Ready, Steady, Gone!

Untold story of Nigeria’s dead advertising agencies

By Wale Alabi

“To forget your past is to become a slave to the future.” – Anonymous

“Marketing is storytelling. Whoever tells the best story wins.” – Mark Hansen, co-author, Chicken Soup for the Soul 

They came. Many of them. They sowed. Some bountifully; others, with some degree of faith. And they all reaped. Some, plenteously for long; others, for just a season. Yet, while they lasted, they were some of the brightest stars in the galaxy of Nigeria’s advertising. They were imbued with creative wizardry, so they dazzled with very creative and outstanding copy. The brands they built wowed consumers and put smiles on the faces of their clients.

Roll out the drums for Grant Advertising; Ogilvy Benson & Mather (OBM); Adwork; Sunrise; Forum Advertising; MC&A; Zepol Advertising; Akrel; CT&A; Magnum Gold; Goldmark; Comex Advertising and Promoserve.  A round of applause for Ad-Interteam; Campaign Palace; Campaign Services; Mediaplus; Patike Communications; Dawn Functions; Advertising Place; Cardinal Advertising; and Sunbeam Advertising. And please take a bow: The Shops; The Nucleus; Ifany; Quest; Creative Plus; 21st Century; Reads & Mark; Rock Forte; Franchise; Partnership Advertising; PAL; Hunters; ROD Publicity and Olu Adekoya Press Agency (Olu Adekoya). These iconic advertising brands and a crop of others not mentioned here made significant contributions to Nigeria’s marketing communications bazaar from the 1960s through the 1990 and perhaps, the early 2000s.

Many of their founders/owners, male and female, were old school practitioners; creative rebels and potential industry leaders. They had been there, seen it all and practically done it all. Sadly, however, virtually all of them have today disappeared from the advertising horizon. What went wrong? Students of Nigeria’s advertising history and keen observers of the industry have adduced several reasons for this sad development. Lack of requisite skill? Not exactly. Inexperience? Debatable in some instances. Management? In most instances, yes. Also at play were a host of other considerations such as old age or the death of the original founders; boardroom politics; management intrigues and poor or no succession planning. Added to these were the loss of international affiliations and the loss of business or creative focus in the increasingly challenging business environment.

Indeed, no gift of clairvoyance is required to predict the eventual extinction of some of the agencies after a careful examination of the pedigree of their owners. If anything, the trajectory of the rise, winning streak and the decline of each of the agencies offer valuable insight to why they failed. Further cursory look at their demise will also offer useful lessons to owners of current wave-making advertising agencies, practitioners and wannabes.

Take Grant Advertising, for example. In the swinging 60 and early seventies, Grant was the place to be. The agency was owned by the crème de la crème of Nigeria’s business moguls that included the founder, the late Chief Adeyemi Lawson, an industrialist and Chief Chris Ogunbanjo, a legal icon. There was also foreign equity participation in the agency. Grant soon became a premium brand that serviced an avalanche of international brands and multinational corporate clients like Coca-Cola and EMI, the record label. Grant was third biggest agency, after Lintas and OBM on Nigeria’s advertising landscape. With more than enough funds and high billing, Grant had some of the best creative hands, people-savvy clients service executives and great copy heads to sail with. Some of the great advertising heads aboard Grant’s ship then were the Founder of Insight Communications, Biodun Shobanjo who joined Grant in 1971 as a senior client service executive and rose to become the deputy Managing Director of the agency within six years. Also aboard were Rosabel’s co-founder, Akin Odunsi; the duo of Billy Lawson and Bola Thomas who co-founded LTC; Babu Akinbobola and Kole Ademulegun who founded Medialink; Jimi Awosika who later teamed up with Shobanjo and the late Sesan Ogunro who owned Eminent Advertising. The future successes recorded by these practitioners attest to the level of professionalism at Grant.

Despite having these great talents on its payroll, it is a wonder why Grant had to close shop. One of the insiders, Mrs. Bola Thomas, offered an insight. According to her: “The atmosphere at Grant was that of joie de vivre – a carefree attitude mingled with hard work. There was that informal atmosphere that nurtures creativity. But then there were problems at Grant. No matter how hard you worked, you could not rise to become a director in the company. Apart from workers not owning part of the business, they were not even given shares for all their hard work.” Explaining further, Thomas added, “The situation where hardworking people could not aspire to get to the Board opened the room for frustration – the kind of frustration that inspires people to think of their own future and the impetus to start something of their own.”

