How Abisoye Fagade got ready for the lockdown by opening up to adventures
You’d find that those who have the best response to the COVID-19 hamstring aren’t those who started thinking about COVID in 2020; those with the best answers are those who started thinking about COVID before COVID-19. And, one of those people, it turns out, is Abisoye Fagade, founder of Sodium Brand Solutions.
With its attendant shutdowns, curfews, and social distancing protocols, COVID has dealt a decisive blow to public merry-making, which was the bread and butter of brand experience firms. So, what everyone who’s eyeing that sector would like to know right now is: how do you possibly make money these days if you’re in that business?
As I said, Fagade’s agency had been COVID-ready for a long time and might be one of the best to answer that question.
According to legend, Sodium started as brand activation and experiential agency in 2009, after its founder had worked at Indomie, Tequila/RedSky, and SO&U Saatchi & Saatchi. Its first project was the Coca-Cola Tallest Christmas Tree in Africa live event. That deal was worth about N150 million. At that time, that budget exchanged for about almost a million dollars.
“Because we did a good job,” Fagade said, “We got to do it again in 2010.” What that means is that Fagade’s brand-new company quickly billed nearly $2 million within its first two years.
“It’s not all profit, of course,” said Fagade, 47. “The budget was high but the mark-up wasn’t that much.”
Put those jobs in context, though, and you might see why what he pulled off with Sodium, was quite significant. To begin with, the advertising, PR, media, and events sector are notorious for their incredibly low barrier to entry. Yes, there are several professional certifications to mark out the experts from the charlatans, but is wide open to anyone who could do a PowerPoint deck also means there’s a huge disadvantage to new agencies. The saturated market makes it incredibly tough for small operators to make a significant profit. But Sodium did that and that’s why its beginnings were particularly storied.
However, while such is a big-bang first couple of years might have been a dizzying high for Sodium, the firm also saw some depressing lows not long afterwards. As it happened, to execute its mighty briefs, Sodium often needed to raise funds from banks, but, with high-interest rates, the fast-shifting value of the naira, and red tape, raising funds from banks could sometimes be a life-threatening move for any creative businesses.
Since “clients don’t pre-pay you,” said Fagade, “you have to go to the banks to [seek financing].”
For Sodium, there’s the rub — the constant chase for capital investments to produce his roadshows, concerts, market storms, and other types of brands activations.
“What I’ve gone through might have taken someone else’s life; some people who found themselves in similar situations as I did have lost their confidence… but the moment you lose hope, you’ve lost everything you worked for,” Fagade said.
This was why, about three years into its existence, Sodium began to diversify. At first, said Fagade, the need was to find something more consistent, a source of reliable liquidity. So, he poured in some money into a sachet water start-up. But that new offshoot quickly drowned, washing away Sodium’s multimillion naira investment.
Right now, though, the company has hit its stride with its other side undertakings, all of which can now operate independently.
Take Alexia Place, for instance. The boutique hotel, which opened in Lagos in 2018, is about to cut the tape on its first branch in Ibadan, Fagade’s hometown.
Aside from the hotel, the Sodium group also includes an oil and gas services firm and a bakery. “We don’t want to go a-borrowing anymore,” said Fagade.
Meanwhile, in its core business, executives inside Sodium said the agency continued working on integrating digital components into its experiential ideas. After all, how can brands truly exist in the present digital world without showing their consumers that aspect of themselves? And then the global pandemic hit.
While the restrictions on large gatherings brought the expected adversity to all experiential companies, Sodium’s people said Covid19 didn’t catch their organisation unawares.
“The change towards offline and online engagements were already being worked on but the COVID situation made it all more imperative,” said Henry Eguabor, who currently runs Sodium as Managing Consultant.
“Do I need a roadshow to make people download an entertainment app? Maybe not,” said Mr Eguabor. “I could host one grand event, amplify that event via social media and build a contest into it to get the necessary action.”
That is interesting, what he said about contests, because in this era of ‘PhyGital’ — a marriage of physical and digital platforms for user engagements — gamification is how advertisers ensure that their audiences actually participate in new hybrid shows such as live-streamed product keynotes, social media hosted watch parties, and sponsored online meetups.
“You want to give attendees a way to interact with your brand or one another, as well as delivering content in a fun way,” said Lenetta Pesotini, vice president at the MAG Experience, a New York-based experiential agency.
“For example, a sales kick-off event: You can create situations they would encounter in everyday life but put it in-game form. At an in-person event, it’s very easy to tell if somebody isn’t in their seat, but at home, they might have you on mute, or they might be checking email or reading an article. If we enforce interaction and have games for them to play, we’ll keep them engaged.”
What all of this means is that Covid19 notwithstanding, “[Sodium is] not doing badly.”
So, next for Fagade: the governorship of Oyo, his home state. His work as a first-time CEO who’s gone on to build a profitable conglomerate, he said, should show that he’s an excellent manager of human and other resources.
Besides, it’s about time governments started to consider more varied yet sustainable ways to grow their revenues — and, speaking of building a diversified portfolio of cash-yielding assets, Mr Fagade appears to be sufficiently practised.
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