Sunday, September 18, 2022 12:00 pm
Akin Adeoya, now the publisher of Marketing Mix magazine, reminisces about the man who taught him, a job hunter, the ropes of copywriting at Roasbel Advertising
By Akin Adeoya
I saw this advert in the Guardian, I think it was a half pager, asking “experienced copywriters who can prove it” to apply for a position in then bustling Ikeja advertising agency, Rosabel. The first thing that interested me was the “writer” part of copywriter. Well, I thought I could write even though I didn’t have any experience writing copy in any advertising agency. Or anywhere for that matter. But I instinctively thought I could try to get one of those 2 slots advertised if it had to do with creative writing.
Well I wrote some interesting kind of application basically hyping my creative writing skills and my campus exploits as Editor of bang magazine in OAU and a few other things because there was not much else in place of a cv or job history. It was my way for making up for a lot of blanks. What was important was to be called for a test. I would take it from there.
Getting a test invitation was not a given. Even at that time as the 90s decade was kicking off, getting a job in a top advertising agency was already a big deal if you didn’t have any experience. I learnt that the HR people start by picking out the first class graduates. Then they picked those with a postgraduate degree. In this case there was a PHD in English lady who wanted to pick up a job as a copywriter(I never understood that anyway, if you didn’t want to pursue a career in scholarship why go the whole hog and then start fighting first degree holders for a job, and then, as in this case, getting trounced?).
Anyway the next category were the elite writers with epaulets to show how far they had gone in the copywriting craft. Typically you would have made the rounds between 2 to 4 agencies over a period of 5 to 10 years to be in that category. It helped a great deal if you had spent time in a top 10 advertising agency. That immediately made recruiters pay attention to your cv.
It’s only when these 3 categories have been sorted from the hundreds if not thousands of submitted applications that stragglers like me who didn’t have a first class, didn’t have any experience writing for an agency and didn’t have a masters or PhD would be looked at. Now imagine what chances your cv had among hundreds of other applicants? If you don’t get creative you looking at many years of a frustrating job search. I didn’t want to contemplate that. Not on a hungry stomach!
So I sat down and designed, with pencil and plain paper, a combined cv and application that was bound to catch anyone’s attention. Its difficult to describe the exact details now but for sure you could bet your last dime there was nothing like “I beg to apply…” Rather than begging to apply I attacked the notion that you needed a lot of experience in an ad agency(as had been advertised) to produce great writing. I argued that the capacity for great writing was not something that can be taught to adults innan agency. I suggested that the ability to write well was something you developed intuitively based on habits you acquired as you transmitted from childhood to adulthood: voracious reading, regular writing, and yes, sometimes, natural talent. I concluded that you cannot make a great writer simply by training him for many years in an agency. Of course it was later I got to learn about the finer details of strategic discipline in communications.
I didn’t write these things in a straightforward manner. It was graphic and loosely illustrated and very dramatic. All on just a page.
I challenged them to give me a chance to prove that these things were true.
It was a long shot given the large number of applications and highly qualified people.
But it worked.
I was later told that the creative guys had a good laugh over the application and perhaps their curiosity got the better of them. They wanted to see this guy.
That was all I needed. A foot in the door.
I got a sharp brown jacket from my egbon/neighbour, “Uncle T”, Tope Ogunnaike who lived directly opposite my Uncle’s flat in Iponri low cost estate. It was a bit over(For I was lean and mean) but it didn’t matter. I was in a killer mood and nothing was going to stop me at that moment. As I stepped out of the house, I balanced my will against that of all opposition and mentally pushed.
As I arrived in Awolowo House, Ikeja, where Rosabel was domiciled at the time, and saw a deluge of sharply dressed applicants who had come for the test, my resolve momentarily took a hit. I took a deep breadth and steeled myself.
Lets get this done.
Anyway I wrote the test and eventually met a 3 man panel led by the oracle of advertising according to the Rosabel school, chief Akin Odunsi himself. It wasn’t really an interview but an interesting and introspective talk time where they kept sizing me up and I kept trying not to demystify myself after the gambit that got me a foot in the door.
I thoroughly enjoyed the session. Lots of all round laughs. I felt so good that I pushed my luck a bit by pointedly asking Chief Odunsi himself as the session drew to a close,
“Sir, I hope I am getting this job?”
The Chief wasn’t going to be caught off guard.
He calmly and briefly explained that he was yet to speak to a lot of candidates so it was not possible to make a decision yet. Despite that I was completely certain I would hear from them. It was right in his eyes.
One of the three man interview team was a certain dark, lean and sharply suited man in his early 30s who spoke with a casual authority and had a habit of gesticulating with his hands to drive home the point when he spoke. He immediately caught my attention. I was to learn later that his name is Tayo Ken Suleiman.
