Olukayode Morenikeji Oluwasona is the current president of the Association of Advertising Agencies of Nigeria (AAAN). An avid AAAN activist and advertising and marketing professional of over 25 years, Oluwasona is an erudite and passionate ad man who has seen it all across the client and agency side of the business. BRANDPOWER took him to task in the aftermath of the recently held 44th anniversary of the AAAN, which took place in Lagos, to explain the vision, challenges and hopes of his association in the light of the intense pressure presently being faced by businesses and even governments across the country.

A thoroughbred, business strategist and seasoned marketing communications consultant. Oluwasona is an LBS alumnus and has a degree in Economics and an MBA in Marketing. He has worked at different times in Leventis Motors, Lever Brothers Nigeria (Now Unilever Nigeria) and SmithKline Beecham (Now GlaxoSmithKline), impacting such brands as Mercedes Benz, Sunlight, Planta, Blue Band, Tree Top, Lipton and Panadol before joining Insight Communications, then a Grey Global (WPP) affiliate, in 2001 as Senior Account Director.

At Insight Communications, Oluwasona worked on diverse product categories as Telecommunications (Econet, now Airtel), Beverages (Nestle Milo), Alcoholics (Gulder), Foods (Indomie Noodles), Health Drinks (Lucozade Boost, Ribena) etc. He was later elevated to the board of the company as an Executive Director in January 2005. In February 2011, he joined Rosabel Leo Burnett as its first non-founder Managing Director/CEO. And finally in January 2014, Oluwasona berthed at Harmonee Concepts Limited, an Integrated Marketing Communications Agency founded in 1997and co-owner and Managing Director where he has remained till date.

Below are excerpts of our session…

Congratulations on what can be described as a very successful 44th AGM/Congress of the Association of Advertising Agencies of Nigeria (AAAN) held recently in Lagos. Take us through the highlights of that event

Thank you very much. You know fortyfour years in the life of any organization is not a joke. Ordinarily, we should only communicate that we have come of age. So when we were having the 44th AGM, there were certain things one would expect; that is, by way of standard and quality. I’m very happy that we did not fall short of those standards and quality.

We had the AGM in Lagos; the last time we had it in Lagos was almost 10 years ago. It held at the Golden Tulip Hotel, Festac, Lagos. It started on the evening of Thursday July 6th 2017 and ended on Sunday July 9th 2017.  The event was successful. It was successful to the extent that it was productive; it was productive to the extent that we were able to drill down on the issues of the industry which was aptly captured in the theme of the AGM: ‘Fresh Thinking’. It was time for us to take a serious fresh look at the way we have been doing business, at the way we have been doing communications and the way we have been parading ourselves as professionals. I can say to you that the contribution from everybody at the AGM was as robust as it could be. We had good participation, support from our past presidents, we had participation from colleagues in other sectorial bodies.

In this type of business that we do, we would normally talk about the ASG (Advertising Sectorial Groups), we had resolutions from them and we also had quality speakers like Mr. Bayo Adekanmbi who is the Chief Transformation Executive for MTN; a very erudite scholar and a very fantastic professional who is a part of us and understands the in and out of the industry. He is now on the Client side, and we had him speak to us and it was very good.

Mr. Fowler, the executive chairman of FIRS was the chairman of the conference which held on Friday 7th July; and on Saturday 8th July, we sat down and built on what we had the previous day. Members came out openly and spoke frankly and sincerely to raise issues about the industry to help and contribute in devising the way forward. We agreed that leaving the AGM, there is a new spirit we must bring upon ourselves and agreed to work together to improve the quality of our services and the standard of our practice. The whole exercise was very productive.

What informed your choice of theme ‘Fresh Thinking’?

Fresh thinking, ordinarily one would say, is innovation. You know, there is a common saying that says ‘innovators never die’. Innovation actually touches really on strategy; some would define strategy as what you do to adapt to stimuli or stimulus as the case maybe.

