Adisa: Beyond Awards, Creative Works Should Impact Businesses

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The Chief Executive Officer at Noah’s Ark Communications, Mr. Lanre Adisa, in this interview with Raheem Akingbolu, speaks on contemporary issues in the local advertising industry, including how Nigerian agencies have fared in recent times in continental and global competitions.

Businesses appear to be shaking off the negative impact of the COVID-19 and lockdown era. How has it been for the creative industry?
Obviously, the world is already waking up from the effects of the COVID-19 especially as it regards businesses. Just a few days ago, the US allowed fully vaccinated Europeans, especially, to come to the United States. There are so many policies around the world that are relaxing the restrictions on the pandemic. Even here in Nigeria, the government has started allowing people to move around even though there might still be some COVID-19 protocols to observe. But by and large, the world is waking up again to business and we can see the effects of that as regards the creative industry. Clients are a lot more active now than they were when the pandemic started last year. It is a very good development for us, knowing how bad that heat has been in Nigeria with the combination of the forex scenario which is coming down by the way and unfortunately the inflation that we have been battling with. So, being able to do business, being able to have been across strata are all enough to convince us that things are picking up. As I speak, we have a prospect from Ghana who has been having a conversation with a colleague of mine. That tells you that yes; the world is already waking up.

A few years back, there was the fears that digital revolution and advancement in technology would negatively affect creativity. With the growth of the industry in recent times, it seems the reverse is the case. What’s your view?
It was never a threat for starters. I don’t know who saw it as a threat. It was an opportunity to grow our industry, to reach out to more people. How many of our young people buy newspapers today? Forget about young people, I don’t buy anymore. And that’s the reality. I have not bought one this year. I’m sorry. But I follow you online. I do things online. And that’s where the world is today. So it was never a threat. It is a new platform, a new way of communicating; a new medium. And like anything new, it would only take the adopters the opportunity to see whether it is working or not. On our side, on clients’ side, clients were reluctant at the beginning. They needed to be sure that this thing could really deliver. But now, we have seen that if you follow the money, a substantial part of what used to be our advertising budget, is going towards that direction. So it should not be seen as a threat. It’s about up-skilling. If you don’t have the capacity to avail you’re the brands in your care, you have to invest in that. So if there is anything, it has made it easier for us to reach our emerging audience and even audiences that have been there before. It is measurable more than anything else, which is welcome to clients. So if anybody saw it as a threat, I think they misread the future. It is a big opportunity for us to expand our coast.

In recent times, Noah’s Ark has become one of the most celebrated agencies within and outside Nigeria; considering the number of awards it has raked in. What’s the magic?
I think like any human endeavor, you have to be clear about what you want to do from the beginning. Our aim was not to win awards but to create works that would do wonders in promoting the brands in our care, which would help them to unlock opportunities that would give them a fair advantage over their competitors. You and I know that when you do work like that, it would stand out, it would be resolute, and when that happens, it is very likely that it would also attract people who are looking for excellent work. That’s why the awards are not our target in the work that we do. The primary reason for doing the work is that we want to be valuable partners to our clients, both current and prospective.

The client is not going to come to us because we win awards. The clients would come to us because they know that the work that we do can have a big and positive impact on their businesses. If we are not doing that, that’s our primary reason for being, then we are fooling ourselves. The awards come as byproducts, so to say, from what we’ve been doing. For you to win those awards, you have to also be outstanding. I can give you an example. For instance, there is a Cannes Effectiveness award and what they do with it is that they look at what you have done in the previous year, and they enter them into the next year to see what impact this particular set of work did for those brands. And based on that, it is interesting that they can see from the data that the award-winning work delivers more, in terms of sales and opportunities for the brands, than those that did not win awards. There is also that feeling in the industry that oh, people just do this to win awards, and because they win awards, that’s being selfish on their part. But no, those awards-winning ads resonated more with the consumers and delivered for the brands more than anything else. So, that’s the kind of work that we do when we have an opportunity to do. Yes, we do win awards, no apologies about that because the primary reason for doing them is that they win the consumers over and when we win the consumers, it is very likely that we win also awards.

10 years ago, the narrative was that the factors that were militating against local agencies from winning international awards were difficult to surmount, few years after, Noah’s Ark and a few agencies broke the jinx. What actually happened and what has Noah’s Ark done differently?

