Thousands of years of culture remain untapped.
Abolaji Alausa, the young creative director of the Noah’s Ark ad agency in Lagos, Nigeria, majored in painting at Yaba College, got his first job in the industry with Rosabel Leo Burnett in 2006, and then did a five-year stint with DDB, Lagos. Abolaji has won several national awards, most notably LAIF (Lagos Advertising & Ideas Festival) and the local Young Lions competition in 2009. Thanks to his efforts, Noah’s Ark has become the first Nigerian agency ever to have had their work featured in Lürzer’s Archive. Michael Weinzettl, who enlisted Abolaji’s help for the jury of last year’s Lürzer’s Archive Student of the Year competition, talked to ‘Bolaji about his career and advertising in West Africa.
L.A.: Hi, ‘Bolaji, how does a guy from Lagos, Nigeria, find himself at Miami Ad School Berlin?
Abolaji Alausa: You shouldn’t believe ev-erything you read on the internet. I never did. I attended Miami Ad School Berlin through teleconferencing for just a few months; it was an introductory package titled “How to make great campaigns. A taste of Miami Ad School.” Young but adept tutors like Nadine Nedrebo, J.J. Lim, and Teresa Jung gave a glimpse of how things were done the Miami Ad School way. The course culminated in Teresa bringing her CD, Myles Lord, to class. I found his story particularly inspiring, a South African doing great stuff in Germany. I studied fine art at Yaba College Lagos, majored in painting, graduated with a first class.
L.A.: Please tell us about your early influences.
Abolaji Alausa: That list is rather long and biased: the late Frank Frazetta, Moebius (Jean Giraud), and Joe Kubert were great artists that I never got the opportunity to thank. I watched these men pass away without being able to say thank you in person for the impact they had on me. Siku’s (Ajibayo Akinsiku’s) work on Judge Dredd, Simon Bisley’s work on ABC Warriors, and Jim Lee’s early work on Xmen …these guys literally drove me to art school.
L.A.: When and how did you first get exposed to advertising and when did you get interested in it? When, in other words, did you decide that it might be a career for you?
Abolaji Alausa: I’ll be honest here: I shared the same disdain fine artists have for commercial artists early on. The ad boys in school were the unserious ones. Kolade Oshinowo, a foremost African painter, took pictorial composition and his mantra was: “Learn before you earn!” All the ad boys cared about was freelancing and making money. God forbid I joined them and lost my soul. After publishing the comics and realizing how tough it was to foist a western art form on Nigerians, I took to painting full-time but the canvasses were equally slow in paying the bills. Advertising shamefully became the career of choice and I went in with a clean slate. I only learned about the greats as I worked with their networks and grew. Leo Burnett when I worked with Rosabel Leo Burnett Lagos, and Bernbach, Koenig, Krone and Kassaei when I joined DDB Lagos.
L.A.: After you graduated from school and “sold your soul,” how did you proceed? What were the next steps in your career?
Abolaji Alausa: I walked into Rosabel Leo Burnett with nothing to show but my published comic books, bragging that I could best any illustrator in the house. The Group Heads, then Clement Omemu and Jesse Adeniji, smiled and gave me a copy test instead. Thankfully, years of plotting and scripting panels kicked in and I managed to impress them enough to get the job. We went on to do some good work for UBA. I continued freelancing on the side and caught the attention of Enyi and Ikechi Odigbo, the brothers who run the CASERS group and DDB Lagos. I got subcontracted to do a storyboard for a Diamond Bank commercial. They liked my work and I stayed for five years, working under Femi Kayode (adforce DDB, Windhoek) chiefly on MTN as art director with writer Tunde Sule and later Maurice Ugwonoh. I won Young Lions, picked up an Epica.
L.A.: Since you are our first interviewee from West Africa, can you tell us a bit about the history of advertising there? Also, perhaps, the earliest forms of it, like the kind of painted signs offering haircuts.
