Alumona: How Advertising Helps Business Owners Navigate Markets

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Jenkins Alumona

Jenkins Alumona, is Chief Executive Officer at Strategic Outcomes Limited Group, an integrated Marketing Communications firm that has handled the briefs of many local and international organisations in the last 15 years of its existence. In this interview with Raheem Akingbolu, he speaks about the dynamics and trends in the marketing communications industry as well as his career path that covered journalism and consulting. Excerpts:

Fifteen years after the establishment of Strategic Outcomes Limited Group, what is your view about the marketing communications industry, especially as it concerns the trend and challenges?
Let me explain my own understanding of the industry’s dynamics with this analogy. If, this year, you have a 150kg pot of okra soup to entertain the people of your village and they are delighted afterwards, that will be good. If next year, you still bring that 150kg pot of soup and your people have a great time, it will also be fine. But at some point, they will start thinking that you are wasting their time because the size of the pot is not increasing. It is the same with everything with anything, even this business. The thing is that only a few people continue to feed well and more and more people are forced to go hungry. The economy has started growing again, but let us remember that at a time it was contracting. Is it growing at a pace to satisfy the large number of people participating in the business? No. And that’s why when you go to many of our companies, people are saying that things are not fine. It is not as if the economy is not growing, but is it growing at a slow pace. So, in the marketing communications industry, the creativity is growing you can see from the awards Nigerian advertising companies are winning. That shows we are doing great and we can do better. But, of course, we cannot also do as well as we can in the situation that we find ourselves. What has happened also is that because of the quality of the economy-it’s not just enough to talk about the quantity of the economy, it is also important to talk about the quality of the economy- how many SMEs even understand the need or have the need for the service we provide. Let’s talk about the need because you must be expanding your business before you talk about going to a firm to help you reach broader or a wider market.

If you do not even have enough power to produce 50 pairs of slippers and struggling to pay rent, how will you consider the possibility of producing 1000 pairs of slippers and the need for Mr. J and B Advertising to help you reach 1000 people to buy your slippers.

So, all of these things are tied together. The failure is us not seeing that one impacts on the other.

What are some of the teething problems you had to contend with as a business?
For the company itself, the challenge we face sometimes is being pigeon-holed into a particular area. In the earliest life of this company, we did quite a bit in the non-public sector. We were at the heart of the first insurance consolidation in the country. But once we started getting success in the public sector, we started also, perhaps hearing from prospects, that these guys are public sector people. Our people get the kind of training that will frighten other people. I mean, they get training that has nothing to do with marketing communications because we believe that knowledge is everything, including in things that are not necessary directly related to our everyday business. We have people who can do these things in-house.

There is a tendency for our people to see Advertising as just communication, but let’s not forget that we are marketing people. So, we can help you see the market better, help you understand the consumer more. So, if we live in a country where some brands have burst into the market, using very unusual means, how do you think they did it? I want to believe that they got an insight into the market and who provides those insights best? Professionals in our industry, who have dealt with consumers for decades and understand the needs of these consumer. I think the failure is to wait until you have whatever you have produced to approach Marketing Communications companies. Sometimes, even as you are looking for that thing to sell; that thing that the market needs, perhaps you should start when you are creating that product.

You started as a journalist and reached the peak as editor of one of the leading news magazines. At what point did it occur to you to do something else and what informed it?
Let’s say that I didn’t move from journalism to this business. Let’s say that I moved from journalism to marketing Communications, working for the Troyka Goup and I moved from there to working as part of teams that launched two telecoms networks, including Econet and Globacom as pioneer staff in both companies. I had left journalism for some time before going on to participate in birthing telecoms in Nigeria both from the agency side and on to the client side.

I have seen a lot of things done and I saw that the people I dealt with on the client side had too much of a contractor attitude towards delivering for clients and I felt that I could do it differently. Our attitude here is that the client is our partner and the client achieving its business objective is of utmost importance to us as it is important to the client. So, if we get paid a lot of money and the client is not achieving its objective, then it ends up a short relationship. It will be a short relationship, anyway, because if you don’t make money, you can’t pay us.