For starters, one of the reasons for starting the agency was to serve as a form of intervention, let me put it that way. If you look at the continent, you have South Africa and even Mozambique doing very well. You go to east Africa; recently, Kenya has also been able to register itself on that table. In North Africa, Egypt and Tunisia are there. But when it comes to West Africa, nobody was there for West Africa; nobody was speaking for West Africa. And we have advertising in this part of the world too like other places. We can go back to when Lintas was founded as a West African Publicity Company as far back as 1928. So we are close to about 100 years of advertising in Nigeria. That was exactly the same year that advertising was started in India. For me, that was a motivation. Where is India today, where is Nigeria?

So the motivation was that we want to place this country and by extension this region on that global stage. That we speak the same language, we meet all these people at the international fora. We want the world to hear our own voices, our own stories by telling stories that anybody anywhere in the world can relate with but they are specifically meant to relate with the Nigerian audience or West African audience. That is what we have set out to do and it was deliberate. We are also deliberate in our agenda setting to say you know what; what and what do we need to do. Remember, we are the first to be featured in the Luerzer’s Archive; this archive is the best of the best around the world which comes out every other months. The work that goes inside the archive is meant to inspire the rest of the world. We were the first to do that as far back as 2011 or thereabouts. So it was deliberate and in doing that we have clients telling us they want to be there as well. So we tell them if you want to be there, you have got to create work that is standard. You don’t pay to get into it. It is the quality of your work that would get you into it. So we are the agency that was deliberate from the beginning about agenda setting for creativity, not just for ourselves, but for our industry.

And we can see the fruits of that as we speak today. So, again, no magic. It is just about being deliberate and knowing that this is what we need to give to our industry. We all need that respect for our industry. We need prestige for our industry. We need our clients to respect what we do and for us to be able to be in tune with the rest of the world. As a matter of fact, our vision statement from the beginning is that we want to be the leading most successful brand builders out of Africa. We are not saying that we want to be the most awards-winning agency in Africa. No. We want to be in the league of the most successful brands builders out of Africa. And we are trying our best every passing day to fulfill that vision.

Is Noah’s Ark the only agency that applied from this part of the world and what have you been doing to raise the bar and clinch the trophy at the continental award ceremony?
I can’t speak to that. Even though I am a member of the Loeries committee, I am not privy to knowing how many agencies entered from West Africa. I believe not only Noah’s Ark that entered; I believe so because there was a campaign to encourage agencies to enter for the Award. Of course, agencies did enter from Nigeria, from West Africa. But I must tell you, I was to go to South Africa as a member of the committee, but for certain reasons, I couldn’t make it. So I just found out from the CEO of Loeries that we have won. He said to me you have done very well. Anybody winning at the Loeries this year is very commendable because the stage was very high. I was on the Loeries jury, and I know that the stage is very high. So even if you made the final list as a shortlisted work to be a finalist is commendable. So, to win any piece of metal is quite commendable. That was what he said. So I believe other agencies did enter, knowing that the standard of the Loeries. It is not just about South Africa, the jurors come from other parts of the world as well. The standards are very high.

I would be very happy to see other agencies win as well. We want more representations; we want more agencies from West Africa to get interested. We wish that our agency represents West Africa. I believe that will happen soon. I believe this would inspire other agencies. This is not our first time of winning Loeries. The last time was in 2018. We won two awards at that edition. Before us, talking about the fact that it is about recreation, DBB was the first to win, that was the year before us. We need to have more success stories winning at international fora. Remember about the same 2018 or 2019, the commercial for Airtel; Amin won us the agency of the year at the Crystal. So these are the things we need to do and must continue doing them.

The agency won bronze in the print category with the campaign called ‘The StopCut Project’; can you tell us about the thrust of the campaign and the objective?
There is something about us as an agency. We don’t limit ourselves in any way. We don’t limit ourselves saying something like oh we have this brief from that client and that’s all that is to life, let’s carry on. We always wanted to add values; we always wanted to influence our community where we are. We always want to look out for opportunities. Probably you can recall the work that we did back then when we embarked on the ‘BokoHalal’ campaign, which was a big project of ours. We have always wanted to do a thing like that that can impact the society, that can bring out the light of things that people cannot even perhaps think about. So the FGM thing, Female Genital Mutilation has always been with us. So our team was thinking about the pertinent issues around it. A girl-child situation is something that should concern all of us, especially in regards to campaigning to stop some tradition that inhibits their development or progress in life. That was what led to that.