Abolaji Alausa: Oh, we still have the painted haircut signs displaying the latest western cuts, the church posters promising prosperity and miracles (“We heal the following …”), the bus graffiti touting street wisdom (“e go better”), the environmental warning signs threatening instant ret-ribution if you “urinate here,” the crude canteen signs screaming “Food is ready!” Urban Nigeria and West Africa are rich in self-taught street graphic designers and copywriters. While professional billboards and banners occupy the choice spots of the landscape, the unrefined, but more nuanced, local signs punctuate it here and there. Nigerian advertising is about 80 years old. The first Nigerian agency opened shop in 1928; expatriates dominated the scene until an indigenization law in the 70s led to Nigerian ownership. The 90s saw a rush for international affiliations: Lowe, Grey, Saatchi & Saatchi, Ogilvy, Leo Burnett, TBWA, FCB, Bates, DDB, JWT, and several other networks got a Nigerian address listing on their websites. Leadership used to be of some concern. Creative directors are brought in from South Africa, the UK, India, or Australia. Now, there have been cases where some of these candidates excelled organizationally and creatively in terms of helping the shops woo multinational clients and, along the way, soaking in local acclaim. But those cases are few and far between. Most of those romances never last, and the unintended consequence is that there is not much space for young creative leaders to grow into, leaving them wondering which part of the world the next leader is coming from. What would be his policies? And how long will he stay? Will he be the one to break the jinx and win something for the region? Perhaps the most notable pioneer is Ted Mukoro. a former broadcaster and actor, who joined Lowe Lintas in 1964 and wrote the “Brightness series” campaign for Nigeria’s first locally brewed beer, Star. On the local design front, Lemi Ghariokwu, a self-taught artist, went on to design 26 album covers for Fela.
L.A.: What is the idea behind calling your agency “Noah’s Ark”?
Abolaji Alausa: First, we wanted an organic name, one that could start a story because that’s what this business is about. The idea of starting the agency came about just before the economic meltdown of 2008. In Nigeria of then, there were a lot of brands with big budgets making so much noise and getting little value in return. It was money down the drain, unfortunately. Scriptural clichés aside, what we’re trying to do with Noah’s Ark is create a truly safe haven for “creative animals” and save brands from the storm of sameness. It’s the pinnacle of a life’s work. Our founder/MD/ECD, Lanre Adisa, has been around for some years, and he never thought he’d set up shop. But once he decided to, he knew exactly what to do away with in the old model. Two-by-two: we take pairing serious, no lone wolves. Adrift with a purpose: we go wherever the idea takes us. Thankfully, the metaphor is not lost on our clients and competitors due to what we’ve achieved in our five years of existence. On the fun side of it, every new creative gets to pick a totem, which is then animated and personalized on their stationery.
L.A.: What are some of the challenges of running an agency like yours in the region? What about the competition?
Abolaji Alausa: Stiff challenges. It’s never easy to break away from the norm. From a planning and strategy standpoint, we do away with all the bollocks and hit hard on the insight. That can be strange to boardrooms steeped in buzzwords. On the execution front, we’re always trying to break taboos – while maintaining rel-evance to the central idea, of course. Even switching styles and use of illustration, photography and iconography can be tough here: too many ethnic groups, too many religious groups. One is constantly on the defensive. Indomie noodles in-troduces a new variant called Oriental Fried Noodles after about two decades of selling the chicken flavor. We wanted to show the old and at the same time dramatize the new. We decided to use the 12th century Ife bronze heads dug up by Leo Frobenius in 1910. Coincidentally, the heads bear an uncanny similarity to
the oriental Terracotta Army heads. These pieces have travelled the world, but they
always seem to escape use in any marketing communication, and with good rea-son too: some consider it a taboo. After
submitting a proposal to the curator of the
National Commission for Museums and Monuments, a legal to-and-fro ensued on the ethicality of using our national artifact to sell noodles. After weeks of waiting, payment was finally made and usage granted for a short window. Compare that to the usage of, say, the Statue of Liberty. Of course there are the usual challenges that are not peculiar to us but might just be a tad aggravated in these parts: clients who cannot, or who refuse to, write briefs, clients with no pop culture or experiential overlap with you, absurd deadlines, extremely late payments, disgracefully low demand for creativity, poor reproduction of print works and support services … the list goes on. As regards competition, a lot of congratulations rolled in the first time we got published in Archive; Nigeria was finally speaking for itself in the ad community. I know for a fact that submissions have gone up, and entries to both regional and international awards have tripled. Overall, the market is still largely traditional in nature. The level of competition among agencies is not encouraging enough. There’s an urgent need to raise the standard to compete with the world. This calls for more ambition on the part of individual agencies, which can then translate into an awakening of the entire industry. The readiness of clients to take “risks” … a lot of good stuff never sees the light of day. We are consistently devising ways of selling good work. Added to this is the need to encourage and attract fresh talent. There are no full-time ad schools like you’ll find elsewhere, although a few creative directors train youngsters in their spare time. We attract raw talent and groom them to our standard, as exemplified by our recruitment ads. The agency becomes an extension of the school, at least for the beginners. If a talent doesn’t start off in an agency with some level of creative culture, that may color how he/she grows going forward.