Years after, how would you describe your experience?
I see things in a spectrum; a hundred per cent. You can’t go into anything thinking that everything will come out a hundred percent, but you need to be in it with about 98 or 99 percent positivity that you can do it. At that time, I wasn’t seeing myself as an entrepreneur, but as a young person who wanted to make a contribution and felt that I was going to bring a different approach to doing stuff. Our earliest clients were surprised that when we got an opportunity to sit down and present a proposal, we would do everything and not discuss what we should get paid. And at least one or two people would ask: “Are you not going to get paid?” We would say, of course, we would get paid. But we were more interested in getting that solution that would achieve the objective than getting paid. We have also changed with the times, being as future forward as we can. But we still retain the essence of our personality as a company, which is that we prefer to be partners with you and to get the best for you, believing that when we get the best for you, we will also get the best for ourselves.

How easy was the transition from journalism to entrepreneurship?
I do not know if there is anything that anybody does without breaking a sweat. I think if you want to achieve something, you will have to break a sweat. But will it be a bucket load or cup of sweat or a teaspoonful of sweat is where the question? I started writing for The Guardian as a journalist at 19 and I had the opportunity of being in the same newsroom with titans such as the likes of Femi Kusa, Lade Bonuola, Ebube Nwandibe as News Editor, Emeka Izeze, Dr. Olatunji Dare and a host of others. Those things impacted me. You are sitting in your corner and hearing them screaming across the newsroom. It was a very exciting time for me as a young person because these were the best at that period and it also made me feel at that point that I could also be the best.

The fact is that journalists are the best prepared for anything they want to be. As a 19-year-old, I was asked which desk I wanted to go to and because I was wearing a tie, someone said I should go to the Business Desk. I said I wanted to be on the sports desk because that was the period of the Olympics and I wanted to be in the middle of it. So, I was coordinating Olympics reportage at 19 and, of course, The Guardian had someone there is at the Olympics. This was Seoul 88 and it was a big surprise to the older people that this 19-year-old boy was able to hold his own and ensured that things went well. What this kind of background does to you is that it prepares you to be whatever you want to be. Getting commendation from people who you think are at the end of the world at that young age was, to me, the best thing that ever happened to me. You could go to the library every day and the smell of newsprint was addictive. I could read about anything I wanted to and I grew in the profession very quickly, obviously, maybe I reported everything. I wrote politics covers when I moved to The NEWS Magazine. I could do anything I wanted and that is what I meant by if you are a journalist, you can do anything. That is why here, we also deal with all sorts of matters. On the strategy level, we consult for big brands.

Looking back at how well you and your team have grown SOL as agency, what do you consider the firm’s staying power?
I will say quality of people that we engage to be a part of our side of the client’/ business relationship. Because if you don’t have the right kind of people that will understand where we are coming from and what we stand for, then you cannot succeed as much as you want. You should understand that a project is as important to us as it is important to the client. So, it is not about just doing it and getting paid at the end of the month or when the clients pay us.

How well have you succeeded as a marketing strategist?
As a journalist, you are not trained to blow your own trumpet. I mean we have been here for the past 15 years and we have been part of one or two or three brands that have become huge successes. We sit sometimes and argue very strongly that we are more of a strategy company and we have many of our colleagues that say no, you’re a strategy company but you do some creatives and you have a firm that does public relations. And I say what happens is that sometimes, we have found out that when we detail these strategies, when we come up with a proposal, it is difficult for someone to carry it through and so we offer to carry it through and deliver the finished products. We have had cases when we are very happy to just do the strategy and let you go and find your way. But you know how it is in our system in this clime. Through strategy, we have made something as unloved as taxation into the most talked about of things in a country like ours. If Lagos State moved from N4 billion to N25 billion and FIRS moves in time of deep recession and starts breaking records and we are in the room, we are glad. Of course, we never work in a vacuum, so other factors are also in play.

Can you briefly highlight the areas your group covers?
Generally speaking, I think our businesses are primarily focused on getting the best brand outcomes for our clients. So, we have a company that is an Advertising agency, but we also have a PR company. We have an arm that does lobbying. We have a sports promotions and marketing company; we have an event company. So, everything is around that area. We have not started doing things outside that area, but what we do is get people focused on specific areas, so if we are working for a brand for instance, and we think that the solutions best suited to the best outcomes you desire are not purely Advertising, then we recommend to you. For us, the one thing we want to do for a client is say: “This is where you are going to; this is the strategy that will get you there”. Sometimes, it needs something very radical. Look at GOtv Boxing for instance which is one of my favourites. We said, this brand, you need to use sports to sell. You do not want to come into a room that is already full of people like football; you want the customers; the consumers you desire to be excited about. We asked what is close to their heart and we said look at boxing. And based on the client’s consent, we have created a very successful platform for that. But it’s still within what we do-brand engagement.