What this simply means is that when you take stock of what you are doing, where you are, what’s happening to you, viz-a viz what you want to happen to you, then you are able to ask yourself if you are measuring up or fine the way you are, or if you are not.  If you think you are not doing well, but you can do better, then you need to pull back and think. I want to believe that should be the situation many industries, sectors, organizations and businesses should be in now. Why is that? Because first and foremost is the fact that we are in recession; even the country as a whole needs to pull back at some point and ask herself ‘where am I?’ Where are we? Where should we be? What can we do to get to where we ought to be? It is also the same situation we are facing in AAAN and the advertising industry.

There is every need for us to come together as colleagues and find the right time, avenue and platform to pull back and think together what is happening to us. I am sure you are aware that there are different forays and platforms that we have discussed the challenges of the advertising industry. This was an ample opportunity, a great opportunity for professionals to gather together in a conducive environment here in Lagos, charged by great speakers to review what has been happening to us.

To answer your question, what informed the theme is the reality of our times which we need to tackle in order to move forward.

In that case, were you able to come up with the strategies that would lead to this Fresh Thinking during the AGM?

Well… I would say ‘yes’ to a large extent. We were able to lay the background for those strategies that would come. First and foremost is the realization. When you realize you have a challenge, the problem is half solved. But you don’t even know that there is a challenge, or the challenges are there but you are not determined to tackle them, then there is no solution. You cannot begin to expect anything to change in such circumstance.

In this case, first and foremost we were able to collectively and unanimously agree that there are issues to resolve. That to me is our number one success. Secondly, everybody committed to finding a path in the way forward. Thirdly, at the ex-co level, we have identified some key strategic steps we would need in order to move forward. There have been some issues on ground, like the review of our constitution, we have certain policies and regulations of the association that have been under-enforced, or not enforced at all. We have the issues of pitch fee, foreign practitioners invading our industry and so on. We had actually agreed on what to do about all that. And we know that at a certain point in time, we have to come back (maybe before the next AGM) to possibly organize some forum like EGM (Extraordinary General Meeting) at which if any progress is made, we can present to the congress members for ratification.

You seem to have highlighted some of the problems while you were speaking just now. But can you tell us in a nutshell what exactly the major challenge facing advertising agencies in Nigeria are?

The challenges vary; but if I have to put it together in one sentence or in a phrase, I would say it is the encroachment of the practice by unwholesome competitors. It is big; it could be internal, it could be Nigerians or foreigners, they could be registered or un-registered people or even clients.

So, when I say it is an encroachment or invasion of the industry, it could be people who shouldn’t really be practicing; that is number one. So how they practice it, where they practice it and when they practice it can be added as the corollary aspect of the challenge. The main challenge is actually the encroachment. It is a big issue because what it does is that it reduced the scope of work for advertising agencies. What is also does is that when that happens, you find out that you can’t make enough revenue to run your business whether as an individual or a firm or even an association.

When you don’t do business, we all know what happens. It is not like the business isn’t there, it is there but because the regulations are weak, you find encroachment. These encroachments don’t come from competition or participation; they come from unwholesome competition. Let nobody say AAAN or the President of AAAN has come out to say he doesn’t want competition; I have not said I don’t want foreign partners. I qualified it by saying ‘unwholesome’ and they are aided and abated by almost everybody that is important in the industry and the economy.  Which is to say that those you don’t expect to patronize unwholesome suppliers in advertising are seen doing it and even the enforcement is weak; that is where the major problem stems from.

The view of some people is that the days when Nigeria was very heavy in manufacturing, when the economy was buoyant, things were different. The manufacturers needed to promote their goods. What is your take on the drive of the present administration for us to look inwards in terms of producing our own goods, and how do you think it would affect the industry of marketing communications generally?

I would easily say perhaps that is the best thing that could ever happen to our economy going forward. This is to say, that we need to look inwards; we need to develop local brands, we need to encourage local investors, local innovators and inventors, and local businesses. I personally think it’s the way to go.

Part of the things that came out at our AGM was that we could count a selected few of those MNCs (Multi-National Corporations) big names that have come from abroad. But there are innumerable numbers of local brands and initiatives that need support but are not getting it. The point isn’t that they just do not want the support, they may possibly not know they need it, even if they know they need it, they may not know where to get it.