L.A.: Who are some of your clients and what work are you particularly proud of?
Abolaji Alausa: Indomie Noodles, one of the biggest noodles brand in the world. Our founder, Lanre Adisa, has had a long relationship working on the brand, starting from 2000, when he was still at Insight Grey. When he moved to TBWA\Concept, the brand moved there in 2006 and later moved to Noah’s Ark in 2009. There’s a good dose of understanding and respect between client and agency, which works in the best interest of the brand. The Indomie “Mama Do Good” TVC is one of the most popular commercials in Nigeria in recent times; for families, it’s some kind of national anthem. The Indomie Oriental Fried Noodles (Ife Bronze Head) print work is one we are very proud of. Also, Power Pasta “Bowser and Bluto,” where we literally turned the tables. Also worthy of mention is our viral video for VConnect, an online search engine for local businesses. Within a week of being posted
on YouTube, it recorded almost two million views. It showed us that this market may not stay traditional for too long.
L.A.: What is the state of advertising in general in West Africa? What does the average output, the stuff you see on the streets and perhaps on TV, look like? Would you say there is a specific style that you don’t see anywhere else? One that appeals to consumers in that region most - or is perceived by advertisers to have the biggest appeal?
Abolaji Alausa: The Nigerian and West African ad landscape has remained largely unchanged for decades: one campaign at the beginning of the year, occasional retail ads, PSAs, national holiday ads, a promo to jerk up sales towards the last quarter of the year, calendar and Christmas briefs in December to reward loyalty. Sadly, the layout hasn’t changed much. Through the years, you find traces of the times: pop, punk, post-modernism filtering through but never making a bold enough participation, or finding relevance within our culture. Our main unifying strand is the print layout, which is still riddled with bullet points and a huge Nollywood celebrity smiling down. On radio, the inherited predictable forms of jingles are gradually giving way to more locally resonant ones, but there are still a whole lot of jingles. TV is a lot better in terms of production values, especially since we almost never shoot locally. No, there is no specific style that is noteworthy. Almost everything is still borrowed. The haircut sign style you mentioned earlier has never been used in a campaign that I know of; there’s a perception by uppity brand managers that local means uncool. So thousands of years of culture remains untapped. The roped Igbo Ukwu pots, the Nok terracotta, the Oriki praise-poetry. And even current memes are overlooked. I had a nice laugh when I saw the Sony PS3 Kevin Butler spot: “You can’t believe everything you read on
the Internet, otherwise I’d be a Nigerian millionaire by now.” Unfortunately, the ministry did not find it as funny, petitions were written, Sony apologized and pulled the ad worldwide. The same thing almost happened with the movie District 9. We constantly refuse to write our stories, and then we scream when others do it for us.
L.A.: Who are the targets for the ads you create? Who do you advertise to? A minority of the population in Nigeria?
Abolaji Alausa: As the brief demands. A few campaigns are just for Lagos, while
most are nationwide. In which case, sev-eral translations have to be done. Or we just run with pidgin, which cuts across the 250-plus ethnic groups.
L.A.: Would you say there is a big difference in advertising to people in your country? In Brazil, for example, there was for a long time (or still is) a high illiteracy rate among the population. This forced Brazilian advertising to appeal primarily through visuals, which led to lots of brilliant no-copy work from there, which then, I believe, influenced advertising worldwide.
Abolaji Alausa: I gleefully await such a transformation. A recent UN report puts our overall literacy at 61.3% against Brazil’s 88.6%. So all hands must be on deck to ensure this happens. In the Ark, we always strive to strip down to the barest, and we get away with it with clients like Indomie. There’s a Pepper Chicken campaign we’ve been running for a while now with just the chili cleverly used. As long as we give the logo the agreed prominence, they welcome visual ideas. Unfortunately, most brand managers see white space as a waste of money, so even when agencies manage to employ that iconic visual, it is lost amidst the starbursts, bullet points, and a myriad of social media icons and links.
L.A.: Who are some of the people in advertising you admire most?
