Akinwunmi…toast to the advertising guru at 60

Managing Director, Prima Garnet Africa, Mr. Lolu Akinwunmi

His 60th birthday got the Internet buzzing last week, as friends, colleagues and family members took to social media to shower encomiums on Lolu Akinwunmi, advertising guru and Group CEO, Prima Garnet, a Lagos-based world-class advertising and marketing communication group. High-point of the celebration was on Thursday, September 27, when Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo led other eminent Nigerians and marketing professionals to attend the launching of a book by Akinwunmi titled Skin for Skin: The Prima Garnet Story. The event also witnessed the formal unveiling of the Lolu Akinwunmi Family Foundation, a platform created by the family of the ace advertising practitioner to give back to the society.

Done with the razzmatazz, The Guardian reached out to Akinwunmi for an interview appointment, which he granted. The original plan was to hook up with him at the Polo Club, Ikoyi, before he jets out to the United Kingdom, but somehow, there was a change of plan. The appointment was moved to Prima Garnet’s office in GRA, Ikeja, Lagos, at 12noon and being a public holiday, it was hitch-free. Few minutes to time, Akinwumi wheeled into the premises in a black Toyota Land Cruiser with a special plate number that tells you the man has, indeed, arrived. Few minutes later, we were seated face-to-face.

Forget his imposing frame, soft-spoken Akinwunmi is easy going; you could tell from his demeanour. Notwithstanding, you can’t miss his brilliance; it’s boldly written on his forehead.Casually dressed in jeans and shirt, you could tell that Akinwunmi was yet to get over the whole birthday celebration. However, to the CEO of Prima Garnet, nothing really has changed at 60.

“Physically, I don’t feel any different from when I was 59; it was just a transition of one day to the other. In my mind, I don’t feel any difference either. But when I feel it is when my friends are talking, ‘hey, Lolu you are 60.’ But I can’t feel anything in particular that says, ‘yes, I’m 60.’ In fact, all the normal things I used to do, I’m still doing,” he enthused.

For a man, who prefers taking the backseat, while pushing brands to the fore, the outpouring tributes and encomiums that greeted his 60th birthday, was so overwhelming.“You know, when I was APCON Chairman, there was a whole lot of media attention because of the reforms we were working on; some people were pushing back on the reform because some foreign agencies didn’t like them. Then, we were also in court with our foreign partners, so, there was a whole lot of media activities around me, much of it which I didn’t like because I wasn’t used to it. So, when my tenure in APCON ended, I said, ‘thank God,’ and I have enjoyed that peace of mind since 2015. And then this one,” he said.

A memoir of Akinwunmi’s professional career in marketing communications from 1982 when he was hired as a trainee executive by Lintas, Nigeria’s foremost indigenous advertising agency, Skin for Skin: The Prima Garnet Story wasn’t originally planned for his 60th birthday. “I planned to release this book five or six years ago, but I had to put it on hold because we were in court with Ogilvy and a whole lot of stuff in the book reflects issues between the two of us. There was a court injunction then, so we couldn’t publish. I had no idea that it’s going to create so much noise. Sometime, I need to pinch myself, ‘is all of these so real?’ I think I’m learning to take it all in,” he said.

As successful as his career is today, Akinwunmi never set out to practice advertising. By the time he was leaving the University of Lagos up till when he did his National Youth Service in present day Ebonyi State, his plan was to pursue an MBA at the City University Business School in England. “I was already making plans to obtain the form, I actually traveled after youth service and part of the reason was to check out the school and then come back to Nigeria and go back for the MBA. But by the time I came back on holiday, I lost interest; all I just wanted to do was work.”

Though he didn’t know much about advertising until his third year, by the time he left the university, advertising became an option. “As God would have it, a gentleman called Mr. Wellington Badmos linked me to Lintas; he’s late now. I went through the long interview process that lasted for 12 months; there were about 56 of us, but about four of us were employed. So, that’s how I got into advertising in 1982; I finished Youth Service in 1981,” he quipped.

