Everyone thought I’ll fail – Udeme Ufot, SO&U boss
BY FEYI BANKOLE
Remember that popular Guinness TV commercial “My friend Udeme is a great man”? Until I spent over an hour with this innovative middle-aged man who actually produced that ad, I couldn’t grasp why he had to adjudge ‘Udeme’ great. Mr.Udeme Ufot is the Group Managing Director of SO&U, one of Nigeria’s most influential advertising agencies, affiliated to Saatchi & Saatchi, a global advertising agency. ‘A great seat!’, you might exclaim, but believe me, that isn’t the reason our friend Udeme is a “great man”. In 1990, Udeme Ufot had resigned his rewarding employment with a foremost advertising firm, Insight Communications, and had ventured into private practice relying solely on his creativity and dynamism, knowing well that the field was highly manipulated by the “bigger and older practitioners”. He seemed too brave and almost everyone thought it won’t be long before he crumbled, but it’s over 23 years on and Udeme Ufot is still making great strides in the world of advertising, even to the extent of winning the Fate Model Entrepreneur Award 2012. We had an inspiring session with him in Lagos.
When 23 years ago he became restless about venturing into private practice, Udeme Ufot did not have the ideal prerequisites for setting up an advertising firm. But today, Udeme is a great man. He had studied industrial design and specialised in graphic design at the Ahmadu Bello University where he graduated and then worked for several years with Insight Communications as a creative artist. That knowledge was of course not enough to run a successful advertising business considering the presence of people who had perhaps studied advertising and managed frontline seats in the industry. “What a disadvantage!, one would ordinarily think. But Udeme was smart and decided to rely on the main substance visible in advertising- creativity, and within 18 months, the agency was named the most creative in the country.
“Getting started was not easy. We had a bunch of very green, naïve young people. SO&U is an acronym for Gbemi Sajay, Julia Oko and Ufot. We used to be among the backroom guys who get things done in the advertising industry. I have a creative background, Sagay was an art director and Oko was a copywriter. So, in the first instance, setting out to establish such business was an anomaly in the industry. This made people laugh at us. But what have seen us through are resilience, determination and focus. We said to ourselves that we’ll go by a very simple strategy- nobody can deny seeing a good thing when he or she has seen it. What was important to us was to ensure that we very quickly make a mark in our calling”, Udeme reveals.
“Therefore, we agreed that any work we found to do, we must do it differently and well. We rendered outstanding services above what we were paid for! We put our people through intensive training, and we virtually turned the agency into a school. We gradually turned our entire agency into an environment for continuous improvement and learning”.
Gift of creativity
Udeme didn’t just stumble into the creative world of advertising- he had dreamed of it as a teenager! He co-incidentally discovered he had the skills and made conscious efforts towards improvement. Being the son of the Registrar of the University of Calabar at that time, he had access to the university library and read voraciously. While studying a journal on advertising and marketing one day though he had wanted to be a political scientist, he came across an illustration of an impressive looking fellow, and the caption under that illustration read: “A Trendy Art Director”. Immediately, Udeme fell in love with the art director and his work and began dreaming and working towards becoming one someday. That was between 1975 and 76.
He adds: “What helped me was that I was talented creatively. Right from my primary school, I could draw very well, I could act in plays and I was very good in literature. In fact, when I sat back and analysed myself, I saw that I had the relevant skills. That’s why I always tell people that it is easier to succeed when you’re doing what you enjoy doing”.
Between passion and success
To Udeme, the relevance of passion to success was invaluable. Having been in business for 23 years, and with a clientele comprising conglomerates and the banking sector, you cannot but wonder how he became one of the few doyens of the industry. “Passion makes the difference! It drives everything. It’s one thing to have the talent and resources, but you must have the drive, and that drive comes from the passion to succeed. Because we had nothing when we set up SO&U, everyone told me and my team we’ll fail.
For the first six months, we couldn’t afford a telephone in the agency, not even curtains. The first furniture we had was my dining table in my own house. We all sat round that table to do our work! The first furniture in my office as MD was a sofa I brought from my house. I didn’t have a worktable, so, I would write my notes on my thighs. Of course, these lacks aren’t the things that will make one fail, unlike what many think. I believe it’s about knowing what you lack and being able to improvise. But when you have the passion and drive to succeed, nothing can stop you. That passion drove us and every income we made, we invested in ourselves to acquire knowledge and upgrade our skills. We invested in our business too to furnish the office, buy computers and make ourselves more efficient because we had the vision of where we were taking our agency. If you lack passion, you’ll sit back and lament about what you don’t have: ‘I don’t have a godfather, I don’t have money, I can’t find clients because I’ve not worked with clients before…’, but when you’re being fired up by passion, nothing will stop you”.
True to his word, not even financial constraints could make him jettison his aspiration of going into private practice 23 years ago. “This company was started with N60,000 of my life savings in 1990”, Udeme was quick to add. He had started the business in the guestroom of his house, and when in the third month he found an office in Apapa that would cost him a hundred thousand naira rent, not even his age-long bank was willing to loan him N60,000 to augment what he had. A childhood friend came to his rescue and in less than two years after SO&U took off, because he had become influential in the industry, a delegation from the same bank came to woo him to bank with them!
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