West Africa, and most particularly Lagos, Nigeria have, over the past 10 years or so, become a creative hub that stands out in terms of creative advertising. The leading agency in all of this is, without any shadow of a doubt, Noah’s Ark.
A ten-year ride of risks and thrills.
Six years ago, Michael Weinzettl interviewed Abolaji Alausa, its Executive Creative Director and one of the major driving forces in creative advertising made in West Africa. For this issue, he decided to shine a light on the man who founded the agency, Lanre Adisa, Founder MD/Chief Creative Officer at Noah’s Ark Communications.
Hello, Lanre. In 2012 you became the first Nigerian creative director to be featured in Lürzer’s Archive, but the industry itself had been around since the 1950s. What took Nigeria so long?
Advertising in Nigeria is actually 90 years old this year. It started with an agency called West African Publicity in 1928, which later became Lintas West Africa. It will interest you to know that advertising in Nigeria and India started the same year. We both know how both countries have travelled. For me, the question of where we belong in the world has always agitated my mind. It’s one big reason why I founded Noah’s Ark.
What was advertising in Nigeria like before people such as yourself and Abolaji Alausa came along?
Lintas back then was an outpost of Lever Brothers, today’s Unilever. The scene at that time was dominated by expats with a mix of local hands coming mainly from the world of broadcasting. At some point, there was an indigenization policy that gave the reins of power of most businesses to Nigerians. This meant the exodus of most of the expats. The scene was known for very memorable locally resonant radio owing to the broadcasting background of the first generation of local creatives. Fast-forward to the nineties and early 2000s: We saw a frenzy of affiliations with international networks, which also meant the hiring of foreign CDs by a couple of these agencies. One missing thing in all of these phases of the growth of our industry was the absence of any discernible collective ambition to compete with the world.
It was all transactional and driven by a yearning for big billings and opportunities. The other big reason was the fact that most of the agencies were founded and run by suits. Unlike what we have now, only one or two agencies were founded by creatives.
You started out with MC&A: Saatchi & Saatchi in 1990. What was the advertising landscape in Nigeria like back then?
It was a very competitive period. I couldn’t have chosen a better place to start my career. I joined MC&A: Saatchi & Saatchi some few months after it opened for business. The Saatchis’ mantra then was “Nothing is Impossible.” That was the same spirit that pervaded the agency in Lagos. The Saatchis were at the cusp of their golden era and we saw ourselves as bona fide members of the family. We were the new kids on the block in Nigeria. We did some fantastic work and, I must say, we were a little smug about it. At that time, there was a couple of other agency startups and there was some dose of healthy rivalry between MC&A and SO&U, which ironically took over the Saatchi & Saatchi affiliation some years down the line. There was also LTC, which was later affiliated to JWT, and Prima Garnet that also got affiliated to Ogilvy a few years later.
What were your early influences? Apart from international affiliations and best practices, were there local icons you looked up to?
Until the day I walked into MC&A in the summer of 1990 and got offered a job as a trainee copywriter by the CD, Jimi Bankole, I knew next to nothing about the world of advertising. All I wanted to do after leaving the university was to write. So I’ll trace my early influences to my creative writing classes under the tutelage of David Cook, the same professor that taught the great Kenyan writer, Ngugi wa Thiong’o in Makerere University. I was, and still am, in love with great fiction. I love the art of the short story and wrote some myself. I was enthralled by the great writers of the Heinemann African Writers Series, especially Chinua Achebe. James Baldwin was a great influence in my early writing years. I was also into acting in school. The theatre taught me a big lesson about the importance of the audience. Coming to advertising, my first creative director, Jimi Bankole, was a great influence. I consider him to be one of the unsung legends of our industry. My growth as a copywriter was shaped greatly by the brilliant art directors I partnered with over time. Paris Agaro from my MC&A days, Tunde Ogunlaiye, who was my CD and partner at Insight Grey, and Tunde Soyinka, who was my partner for a long time at Insight. They taught me to think beyond the copy. They gave me a more holistic perspective, which has shaped me into who I am today. There was also Ted Mukoro, a veteran of the old Lintas fame. I never worked with him, but we became friends at some point in my career. His timeless radio spots were really inspiring.
On the international scene, I found David Abbott and John Hegarty very inspiring. When I first attended the Cannes festival in 2004, Piyush Pandey was on the jury, and listening to his Indian experience stoked a special interest in me as regards how India was able to evolve into a respectable industry through the power of locally resonant work that also packed a global appeal.
Africa at large is known for folktales passed down through oral tradition for centuries. Do any of these influence what you do? Would this oral tradition come in handy for the storytelling aspect that’s been all the rage in the ad business in recent years?
