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‘Certified advertising agencies that create iconic political campaigns abound in Nigeria’

By Kabir Alabi Garba
01 December 2018   |   3:22 am
The campaign for next year’s general elections is gathering momentum. And to check the pollution of the political climate through hateful and inciting messages, as it happened in 2015, politicians are being urged persistently to play the game by the rules.

Ikechi Odigbo

The campaign for next year’s general elections is gathering momentum. And to check the pollution of the political climate through hateful and inciting messages, as it happened in 2015, politicians are being urged persistently to play the game by the rules. Emphasis is laid on the need to ensure that exposure of communication materials is consequent upon satisfying guidelines enunciated by the Advertising Practitioners Council of Nigeria (APCON). In this interview, the 26th President of the Association of Advertising Agencies of Nigeria (AAAN), Ikechi Odigbo, decries the contradiction in the engagement, by major political parties, of foreign agents in the designing of the political communication strategies while the need to promote local content is also being mouthed. Odigbo, who is also Group Managing Director of DDB, describes as needless, the debate over the dual roles of the APCON as regulatory-cum professional outlet, appealing that its governing council be inaugurated without further delay

Congratulations on your election as the 26th President of the Association of Advertising Agencies of Nigeria (AAAN). What is your assessment of the industry now?
Well, the advertising industry has gone through a lot of ups and downs. It has experienced growth, in terms of our membership, even in the midst of the challenging economic climate, and we would say this is also a testament of the resilience of our members who have had to reinvent themselves and reposition their services to meet the changing needs within a highly competitive business environment.

Last year, we had an increase in the number of members who signed up to the AAAN, which we see as a good sign, because we have a situation where the reform is beginning to define our business space and you need to be properly registered with AAAN for you to be registered by APCON to practise advertising in Nigeria.

We also want to believe it is an indication that the prospects are bright for our industry, despite the current economic condition, which is not unique to advertising, but impacts all other business sectors. Having said that, we see the future of advertising as resting significantly on the full implementation of the APCON reforms. We need to ensure that our profession and its practice is properly protected and defined.

Right now, the entry barriers are very low. Without the effective implementation of the reforms, the entry barriers are very low. People are able to go to any corporation, especially the government parastatals, and secure contracts or jobs that would have been properly executed by a properly registered AAAN member, and we want to change that dynamic.

The need to change that dynamic is imperative. As we learnt about a few months ago, the advertising pot is shrinking. We have facts indicating that the advertising budget shrank to N80 billion last year, and I can assure you that out of that N80 billion, probably non-certified advertising practitioners executed 60 per cent of that budget. That has to change.

We want to ensure a level playing ground for our members. It is imperative we continue to put the right framework in place to ensure that the standards of the profession continue to be enhanced. I believe it is in the interest of the private sector to work collaboratively with APCON and AAAN to continue to build the right marketing standards.

You emphasised APCON reforms, at what level are we now, in terms of implementation?
We have been fortunate that despite the flux in the APCON, the current leadership, headed by Mrs. Ijedi Iyoha (as Acting Registrar/CEO) has been dynamic enough to wade through the uncertainties. Then, there was a properly constituted APCON Council that drove the registration of members. That is the first phase- ensuring that qualified agencies register with APCON. That exercise began before my tenure.

The absence of the governing council in the last four years has created a big gap. We, however, believe that there is a lot more that can be done when the council is properly constituted. We have already reached out to the relevant stakeholders in government and we are hopeful they would properly respond to rectify the situation.

The truth of the matter is there wasn’t really any reason to dissolve the council in the first place, because APCON is not an agency or parastatal; it is a professional body. So, the tenure of the council is not tied to the tenure of the government in power. We believe the relevant stakeholders in government are looking into it and are favourably disposed to our prayers in this regard and we hope that before the elections, something would be done to rectify it.

In what way does the non-inauguration of APCON council affect the practice of advertising in Nigeria, especially during this political season preparatory to the general elections?
It is a significant challenge, especially in this political season, where the stakes are high. You have the different political parties coming up with campaign messages and at times, negative messages towards their opponent. I believe that the Advertising Standard Panel (ASP), which is a very vital arm in the APCON, would be empowered to be a veritable watchdog to ensure that communications within the public space, whether it is political or business, is vetted to meet the highest standards.

Also, when you put out a claim that cannot be verified, it is the duty of APCON to either approve or reject such communication. So, this is a critical period where APCON needs to be empowered to ensure that the advertising messages are properly sanitised and to ensure that the players within the political space are properly guided as to the guidelines to abide by in conducting their political campaigns.

Lately too, the absence of the APCON Council has led to the debate on whether APCON should remain a professional body or a regulatory body. So, what is the position of AAAN on this?
In the immediate time, we want the APCON to operate, as it is constituted. Most of the time, we want to throw away the baby with the bath water. But the truth of the matter is that if we get it right; if we have APCON functioning based on its founding laws, there should be no fear. There should not be any issue about the constitution of the governing council and its tenures. We have experienced this snag more often and I believe it is all a question of continuous education and working closely with our supervisory ministry- the Ministry of Information and Culture- to ensure that the right thing is done.

