My Life —Biodun Shobanjo

My Life —Biodun Shobanjo

Tuesday, December 23, 2014 1:29 pm

Mr Biodun Shobanjo, founder, Insight Communications and Chairman of the Troyka Holdings (the umbrella company comprising Insight, The Quadrant Company, Optimum Exposure, Media Com, Media Perspective, SKG2, Halogen and others) is 70 years old. Here are excerpts of an interview he granted TheNEWS in 2010 when Insight marked its 30th anniversary

Was there anything in your school days at Odogbolu Grammar School that influenced your career choice – advertising?

Actually, my secondary school days prepared me for a career in Journalism, in the sense that I liked writing and all that. I had a teacher who had also picked up journalism, in what was known as the defunct Morning Post. So I went to this man, I think he was Features Editor, one Mr. Abiodun Oluyemi, and I said to him that I was contemplating going into journalism. He said: Yes, I know you write very well [but] don’t even dare it, because probably you will end up spending your time in jail. And I asked why? And he said: Because you are too frank, you are very factual and frank, maybe you are not diplomatic and it will end up giving you problems. That is why I didn’t pursue a career in journalism.

Way back in 1963, you were the head boy. Were there certain qualities or values that you imbibed that helped you in your career?

If you had to be the head boy at that time, it meant that you were the best in your set and you were also going to be entrusted with managing people, as it were. You had to look after every other student. If the authorities saw that I had that ability and quality at such a very young age, I suppose it is reasonable to say that was the part of the preparation for managing people. Maybe in a sense, there was a preparation for that, from school.



You started your working career at the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation in 1964, but you left in 1971 to join Grant Advertising. Why did you make this career switch from broadcast journalism to advertising?

I didn’t think that broadcasting would take me too far. I felt like there were opportunities in the career (advertising) that I wanted to pursue. I had also seen people who had moved from broadcasting to advertising anyway, and they were living it up as it were. That was enough motivation for me to venture and I think that decision was proven right.

At Grant, at the age of 31, you rose to become the Deputy Managing Director. What actually helped your meteoric rise?

First, I think one must give glory to God. I must have been doing things differently, and the ability to find the potentials in the individual. The managers of the business who were expatriates felt that I had the potential of being a leader and successful practitioner and they gave me the chance. Well, I may be wrong, but I can’t recall people who have moved at the kind of pace that I have moved. You can’t be catapulted from being just a Senior Executive to the board. It can’t happen. It can never happen again, but it happened. Maybe they took a chance on me and I ended up not disappointing anybody.

From an 18-member team you transformed the company into a big advertising agency. How did you achieve that feat?

Well, when we opened, we were 18, plus driver and cleaner. It didn’t happen overnight. People suddenly come on the horizon from nowhere and we celebrate them, we don’t ask questions – where are you coming from, what have you done, where is the track record? So we didn’t just become big. Insight is 30 years old in January. Yes, it’s been a long time coming. But we worked at it gradually, and we were growing and growing and today, from 18, if you look at all our companies, we have about 10,000 staff. It has taken 30 years. Sometimes people don’t know how big we are, but when you add our security company to it, which is Halogen, suddenly you have large numbers. I think we have tried in our own little way.

You said you felt you could do things differently. So how far in doing things differently did you go, because we can remember at a point there were grumbles against your entrepreneurial style in advertising. So, how far did you go in doing things differently that has made your group the success that it is now?

When I look back at all the kinds of bashings that I have received in my career, I just cannot but feel sorry for myself. This is because most of those bashings were totally unjustifiable. But I would take them in my stride and say, well, I am playing a leadership role within my own organisation. If we were growing at the kind of pace at which we were, it would be expected for people who didn’t quite understand to say, why are these guys doing these things? and begin to call us all kinds of names. So I took that in my stride. I was very focused and I didn’t allow that to distract me. By the time people realised it, if you talk to my junior colleagues in the profession today, they now rise up and fight for me, that they now understand what Mr. Shobanjo was doing. What name have I not been called? But here we are today, you know Insight by far remains the leading advertising company in Nigeria.

I left the place five years ago, all I was doing then was laying the foundation because if you want to build an institution, you have to lay a solid foundation for it. I was very focused in building that institution and here we are today, five years I left the place, but the place is running and growing in leaps and bounds. I understand they just did a life award last weekend, Insight carted literally three-quarters of the awards. What else does anyone ask for than to thank God?

