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How Tunji Olugbodi advanced Verdant Zeal as a launchpad for future founders

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If there ever can be anything new under the sun, do you know who will invent it? Nobody. Why? Because everything that can be invented needs something to have already been invented.

This is why critics, as well as careful fans of Apple — the world’s most valuable tech company, declare that ‘Apple doesn’t invent anything; it just reinvents everything.’ And it is indeed why Apple is now known as one of the most creative corporations on this planet.

Creativity, you see, is clearly about reinvention. In Verdant Zeal, Dr Tunji Olugbodi’s 14-year-old “multi-disciplinary” marketing communications firm, they have a name for this reinvention. They call it Innovention. And as you can tell, the word is a portmanteau of innovation and invention. And, of course, that’s what creativity is about— take two existing things, smash them together to make a third one.

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In Apple’s case, the best of, say, Dieter Rams’ product design ethos is wrapped around, let’s say, the most bleeding edge of MP3 player software. Then Apple tweaks and tweaks the result till it has in its hands a product with which a human might wish to copulate. Then, to present this shiny new product to the rest of the world, Apple stages a grand show, a delightful sensory experience, the like of which you’d never seen.

“I’d argue that the most-successful companies, going forward, will be those that continue to invent while they also pursue breakthrough approaches to integration,” says Bob Evans, a brand contributor for Forbes.com. He said this in his effusively penned defence of Apple’s creativity on the site.

But you know what also happens when an innovative company… innovates? It builds a stack upon which other creatives might install their own imagination palaces. Take the Podcast, for instance. Apple didn’t invent it; it only helped to reinvent it. Now, the podcast concept has spawned an industry, which in 2019, was worth $9.28 billion, according to Grand View Research.

In its lifetime, Verdant Zeal had also its share of reinvention. As Dipo Adesida, COO of the company, said, “We were never designed to be a traditional agency. We are a team of dreamers and adventurers.”

What hasn’t VZ ventured into? Way before content marketing became such a hot cake in Nigeria, back in 2010, it spun out a business unit for content collaboration with brands. It called it BrainBox iMedia, because the new start-up was intended to concurrently do digital marketing.

But there’s more.

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There was also NeoMantra, its offspring for knowledge marketing; Gr8 Measures, which it created for media planning and buying; First2Market — the firm for experiential and trade activations; and Red Gecko, its custom publishing and public relations subsidiary.

For a while, the offshoots were all profitable but, today, only Red Gecko remains operational and viable. Verdant Zeal, which has itself remained profitable year-on-year, chose to fold the other businesses because it turned out the ventures were either heady moon shots or, for sustained profitability, their operational models needed to be completely rethought.

“Fortunately,” says Dr Olugbodi, 57, “no matter the state of the journey, the success trip is a trip where you never really get to ‘arrive’ or rest on your oars to gladly say: ‘I have conquered.’  It’s all tied up in seasons and patterns of times. You can only be as good as your best effort from yesterday. You can only be as good as how well you reinvent yourself.”

But an unintended consequence of Verdant Zeal’s forays is a bold belief in entrepreneurship that it fostered in its employees. The stack built by VZ (that’s short for Verdant Zeal) may not be for a retinue of subsidiaries as originally planned, but it has fired up an army of VZ alums who now run their own “innovative” companies in the Nigerian creative sector.

One of such people is Michael Ebia, who founded ADE Digital. Ebia, who used to be a creative executive at VZ, says that his company’s acronym stands for Acquiring Digital Estates, for it is not enough for ADE to place sales messages online for its clients; its mission is to build them their own mansions on the World Wide Web.

There’s also Kayode Adegbite who runs MediaCrush. Mr Adegbite was CFO when he worked at VZ but for the past eight years has led MediaCrush, which rents digital out-of-home, mobile, and indoor billboards to advertisers. On the company’s website, it says it does more than rent you a site, it’s also got “facial recognition and vehicle recognition.”

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We don’t have enough space to name everyone who proudly credits VZ with the mind shift that now propels their own establishments. What we do have ample time for is this question: what happens next for this innovator, the one who, for others to see what’s possible, put its own neck on the line?

At the moment, thanks to COVID-19, VZ is being “cautiously optimistic.” The current global business reality is called the New Normal for a reason.

In the meantime, however, Adesida says the current optimism in Nigeria’s fintech industry has spread into the company. Whoever said, for instance, that an ad agency couldn’t invest in a peer-to-peer payment start-up? Well, nobody.

“Our own industry maxim is now coming back at us,” he says, referencing the tectonic shifts in the global advertising business. “We must take our own advice and actually think outside the box.” Not just innovate, but innovent.

The buyers of marketing expertise do have a set of deliverables that’s indeed different from what they did 10 years ago. Click through rates, comments, shares, and saves are preferred these days to pass-on rates. But if there’s a creative agency that might think its way to the next epoch of marketing and communications, it would be Verdant Zeal.

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