We have sat down pretty looking for blue-chip accounts but the truth is that we need to begin to look within. As we do that, the government also needs to facilitate these businesses; they ought to take them seriously and encourage local brands to grow. When we grow our local brands, we can develop international brands from within Nigeria; we can develop our own global brands.

You mentioned Multi-National Corporations just now, and part of the complaints of a lot of Nigerian Agencies is the perceived preference of these MNCs to use agencies they have in their home countries; thereby making it imperative for Nigerian Agencies to begin to jostle over those Agencies? I am aware there was some kind of policy that was put in place by APCON in recent times to try and checkmate this. How far has it gone and how well do you think the Nigerian Agencies are protected?

I think when you call them Multi-National Corporations; the reality concerning them is that they have their strategy. What they are doing makes sense; they want an undiluted positioning for their brand. They want a consistent packaging and presentation of their brands to the audience around the world. So, when they cross borders, they want to carry the same posturing, positioning and look and feel of the brand across the globe as they go; it makes sense.

The challenge is how they go about doing that. Somebody who isn’t one of us will not know us better than we know ourselves. The responsibility we have is to challenge foreign agencies with the quality of our own work concerning our own market. That responsibility, first and foremost, lies with us; which is to say if I’m bringing in a brand from Korea to Nigeria, that brand will already have its dimension that is already consistent to it. So when they come to Nigeria, who are we, how do we receive things, what do we want? A foreign agency shouldn’t be in a better position to know better than a Nigerian agency that is rooted and developed in Nigeria.

So, their strategy of wanting to come with who they are comfortable with to continue their marketing communications the way they always want it all over the world is very right.  Question is can they do it? No! I don’t want to give examples of some of them; there are some campaign materials that we have seen out there; the lines are very unlike us, the lines don’t connect, infact they look like they are almost disconnecting. But, maybe because of globalization, everything goes.

How should regulation tackle them? APCON is said to have had some policies in place in some areas to fix that kind of situation where an MNC just comes here and decides to bulldoze or give jobs to foreign agencies to the detriment of Nigerian agencies. The 5th reform of the advertising practice which is in the latest APCON reform adequately tackles that. There are aspects of that reform that talks about local content. The kind of agencies you can work with, kind of models you can use, where you can do your production, whether in Nigeria or abroad, both conditions must be met.

Beyond APCON, we know placing people in certain positions, there are certain rules that protect them if we don’t have qualified Nigerians to fill that role; those are there, but are we reaping the benefits of those reforms? My answer is No! Why are we not reaping? A lot of issues have been canvassed, some say it’s because the (APCON) council is not in place, some say it’s because the enforcement organizations are not motivated to do the job; some say it’s because of structural breakdown. All I can say is that there are ample provisions for protection. Protection in the sense that there are laws on ground, provisions of codes have been made and that are supposed to be complied with in the management and regulation of the industry. That is where, as I speak, things are not fully done; they say council is not in place, but there is an administrative structure in place. APCON has a structure; the civil service structure is there, and they are the ones that can run the laws that are on ground.

What we are asking and pushing for now is that those laws that have been made should be implemented; once they are implemented, it would be easier to identify those flouting the laws; only then can we reclaim respect in our industry.

Talking about regulation, there is an issue about food and beverages regulations that seems to require that you not only need to have APCON approval for your advertising approvals, you also need to have NAFDAC approval. What is AAAN’s position on this?

Primarily, AAAN doesn’t support anything that is duplicated or unnecessarily multiplied. Which is to say, the multiplicity of approvals, where they are not necessary, we do not support. To answer your question, I don’t think that is what is happening in this case.  I believe there is something wrong in the way some organizations are interpreting what the codes of different organizations are supposed to be.