In the development of the business of marketing communications and public relations in Africa, what are your selling points and how do you think Nigeria and Nigerians can benefit from your wealth of strategies and success?

First, I chose a profession that I was passionate about. I chose a profession that I thought I knew a bit about before. What I always say is that don’t venture into a business that you don’t understand. If I don’t understand a business, I will find people who really understand it. But I must be able to add value. Those are my principles. If you look at all the things we have done, apart from my security company, every other thing is into marketing communications. You won’t see me in oil and gas, you won’t see me in banking, you won’t find me in telecommunications, because I don’t understand them. But I understand marketing communications.

I have been in this business for 38 years. So I can claim to understand it. I have worked with some of the finest people internationally. I have had that privilege and I have learnt. So you can see the results in the kind of companies that we have built, the quality of people we have produced, those who are with us and those who have left who are members of our alumni. For me, the critical thing is education. If you don’t have knowledge about a business, you cannot excel. Don’t forget that I said we wanted to be different. How can you be different? It must mean that you are going to do things differently, your understanding of the interpretation of creativity must be different, you can’t continue to do things in the stereotyped way, you must throw them away. And from the kind of communication that we produce for clients over the years as we grow, you can see innovation in how we do it. Whether you like it or not, people see these. Remember Bank PHB communication, Gulder communication, people remember the launch of Globacom in this country. I can go on and on. We have a litany of examples that we can cite and what is different about those communications is because we did them differently and when you look at our business, they are all built on our ability to do things differently.

Look at our outdoor company, Optimum. They remain the most innovative outdoor company in Nigeria by the players in the industry. Take our media independent company, Media Perspectives and Media Court, they are leaders. You take our PR company, we are the first to set up a properly established Public Relations company. I can go on and on. It would sound like chest thumping but really they are the facts and it was because we said we would do things differently. I’m happy that other people are following in that kind of mode, because the more of such companies that we have at least in our own business area, the better the profession will be and then we can begin to earn the respect of those that we work for. I can tell you one thing. There is no client that we worked for that does not respect us, because they now see us as genuine partners. That was not the case in the past. There used to be a master-servant relationship and we said it could not be like that. What is it that we have to put on the table? We said knowledge. We have people who are knowledgeable; we were the first to have people who had doctorate degrees.

Today, we still have people with doctorate degrees working with us. We are talking about knowledge environment? We support ourselves with people who, in fact, are even more knowledgeable than some of us. That is the only way the enterprise can grow. If we understand that the only way you constantly grow an enterprise is by surrounding yourself with people who are even more knowledgeable than yourself, the better the enterprise will become.

Biodun Shobanjo is a brand. How was it built, what were the obstacles and how did you surmount them?

Everybody talks about this brand, brand, brand. It is very simple. I need to eat, I need to drink water, that is the way a brand is built. All of those things that have made me turn out to what I am today are things that I have done from, in fact, when I was in secondary school.

I told you of my teacher who said you can’t be a journalist. How did this man know, young as I was? He said, you this boy are too frank. I was reflecting on it a couple of days ago, how could Mr. Oluyemi have known that and that trait hasn’t changed in me till tomorrow? People will say to you: Look, Mr. Shobanjo cannot call a green colour any other name. It is green and I will tell it to your face that it is green; you may not like it but I would rather tell you the truth. When you ask from my colleagues or my friends, they know. That is part of the brand. They know that I am a stickler for time, they know that I perfect work. If we need to deliver work to a client, they know I would rather not go home until 2 am when I know the job is properly done. Everybody knows I am a stickler for high quality work. They know that I am a clean person. I like a clean environment. You can see my environment, it doesn’t matter where I am; even if it’s in a hut the environment must be clean. So people know that these are the things that have become part and parcel of me. If you see something different, then that is not Shobanjo that you are seeing. If I am wearing your kind of tie, know that it’s not Shobanjo you are seeing, if you saw me wearing a native dress here in the office, then it is not Shobanjo that you are seeing.

Talking about branding, some people believe that since authorities in brand building like you were not consulted in the rebranding efforts of the Federal Government, such will end in futility? What is your view?

