Waxing in uncanny strength and boyish charm at 60, Kola Ayanwale, Group CEO of Centerspread Advertising, has conquered strong opposing forces to stamp his name in history books by creating one of Nigeria’s foremost advertising empires. In this interview with Ntia Usukuma and Lukmon Oloyede this tenacious adman takes the duo through the turns of a compelling narrative of how fate, hard work, sheer grit and grace conspired to inspire one of Nigeria’s biggest advertising stories ever told.
What is the secret of your vibrant health at age 60?
I am a very restless person, always on the move. For me, that’s a form of exercise. I think I am also lucky because God gave us stable health in
my family. I keep a healthy lifestyle; I don’t drink or smoke. I also do my medical checkup regularly.
Tell us about your early years, how did you get into advertising?
The story of my advertising career is basically the story of my life. I dabbled into advertising by chance. I left Ansar-Ud-Deen College in 1973 as a science student. For some reasons, I stopped to pursue a science programme. After doing my advanced level programme at home in seven months, I tried to get a clerical job the following year, but I was unable to get one because I came from a humble background and I knew nobody.
In March 1975, I got a job at National Supply Company. In those days as a Yoruba boy, your first salary will be distributed among families and neighbors. When my second salary came, I made up my mind to do A’ Levels in art subjects but this time, as an external candidate. Because I was bold and restless; I believed I was going to succeed. So I began to prepare for my ‘A’ levels in April and I wrote the exams in November. Then I enrolled
with Exam Success Correspondence College in Palmgroove. In those days, you were required to read these books, post back the work you did through postal service while they assess your work and guide you.
By 1976, I was afraid I was going to fail the exams. So I didn’t apply for university or degree exams. So I visited one of my friends at Isolo who insisted I proceed to procure the form. Later, the young man took me to the admissions office of the University of Ibadan. That’s how I was admitted. I initially wanted to study Sociology or Political Science but at that time, Obasanjo was in government and the standards had been lowered. That also played out in my favour because I got a D which my friend felt was fantastic, judging by the way I did the exam.
So I was admitted to study History and I didn’t want the course. I wondered how to explain my course of study to my illiterate father. After his persuasion, I accepted the admission, with the hope that I would switch to my preferred course after the first year. I equally took a number of Social Science courses. At the end of the academic year, I did quite well in all. That propelled me to meet the Head of Department of Sociology, Professor E.O. Imuaghene. He turned down my request on the ground that my A’ Level result wasn’t good enough. He even scolded me to go study Islamic Studies or Agriculture.
It was embarrassing. The experience really discouraged me. But it made me challenge myself that I will go back to History and make great success out of it. I also began to think of various professions associated with my course. I thought about purchasing and supply, personnel management and so on. But deep down, my confidence was shaky. I asked myself how many organizations had all these portfolios in their corporate structure. And I was also skeptical of ending up with a career where my progress will be limited. By the time I proceeded for National Youth Service in Benue State, I had made
up my mind to do marketing. As providence would have it, I met a guy named Gift Okoro who studied Marketing at Federal Polytechnic, Auchi. So he knew exactly what it entails to succeed at the game. He asked me to do a programme called Communication, Advertising and Marketing (CAM).
I bought the form and registered for the programme by post. By the time the results were released, I passed extremely well. I had four distinctions out of six subjects. As a youth corps member, I got a job in Ogun State Ministry of Information. So I had to relocate. I later came to Lagos during the era of Lateef Jakande. Then he had just embarked on his mass literacy campaign. Fortunately for me, I got a job and since they assumed I had not worked before, they backdated my employment for three months. As a young man, I had three-month salaries in my hands. After three months, I walked into a graphics advertising firm and once I showed my certificate, I was employed as Account Executive. I was there for three months. By January, I had moved to Campaign Services to become Client Service Manager. And after 20 months of doing that, Centrespread started. It was incorporated in
Looking at Centrespread as a group, what were the challenges then? And there is this perception that it’s losing its steam?
Well, I don’t think the story of successful companies is different from the story of successful people. They started in small ways. They don’t run. Most of them crawl, walk before they run or stand. I’m not sure I know what they call business plan or strategic planning. I just started on a blank slate. Just like a baby, I had to learn how to crawl, stand, walk and run, all on my own. But we enjoyed the grace of God. We also had this youthful exuberance. We were just nobody and so we were not afraid to fail. What we didn’t lose sight of was the lesson we got from our experiences.
We kept faith with our vision. And I have to say to any young man: you may not achieve anything meaningful in life if you wait for the perfect time to start a business. You have to be ready to withstand the shockwaves, the twists and turns of the business life.
Do you have mentors or heroes? How did they impact the growth of Centrespread?