How does AAAN view this growing culture of engaging foreign agents in the designing and execution of political communication strategies among the political class?
We believe this is a disappointing development, especially as it is very clear that you need to engage properly registered and certified advertising agencies to work on advertising campaigns. We don’t know what informed this. But we believe it does not reflect properly, if a party is aspiring for power and it cannot, even based on that aspiration, begin to support the local businesses that contribute to the GDP, that create employment and have been successful in contributing to the leading brands that we see today.

We have a plethora of highly professional award-winning agencies that constitute the membership of the AAAN. Historically, we have seen our agencies come up with iconic political campaigns for the likes of the late M.K.O. Abiola political campaign and the Sai Babagana Kingibe campaign.

You look at the iconic brands that have been built over time and continued to endure, such as Unilever and Nigerian Breweries. These are brands that have become iconic and part of our culture. These brands have been built through the marketing partnership of those companies and our advertising agencies.

So, I believe there is an opportunity to rectify this problem. I believe that if you are going to drive a mass campaign, because definitely political campaigns are mass-oriented, you need a local agency that understands the nuances at the grassroots level (and) that has been successful in selling at the mass, youth and elite level to be able to come up with strategies for penetration, awareness and adoption.

So, we are very committed to changing that narrative. As an association, we can only express a position and hope that our political parties would heed that. Having said that, I believe that there are some of our members who also have an opportunity to work for these political parties, but at a very secondary level. I believe that is not right and we should be able to change that.

We want to make a very strong prayer to political parties that part of brand building is the ability to nurture local pride. We need to be more proud of local enterprise and industry. We need to show that we are committed to growing our country. One of the ways of doing that is always identifying with local initiatives and businesses.

I believe that the various agencies, especially our associations, have proactively, without seeking any commercial gain, but driven by patriotism, come up with the unity and anti-corruption campaigns. We were privileged, last year, to share some of these campaigns with Vice President Yemi Osinbajo and it was favourably received by him and commended. For that, we really appreciate.We are an association of professional agencies that, over time, have demonstrated our commitment to the nation and we want to believe that that would be encouraged by patronising certified professional advertising agencies, not just for political campaigns, but also for building Brand Nigeria, which is also a task.

I believe that the lack of attention to building a strong equity for the Nigerian brand has not helped the flow of foreign investment. It has not also helped, in terms of us promoting the tourism attractions and the huge economic potential that Nigeria offers to various areas of the world. It is not just for the global audience; a strong Brand Nigeria campaign would boost national pride. Our citizens need to have a sense of belief. There should be a strong rallying cry that we are a people that stand for something and can begin to enhance patriotism and confidence in the Nigerian project.

The outcome of your first interaction with the media after your election as the AAAN president in July was your assertion that “economic recession is killing Nigeria’s advertising industry,” several months after the federal government had declared that Nigeria had exited recession. Do you still hold this position?
Yes! We are still in a recession.

Can you explain?
I would say we are still in a recession, because while there have been improvements, in terms of the economic indices, it is yet to fully impact upon the private sector. So, you have businesses in the real and the manufacturing sectors that are just in the process of beginning to post positive results. Look at the recent half-year and third-quarter results by the giants, like Unilever and Nestle, those are the only two companies that posted positive results for third quarter, and I believe that what is going to happen is that the political season has also contributed to the lull.

So, there is an uplift, in terms of economic indices, but because of political uncertainties, as a result of the election season, most big organisations and investors are adopting wait-and-see attitude and you can see that with some companies intending to have the IPOs and all of that are saying, ‘let’s adopt the a wait-and-see attitude.’

Until the political season is over and we can know where things are headed, then we can ramp up our activities. So, I believe the lull would continue into the second quarter of next year. Then, when there is clarity, economic activities would ramp up.

How can advertising assist the country in its rebranding efforts?
We have seen instances of how governments can drive growth in investment and tourism by properly positioning the nation’s brand. When you look at the likes of South Africa, you have a very compelling case study where a group of agencies came up with Brand South Africa campaign that put South Africa in the limelight and contributed to positioning it to be a credible candidate to host the World Cup. So, there are so many positive spin-offs ensuring that we properly position.

The same applies to Singapore. There are some brand assets that are not being optimised, because you don’t have a strong nation brand campaign. If you look at tourism, public education in very important to let people know how to manage public utilities, pay their taxes and ensure they know what to do in public places. That is part of building brand: driving civic awareness for what people should do as it relates to public utilities.

It is not just about putting an advert on CNN and asking people to invest in or visit Nigeria. The most important thing is that Brand Nigeria is an organic project that ensures that even as you are repositioning the country, you are working assiduously to ensure that in the area of tourism, you are saying to yourself, ‘What is our plan as foreigners come in? How do we improve the experience at airports?