I will not accept that. Who the hell am I? I don’t have to be a member. So far as government has been able to assemble the right team, they should be able to crack the problem. My experience is that––I’m talking 30 years now––when I go to meet a client who is not able to tell me what his problems are, what we have ended up doing more often than not is to find solutions that will not address the problem, because the client does not know the problem. You know, you go to a doctor and can’t tell him what is wrong with you, he might just be doing wrong diagnoses. But if you are able to describe properly what is wrong with you – you know, I have this constant headache and I can’t sleep at night and all that – then the doctor knows exactly what to do.

Talking about Nigeria, somebody is representing all of us as the client. That person, maybe the Minister of Information, whatever, that person must be able to articulate properly what he thinks the problems are. It is when he has been able to do that, that a team of professionals will then be able to say to him: Okay, in our understanding, this and this and this are what you say you are. From that perspective, we will sit and you will begin to compare it to maybe some of the other countries that are in that kind of league. So you say, where do you want to take your country to, how do you want your country to be seen, because it is an aspiration – all this rebranding thing is to make people see us in a good light. For example, if it is like South Africa or like America, you would be told these are the things you need to do and then they proffer all the solutions and then you begin to implement the solutions. Everytime I read the Minister [of Information, Professor Dora Akunyili] she would say, you know we don’t have money to run this. It doesn’t work like that, because even when they would have put the solution for you and assuming that the solutions are right, you must communicate it and you need a lot of money to do it.

I listen and laugh when people say, this rebranding, the one that they did during somebody’s presidency, they spent this kind of money, I hope you are not coming to ask for this kind of money. And the person says no I’m not asking for money!

No, it’s not possible. MTN is MTN, Glo is Glo, Zain is Zain. Each brand is consistent. How much have they spent? If you cast your mind back to ‘X’ number of years ago, there was nothing called Globacom. But over a period of time, with consistent communication, telling the consumer what the brand represents and where it should sit in the mind of the consumer, it’s become, to some people, their first choice. To some people, it’s MTN because it means something to them. So if Nigeria must mean something to us as the primary consumers and to the external consumers, that is outsiders, there is no way you can run away from spending money. It is not possible.

Entrepreneurs and entrepreneurship in Nigeria are faced with several challenges such as high running cost and lack of qualified skills. As a seasoned and world acknowledged entrepreneur, what advice do you have for young entrepreneurs?

The first thing is, don’t go into a business area which you have no understanding of. If you are lucky to serve some apprenticeship that will come in handy, in other words, if you have served somebody or worked in an environment where you learn, the norms and stuffs like that, they put you in a very good stead. I am not saying necessarily you must work for somebody before starting your own. But my experience is that, those who have made success of it had tended to serve some apprenticeship. There are examples of people who did not serve apprenticeship, but it may take you a longer time, that, is a lot of falling and standing and falling and standing which will end up frustrating you.

First, try and understand the business area. You want to go into something because you want to make money? No. When you read of successful entrepreneurs globally, they didn’t go into the venture because they wanted to make money, they went into the venture because they wanted to make a difference and a change. Look at Virgin and Branson. What drives him is not money, but because he wants to say to British Airways, you can’t run this Airline better. Everything Richard Branson ventures into is proof that it could be done better. You know something, if you do it better the money will come. If you put money in front, you will fail because what is driving you is money, money, money.

Who are your role models?

One of my role models is Dr. Christopher Kolade. I had opportunity of working with him. He is a man after my heart. The other person – I am not close to him but I see him from a distance – is Mr. Gamaliel Onosode. They are not driven by worldly things. I am not driven by worldly things. I have role models as well in our profession. There was a man I worked with, he was the CEO of BAN, his name was Bob Jack Colby. I liked his style, such people I look at and they motivate me and I am particularly lucky to have worked with Dr. Kolade at some stage in my life. And you know, he’s like an uncle and a big brother to me. If you see Dr. Kolade and I talk you won’t believe it!

What will you be leaving for future generations?

The good news is that, people who have gone through us, today they are apostles. More importantly, I intend to document some of my own experiences. In fact, we are working on it and have gone very far. A lot of people have asked me: Look, don’t you think it is fair you leave your imprint for future generation? And I thought that it is through a book that I should do that, of course, on the organisation that I have built. My timing of the book is to, hopefully, put it out when Insight is 30. We have been working behind schedule. But I can assure you that we will do it next year.

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