You’re right. Oral tradition plays a big role in our art and history. With the rapid urbanization spreading across Africa, the form and shape of oral tradition is equally evolving. We can see how this has influenced pop culture, especially music and other forms of entertainment. It will interest you to know that the Nigerian film industry, otherwise known as Nollywood, is the second largest film industry in the world after Bollywood in terms of output. Beyond that is the reach of the films. They are well loved across Africa, the diaspora, and the Caribbean. And it’s all down to the storytelling. Some of the work we’ve been creating for some of our clients of late are showing us that tapping into this storytelling format with local relevance is the way to engage our audience. We see more people appreciating the work beyond just advertising. It’s being consumed and appreciated like any other content.
Please tell us about your Insight Grey days.
I joined Insight Grey in 1997. Back then, Insight Grey and MC&A: Saatchi & Saatchi belonged to the same local holding company, Troyka Holdings. So, in a way, it was some sort of homecoming for me. It was the biggest agency in Nigeria, and it gave me the opportunity to work on some of the biggest brands around. It also gave me the platform to grow my creative leadership. I was given joint responsibility for the creative department, reporting to the expat ECD. I had a six-year exciting partnership with Tunde Soyinka, my art director partner, and we created some great campaigns for brands like Indomie Noodles, Legend stout, and Gulder beer.
As for the time in which creative directors in Nigeria were still expatriates, how do you think that affected the stories told?
Bringing in the expat CDs did help in shoring up the craft to some degree. However, it didn’t have any significant impact on the body of work. When I joined TBWA\Concept in 2003, I was the only Nigerian CD in all the major agencies in the country. The rest were expats. Our work always won at the local award shows for their local relevance and the sense of identity they elicited in our audience.
I heard that you’re called the Jingle Master in your agency, having written music for memorable campaigns for many years. Can you share a few that stood out? Have you tried to use your musical composition talent in other fields than advertising?
To start with, I dislike jingles. The simple reason being that they are too commonplace in our industry. It’s the easiest and laziest option for any brand, especially on radio. So whenever I had to do one, I would go out of my way to make it stand out; it had to be something I would enjoy and find memorable if I were to put myself in the place of my audience. Some of the ones that have remained timeless are Peak Milk’s Generation to Generation and Indomie Noodles’ Mama Do Good among others. I remember the last time I met with one of Nigeria’s celebrity producers, Cobhams Asuquo, he was surprised to learn that I did the Peak Generation jingle. He asked me the same question about pursuing a career in songwriting. Unfortunately, I’ve not done anything with music outside of advertising. But I’m an ardent music enthusiast and won’t rule out the possibility of venturing in that direction at some point.
Can you share with us some of your work that you are proudest of?
I’ve had the privilege of working on what you could consider the biggest noodles brand in Africa, Indomie Noodles, at three different agencies for close to two decades. In all three agencies – Insight Grey, TBWA\Concept, and Noah’s Ark – I’ve been privileged to create work that have been reference points in our industry. I’m equally proud of the work we did for MTN when I was in TBWA\Concept. I’m no less proud of the work for Virgin Atlantic and Virgin Nigeria. At Noah’s Ark, I’m very proud of our Three Crowns Milk work, which has transformed the fortunes of the brand significantly. I’ll say the same for our Airtel work. Not only has it shot up the brand across different parameters – it has also made it a benchmark in the telco category and beyond.
Why did you leave TBWA to start Noah’s Ark in 2008?
Let me say this for the record: I cherish my time at TBWA. I had to unlearn a whole lot of stuff. I embraced the disruption discipline wholeheartedly. It was a completely different atmosphere from my Insight Grey days. Despite all of this, I felt like our industry could do with more competition. I felt that we could broaden our horizon beyond our local industry. I was also consumed with a longing to do something my generation could be proud of. I thought if I did it right, I could inspire other creatives and start a new movement of sorts.
You are the first creative director to have started an agency in the country, correct? What challenges did you encounter early on and how did you surmount them?
I was clueless about running a business. The agency started on a shoestring budget with no account. In addition to playing CD, I had to wear so many other hats. But it was a thrilling experience. I couldn’t afford to employ very senior hands. I resorted to grooming the young talents I could afford. In the second year of our operation, we won the Indomie Noodles account and that gave us the opportunity to create work that attracted more clients and talent. Over time, I was able to pass on some of the roles I had played at the beginning to other people.
Why the name Noah’s Ark? Who came up with it?
When I decided to start the agency, I wanted it to be different in every respect. I didn’t want my name on the door. I wanted something that felt and sounded organic, something that could be a great conversation starter. On the creative shop floors where I’d spent all my career, we took pride in calling ourselves creative animals. So, on the one hand, the name Noah’s Ark is the safe haven for all creative animals. For clients on the other hand, Noah’s Ark is metaphorically the place that saves their brands from drowning in the storm of sameness that rules most categories. When you join the agency newly, we’ll ask you what animal you are on the Ark. That animal becomes your avatar and we illustrate that avatar at the back of your call card. Everyone gets a customized card.
Please describe your agency’s culture.