What happens when an expatriate or a foreigner comes out of our airports? Do we have proper taxis? When they leave the airports, what is the transportation experience like that takes them to their hotels?
Now, when they get to their hotel, do we have tour guides that are properly trained who understand that these are the tourism assets, landmarks and the history behind the landmarks that somebody visiting a key city in Nigeria should be exposed to and be educated on?

If you look at advanced tourism destinations, like Cape Town, you would find out that most of their taxi drivers are chaperons, in the sense that they have gone through tourism schools, whereby they can keep you engaged on the different tourism angles, selling the nation. It is an organic process. It is not just about advertising; it is a holistic project that requires a strategy to say, ‘How do we take Brand Nigeria forward?’

What is the major problem confronting the AAAN at the moment that you have identified and already designed ways of solving?
The first major problem we have identified is the need for AAAN to be properly positioned as a thought leader that is able to provide a strong advocacy with regard business issues, not just advertising issues, and make communication a very strong point of view regarding business issues and other issues as they affect the polity in general. That means people need to know who we are a lot more.It is interesting that as an advertising association, people see our work, but don’t know there is a people behind it. That is a primary goal we are committed to. We are already working on rebranding the association. Our secretariat is already taking on a facelift and we shall be more vocal, with regard to issues that are pertinent to growing the economy.

The second is the issue of capacity development. The advertising issue is very attractive to young undergraduates, but we know the challenges regarding our educational system. So, there is a great room for remedial education and professional development- capacity building. That is where the advertising academy comes into play.

We are quite pleased with the work that has been done so far with previous administrations to build a very robust curriculum and framework for the advertising academy to take place. We have had a series of meetings and are in the business phase of starting the academy. It is something that we are looking at more from an entrepreneurial than an academic point of view, because the academic aspect has been sorted out and it is the business aspect that needs to be activated.So, plans are at an advanced stage and before the end of next year, we would have a fully operational advertising academy.

What is your leadership doing about harmony in the marketing communication industry, whereby other sectorial groups are effectively engaged for the overall benefit of the industry and the nation at large?
We have our interests. ADVAN (Advertisers Association of Nigeria) has its interests. NPAN (Newspapers Proprietors Association of Nigeria) has its interests. OAAN (Outdoor Advertising Association of Nigeria) has its own interests too. At times, they align. Other times, they differ.

I believe as sectorial groups, there is a place for common ground. The issues are diverse. We believe, as AAAN, that there could be fairer terms of doing business with ADVAN members, especially with regard to pitches and terms of engagement to ensure that it is a win-win situation for the client, agencies and media owners.

On the other hand, ADVAN also has its issues, which we would be happy to address, with regard to the professional conducts of our members. When you look at NPAN, they have had this issue of indebtedness to agencies. It is a vicious cycle, as the clients also pay the agencies. I believe in creating a common platform, a sort of clearing house, where members from ADVAN, NPAN and AAAN gather to look at these issues and come up with solutions. I believe there should be a stronger handshake between AAAN and NPAN.

One of the things I intend to do with my leadership is to engage these sub-sectors and tell them ‘we need to find a common ground to address these issues.’ I believe that some of those issues are not as challenging when well-meaning collaboration is put in place, and these are some of the issues we would be addressing as priority as we move into 2019.

What about this issue of representation in the body of APCON, with claims that the domineering posturing by AAAN remains an issue? Is there any way of those sectorial groups having some form of increase in representation? Is that part of your agenda or can it be achieved?
I don’t really know about the issue of domineering posturing. We have an inclusive outlook towards APCON as a council. It is constituted and has a constitution that prescribes the membership and quota for membership for the various sectorial groups. Even the APCON reforms we are talking about, there was a concerted effort to make sure that all the issues the various sectorial groups face were brought on for consideration in coming up with those reforms.

There has to be leadership, and in this instance, given the nature of the council, it is only logical that you would find, in the advertising sector, someone taking the lead. I believe, like you have said, there is a need to prioritise more the issues that other sectorial groups, like OAAN face.

They have some issues, especially in the area of states, which require immediate attention. With a properly constituted council, that would not evade consideration. The same with NPAN and all of that.

There is a need for a lot more ownership, and ownership is based on interest. Interest also drives a lot of business goals. When people are passionate about an issue, it is easier to get things done. So, we are looking forward to, first of all, putting AAAN on the right track, and in doing this, we are creating a stronger handshake with the sectorial groups and also trying to have a greater understanding, being open to how our partners in the other sectors feel about APCON and how collaborations can be improved.

DDB Lagos has contributed much to the leadership of AAAN. Its Chairman, Enyi Odigbo, served as president. The GMD is now at the driver’s seat, what is the attraction?
I believe we have been privileged to build a quality team over time. I also believe that to drive an association, like AAAN, you need a lot of quality, commitment and strong leadership, but most of all, the executive of AAAN, the way I see it, is made up of some of the brightest people in the industry and we are proud to work with these colleagues who come from diverse backgrounds, different agencies, to begin to drive to achieve common interest. So, I am honoured to be working with the current executive, which is made up of very quality people. We believe that we have the quality team to achieve our key goals.

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