Running a successful business in Nigeria: My experience



WHAT is Success? Many people situate Success within the ambit of an impressive balance sheet. Most dictionaries describe “Success” as a noun, and the accomplishment of an aim or purpose. For many, the end accomplishment is measured in currency or material terms. For others, the objective of the successful project or venture is not about money; sometimes it’s about power, fame, support for others etc.

So for Prima Garnet, and for me what are the success factors?
The idea to set up Prima Garnet Communications came to me sometime in 1990 when I was the Client Service and Media Director in Promoserve, now defunct. While I was professionally doing okay at a relatively young age, I had some differences with the management on certain aspects of the company’s operations. Coming from a much bigger Lintas, and having been exposed to other big and thriving agencies, I felt Promoserve was not doing certain things the way I expected, and if we continued this way, we were not likely to achieve the objective for which I had been brought in as part of a rescue and turn around team. It was sometimes tough trying to get the senior team we met on the ground to yield position on many of these issues, although we did make progress on some critical ones.

So why did I quit the agency after three years, thirty four days after my thirty third birthday, nearly two years after my wedding, and just when I was beginning to enter what you would call a comfort zone? Was it an ambition to run my own agency and be like the late I.S. Moemeke, Biodun Shobanjo, Billy Lawson, Udeme Ufot etc.? Was it to make more money? Was it to enjoy the perceived fame attached to the titles MD and CEO?
It was none of these. All I wanted at that point was to actualise my conviction of running a type of agency built on integrity and professionalism. I had reached a stage in Promoserve where the tension was often thick and senior management did not agree with me if I as an ED insisted we could not do certain things. Indeed it got so bad that at a point, the board quietly hired someone to supplant me. My portfolio was divided and a part given to him; the plan was to eventually exit me if he stayed long enough. Incidentally just before he resumed, I got to know about the coup, as the new fellow out of loyalty to our old friendship told me why he was being brought in. And so you can understand why at some point, I grew tired of the shenanigan and decided to opt out.

And so back to my definition of success. My objective in setting up Prima Garnet was not primarily about money, fame etc.; but to actualise the dream of running a professional outfit built on integrity. Of course it was hard to sell this to the potential shareholders of Prima Garnet, otherwise they would have told me to go set up a church; in fact for a long time, I could not publicly mention this raison d’etre because it didn’t sound like a business proposition.

And so for us at Prima Garnet, while we wanted to be successful professionally, the key motivator was and still remains conducting our business with the utmost integrity and probity adhering to the highest standards of ethics and just conduct.

What did we have to do to ensure we started out correctly and also run successfully? I must be clear in stating that some of the things I will be talking about are general in application; meaning they will work with most other businesses. On the other hand, some other points are local to the marketing and service trades.

Clear Vision and Objective
The first success factor for us was a clear vision and objective. From the very beginning we knew what we wanted to do and why we wanted to do them. What I mean is we were not and have never been solely motivated to start and continue in the running of the agency and its affiliate companies because we saw that others were doing well in the same business.

I had had a fairly meritorious rise in Lintas. I joined as a management trainee on the first of September 1982 at age 23, and by the end of February 1988 when I left, I was a senior manager, having received three promotions and citations within the period of five and a half years. Again, moving to Promoserve was not about money; the difference in what they offered and what I earned in Lintas was not enough to make me move; I moved because of the exciting prospect of being a major part of a Turn Around Team.

Our vision in Prima Garnet was specific: run a very professional and successful agency founded and inspired by strong ethical standards. And from the very first day, with the very first staff, and up till today, it remains a cardinal point in all our companies. We are firm believers in the fact that while cutting corners and engaging in sharp and unethical practices will provide their rewards, the commitment to an ethical and professional way of doing business will support us better in the long run. While many deals-making clients will often go after deals-making agencies, we know that those who come to us do so simply because they believe in our professional capability. Of course this has meant a continuous investment in our service delivery capabilities. I will say a little more on this later.

A Proper Board & Management Structure

This talks about leadership, the commitment and continuity of some individuals to lead and coordinate the enterprise. Within all serious organisations, there is a dominant leader who helps coordinate the enterprise and enables those involved to develop and function through the many stages of development required for success.

Leaders or coordinators need to be able to work among all sectors (or types of partners) from understanding the business aspects to building support at all levels, and managing all issues. They also must need to have a keen understanding of cross-sectoral issues and constant attention to securing patronage for the business.