If Grant was the poster boy of crass capitalism in the industry then, involvement in partisan politics was the bane of Akrel Advertising. The agency was founded by Senator Kofo Bucknor-Akerele, a broadcaster turned adwoman. The late Chief Hilario Babs Akerele, a politician, was the chairman of agency’s board. Akrel was at its operational peak when Bucknor-Akerele made a foray into politics in the early 1990s. She first became a senator in the stillborn Third Republic birthed by General Ibrahim Babangida. She was a NADECO activist during the struggle for the actualization of the June 12, 1993 presidential election mandate. In 1999, Bucknor-Akerele emerged as deputy to Governor Bola Tinubu in Lagos State in the 4th Republic. Having tasted the political honey pot, Bucknor-Akerele forgot about advertising business and Akrel became history.

For Mrs. Taiwo Ajai-Lycett, the death of her husband, Mr Thomas Lycett who was the brain-box and Managing Director of Partnership Advertising, in 1993 sounded the death knell of the then thriving agency. British-trained, the Nigeria-born Taiwo had met Lycett, a Briton, while training and working as an actress and broadcaster in the UK. Following her decision to return to her homeland, Mr Lycett, for love’s sake, followed his wife to Nigeria and together they founded Partnership in the1980s. When the agency closed shop, Taiwo shifted her focus to her first love – acting and rekindled her interest in the running of a specialist school for children at Egbe, a Lagos suburb.

Management and boardroom intrigues, lack of a good succession plan and the loss of juicy accounts led to the demise of OBM early in the new millennium. Like Lintas, OBM was a first-generation agency in the country. “OBM started as an overseas marketing agency in 1959. In 1961, its name was changed to S.H Benson. But in 1971/72, there was a merger between S.H Benson and Ogilvy, Benson and Mather worldwide. That’s how we became Ogilvy, Benson and Mather (OBM). It used to be owned by expatriates but with the indigenization decree, it was sold to Nigerians and we retained the name. Today, Nigerians owned it 100 percent.” These were the words of Chief Olufemi Adeniyi-Williams in a media interview while chronicling the history of his dead agency.

Chief Williams became the second indigenous chief executive of OBM following the retirement of his predecessor, Otunba Kola Onikoyi in 1986. At the time Williams mounted the saddle, Nigeria had just had a major devaluation and the business environment was tough. The fallout of the tough times was that advertising budgets were slashed by clients. From manufacturing to trading, from FMCG to automobiles and from banking to hospitality, no sector was spared. Yet through Williams and his team’s creative management style OBM weathered the storms. As a thriving agency, OBM’s clients included Nigerian Breweries, Cadbury and Lever Brothers. But crisis erupted early for OBM in 2000. Following the loss of its mainstay accounts, Gulder and Maltina from the stable of Nigerian Breweries, a young but brilliant adman who had also displayed leadership quality and understanding of the job, Folabi Olabimtan (now late) was appointed by the board as Managing Director-designate to understudy Williams who was still the agency’s Chief Executive.

By April, 2001, Olabimtan became OBM’s substantive chief executive while Chief Williams retired. Olabimtan, working in tandem with two other colleagues, Jide Adegunju, Head of Media and Olufemi Ige, an accountant formed the dream team that was to take OBM out of the woods. Initially, things looked better for OBM. But in 2002, barely a year after taking over, Olabimtan and his dream team were given the boot. And Chief Williams came out of retirement to once more mount the saddle. But not too long after his return, the undertaker came for OBM.

Sunrise Advertising owned by the late May Nzeribe exuded brilliance and creativity in its reigning days in the 1980s and for the better part of the 1990s until it fell on bad times. Sunrise founder, May, was the younger brother of the maverick politician, Chief Francis Arthur Nzeribe. It thus was not a surprise that Sunrise became a big player on the political turf. Nzeribe who passed on in 2012 was a past President of the Association of Advertising Agencies in Nigeria (AAAN); former chairman, Advertising Practitioners Council of Nigeria (APCON); chairman, Nigeria chapter, International Advertising Association (IAA) and a member of the international board of IAA where he represented the African region. An adman to the core, Nzeribe, before founding Sunrise, had worked at Graham& Gillies and OBM (both defunct) where he rose to become an Account Director.

Nzeribe’s Sunrise was credited with running one of the most controversial comparative advertising in Nigeria. The campaign was between two dry cell battery brands. Before death came for Mr Nzeribe, his agency had already fallen on bad times. His demise merely sealed the fate of Sunrise.

Although Prince Kehinde Adeosun, the founder of Promoserve Advertising Ltd, thought he had a succession plan that he considered to be perfect and full-proof, the agency went belly up! The second-generation agency was a victim of mismanagement. Founded in the 1970s when the wave of indigenization moved with the speed of a tornado in Nigeria, Promoserve flourished early. The highly sociable and ebullient Adeosun, a broadcaster turned adman who had earlier worked in some agencies including OBM when expatriates ran the show, had earlier made a name for himself in broadcasting where he was something of a legend. In fact, it was his creativity in broadcasting that gave him a head way in advertising.  A few of the early ad copy that earned Promoserve fame were Alabukun and Obron 6.