Being Noah’s Ark, we are all creative animals. Over time, we’ve coined the term “arknimals” to describe ourselves. We have a very free and flat structure that allows for every arknimal to express their thoughts and contribute to shaping the Noah’s Ark culture. Outside of the agency’s management, the team appoints a captain from the shop floor to coordinate the social life of the agency. On a quarterly basis, the captain calls for a State of the Ark gathering where everyone is free to express their thoughts on life in the Ark. They can commend what they like and rant on any issue that may be bothering them. This is a very vital part of our life. it gives us a sense of belonging and ownership. It is this same free spirit that permeates our work culture. We put a lot of premium on knowledge. Knowledge sharing is highly encouraged. Every Friday morning, we hold a one-hour session called the Arknowledge, our own TED Talk, where any member of our team or an external resource can talk about any topic for one hour. Knowing that it’s tough to find good talent, we are also starting our training program called Animal Farm in which we plan to start grooming the next generation of creative animals. Our ambition is that it evolves into an ad school in the nearest future.
What sort of affiliation do you have with Dentsu Aegis Network?
Essentially, we are an independent agency. What we have with Dentsu Aegis Network is a technical affiliation. It gives us a window to broaden our horizon. We have always seen ourselves as competing with the world. It allows for business referrals and opportunities to collaborate with talents across the network, especially in the sub-Saharan Africa subregion.
I’ve read that a little over 50 per cent of Nigeria’s population is Muslim, 40 per cent are Christians, and ten per cent adhere to local religions. How do you – as an ad creative – deal with this, and what are the challenges and consequences posed by consumers with such a diverse religious make-up?
Nigeria is a nation of multiple cultures and religions. Over 200 languages in all, and a population that is projected to hit 200 million this year. In other words, it is a complex place to navigate. Like you find around the world today, issues of religion and cultural identity are getting more sensitive. With most major campaigns, these sensitivities determine our strategies. We’ll often have one overarching idea, but we execute differently in certain regions to accommodate the sensitivities. The trick is in doing that and ensuring the work is unexpected and relevant.
Ten years of Noah’s Ark. How has it been and how do you see the next ten?
For me, it’s been a ten-year ride of risks and thrills. I’m excited by the brand we’ve built for ourselves in Nigeria and across the continent these past ten years. Most especially, I’m thrilled by the fact that our coming on the scene has inspired a couple of new-generation agencies to come up and create a more competitive space. For the future, our task is to build the Noah’s Ark brand into an iconic entity that can travel and truly compete across the globe.
I see you have a few other companies in the group. What is informing this integration?
Yes, you’re right. We started out with Noah’s Ark as our flagship. Over time, depending on emerging needs from our clients and the environment, we’ve added some subsidiaries. We have Integrated Indigo for PR, Underdog Productions for content and audiovisual productions, and Red Wolf for digital. This easily allows for convergence and makes our offerings to clients a lot richer. In the case of Underdog, for instance, the aim is not just to limit ourselves to advertising, but to play in Nigeria’s growing film/content industry. Our mantra is that we go wherever the idea takes us. With this group of companies, we can boldly go anywhere.
What are some of the major changes Nigerian advertising has gone through since you first started?
One significant development is the emergence of a new generation that is more world-savvy and creative-inclined. Unlike before, now you’ll find our young creatives in some of the best advertising schools in the world. More Nigerian agencies are participating in international awards across the continent and beyond. One other big change is the liberalization of content. Now, you don’t have to be in the ad world to create content. In this new age of social media influencers and content creators, the traditional agency has to deal with a new species of competitors. To be successful today, you have to be dynamic across the board.
How important are awards in and for Nigeria?
Very important. We’ve kept the local award, Lagos Advertising & Ideas Festival (LAIF), going for over twelve years. It’s been gaining more respect and strength year-on-year. Like I stated earlier, the international awards – Cannes Lions, African Cristals, Loeries, Dubai Lynx, and Epica – are all gaining more patronage. Winning not only boosts an agency’s profile, it’s also playing a big role in being considered for pitches or outright client engagements.
You were also the first Nigerian judge at Cannes Lions. How was that? Can you tell us a bit about your experience?
For me, that was a great honor. I was a member of the Brand Experience & Activation Shortlist Lions jury. That was a first big step for us as an industry. It perhaps also speaks to what’s changing about our industry. There was something reassuring about seeing and judging brilliant pieces of work from around the world. It reassures you that this industry still has a lot going for it, that brilliant work doesn’t know any boundaries. Later at Cannes, I was invited to judge Young Lions. That further reassured me that our industry has a great future.
There’s a lot of noise about shrinking margins as consultants take over on the global stage. Is it the same for Nigeria? How does the future look?
The story is not so different here. The degree may not be the same as what you have in the western world. We know that the consultancies are adding creative competencies to their offering here as well. The truth is our business is being threatened on different fronts. Despite all of this, this new age presents the biggest opportunities for us to stretch our imagination. To be better at what we do. There’s a lot we need to rethink for us to make the most of what’s to come. One thing is for sure: the future is filled with exciting opportunities