While I was young, I had accomplished figures I looked up to. Even though I didn’t work directly under them, but I learnt from them so I feel they trained me. The likes of Olu Falomo, Owoborode, Akin Odunsi, Bio- And I have to say to any young man: you may not achieve anything meaningful
in life if you wait for the perfect time to start a business.
You have to be ready to withstand the shockwaves, the twists and turns of the business life.Biodun Shobanjo, Mark Oviaghele and Umoemeke were great minds that helped in shaping my knowledge of the industry. As we were running Centrespread, we were learning and at the same time, making horrible mistakes. While in University of Ibadan, we had this never-say-die philosophy. Till today, nothing frightens me. If you say it’s over for me, well that is your opinion. For me, it’s natural to fall. Companies rise and fall. We started in December 1982. By 1989, we had crept to top ten unknowingly. I mean we took the industry by storm. At that time, we had the accounts of John Holts, Grand Oak, ARCO, General Motors, UTC Group, a couple of brands in IDL and many others. And then we shot our first commercials. We didn’t plan it, it just happened.
You might wonder what we did to arrive here. We did what others are not doing. The very first day we hit a record hundred million naira budget, I looked at the industry for direction. My eyes caught Mr. Steve Omojiafor and I invited him to my office. I knew I could tap from his wealth of experience. When he came, I said, “When you made your first N100 million mark, what did you do? He divulged quite a lot of valuable information to me. I learnt every company must work with an eye for the future. The day you begin to think that you have arrived, that’s the day you start to crash, and this is quite common among today’s generation.
By the turn of the century, specifically in 2001, we had moved to be among the top three companies in the industry. And because of our humble beginning and the understanding that we needed to learn a few things, we were very quiet. Sometimes we would do a job and we won’t put our name, and clients will take our jobs and win awards. We did Skye Bank’s “I wish” advert which won Advert of the Year award. But the award was given to Skye Bank.
At a point in 2009, I felt I needed to go into the background. Then the recession was really biting hard. Aside the fact that I was wrong in my decision, the timing was also not right. And in fairness to my team, the environment was too tough for them. They felt that the overhead was quite heavy and they needed to relieve the system. And so, I had to come back and continue the job after two or three years of leaving them. It was at that point they won Etisalat account. I never stepped my foot there.
When I got back, we had to remove some squabbles. There is no way we could come out in 2011/2012 to say we are this and that. A lot of things had to be rebuilt and checked. And when you begin to make progress, it doesn’t also show immediately. I guess the return of Skye Bank account came as a shock to most people. A lot was written about the Skye Bank deal. But I want to categorically tell you today that at no point in time were we fired by Skye Bank.
I also remembered when we went for Airtel account. I was part of the team that delivered our pitch at Airtel. Immediately we stepped out of Airtel, I congratulated my team because I was impressed by their presentation and I was so sure that we had the account. In principle, those times you didn’t see our ads in the media were times of reconstructing, rebuilding and repositioning and now we are taking our rightful place again. So by the time I will be leaving this time around, I will leave the company better and stronger than the last time, having learnt from our past mistakes.
It gets to a point that you review a business, you check your business goals and expectation and you study your clients and you feel that certain things are not aligning and adding up and you don’t want to wait until you are disgraced before stepping out. Though, some people were not pleased that I decided to take a bow. But I am always very conscious of my decisions.
From your experience what are the most relevant ingredients in building a successful company?
We have a company here called Interactive Communication Team. The first MD was an Indian who, having seen money, abandoned the company and went to India to marry. And we had to refund some of the money we had collected from clients. I quickly flew to South Africa to see if another person will come run the business. They didn’t want to come. I was in my bedroom one day, my daughter, a Senior Account Executive in the agency, walked in. She said, “Dad, I can do this job you’ve been scouting for someone else to do.” I doubted her. So I came to the office and discussed the issue with my colleagues. This was five years ago. Since there was nobody that could do the job, I told her to go ahead with the job if she was convinced. Though I was skeptical, I asked her to resume as acting Managing Director.
She started with assembling the best team. You see, people are very key. The quality of your staff can determine whether you will be successful or not. At inception, we focused more on the skills as opposed to other things. And these days, skill is 40% of the overall efficiency log. As an entrepreneur, you must know yourself. You must know the business. And you must determine the key success factors required.
How do you manage a situation where a strategic person wants to leave the company?
You have to believe in your guts. At inception, I didn’t have a particular staff or client in mind. So, a staff departure should not determine the continuity or liquidation of the company. Like I usually tell them here, the same brain that was used to employ them will be deployed again to replace anyone who chooses to leave. For us, culture is everything. A key culture at Centrespread is hard work. I am yet to know of agencies who commit huge financial resources to get accounts like we do. I am not talking about bribery. We could go abroad to get resources for pitches if we feel such resources are important.
