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Advertising can thrive again after the downturn caused by economic recession — Emokpae

By Princewill Ekwujuru

Mr. Erhabor Emokpae, the Executive Chairman of Lowe Lintas, will be 60 on April 4. In this interview, Emokpai speaks on issues in the advertising industry.


How do you see the advertising industry today?

Speaking about the advertising industry in general, I would say these are not its best days.   We had some good times, unfortunately that is in the past now.   It is my hope that those good times will come back, because advertising is the life blood of any economy. It is very close to the whole consumer space as you know. It is very close to flow of money. Now, some of the reasons are not far-fetched. In fact, the immediate challenge has been the recession that we entered into not so long ago. Technically, we are out of it, but, practically, the effects of that recession are still around. Naturally, therefore,   advertising budgets are usually the first to go when there are hard times; and as you well observed, a lot of empty billboards are everywhere, although that may be as a result of other factors. Those who are advertising are advertising heavily and those who are not advertising are not. But the bulk of advertising budgets are perhaps on big sponsorship items which are concentrated in a few hands, and, again, advertisers, who can afford regardless of the economic situation, continue to advertise; not that they are many; so there is dearth in that regard which may also be contributing. In terms of the more remote causes, I would like to suggest that problems started a long time ago and the result today is that advertising, as a profession, is not very well respected by clients. Technology has not helped because everybody kind of feel they can do advertising. It is unfortunate. You do not go to see a doctor and tell him of his prescription for you. If you go to the operating theatre and a surgeon is operating on you, you allow him do his job, but our business is one where it is a collaborative business; so you have to discuss with your client and reach your solutions together. Unfortunately through a combination of poor remuneration, poor compensation to agencies declining over the years, the client has become more or less superior in many ways to agencies in terms of their personnel, exposure and training. So we are no longer seen as the experts in whom the client may repose total confidence; that is basically the background to what I think is happening to our industry today.

You said technology has not helped. Another school of thought believes technology has helped tremendously. Are you saying technology has not contributed in any way to the growth of the ad industry in Nigeria?

It has contributed tremendously, but then it is a bit of a double edge sword. Take journalism for example, it is your profession and technology has helped you people greatly in the way you research, prepare your stories. Even as you are here now, you can write you story and send it to your office; it helps in that way. But then you are also challenged by the fact that every man and his dog can now be journalists, that is what I meant by technology has not helped. Technology empowers by its very nature; if it empowers narrowly, it empowers that group. But if it empowers broadly, it can challenge any previous seeming monopoly on particular field of expertise, that is what I meant by that. For example, while in the past if you wanted to do decent presentation, you needed to be an agency or have those tools etc., now, tools are available everywhere such that if you are not careful, you go for a presentation to a client, his own response may be better than yours, that is what I meant by challenge of technology, but that is not a very big aspect of it. The bigger problem perhaps stems from technology. It is fragmentation, the agency business used to be a very straight forward model. It was a one-stop shop, for all your needs, your marketing communications needs and your agency was your expert that brought it together. But with fragmentation and increased specialisation, you have one party doing activation, another doing digital, somebody else doing public relations.   In fact media and creative work which used to be a key area has been split; if you prepare the work, somebody else places it. So the synergy that once existed because it was coordinated by one brand custodian is longer there, which means that the rich revenue that once attended to a brand within a specific point has been split, and intellectual property is something that is not always easily valued. It seems to come out of thin air, but you forget that resources go into making that intellectual capacity available to you, to generate those solutions. It’s not often regarded, somebody may bid far more easily for concrete or titrate, tangible things that they can see, there are quantities involved, you know the price and there is no discussion, but when it comes to intellectual property, how about cutting it by half or how about paying you per hour, so compensation suffers so badly in that area. And if you are not compensated, how you are going to keep up resources to possibly generate those wonderful durable ideas that keep brands going?

You talked about intellectual property. Do you have patent rights to the jobs you do?   

No. By the nature of our business we do not own creative output, it is bought by clients. Centrally, the only ownership we have in the hands of the client might be a model or celebrity, so they licence the rights for a limited period after which you may longer use that material. But in terms of the agency owning intellectual property, no, it’s not a major part of our model.

Foreign agency incursion, what is your take on that? 

My view may not necessarily be a popular one, but I have always believed that playing in the international space, you are playing in a space where there is competition of ideas, and ideas are subjective. You can always measure the quality of tangible goods vis a vis the import and decide, but when it comes to ideas, there are a number of factors in selecting agencies from abroad. Sometimes people feel they do not have that sharp edge that you see with global advertising. To be honest, we are not always able to raise that level in our industry because, as a culture, we tend to be very amenable to cutting corners.

We do not always go for the best at any cost; we go for what is just enough often times. We are not encouraged to be daring and that may lead to the perception that ‘agencies here cannot give me what I want’ and some people go hunting outside and the danger of that is that agencies from abroad lack the cultural nuance required to make advertising relevant; so it is a dilemma trying to choose between the two. My answer would be that our agencies should be going back to the issue of respect if we are respected a little more, and we are a little confident in pushing our ideas and also a little more adventurous rather than just getting past what we think client wants, how about pushing a little bit. So if we are able to do that, and up the quality bar I think that will take us a lot nearer where we do not have to talk about made in Nigeria or not made in Nigeria, it’s just evident. There are many brands today in Nigeria today, especially the banking industry that do not lack for quality in terms of comparison to their international counterparts and they are home grown. I think much of that is probably done to throw a challenge to us in the industry, to raise our quality bar so that if you are good enough and really no concession problem we will have less people going abroad. The regulation of outdoor space by the Lagos Signage and Advertising Agency, LASA, was potentially a welcomed development. There were teething problems but I think those are well behind us. I think the phenomenon of empty boards may in fact have more to do with the huge demand that became apparent for outdoor advertising over the years; it became a more favoured part of the media spectrum because of power issues.   When consumers tune to a broadcast station, consumers may not receive signals because they have no light.   Overtime advertisers realised that it is more cost effective to shift to outdoor which, of course, led to an increase in demand and therefore to increased pricing. When LASSA came and started to regulate, outdoor advertising went up in terms of cost and dominated ad budget, particularly in Lagos. And it was only a matter of time before it became maybe not cost effective. Look at the Light Emitting Diode, LED, billboard which cost hundreds of billions when they first started, that is also coming down a little bit. So with the advent of technology and advent of digital advertising, the reach is far better and the cost far lower; so many factors account for the vacant billboards.

There is dearth of creative personnel in the ad industry. What is your company doing in this respect?   

The biggest challenge in our industry is finding good creative and has always been the case. But it is not because we lack creative people in Nigeria. Nigerians are very creative. So it is a matter of people who are creative not choosing the advertising industry. It used to be a very glamorous industry, not so much anymore; and there are so many more outlets for creativity now. So it’s now competition for the creative minds that exist. They are better remunerated in other industries than in the ad industry. Nollywood is about creativity, our music, fashion, these are all creative outlets. The few in our industry get poached; so if you lucky to have them, you have to nurture them and it is not always easy.

What do you think the industry should do?   

I think the celebration of creativity via the Lagos Idea and Advertising Festival, LAIF, is a big step in that direction. Introduced by Eyi Odigbo when he was President of Association of Advertising Agencies of Nigeria, AAAN, it has gone on celebrating creativity. The industry is also trying to address the issue of training. AAAN has established an academy and a few other individuals have also done the same.

I think overall the industry will find and train people to the world class level. But it will be a bit of challenge as advertising is not as lucrative as it was before.



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