Why Robyn de Villiers is passionate about communication, Africa



The Chairman and CEO for
Burson-Marsteller Africa, Robyn de Villiers, in this chat with GBENGA SALAU spoke on the recent partnership between Burson Marsteller Africa and CMC Connect Nigeria among other issues. Excerpts:

YOUR passion for communication, how did it evolve?

I have been in the communication industry for about 30 years now, worked as head of communication in a bank in South Africa and left in 1989 to start my own business, Arcay Communications.

We started working in Africa in early 1990s. My first work in Africa was in Nigeria; we worked during the Africa Head of States Summit. We had a South African team but worked with local people. And I learnt a lesson from there that local people know how the communication industry works in the local market better. The second job was with Multichoice, during the launch of DStv.

For me, it is a very long time in the industry and long time in Africa. If I have to say what I am passionate about, I am passionate about effective communication and Africa.

What informed your leaving banking job to start a business of your own?

It was because I had a baby. In the corporate position that I held, I did a lot of travels, locally and oversea. And when I had my baby, I decided I did not want to do that for a few years, so, I left working in corporate position and started my own business so that I could spend more time with my child.

So what is the state of Arcay Communications?

I owned 100 percent of the shares when I started the Arcay Communications. But in South Africa, we have what we called the Black Economic Empowerment Legislation that advises company to give a certain percentage of the company to be owned by previously disadvantaged South Africans. And it is for any colour other than white people to be shareholders in businesses. So I did a share transaction that involved a group of black shareholders to own 26 percent of the company and there were outside investors. But in 2011, I sold 51 percent of my shares to Burson-Marsteller, which is one of the biggest and oldest global public relations company.

We have partnered on affiliate basis since 2007, looking at the clients exclusively in South Africa and across Africa. But in 2010, they approached me if I would be interested in selling off the shares in the business to them. We negotiated for a very long time, from the beginning of 2010 and we finally concluded the transaction in 2011 and I sold 51 percent of the shares that I own to them. I still own 20 percent and I think that is very important because I am an entrepreneur. I think it is a progression process over time to get working with the big corporate and I think it is good to continue to own your own share so that you do not loose that entrepreneurial spirit.

What is your experience in Nigeria?

Nigeria is very interesting because it is different from other countries. I have been to many other countries in Africa, about 20 to 30, Nigerians have got a lot of energy and lot of things happening here. And I think Nigeria is a microcosm of the whole continent, with a lot of challenges and opportunities.

What is the relationship between your organization and CMC Connect?

Ours is a strategy across the whole of Africa. This is not a new relationship with CMC connect, we have had a relationship for 8 years, we have been working together for a long time. Just as Arcay Communications became an affiliate to Burson Marsteller and then we sold equity to Burson Marsteller, we have a strategy of becoming closer and closer to our affiliates across Africa. CMC connect has been an affiliate of ours for a very long time and the process we are taking now is that we are giving CMC connect a partnership which allows them to have the Marsteller brand, which is a very big decision to make.

This is because Burson Marsteller brand is a brand that has been brought up for over 63 years, millions of millions of dollars had been spent building a global brand that is highly regarded all around the world. And we have to ensure that we are going to give our partners opportunity to have the Burson Marstella brand, so this is recognition for CMC Connect as an agency of sophistication, hardwork, good work and people and that is one of the reasons we entrusted them with the Marsteller brand.

Affiliate with other agencies across Africa

It has been excellent. I think we are the only PR agency that is working in Africa that has been in the business for such a long time. It is more than 20 years now working in Africa. The other competitors that are building their networks across Africa have worked not more than five or 10 years, and it was when Africa became popular. But we have been in Africa for a longer time. We realized the opportunities in Africa a long time ago. Our relationship with CMC Connect started about 8 years ago but some of our other relationships date back over 16 years ago.

The vision of your agency

The vision is to stay as the strongest PR network across Africa, and we are ready. Right now, we are geographically the strongest because we work in 53 countries on the continent. We have very strong relationship with agencies across Africa. We have over 500 people doing PR across Africa, looking after our clients and I think that has made us the strongest. And our vision is to remain strong; better and better in the work we do all the time. And that would mean learning more about how to do the work in Africa but also by getting all the benefits that we can get out of the global public relations network that is in Marsteller, where they are, the expertise all over the world that we could have access to every day.

CMC Connect has its own plan, all our agencies are locally owned and run businesses that are successful in their own right and that is important to us. We are not bringing in Burson Marsteller blue print and tell people how to do it. We want to get local insight that is what our clients’ need. It is to have good, strong local agencies that brings good, strong connectivity and local impact. That is very important. This is because to be successful in the world today, you need to be able to be global and local at the same time. We want strength in both areas.

Burson Marsteller brings global strength and CMC Connect brings local strength and that is the important combination that clients are looking for. And we have worked for many years with many different clients. And the model is not to take over the business of the local clients; the model is to grow the expertise of the team using the Burson Marsteller tools, training, expertise and access to experts around the world.
On claim that foreign agencies are just out to exploit local agencies…

This is not a new connection with CMC Connect, we have already been partners with CMC Connect for eight years and we have already worked together on clients. And our model is to get local connection to benefit the clients; we do not get information from CMC Connect and do the work from a different place. We believe in local connectivity and insight because we know from doing the work for over 20 years that is what works best.

Every country in Africa is different and every country in Africa works differently from a communication point of view and that is why we have good people like CMC Connect to advise us and to advise our clients and how the effort is going to work best in the local market. We do not exploit local partners.

Marrying values of the partners

We do not impose our brand values because we are not buying those companies; we are specifically leaving them as local entrepreneurs. But we integrate their thinking and our thinking together, and our values are things that we already know working with CMC Connect. Our value is the partnership approach to everything we do, partnership with our affiliate, clients, media and suppliers. We do everything with the partnership approach.

We also do everything strategically motivated, as we only make recommendations to clients. Burson Marsteller believes in evidence based, which is evidence based on research, delivering more than what others will deliver. We believe in Burson Marsteller being committed to be more, and that is a very important thing to us, so that our clients are in the position to do better than clients that do not use our services.

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