Being able to deal with various situations is an important part of leadership. The ability to weave through bureaucracy, work with different interest groups to enable the success of the business within all these is a major asset. While a good leader is important, spreading these skills and responsibilities among those involved with the enterprise is also key to a long-term sustainability, should there be and when there is a change in leadership.

From the very first day we had a proper board of directors appointed from our shareholders. These are people of proven integrity and sound professionalism; they were carefully chosen. They are also experienced board players who have been in a position to guide and offer leadership to our young team. Why did I need them, as many start-ups see a board especially of external people as a threat? One, I believed it was the right thing to do, given our vision to run a first class company. I also believed that the Board would offer very useful leadership given the experience of the first set of directors. I didn’t see them as a threat because I knew that for as long as I did what was necessary, then there should not be any serious issues. I must add though that about six years or so into operation, shareholders removed three of the directors from the Board for reasons I cannot mention at this forum.

Executive/Management Groups
I also rapidly put strong Executive and Management structures in place. These were needful so I would have the benefit of shared responsibilities. I also needed to prepare our young team for the challenges ahead. The Executive Committee is made up of executive and business directors, the two most senior management categories in the company. They interpret policies and come up with ideas for running the company; and because some of them sit on the company’s board, help implement board decisions. Our Management Committee is made up of departmental heads. The role of the committee is to present a formal forum where issues from departmental and operational perspectives are discussed. The committee presents the company the opportunity for a wider participative forum, and grooms younger managers for more senior responsibilities.

Advertising is a very global business built on best practices. It is also an intensely professional trade. Which is why some of us are often amused when people retire from jobs as journalists, PR practitioners, marketing and brands people on the client side, and simply set up ad agencies; nine out of ten of such ventures don’t survive. The casualty rate is high because the advertising profession is very demanding, is intensive and very tough.

Our first task was to assemble some of the finest practitioners after a thorough recruitment process. While we started with about fifteen management staff, I recall that each one was a thorough professional. We then invested substantially in hardware. For this I must thank my friend and successor as the APCON Chairman, Udeme Ufot, who opened up his young SO&U to me, as I inspected the tools they had in place. I went to Udeme because I was inspired by the brilliant work the young SO&U was doing.

We also put in place a clear training and development programme on three levels. One is through internal programmes when we invite experienced professionals on a wide range of disciplines to speak to us via a monthly in-house programme. Second level is sending our staff for local training programmes and the third is sending them for offshore training programmes. We also installed a well-equipped library. We put all these in place because the greatest assets of any agency are the people. While manufacturers can depend on their machines, our people are our machines; computers and other tools simply offer support.

Just so we can maintain standards, we have in place a well-structured system that vets all jobs for adherence to briefs and to detect errors. I must say it with some pride that I cannot remember any job that went out with typo, grammar or any type of errors. Our system operates in such a way that someone will pick it up.

I should also add that from our very first year, we ordered for and regularly subscribed to TV ads from the UK. These were often delivered to us quarterly. By viewing them, our people had the opportunity to keep abreast of global creative developments and trends.
Indeed, so integrated have we been in the area of professionalism that some clients use our staff as temporary replacements when their people go on leave or even resign.

We started PG in 1992 with a war chest of N600, 000, from an authorised capital of N2m. While these sums may sound small today, they were substantial in those days. From the paid up of N600, 000, we rented and renovated a good place in Ilupeju, ordered all furniture, acquired all equipment and even leased a brand new 504 vehicle. We didn’t want a situation where our competitiveness would be affected by inadequate capital. I must say though that after we paid the second month’s salary, all we had left before the next payday was a princely N2, 000!
I have seen agencies and businesses started on shoestring budgets; while there is no guarantee that plenty of money translates into success, it certainly helps to be well capitalised as it makes the task easier, reduces stress and generally improves competitiveness.

I had a choice of borrowing to start the business but did not have enough faith to do this in case the business developed hiccups; it would mean being indebted. Plus I didn’t have the kind of collateral that banks wanted anyway; I also didn’t want to borrow from individuals. The other option was to offer shares of the company and fortunately this was well subscribed. God was also gracious to us that we broke even in six months and by the first year paid dividend from our profit.

• Mr. Akinwunmi, Group CEO, Prima Garnet Africa, Immediate Past Chairman of APCON, Pioneer Secretary/ CEO of the Nigerian Rebranding Project and Past President of the Association of Advertising Agencies of Nigeria (AAAN) presented this paper at the fourth yearly “Yes International!” lecture series, recently in Lagos.

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