From the way he spoke about his days as a corps member in Izaa, Ebonyi State, you could tell that the advertising guru had a well time in the east. “My Igbo friends used to feel sorry for me that, ‘what are you doing in Izaa?’ But I had a fantastic time there because they put us in the Local Council office; the natives were absolutely fantastic. Though the small village didn’t have light, we had light; we had a generator. In fact, I will tell you the honest truth, after Youth Service, I stayed for a while in Enugu trying to get a job to remain in the east,” he recalled.

On his attraction to southeast, he explained, “I was made to feel so much at home either in Izaa and in Enugu; it was just amazing the kind of chemistry between Igbo people and I; we connected very well. The only thing I couldn’t do was to speak the language, but I had to leave when it became obvious that the job wasn’t coming.”Upon his return to Lagos, young Akinwunmi had applied for job is different organisations but nothing came out. Finally, Lintas came knocking.

“That’s why the only thing I’ve ever done in my life in terms of career is adverting; I got into the sector in 1982 and here I am today, I’m still in it,” he enthused.A very big advertising company with nearly 180 staff, Akinwunmi’s first major task with Lintas was the launch of SWAN table water. “It was a very small account,” he noted. “Lintas was too big, so, they probably gave it to me the most junior executive in the group to handle. I remember traveling to Kerang in Jos for the launch of the product because SWAN was bottled in the Kerang Hill. So, that was the first brand I worked on alone; I launched it. And it’s amazing then that 1.5 liter bottle was just 75 kobo at that time.”

Years after, Akinwunmi still has emotional connection with the brand.“Sure, when I see a bottle of SWAN, it triggers something off, but it’s been such a long time; 1982 till now. But I always feel that kind of connection to it. I think it has been bought over by UAC now,” he said. Having worked with Lintas for six years, he moved to Promoserve Grey as Executive Director, Clients Service & Media and in 1992, Lolu took the bull by the horn to start his own company, Prima Garnet Communications.

“I was working in a very big agency, Lintas; there was no motivation for me to leave Lintas. I joined Lintas in 1982 and by the time I was leaving in 1987, I had done one year as a trainee and I had received three promotions, so, I moved very quickly at Lintas. Again, Lintas had also sent me for the Unilever African Marketing Course, the most senior marketing course in Africa. So, there was no motivation for me to leave, I wasn’t thinking of leaving; I was head-hunted by Promoserve. It was strange to me but I spoke to them because the then MD had worked with Lintas. Though I didn’t take the offer serious, I later accepted it and spent a little over three years there before starting Prima Garnet.”

He continued: “Even when I joined Promoserve, I didn’t have any idea of starting an agency because I was trained as a technocrat. I was literarily pushed into starting an agency because there were situations I didn’t agree with. And instead of remaining in Promoserve quarrelling, disagreeing and fighting, I just said, ‘look, why don’t I just leave and go and practice what I truly believe.’ But in terms of job satisfaction, I was happy in Promoserve; I was a director at the age of 29. There was nothing truly that was missing even in matters of ambition. I was the only one heading two departments; I was Media Director and Client Service Director. I was also a member of the board at 29; Promoserve was not a small agency.”

Though not married at the time, getting the consent of his fiancée, who he eventually married, to resign from his job was not a big deal.“The issues were integrity related and she totally supported me, though there was no job waiting when I resigned then. She didn’t have a problem; she was a Youth Corps member with BAGCO at the time. But Promoserve persuaded me not to go, so, we got married that same year. By 1992, when I resigned finally, we set up Prima Garnet.” He continued: “She knows I’m not a reckless person; she knows I will not take decisions without thinking it through. If it was all about money, bigger agencies than Promoserve had talked to me and I declined; it wasn’t about money at all. Our thinking was the same on all the decisions because I always consulted her; there were no disagreements on any of those decisions at all,” he said.

Setting up Prima Garnet provided Akinwunmi the opportunity to practice advertising in line with his principles as a Christian.“Of course, if I left for that reason (I didn’t agree with succumbing to bribery request from clients), it will be a major issue here and I can tell you without fear of contradiction that this agency, we don’t’ give bribe; we don’t do it at all. We are not angels, but we endeavour to do this business in the best Christian tradition; we are conscious of the responsibility. You suffer for it at times, but sometimes, it works for you. People will tell you, ‘if you want to do that, go and start a church.’ Because the business itself globally is run on sleaze and things like this, some people even dislike you totally.”