After running the show for about a decade, Adeosun moved up the ladder, ceding the day to day running of the agency to a General Manager. The General Manager was Chief Allan Olabode who was head hunted from Lintas. Between 1982 when Olabode joined Promoserve, he rose to become deputy Managing Director in 1985 and Managing Director in 1987. To encourage Olabode to stay on, he was given 20 percent stake in Promoserve. As MD, Olabode ran the day to day operations of the agency while Adeosun remained in the background as chairman. But in 1988, Promoserve ran into stormy waters and a surgical operation was needed to save it. One of the arrow heads of the rescue team was Lolu Akinwunmi who later founded the wave-making Prima Garnet. He came on board from Lintas as Head of Media and Client Service. For a while, the agency stabilized.  But in 1996, another management and boardroom crisis hit Promoserve. The gale of the crisis was so strong that it consumed Olabode. By January 1997, Olabode was swept off his seat as MD. His exit led to an exodus in the agency. And Promoserve resolutely headed South in spite of spirited efforts by Adeosun to save his dying agency. Promoserve never recovered.

Perhaps success came too early for MC&A, a Lagos-based Saatchi & Saatchi affiliate agency. Or it could not manage its success and became a victim of it. Founded as a second line agency by the Shobanjo-led Troyka Group in 1990, MC&A, from the outset, was affiliated to the globally renowned Saatchi & Saatchi network. Along with the affiliation came juicy accounts for the young agency. MC&A became an instant hit. It was headed by the young, mercurial Georgi Umunna who was the agency’s General Manager. Umunna, a Shobanjo protégé was seconded to MC&A from Insight.

Within three years of its existence, MC&A had risen to one of the top five in the industry. In its first year of operation, it billed N9.3 million, the following year, it posted N24.2million and by the third year its billing went up to N36.2million. By the fourth year, MC&A’s billing rose to N51.9million. In fact, the agency’s billing was on the upward swing for almost a decade so much so that it once netted N550million in a year. This success notwithstanding, trouble came early for the young agency. Its founding helmsman, Umunna was eased out of the agency barely four years in office. The reasons included unsavory tales of his management style. To save the agency, Victor Johnson, an Insight veteran was drafted to manage MC&A. But not too long after Johnson’s resumption, MC&A lost its affiliation to Saatchi & Saatchi. The loss of affiliation meant the loss of juicy accounts. MC&A, which in its early days managed blue chip accounts that included Guinness and DN Meyer no longer sparkled at pitches. These two factors and the inclement business climate did not help matters. By late 2002, MC&A became history.

CT& Associates Limited (CT&A) was founded by Cornelius Tay as a full-service advertising agency in 1986. It started off with about five clients. By 1996 when it marked ten years in business, CT&A had worked for about 70 companies. It was acknowledged as a pioneer in direct marketing in Nigeria. Perhaps what led to the death of the once vibrant agency was the fact that its founder, Cornelius Tay found a new lover: Network marketing. As the arrow head and driving force behind Forever Living Products, an American herbal medicine network marketing forum in the West African sub-region, Tay soon dumped advertising.

Established 46 years ago in 1973, PAL Nigeria Limited was a key player in Nigeria’s advertising from the 1970s through the 1990s. With Pa Ayo Owoborode as Managing Director and Chief J.T Popoola(late), Sam Oluwadare and Olu Sotire as executive directors, PAL was a champion in the marketing communications arena. It serviced clients in diverse sectors of the economy, notably Dunlop Nigeria, International Breweries, NAL Merchant Bank, Fumman, Barewa Pharmaceuticals, WEMA Bank, West African Portland Cement, First Bank and Nigeria Institute of Management to mention just a few. Given this impressive clientele base, but with age catching up with the founders, one would have thought that a good succession plan would have been in place. Ironically, there was none. With old age rendering some of the founders inactive and the death of some of them, PAL soon became comatose.

In his days at OBM, Chief Olu Falomo, former chairman of APCON, was any client’s delight. Winning accounts and servicing clients that comprised multinationals and blue chips were Falomo’s forte. Highly connected and sociable, Falomo was a past Chairman of Island Club, Nigeria’s numero uno social club. After quitting OBM, Falomo floated Forum Advertising where he continued his winning streak. Given his wide network, Falomo had other business interests aside advertising. These other interests, perhaps, lured Falomo away from advertising as exemplified by his position as Chairman of the Board of Reckitt Benckiser, which is one of his many board appointments.