Looking at the dexterity of Centrespread with seven blossoming subsidiaries, what guided your decision to venture into all these?
The very first subsidiary company that we formed was in 1992. A few of them collapsed, one survived. Contact Points was formed in 1992. The current Media Mall was formed as a result of the knowledge of the trends. Don’t forget I was already talking to international agencies as far back as 1992 which led us to formalizing the already drafted FCB in 1997. Of course, I knew the trends globally. There was much to pick from Biodun Shobanjo; he’s to advertising what Sunny Ade is to music. I am a good observer of successful people, and I try to replicate what they do.
But the case of DKK was also very instructive. Back then in 1997, we had two car companies, two or three fast-food companies and two insurance companies. For a long time, we were the one responsible for Royal Exchange Assurance, and then African Alliance came. At that point in time, we were running Kia, a car company. GL was with us too. So, naturally I did not have any other choice but to create another agency instead of passing the accounts to other people.
You have been there for a long time. How would you describe advertising in Nigeria and how the industry has evolved over the years?
If we are to judge by the quality of the works we do now, I will say we have made tremendous progress. We had iconic adverts in those days. But more has been done compared to what obtained then. Generally, global development and technological advancement have altered the game, resulting in great progress. But in terms of industry practice, I wish we were still doing it the way it was done in those days. I wish we still abide by the professional ethics we saw in those days. So all these splits CSR, Public Relations, Media, and others were all within the agency.
They can still do it within the agency. So the breakdown has led to the proliferation of services within the agency. And today I am afraid the worst loser is the Above-the-Line aspect of it. Clients these days are even pegging what agencies even charge them for commercials no matter the elements in the commercial. Some don’t even want to pay for creative work at all. They assume that because they had listened to you, they have done you a favour. That’s why many clients don’t put their agencies on retainership and this is the reason why a lot of agencies are in comatose now. The big names we used to know are dying, so the practice has fallen. As for the solution, it’s the government that can save us either by empowering us further with APCON decree or by legislating on issues of fees.
For instance, in Brazil something like that is done; a client cannot short-change any agency.
What led to your decision to walk away from your affiliation? And what will you advise agencies on affiliation?
Really, an agency can be successful without international affiliation but I don’t think you can be big without affiliation. Because what do we produce in Africa that we can be in control of? Most of these big brands come to Africa with their agency. So for my advice, seeking fan affiliation is like when you are seeking a wife. Agencies looking for affiliation just need to know what they are capable of doing, have a clear vision and then seek a partner that can fit into their vision. But when you realize your growth is not aligning then you can step out of it.
Why are Nigerian creative agencies not shining at the biggest advertising awards?
Nigerian creative industry is very dynamic and creative. Many creative works that win awards are always driven by ideas and technology. We have a lot of ideas but we do not have efficient technology yet. Also, the regional differences are a factor. What a white man looks at to judge a good ad is sometimes different to what an African or anybody from any other region of the world might be looking for. If our ads sell our clients products,
you cannot say the ads are not creative. However, we are still far behind the Europeans.
The African market is just emerging and just few markets can be pointed at for now. What can we do to perform well at international awards?
Firstly, we don’t prepare well enough most times. Secondly, which institution in Nigeria produces advertising graduates? How many people working in the industry today have BSc, BA, MA, MSA or MBA in advertising? For example, one of my daughters has her first degree in adverting in the US and second degree in advertising in the UK. When she was preparing for her exam, it was a live brief that Coca-Cola presented to her department to go and work on.
We are not preparing our staff. Lot of people study Mass Communications but advertising is just a module in the programme. One cannot compare
someone who had gone to South Africa or Europe to study advertising for 3 or 4 years with our mass communications here. So we shouldn’t expect fantastic results without going back to the basics.
What are your plans for Centrespread and where do you see the agency in the next 10 years?
As for my role, my plan is to be in the background. I’ll be playing advisory role to those that will be taking charge of the company’s future. My dream is that I want the company to rise back to the level it was before within the next five years. To also keep that vision on and to ensure that the future generations build on it and have their dream.
What is your idea of the ideal Nigerian agency of the future?
The agency of the future will be managed by brilliant people. People coming into the industry will also need to have passion for the job. If not, they will come to make the money and when they are not making enough they will just leave. So, passion and the ability to take available chances are key.
How do you spend your leisure time?
Well, most times my kids believe I don’t rest. I ensure I don’t bring work home. I spend time with my family. I enjoy parties.
Do you believe that the position of a Minister of Information should be for someone within the IMC industry?
Yes. The purpose of Minister of Information is to sell the policies of government. Media people are to inform. An advertising person knows how to inform and also appeal to the audience. Our government must agree that there is need to improve on our communication.