After we thought about the idea, we decided to go and look for a partner who is also working actively in that space. So we found one in Hesse, the NGO that we partnered with. We completed the work and sent it to them. They liked what we did. They coordinated it in a webinar to commemorate the World FGM day. The wife of Ooni of Ife, was part of that particular forum as well as other international personalities. The Stopcut is beyond just a print ad, it is a course and about making a statement. Like I said, it came from our initiative and we found a partner, facing the issue and hoping that it doesn’t stop there. The Stopcut campaign continues so that we would be able to influence societal thinking to stop some tradition for the betterment of our young girls and women.

Going back to the industry, what can you say about the challenge of talent retention plaguing the Marketing Communications landscape?
It is a problem that has always been with us and we know that. I think we also know the solution to that problem, but we have not done enough in applying solutions to it.
To me, the major solution is to create more rooms for fresh talents to come on board. That would only come from training them, because otherwise, we all suffer it. If we don’t have enough talents, the few that we have will keep getting recycled from agency A to B, C, D. Nobody gains except the guys who are moving around like a piece of football. I believe that the industry is already alive to that. As a matter of fact, apart from one or two individuals who are doing some training, AAAN has always had this thing about training academy. This year, with this new exco, the Adcademy, as they call it, has started doing some training. So is it enough? Not really, but it is the beginning. I believe a lot of young people need to be given a chance to come on board.

Outside of that channel, every agency should have a policy or initiative that would encourage young people to come on board as interns, trainees. Some agencies do that. We do that as well. We need more people to do that so that we bring in young people in. We need them to be onboard.

This country is buzzling with creative talents as you can see in the music industry, film industry, comedy and all of that. So why can’t we attract them to come into advertising? It is perhaps the best opportunity they have to express themselves. You create a work that people would see or hear every day. That’s a great privilege. We need to do enough of selling ourselves to the young people by creating rooms for them. I think that is the key thing. If you look at countries like India, talent is easier to come by because they’re on training. When you have a lot of talent, the cost of hiring becomes more reasonable than what or where we are today.

You have worked on great brands like MTN, Airtel, among others. What determines your attraction to brands/clients?
These things work in different ways, but the kind of clients we would like to work for are clients with clear ambition in terms of what they want to achieve. We also have our own ambition. We want to be able to say while we came onboard a particular brand, we were able to achieve xyz, even if we have to leave it tomorrow, but for that period we worked on the brand, hopefully, we don’t have to leave.

It is important that on our side or the client’s side, there’s an ambition to move from point A to point B. That’s when we can bring our best talent to bear.
We desire and love a good problem, a good marketing problem that brings out the best in us. Then we can go back and say, see what we did. To us, that’s very important. We don’t want to just do it for the money; we want to do it for the impact more than any other thing. That’s a big attraction to us. When we find clients like that, we always hold onto them.

Finally, if you are asked to name one campaign you have handled in recent time that excites you most and impacts on the bottom line of your client’s business, which one will you single out?
That is a tough question. It is like you are asking out of your children, which of them you love the most. It is a difficult one because for me, I cherish the experience of tackling a problem. No matter how small that brand might be, it means a lot more to us. That we are able to crack it is very worthy to us. I just look back over the years in terms of my career, I pack that aside and look at Noah’s Ark, we have done quite some interesting things for couples of clients that we are very proud of. For instance, starting from our first major client, Indomie, it was an exciting moment. That was a big brand, but they were able to bring a young agency up and still turn things around that everybody is talking about today and grow the brand to the extent that the brand has now taken the group to where they are today, attracting international brands. I am proud of that. I am proud of what we’ve done for FrieslandCampina’ s ‘Three Crown’.

Who could have thought that the ‘Three Crown’ would be what it is today? We engaged the Three Crown for about seven years ago, and like they say, the rest is now history. That has been history in terms of turning things around, and other smaller businesses. Of late, of course, everybody wants to talk about Airtel. We have been on Airtel and we are very proud of the brand being able to give it a turnaround in terms of image and impact and being able to make it a reference point in its industry and beyond. Now, we see the brand going to a point where it’s on the Lagos Stock Exchange, London Stock Exchange.

The CEO that we started working with is now the CEO for Africa. These are signs of success and we are proud of them as our partners. There are a whole lot of them that we are still yet to unearth. We do get a lot of referrals. People call to say we like what you are doing for this particular brand and that we would like to work with you. Like I said I can’t just say this is the best. Every work we have done has got a role to play in shaping us as an agency.