Rod Publicity was founded by three bosom friends and socialites: Remi Adeoye, Akin Ogunmade-Davies and Eddy Olu Falaiye. They were young, bubbly and creative. Their corporate baby was the toast of indigenous advertisers in the 1970s and early 1980s. While Adeoye was Managing Director, Falaiye was Creative Director and Ogunmade-Davies was the Client cum Public Relations Director. All three were hot on the advertising circuit, as they were on the social scene. Their busy social lives rubbed off on their agency. They were so famous that the juju music maestro, King Sunny Ade, waxed a record to celebrate them and Rod Publicity in the 1970s. However, Rod Publicity was not destined to thrive for long. The sudden death of Akin Ogunmade-Davies who was the son of a frontline Nigerian nationalist, Chief H.O Davies, in mid-1980s and the emergence of Adeoye as kabiyesi, traditional ruler in his Ijebu town eclipsed the sun of Rod Publicity.

Smarting from his ousting at Promoserve early 1997, Alan Olabode dusted his diary where he earlier wrote down the vision of his dream agency in November 1996. With that, a new agency, 21st Century Integrated Communications Limited, was born. According to Olabode, inspiration for the name of his agency came from Bill Clinton’s campaign slogan during the 1996 American Presidential campaign. Explaining, Olabode said: “During the American presidential election of 1996, I watched with keen interest like all managers of public communication should watch. Political campaigns are usually case studies in marketing of ideas and personalities and in such events, American elections are usually classical case studies. Personally, I pitched for Bob Dole, the Republican candidate. I tend to identify with his sense of moral probity unlike Clinton, the Democratic candidate whose morality is more of a quicksand. But as I monitored their campaigns on CNN, I was struck by the slogan in the Clinton campaign train: Taking America to the 21st Century. While Bob Dole was talking about re-enacting the old days, Clinton smartly latched onto the vision of the next millennium. Naturally, the next millennium has a spiritual pull on people. In that regard, Dole’s vision of taking the nation to the past was a creative disaster in terms of mass appeal. When I saw Clinton’s slogan, I was inspired. I just picked the slogan, wrote it down put it on my prayer table. I said to myself: ‘By the grace of God, if I ever form an agency, this is going to be the name: Twenty First Century.’ I left the note there.”

Olabode’s dream soon became a reality. 21st Century Integrated Communications was born with fanfare. The timing was right. It was the dawn of a new millennium. The whole world was waiting, watching. The branding, too, was right. And coincidentally, 21st Century’s debut coincided with the 24th Annual General Meeting of the Association of Advertising Practitioners of Nigeria (AAPN) the precursor of AAAN in Ijebu-Ode, Ogun State. And the theme of the AGM was: 21st Century Advertising: Challenges and Imperatives for Nigerian Advertising. Olabode latched on this and took a full-page advertisement in the papers to announce the arrival of his agency.

Surprisingly, despite all: perfect branding, right time, coincidences and surplus funds, 21st Century did not flourish. As an agency, it witnessed the new millennium but it never flourished as a business. Perhaps it was the God factor. Because as Olabode once explained in his advertising memoirs: “There is a God factor in advertising as in general management. No matter the brilliance of your creative process and strategies, if you do not enjoy a measure of divine favour, you cannot succeed. This is something you just cannot put your hands on because it is faith. If God does not give you that blessing, you will not succeed. You can’t move forward without God. As mundane as management is, it is God-driven.”

These ad agencies and their owners, while in business, were the power people who influenced consumers through their works; they decided what they saw, what they heard and what they bought. They were the power people who recommended to clients how to sell or market a product or service and how not to. They were the power people who put smiles on the faces of their clients through their works, impacting on their Return on Investment (ROI). Ironically, while their clients, with eyes on the future had in place good and proactive management systems as well as great succession plans with which they seamlessly transferred power to the next generation, these agencies only lived in the ‘present’ of their time without as much care about what the future held. Indeed, the future, or even the ‘present’ in which they then lived, appeared to have caught many of them unawares. They just did not appear to have been too well-grounded in the reality of their business to hold down the success that came their way. Perhaps, they were simply overwhelmed. Whatever the case might be, one fact remains incontrovertible: without exception, they were like the proverbial sick physician who refused to take a dose of his own prescription and, as a consequence, could not be healed. Or, viewed from a different perspective, as Allan Olabode once posited:  Is it the God factor?

-Wale Alabi is Nigeria’s award-winning brand analyst and author of the forthcoming book, BRANDTALK: The Making of Nigerian Brands.

2 thoughts on “Ready, Steady, Gone!

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