 and I was enjoying myself and there came a call from the people to say, “now that you have retired why don’t you please come and take a shot at the Senate on behalf of our people”? It was not an easy decision for me to make, but after due consultations here and there, I decided to throw my hat into the ring. And the rest is history. I joined the Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN) from my ward in Ota and of course, Ota is not a strange place for me because I grew up there. A lot of people there know me very well and I have a house there. I was always going back home. So, when I decided to throw my hat into the ring, it was very well received. Like I said, the rest is history. I campaigned round the whole of Ogun West, just about three or four months away from the election and my party, at the time the Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN), swept the poll. I was returned as the Senator – elect for Ogun West and that was how I ended up being in the Senate.
Wouldn’t you consider yourself lucky that at your first shot you were elected a Senator?
Yes, you can say that there was a bit of luck there, but at that time, the party needed a candidate that had a good pedigree. The party needed me to deliver that election to the party and I did not let them down. I set up very strong machinery for campaign and I spent a lot of money. I went all over Ogun West, and campaigned vigorously. Immediately, I started my campaign for the governorship slot, because we knew the politics of the area at the time, and people were expecting that Ogun West would produce the governorship candidate, particularly with the PDP, presenting retired Gen Idowu Adetunji Olurin, and the PPN, presenting Gboyega Nasir Isiaka, as candidate. I had the difficult task of campaigning in that zone for somebody who was not from the zone for the governorship. But thank God, on both levels, we delivered. ACN won the senatorial seat and the party also won the governorship position. So, we thank God for that.
All you fulfilled, having served as a Senator?
Oh yes, very well. I feel very, very fulfilled because I can go back in time and history and see what has happened to representation from that zone. I think, I can say very loudly and clearly, that I touched all the various areas of Ogun West during my four-year tenure as senator, who represented the zone. There is no area I did not touch. I did projects, provided facilities, empowerment, training programmes for young people in that zone for the four years I was at the Senate. It was my major challenge to ensure that the youths, particularly in that zone, were empowered as much as I could, and I think that I did so. I had two Senatorial district offices, one in Aiyetoro and another in Ota. The one in Aiyetoro was handling all my projects in Yewaland axis and the one in Ota was more or less handling the ones in Aworiland axis.
Having vacated the senatorial seat in 2015, what are you doing at the moment?
At the moment, I am watching from the sidelines but watching with very keen interest, trying to guide my people, to ensure that they make the right choice, come 2019, if there would be 2019 general elections. If, and I will say that, with all the emphasis at my command.
Why the emphasis on “if”?
Look at the political landscape and look at what is happening in Nigeria today, with all the cacophony, and with all the problems that we have as a nation. I am not too keen; I am not too excited about the possibility of that general election in 2019. This country requires a serious surgical restructuring, if you like. I think, this country is in need of some restructurings, and if that doesn’t happen, then, I don’t know how the 2019 general elections are going to happen.