For example, I used be on the side of the client; I was in several FMCG companies and I know the relationship we had with NAFDAC. I used to work in a pharmaceutical company, and you must imagine how strongly NAFDAC must have been involved in what we were doing. But now, the organizations (APCON and NAFDAC) are supposed to operate from both sides of a coin while not infringing on each other’s territory. APCON is about communication; NAFDAC should be about the product itself; the wholesomeness of the product and its efficacy. I personally think there shouldn’t be a problem in that; but why do we face challenges with them now? It is because of misinterpretation and greed. The most annoying thing is the unreasonable chase for money; internally generated revenue. There is so much greed, it is not their territory, but they begin to harass people. Both organizations are supposed to work together.

In APCON they have what is called the ASP (Advertising Standards Panel); they are the people who sit to review and vet proposals from advertisers to run certain materials in the media. Their job is to look at the claims, the justifications, what you tell consumers you provide as a brand whether they are true, ethical, and culturally relevant. Is it appropriate for our society, will it damage any sector, will it affect the consumers psyche?  These things are what APCON through its ASP actually addresses.

If it is a product that is supposed to be regulated by NAFDAC, beyond the authentication of your claims, your artworks, communications, lines and all others, there is nothing wrong with APCON asking for certification from NAFDAC. Both organizations need to work together without either one infringing on the other; APCON does communication appropriately to support the work of NAFDAC.

AAAN membership seems to have reduced in recent years; undoubtedly one can say the economy might be responsible for that. Beyond that, what exactly does AAAN represent to its members, and what do the members stand to benefit? Also taking it a step further, what does a Client benefit by patronizing an AAAN member agency?

First, I would like to say that membership of AAAN is like a stamp of authenticity. When you are a member of AAAN you already have a stamp of authenticity and a different level of professionalism.  We are not a trade union; we are just a body of responsible professionals who have organized their craft in a modern and proper way. That is why till today, we still have establishments that are called AAAN agencies; they are organizations, companies that are well formed. They belong to organizations that expect you to certify them as real, genuine and authentic; those are the bodies that form AAAN.

And as for the reduction in members, I can equally attribute it to the economy like you said; it has affected us badly just as it has affected many other organizations. In a situation like this, there may be sectors that are growing because of the realities of the day, and then there must also be sectors that will depreciate. But in a general recession, majority of the sectors will go down; advertising is part of it. Clients are also going down on a daily basis; when your clients cannot buy raw materials to produce, and you go to him as his ad agency, he will most likely tell you to hold on until he purchases raw materials he will use in producing products you will need in using to carry out your marketing communication.

Some of these Multi-National Corporations, when they made a billion naira as profit, they denominated it at N160 to $1; if you convert that, calculate how much money will be remitted to the parent company abroad. It is more than double; the profit in dollar has reduced by more than 50%. They are equally facing the challenges we are facing here also. There is a direct impact between the financial constraints of our clients and our kind of business.  The health of the nation determines that of the client which in turn determines the survival of the agencies.

To answer your question on what agencies gain as AAAN members, let me categorically say that advertising is a regulated business; nobody can venture into it anyhow and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.  In the law that established APCON which is the regulatory body, AAAN is the solely recognized body of professionals in marketing communications loosely called advertising. Like I earlier said, AAAN is the stamp of authenticity; any advertising agency not under AAAN should face the regulatory board.

Being a member of AAAN first and foremost legitimizes your business; and members stand to benefit certain things in terms of advocacy, because we are interested in the welfare of our members, by coming together to influence and enforce policies that can help the businesses of our members. We also do training; we have arms and structures in our association that handle different aspects of our business lives. We also have an arm for training, capacity development and human resource management; we also have an advertising academy to train people to become better professionals. AAAN is a forum for interaction, where we can share our problems, values, ideas and beliefs in order to better ourselves and businesses.

We also have what we call the industry night, we recently had the 3rd edition; it was an opportunity for the young ones to mingle with themselves and the mature ones. It is a platform for interaction, and where one can challenge himself into becoming a better person. It is also a platform where the young ones can get to meet their mentors who they see on the internet or newspapers.

We also have what we call the creative awards excellence night; the Lagos Advertising Industry Festival (LAIF) Awards.  The award helps to create healthy competition amongst the members because it is an avenue for recognition for our craft. The award has been running successfully for 12 years.

