By Wale Alabi
“ To everything there is a season. A time to be born and a time to die.” – Biblical
“Life’s battle does not always go to the strong.The man who wins is the one who thinks he can.” – Awo
In 1977, when the trio – Akin Odunsi, 42, Steve Omojafor, 42, and Tunde Adelaja, 38 approached a number of banks in Lagos for loans to actualize their dream of running an advertising agency, they were snubbed. But like most aspiring dogged entrepreneurs, they were undeterred. They held on to their dream. They explored other sources of funding and a year later, in 1978, Rosabel Advertising Limited was born.
With only N45,000 in its account and a client, Rosabel launched out with a vision “to be the foremost proactive total marketing communications company in Nigeria.” Starting off for Rosabel with a lean purse and a solo client wasn’t a bed of roses. But the big break soon came for the young agency through a senior friend, Chief Olu Falomo. According to Odunsi, “Our major business break was the campaign for Jos International Brewery which was introduced to us by our senior friend, Chief Olu Falomo. He was at OBM which worked for Nigerian Breweries, so there was a conflict. He introduced us to the company which wanted to introduce Rock Beer into the market. The company was impressed by our presentations. That was the first major multimedia campaign that we worked on. We proved beyond any reasonable doubt that we could deliver. Within a year of the launch of Rock Beer it became number 2 brand in the North, second only to Star Beer.”
The success of the Rock Beer campaign opened the floodgate of patronage for Rosabel as clients started chasing them about with briefs. And by the time, Rosabel celebrated its first decade in business, in 1988, it had moved from a solo client agency to a reputable brand with over 25 clients including blue chip companies and multinationals.
Apart from Jos International Breweries, other companies who were foundation clients of the agency included Ovaltine West Africa Limited, DDD Limited of UK, Swissair, Yamaco and Varig, the Brazilian airline. Also on its clientelelist were A.J Seward ( a division of UAC), Berger Paints, Brian Munro, Cadbury, Flour Mills of Nigeria, Holland Canned Milk, NBC/Schweppes, Rank Xerox and Reckitt and Coleman Nigeria.
Besides its impressive clientele list, Rosabel’s billing moved from a meager N375,000 in its first year to a staggering N11million by its tenth year. Perhaps what accounted for the early success of Rosabel was the prior longtime relationship of the founders. They had been friends since their undergraduate days; their innate individual talents. Odunsi was a great copy writer while Adelaja and Omojafor were clients’ savvy. And of course, the management model of the agency. While Odunsi was the managing director and Adelaja and Omojafor were executive directors, management decisions were often taken by consensus.
As managing director, Odunsi was in the saddle for nine years. But in February 1997, he moved to the position of executive chairman while Adelaja became the managing director. In its hey days, Rosabel bestrode the marketing communications like a colossus. Between February 6, 1978 when Rosabel opened shop and July 23, 2003 when Odunsi retired as executive chairman,Rosabel had metamorphosed into a fully integrated marketing communications behemoth comprising Rosabel, the ad agency, Starcom Media (media buying), Leo Direct (direct marketing) and Edison Ross (pr/events).
Perhaps two of the most memorable campaigns ran by Rosabel were the Seaman’s Schnapps introductory campaign from the stable of Nigeria Distillers Limited and the M.K.O Abiola June 12, 1993 presidential campaign project. These campaigns, apart from others stood Rosabel out as a creative war horse. Indeed Rosabel was a pacesetter. Before affiliation became the industry standard, Rosabel was amongst the first set of agencies to get international affiliation. It got affiliated to Leo Burnett, one of the world’s largest marketing communications networks. The relationship lasted about two decades.
In the early 1990s, STB-McCan, a second line agency with Steve Omojafor as managing director emerged from the Rosabel group. STB flourished servicing juicy accounts including Cocacola amongst other clients. STB also spinned off, a media independent arm, Universal McCan..
Upon retirement, Odunsi in 2011 took a shot at politics. He contested election and emerged a senator of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. In 2015, he took his political game a notch higher by campaigning to become the governor of his home state, Ogun. The bid failed. Meanwhile age was also catching up with Adelaja and Omojafor. Following a Board decision, Tunji Abioye, a Rosabel veteran was groomed to take over from Adelaja as managing director. When Adelaja stepped aside, Abioye took over. But his stay was brief. Then came Kayode Oluwasona who was head hunted from Insight Communications. Oluwasona’s stay as MD too was brief.
In fact before its final eclipse and after its founding fathers had retired, Rosabel was plagued by high turnover of CEOs. From the in-house groomed Abioye to the head hunted Oluwasona and others who came after them, none stayed long enough to make any impact on the Rosabel brand. But then the incessant exit of CEOS was just a dress rehearsal. What seems to have further left Rosabel in quandary was the severance of affiliation with its foreign partner, Leo Burnett. Leo Burnett, a part of the Publicis Group global network, about four years ago forged a more mutually beneficial relationship with the Biodun Shobanjo led Insight. Beyond affiliation, Publicis bought into the Insight Group moving along with it businesses worth billions of Naira.
The travails of Rosabel once again brings to the fore the problem of succession in Nigeria’s marketing communications sector. Quite a number of agencies have floundered due to lack or poor succession plans. Although its founding founders are well and alive, Rosabel is dead. Months to its 40th anniversary, Rosabel gave up the ghost. Sad as it is that Rosabel is no more, its creative offsprings amongst whom are Eshiet Essien of Brand Believers, Tunji Abioye of Fuel and Akin Adeoya of Marketing Mix are living testimonies to Rosabel’s creative agility and enterprising spirit while the game lasted.