Moolman-and-Okoruwa

Raheem Akingbolu reports that MTN and XLR8 may have severed their relationship

News filtering in from the PR consulting industry indicates that MTN and XLR8 may have parted ways. XLR8 is the highly respected upscale PR consultancy founded by MTN’s pioneer head of public relations, the self-effacing and debonair Calixthus Okoruwa and was until recently responsible for the corporate aspect of the MTN brief. XLR8 also consults for a very extensive crop of multinational brands across different sectors that range from technology and telecommunications to banking and financial services, food and beverage and fast moving consumer goods. It also consults for a number of key public sector clients. Only last year, it was awarded the “best corporate PR personality of the year” by the council of the Nigerian Institute of Public Relations, NIPR under the leadership of Dr. Rotimi Oladele.

THISDAY can exclusively report that both firms decided to severe their relationship a few weeks ago. The communications division of MTN has had quite a few changes of guard over the last few years. It had been overseen by Wale Goodluck for many years until Goodluck resigned his appointment in the wake of the $5.2b regulatory fine which MTN incurred in 2015. Thereafter, Amina Oyagbola took over, combining oversight of communications with that of human resources. But Oyagbola formally resigned from the firm not too long ago. Oyeronke Oyetunde of the Legal Division was also said to have overseen the division but only in an acting capacity. The division is currently headed by Tobe Okigbo who was recently hired by MTN. Okigbo, it is learnt, was formerly at Smile Communications.

At the beginning

XLR8 first won the MTN account sometime around 2006/2007 and managed the account alongside Marketing Mix till 2015 when both firms were relieved of the business. At that point, the business was handed over to a set of different firms, Brooks & Blakes and DKK an advertising agency. By late last year, MTN was in search of another set of PR firms. According to sources, this was in line with the re-alignment of the brand as Omnicom is now responsible for all of MTN’s marketing communications. At the end of the pitch, XLR8 emerged successful alongside BlackHouse Media and both firms were saddled with the task of managing the account and reportedly took over the business in January.

Culture Shock?

Speculative reports indicate that XLR8 may have met an MTN much different from that which it left barely three years ago. While the change of personnel may be a possible reason, the changes may also have been fallout of the record fine which was slammed on MTN by the NCC a few years ago and which it is still paying. The company recorded its first financial loss on the back of this fine about two years ago, but has since returned to profitability.

Both parties refused to entertain any questions from this reporter, assuring that a formal press statement would be issued shortly.

But a staff of MTN, who spoke with THISDAY in confidence, simply stated that the marriage turned sour   because the parties involved couldn’t agree on mutual template.

‘’As far as I’m concerned, both parties couldn’t just agree on principle. XLR8 sure came in with robust experience and deep knowledge about the MTN brand, perhaps because of the background of its founder, who has worked on the brand both within and outside for over a decade. Within, we also have a communications department that can boast of the best brains and ideas. But like the biblical new king who knew not Joseph, the leadership of the company’s communications division, couldn’t just operate on the same page with XLR8, hence the need for both parties to mutually agree on separation,”  the source added.

 Multiple Pitches, Multiple agencies

With the departure of XLR8, MTN is likely to conduct yet another pitch to pick its replacement. Earlier this year, it conducted a pitch to select a PR firm to manage communications relating to its forthcoming public listing. Africa Practice was hired. This was a follow-up to the pitch held last year to select XLR8 and BHM and the one held in 2015 to select Brooks & Blakes and DKK. A new pitch is however, not likely to suffer any shortage of interest or participants as the MTN business is heavily sought after in the PR industry despite what is emerging as a high turnover of PR firms in the company.

So far, it would appear that MTN now holds the record in the telecoms industry for having engaged the highest number of PR firms in the country. It has worked with C&F Porter Novelli which was its maiden agency, Marketing Mix, XLR8, Brooks & Blakes, Black House Media and Africa Practice at different times. It has also worked with DKK which though an advertising agency was saddled with PR responsibilities.

Is this the end of the on-off relationship between XLR8 and MTN?

XLR8 interestingly has had a protracted relationship with MTN over the years. Aside the fact that its founder was once an employee of the firm, XLR8 consulted for more than eight straight years for MTN. After it lost the PR consulting account in 2015, it again won the content management business for MTN and was responsible for developing publications for the company. By 2018 it was again re-hired to carry out public relations for the firm.

The question on the lips of industry practitioners now is whether this development is the final curtain in the on-off relationship between MTN and XLR8. Time will definitely tell.

Meanwhile this reporter has it on good authority that several PR firms are already putting finishing touches to their corporate profiles in the expectation that a pitch to select XLR8’s replacement will happen soon.