Tayo, as I.was to learn when I later resumed at Rosabel as a trainee copywriter a couple of weeks later was the copy guru of the agency. Its really difficult to describe the awe with which we held him at the time for his genius for the sharp copy line.
I am not sure I read many long essays from this man. But when it came to the three, four or five words, the short headline that expressed something in a clear, unambiguous manner, I could easily say he had no equal in the industry at the time. He was the General that the agency relied on the lead the troops to battle whenever it was pitch time.
He had an uncanny ability to make the resources of the English language deliver his message. He would exploit familiar sayings and proverbs, adding and subtracting to make them create entirely new meanings. The sentence would look so familiar that you would have swallowed the message before it hit you that this was saying something entirely different. You fall in love.
A real alchemy of the word. A master of the cunning twist. And he did it effortlessly, when he wanted to.
At this time, Rosabel had a fearsome reputation for destroying the opposition in big advertising pitches. There was a clarity, strategic focus and direction in their work that even non natives of the advertising firmament could easily relate to. Tayo was at the heart of the creative team. He was an all round advertising man who was very comfortable in a suit and would always be the lead presenter for both strategy and creative, he was said to have the magical “gift of the garb”.
The icing on the cake was that he had a huge capacity for work, when he wanted to, and working overnight to complete a presentation was nothing to him. Infact I remember that he created an ad at the time celebrating rosabel’s notoriety for sometimes keeping staff at work all night and all weekend just to make the client happy. But trust me we loved it.
When I later joined ThisDay and started writing the campaign pages I had a culture shock when I visited Rosabel’s arch rival, Insight communications, where I went hunting for a story at a few minutes past 5pm and the entire place was virtually empty! Everybody had gone home! I couldn’t believe it. But that was the culture. Totally different.
Oh of course there were a lot of other very brilliant minds in Rosabel’s creative department at the time. The creative director was Dotun “The Dot” Adegbite. Tayo was Associate creative director and his immediate deputy was Nkoli Ogbolu(Copy group head): restless, efficient and a thorn in the flesh of non conformists on the shopfloor. If you didn’t have a thick skin and ability for a sharp throwback, Nkoli was going to be your albatross. Oh but she could be gentle, sweet, motherly and comforting when she wanted to be. She would share her lunch freely. She wanted to know the demons plaguing you so she can attack them on your behalf. You just needed to understand her and you will be in paradise. A really strong willed woman.
I worked briefly with her too. She was the total opposite of Tayo suleiman. Tayo would give you the general guidelines and leave you on your own to roam free for days. Then he would pop in a maybe in 3 or 4 days to review what you had done. If you were a writer with industry, you would have gone back and forth, back and forth on the brief. You would have thrown out a lot of rubbish and rewritten to an acceptable level of finish. He could then help you dot a few things and sharpen your direction, a few pep talks and off you go. But of course if it turns out that what you had written is rubbish he didn’t hesitate to help you navigate your way to the waste basket.
But he would always do it with a casual easy style. He would not raise his voice at you. He would be smiling while methodically and diplomatically explaining that what you were showing him was a piece of dung. And you will be happy with the way he told you. This empowered you to go back to your desk and get that stuff knocked out of your brain. There was Mike Efunkoya , radio production manager who held court in the agency’s studio and took charge of all radio production work. There was Wright Eruebi, of the “Wright cannot be wrong” fame who was in charge of tV production. He spoke with a well modulated accent and just loved to articulate stuff.
On my first day in Rosabel I was the second to arrive in the creative department, with that brown jacket still. The first person was the brilliant graphic artiste, Abdul Funso. Abdul is intense, informed and a real Lagos boy. Absolutely a man of style who was extremely trendy and friendly. I could go on and on…but let me stop there for now.
Working in Rosabel was a lot of fun and it was these types of contrasting brilliant minds that made it happen.
COPY WIZARD WALKS INTO BUKA
Present day: Here I was, sitting with my 17 year old daughter,Tofunmi, a fellow amala enthusiast and award winning author of Nowhere to Run, home on holiday from Pan Atlantic. This is more or less 30 years later, having a bowl of hot amala in one of my favourite bukas in Ikeja GRA, a few days ago, and the original Tayo Ken Suleiman, the man who showed me how to write copy on strategy, walked in for the same treat.
It was good seeing him again after many years. We hugged and chatted. He wondered why I stopped publishing my M2 and I gave some lame excuses but promised him it was coming back soon. He told me I must ensure it covered marketing as it is practised today not like yesterday. I understood and agreed.
Business aside, speaking with him again after all these years was cool and refreshing.
So I insisted on taking this picture with him. Photo credit must go to Tofunmi Adeoya, of course. But I thought many people will not know the significance of this chance meeting if I didn’t bore them with this my long homily.
So, guys, thats the point of it.
*Akin Adeoya is the publisher of Marketing Mix magazine.