Rotimi Bankole: Want to grow a media business? Have a certain way with people
Konga perhaps was testing him to see if he could deliver, but if you’d seen him at the time, almost perpetually out of breath, you might have shaken your head and turned down the corners of your mouth that, yes, this young fella was way in over his head.
But, as stories like this often go, that’s history and things are different now. Today, as I write this, Mr Bankole has just returned to Lagos from Kenya, where he’s now opened a new office for his SBI Media.
While there, he posted half a dozen pictures of his meetings with some “key” players in the East African advertising market. There was also a photo of the “largest” billboard in Nairobi. The digital board is at the international airport and runs, in a loop, an ad by mobile phone maker, and Bankole’s client, Itel.
Itel, if you judged by its marketing activity in Nigeria, should be big enough to be a small agency’s bread and butter. However, as one of the portfolio brands of Transsion Holdings (quoted on the Shanghai Stock Exchange at a market capitalisation of $134.184 billion), it just so happens to be one of three big-name OBM—Original Brand Manufacturers—in SBI Media’s roster. The others are Infinix and Tecno, also owned by Transsion.
What most people wonder, according to Bankole, is how could his freak growth be possible in Nigeria at this time? SBI Media is only seven years old. Its revenue has risen by at least 100 percent year-on-year since 2018. It is run by a man who only clocked 40 in 2020. There are about 30 others competing for the few deep-pocket advertisers. He says he’s been asked: “have you even paid your dues in this industry?”
Speaking of experience, Bankole, who is a clergyman’s son, couldn’t have had a better instruction in the business.
Three years before branching out on his own, he was a junior executive at All Seasons Mediacom (now All Seasons Zenith) where, as part of a group of rising stars, helped run media across TV, press, radio, and out-of-home for big players such as MTN and Pepsi.
Headed at the time by the venerated Dr Ken Onyeali Ikpe, All Seasons was a Troyka Holdings company, and Troyka was owned by Biodun Shobanjo.
It is common to hear Mr Shobanjo spoken of as Nigeria’s Martin Sorrell— the founder of WPP Group, the world’s largest advertising services holding company. Shobanjo’s influence runs across at least four generations of advertising and public relations practitioners in Nigeria so much so that he is qualified to have a six degrees of separation game named after him, too.
His own version of the parlour game, of course, will be called the Six Degrees of Biodun Shobanjo. Why? Because, like the vastly prolific Hollywood actor Kevin Bacon who inspired the original, you couldn’t point out anyone, legend or tenderfoot, in Shobanjo’s chosen area of business, that cannot be linked back to him in six moves or less.
Now, to learn at the feet of this man and Dr Ken? That, indisputably, was a major leapfrogging coup for Bankole.
One essential skill he learnt from his apprenticeship, he says, is “how to manage relationships.”
Bankole bows, he speaks softly, he comports himself in a manner to make people relax when they’re around him. This temperament of his may even be why the owners of Transsion, who come from a Chinese culture of respect and courtesy, feel at ease with him.
The ultimate game plan, Bankole explains, is to “understand your client and always be there for them.”
What follows, naturally, is that people will talk.
SBI Media has become a multibillion-naira agency group, essentially because people like to talk. They tell one another, says Bankole, about the small media agency that takes their budget (whatever it is), returns unheard-of discounts, and when they tell it to jump only ask how high.
Technology may have taken over advertising and media planning (thanks, Google, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft, and Apple; and thanks, programmatic planning, and AI), but to Bankole, every brand still craves some good old handholding from people they can trust. Empathy remains marketable.
“Our connections are why, all through the pandemic, we’ve been busy,” he says. “We launched two flagship phones for iTel and Tecno in 2020. Our team is young and nimble and without costing too much, we still have top class intelligence and technology to do the job we’ve been asked to do.”
Some of that task would cover the assumption of media planning and buying responsibilities for Nigeria’s fourth telecom operator, 9Mobible. And it would be in addition to what SBI Media already had going on with Turkish Airlines, Jobberman, Access Bank, Boomplay, ULesson, Oraimo, Keystone Bank, and, of course, Itel, Infinix, and Tecno.
When he launched Streams Networks, the ad agency in the group, Bankole says it was because his clients kept asking for creative services in addition to the media consulting that SBI offered. And it turned out to be a good play for all considered. Now the brands who wished to have all aspects of their advertising under one roof could have their wish granted and SBI could have and smooth flow of big ideas, production, and publishing.
While it might not have been a deliberate positioning from the get-go, SBI Media appears to be maturing into the choice agency for insurgent companies. If they’re small, new, or fighting a segment war that might annihilate them, they seem to gravitate towards Bankole and his 50+ crew of planners, writers, designers, buyers, and events producers. The savings he rakes in for them, as well as the attendant goodwill, Bankole says, then become his calling card.
In October 2020, at his award as Marketing Media Personality of the Decade by Marketing Edge magazine, Bankole accepted that his companies “have come a long way” in such a short time. He said he felt more so because the journal also recognised Streams Networks and SBI Media as Outstanding Young Creative Agency of the Year and Outstanding Media Agency of the Year, respectively.
This year, Bankole has said he would make the SBI Media Workshop even bigger. The free two-day training programme he started for young Nigerians, he says, is one route he’s seen to helping younger Nigerians leapfrog him into the business—a kind of pay-it-forward gesture. So, rather than have 30 trainees as he did in 2020, he may have 200, all learning the short cuts to digital media production, social media monetisation, and small business development.
“Marketing media is evolving,” Bankole says. “as audiences become more discerning of what advertising entails, we must meet them where our messages can be better understood and accepted. Now, for instance, there are more Millennials, Gen-Z, and Gen-Alpha stuck to streaming media. That’s the next frontier.”
He may be right. With the continued rise of brand-sponsored movies, global stars such as HP, Nike, Disney, and Lego may already asking: Isn’t a feature length brand story more immersive than a simple, and quite transparent, product placement?
While deploying his agency’s membership of Mascomm Global, the 150-country network of media independents focused on the emerging markets, SBI Media says its expansion will continue outwards, beyond West and East Africa. “Of course, it will be determined by our clients,” Bankole says.
In the meantime, two recessions in the last three years might have made the Nigerian consumers hard pressed, but the media and entertainment sector continues to soldier on. Maybe it will even grow to $10.8 billion in value by 2023, as projected by Statista. Maybe it won’t. Whatever happens, though, Bankole and his band of adventurers may keep finding more people who’ll be willing to journey with them.
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