Abolaji Alausa: For shops: Barton F. Graf 9000, New York; Duval Guillaume Modem, Antwerp; King James, Cape Town; Black Rivers FC, Johannesburg, to name a few. By default, I respect most of the big names, but the people I really admire are the guys who dared the same kind of odds we are facing right now and have triumphed. They inspire me. Karpat Polat and Ali Bati for Turkey, Ali Ali and Maged Nassar for Egypt.
L.A.: How do you get the inspiration for your work?
Abolaji Alausa: Since we can’t all bring our muses to work, and have to crank out the ideas within the four corners of the office, over and over again, inspiration in the general artistic sense of the word carries little weight. One has to be driven. Be driven enough to rise above the frequent rejections and do it all over again. I don’t pace, I don’t see any light bulbs, I just get whoever is in the room, which in most cases is Yemi Arawore, my associate, and I start talking. And in the course of that, we often stumble on the right question. Pop culture, entertainment, literature, the arts all play a significant role, of course; it refreshes the well, allusions get easier. However, I must say there have been moments outside of work where it all suddenly aligns and I have to scribble in the little book quickly or make a note on the phone; now that I can’t explain. Scott Belsky and Jonah Lehrer tried shedding some light on that in their books.
L.A.: What about digital work? Has that become as important in West Africa as it has in technologically more advanced countries?
Abolaji Alausa: It’s gaining some traction. For starters, most brands now have one form of social media engagement or the other. There are a few multimedia shops that have made the digital transition. I don’t have the figures, but our computer and mobile usage is equally high, so that tells me we are poised for it. In Noah’s Ark, we have a digital team that integrates most of our traditional campaigns. But my sincere opinion is, let West Africa show-case amazing work in print, radio and TV first. The case videos can come later.
L.A.: Can you describe what an average day in your agency looks like?
Abolaji Alausa: Energetic. The team is young and driven; they completely get what’s at stake. Sessions are held on most briefs in the early hours, then the teams break away to flesh out synopses and comps. By midday, the suits are breathing down my neck as is customary. But they’re nice about it ... nice-ish. Evenings are for reviews. We all see what we have, and most times we’re dissatisfied so we give it a little more push. Meanwhile Lanre Adisa is on the phone, if he missed the session, and his final question is always: “Is it good enough to get into Archive?” My doors are open 24/7 for proactive ideas.
L.A.: What are some of your (and Noah’s Ark’s) future projects and aims?
Abolaji Alausa: Our aim is to put a permanent dot for West Africa on the Gunn Report. Cheesy pun intended. And build formidable brands while we’re at it. There are talks about an African image bank, a forum, a proper ad school, a form of portfolio night, a creative directors club, I’ll stop here. It’s obvious we’re a bunch of dreamers, but we’ve managed to join the conversation, though; we have to remain smart in the room.
L.A.: What do you think of advertising awards? I know you’ve been to Cannes. How was that from your perspective? What struck you most about this experience?
Abolaji Alausa: My first time at Cannes was as a Young Lion. I won the local contest with my longtime writer partner, Babatunde Adebola (Thjnk, Hamburg). We were with DDB Lagos then and our aim was to bring glory home at all cost, but the boys from Ogilvy Mexico beat us to it. We were so
focused on our film project that we missed some seminars and award nights. Nevertheless, we saw for the first time how
truly big the business we are working in
is. The next time around, I ensured I had a full dose of the week, some disappointment about not being shortlisted, some joy at seeing the campaigns I was rooting for win. Advertising awards are extremely important. I hear a lot of jaded creatives and shops saying otherwise, only to realize they’ve won their fair share. You hear words like “Only the bottom line matters” around here. Our industry has been around for almost a century, so it’s fair to say the books haven’t been bad, but what about the shelves?
L.A.: I know you’re very much in the know about great advertising from all over. What were the campaigns in the past year that impressed you most and why?
Abolaji Alausa: Lots of campaigns. I will
mention a few. There’s a magical spot by McCann Oslo titled “Grandpa’s magic trick,” I think for Widerøe airlines. A beautifully shot, heartwarming piece in
a category replete with features and benefits. All the recent stuff Barton F. Graf 9000 has done for Ragu. I love the payoff: “A long day of childhood calls for America’s favorite pasta sauce.” BBH New York’s “Fear no Susan Glenn” for Axe for excellent writing and delivery – and, of course, “Dumb Ways to Die” by McCann Melbourne, for black humor.