He continued: “It is to God’s glory that since 1992, we have survived without doing it. We have of course suffered some casualty, but over all, we have every reason to thank God. From one agency- Prima Garnet, we set up 141 Worldwide, we set up other subsidiaries and they are doing reasonably well. So, we don’t have anything to regret; if we have opportunity, we will do the same thing again,” he declared.

Looking back to when Prima Garnet was just a dream to the point when the dream materialised, Akinwunmi is, indeed, grateful to God. “I had time to plan properly. I didn’t say because God has given me the vision, I will start running; I put the vision on one side to continue to motivate. All of the things that we needed to do, we had proper plan in place; we didn’t move a step until everything was ready. Everything that needed to be done as a business that we expected to prosper, we did. The only thing I didn’t do was soliciting or taking business from where I was working. I didn’t even tell them I was leaving so that my former employers would not accuse me that I stole their business. I simply resigned and I left. Though one or two of them came to meet us eventually, but I never solicited anything from them,” he noted.

For Akinwunmi, starting a business requires vision and proper planning. “I’ve had reasons to speak to a lot of potential entrepreneurs and one thing you find funny missing is there’s no vision. They see you, you are into manufacturing; you are doing very well. They had no idea how you got there; they had no idea the challenges you had to manage, capital issues, staff issue, competition issues, marketing issues…they just say, ‘that thing has to be good.’ So, they are not vision-driven; they are only driven by success of others. It may not be bad, but to me, the most critical thing for anyone going into any form of business, it’s going to be vision driven.”

Though money is important in business, Akinwunmi places vision ahead of money.“Unfortunately, many people will tell you, ‘ah, I would have succeeded in this business but I didn’t have money,’ and I always laugh. We didn’t have money when we started; money is not the first instrument to think of. If it was money, then people will not have N10 million, more than enough capital, at the end of the year, the business would have died. And yet somebody would have N100, 000, at the end of the year, the business would have multiplied. Money is good because the bible said, ‘money answereth all things,’ but money has to drive something. Otherwise, just put it in a bank and be collecting fixed interest.”

He continued: “When that vision is right, even when there’s no money, if the vision is strong, then it won’t perish. If it was just about money, there are people whose parents were stupendously rich and they passed the riches to the children, who didn’t know the vision. Transition from one generation to other, there will be nothing left again. But when the vision is strong, it will survive the most compelling challenges because you are seeing the picture that nobody else sees.”

Talking about challenges in business, Akinwunmi has seen it all. In fact, there was a time Prima Garnet couldn’t pay staff salary for years.“Prima Garnet was unique because we started in January 1992, by six months, we had broken even. At the end of that year, we declared a profit; it was uncommon. In one year, we had become the agency that was paying the highest salary in the entire industry. Suddenly, we ran into bad waters. We had a staff number about a little over a hundred; they reduced to about 30 because we couldn’t pay salaries for nearly two years. Even when we began to pay, it wasn’t regular.”

Though the agency was struggling, 141 Worldwide, a sister company, was doing very well in the industry.“I told my people that we would not go and take salary from 141; if we couldn’t do it to make Prima Garnet survive, then let it die. So, we never took salary from 141. Then we went through the crisis and overcame at the end of 2016. We struggled and got back into 2017 and things began to get better. We won some key accounts and by the middle of 2017, we were back fully.”

The dark days of Prima Garnet was as a result of a dispute between the organisation and its international partners.“Our foreign partners then attacked us at our weakest point; the account that provided nearly 70 per cent of our income, they took away suddenly. It was a vindictive move on their side. And looking back now, I always wonder, what was the cause of the trouble? They owned 14 per cent of our shares and they wanted to increase that to 51 per cent majority and we said ‘no’, that was it. They threatened us that if we didn’t sell the 51 per cent to them, they will do this; they will do that. They went ahead and carried out their threat; it affected us. But God helped us, we overcame our problems and we are back,” he recalled.