Any Client that patronizes an AAAN Agency should be rest assured that he is working with a professional organization. Every member agency goes through a process of screening before being admitted into the membership of the association; from its confirmation, infrastructure, competence and even financial standards and so many other things. When a client patronizes a AAAN member’s organization, there is also the ethical aspect of it; the Agency carries the AAAN’s number, it is a number that shows that you are like a gold fish and you cannot hide. It means when the Agency does something that is shady, there is a body the Client can appeal to.

There is something called the ethics committee or PPC (Professional Practice Committee) as part of the machinery for AAAN; we have received few cases of complaints about our members, we sit with them and resolve whatever issues they have. Our members do not want to be reported as well, it demeans their reputation. The PPC is an arm of the association that has seniors as its members; they sit and resolve an issue whenever one is brought forward by a Client.

So, when a Client patronizes a member of AAAN, he has the benefit of rest of mind that he dealing with a professional, secondly, he has a body behind that Agency that he can appeal to incase something goes wrong.

What is the relationship between AAAN and International Advertising Agency (IAA)?

We were once a strong member and a few things happened. Due to the recession in Nigeria, a lot of things happened; we fell short of expectations, contributions and continuity in IAA. However, in the last two years there have been a conscious attempt to revamp IAA in Nigeria and AAAN is doing something strong about that.

Currently, we are working towards inaugurating the Nigerian chapter of IAA; the plan is all things being equal maybe sometime soon, there will be an inauguration of the Nigerian chapter of the IAA. It is a body we think we should be part of, we believe it will help globalize our standards; just like what we should do as members of the AAAN, and IAA is a body of individuals through their agencies stand to gain benefits I highlighted as a member of AAAN but on an international level.

You just completed the first year of your 2-year tenure as the President of the AAAN, how would you say it has been so far?

I must say that it has been as interesting as it has been challenging. One of my favorite phrases is that I don’t think these days or today is the easiest of times to be head or President of any organization. We all know the reason, let us take the country as an example; if someone became the President five years ago, it would not be the same kind of presidency we would be talking about today. So that is where the challenges are coming from in my own aspect.  The environment is tougher, tighter, money is not available as much as it was about 4-5 years ago; sponsorships are dwindling, commercial success and profitability is dwindling also; all of that has really affected the ease in which one’s presidency would have gone.

Nonetheless, I must say I was prepared for it. Those challenges did not deter or affect me much. It has been possible to navigate through the difficult task and one thing I do is try to get the support of all our members and I got full support from everybody, even from distant members who were not very active at some point; I reached out to everybody. This is not the time to have a divided house; the first thing I tried to do was to pull people together. I visited several agencies, big and small, far and near irrespective of the distance.

I want to create a platform for us to share and benefit from each other irrespective of the dwindling businesses. We need a shift in our mentality; we help ourselves by gaining from one another. We need to stay unified as one body.

You seem to have your cup very full. How do you unwind…with family?

I try to create time to unwind. Even though as an ad man you would like to work 24/7 but I thank God for whoever created the end of year break. I look forward to the end of year. I don’t shut down completely, but many times I have been able to break away by going on vacation with my family. We vacation within and outside Nigeria a lot.

In the course of my day-to-day activity when I am in Nigeria, I relax in the evenings, I love music, so I listen to a lot of music and weekends I try to get enough rest. Those are just the small and short ways I relax.

Finally, what would you say to a youth that wants to have a career in advertising?

Firstly, I will congratulate him or her for choosing a career in advertising, and also encourage the youth that advertising is real, good and great. There is no industry that doesn’t have its own challenges. But what keeps us going and excited is more than what scares us; I never believe in the statement of ‘Death of Advertising’. I tell everybody that advertising cannot die; what it simply requires is innovation; Fresh Thinking. So, I expect the new ones to have fire in their bellies; they are the future of advertising, they should bring the Fresh Thinking on. The media is changing, we no longer do 30-seconds or 45-seconds advertising; we now do more of 15-seconds clips which go on YouTube; and these are the innovations the young ones need to tap into.

Thank you for your time.

Thanks for having me.