Though a major crises that shook the organization to the roots, the Prima Garnet/Ogilvy long litigation was a huge lesson for Akinwumi.“It taught me a whole lot of lessons; it was the first time in my professional career that I was facing that kind of crisis. I worked with Lintas, it was big; everything worked well. I got into Promoserve when they had a problem, but within six moths, the problems were over. Prima Garnet was too good; it was a dream place and then that happened. But maybe one of the things that strengthen me was that we knew why it was happening.”

He continued: “Staff needs to take money home; I needed to take money home. School fees, house rent… so many thing that money does. So, the staff started resigning one at a time, but I understood why they had to resign; there was no malice, it was a matter of survival. I knew I couldn’t leave; I mean I couldn’t go and take employment in any other place. But I knew we were going to survive it; I had not doubt. But when it was coming, I didn’t know,” he said.

However, despite the obvious hard times, some Prima Garnet staff stayed all through the tough period, working without salaries.“Though they were not paid, they remained here. Two of three of them that got offers, but they didn’t go; they are still here.Asked how he feels about those staff members, he said, “Gratitude for their faith in the system and their faith in me. Even if they didn’t go to work somewhere else, they could have gone to start trading and whatever they needed to do. One or two of them, their fate that was even almost stronger than my own; it was juts amazing. But there’s a spiritual depth to it. When God want to help you, He’s going to send people to you. So, those were helpers that He sent to me, who stood by when all the problems were there. We learned a lot from it and today, we are stronger and wiser; there were decision we took then that we would never take again.”Now 60, Akinwunmi is bent on taking the company to the next level.

As a result of his passion for transformational change in Nigeria, Lolu was appointed in 2009 by the then Honourable Minister of Information & Communications, Prof. Dora Akunyili as Pioneer CEO, Nigerian Rebranding Project Business Support Group (RPBSG) – Office of the Federal Minister of Information & Telecommunications. He was also appointed by President Jonathan on September 27, 2010, as the current Chairman of the Advertising Practitioners Council of Nigeria, APCON, the Parastatal under the Ministry of Information, charged with the responsibility of supervising and managing the advertising practice in Nigeria in all its ramifications.

“By the time I was appointed APCON chairman, the first thing I did was to review APCON laws; there were lots of loopholes. Anybody from any country would just come to Nigeria and open shop and you couldn’t do that in other countries; they will not allow you. In Ghana, Kenya, India… you would have to go through a regulator and here was a regulator with loopholes. So, the first thing we did was to tighten the loopholes and we came up with APCON Fifth Code, which was presented to President Jonathan. Before then, there had been four codes.”Though many alleged the code was targeted at foreigners, Akinwunmi explained that the APCON Fifth Code affects every practitioner local or international who is operating in Nigeria.

“There was a lot of propaganda to discredit us. I mean, no doctor comes from anywhere to practice medicine here; you have to go through the medical council. As a lawyer, you have to go through the legal council; the same thing with engineers. So, for advertising, you have to go through the advertising council; that was all we tried to do. But prior to then, it had been easy, so, they pushed back,” he noted.Notwithstanding obvious resistance, Akinwunmi and his team pushed on and eventually succeeded in getting government to sign the law.

“They reported me at the Presidency, they reported me to the Minister, they reported me at the Senate; I went to appear there. They reported me at the Nigerian Investment Promotion Commission… they reported me everywhere. And when I went there, I told them, ‘this is what we are doing.’ And they saw reasons with what we were doing; we were vindicated. It’s law now, it had been gazetted; it’s just waiting for us to have the next council in place so we implement everything.”

When he’s not working, Akinwunmi loves reading. “You know I also lecture at the Pan Atlantic University. I mean, if you are going to teach people, you have to be up-to-date yourself, so, I’m constantly updating myself. Also, I have about 16 book titles; this is just the first one. So, I like to keep mentally busy.”When it comes to social events, “I’m not too much of a social person, but you know in Lagos, you can’t run away from social events; I go when I can. The last time I went to a nightclub must be over 35 years ago. I’m a member of some clubs like Lagos Polo Club, Ikoyi Club, Boat Club, but most times, I’m at the Polo Club because the membership is small; we are just about 300. Ikoyi Club, too many people. Boat Club is too far from me, Apapa! I’m a very private person, though I’m in a profession that is public. I don’t like being idle; I like music as well,” he noted.

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