The immediate past Chairman, Advertising Practitioners Council of Nigeria (APCON), Mr. ‘Lolu Akinwunmi, in this interview with journalists, spoke about the achievements of the regulatory body during his tenure, the economy, politics and governance as well as the challenges facing the practice of advertising in Nigeria, among other issues. Festus Akanbi, who was there presents the excerpts:

How will you describe your tenure as the fifth Chairman of APCON which recently came to an end?

First, when I was appointed by President Goodluck Jonathan in 2010 for single three year tenure, I had been advised by one or two very senior practitioners that I should simply concentrate on the traditional role of vetting adverts, and endeavour to avoid potentially troublesome issues like the constant disagreements between the two major breweries among others. I however disagreed because I felt the economy and the industry were at a stage where we needed to strongly intervene and strengthen the structures of APCON, so that the federal regulator would be further empowered to play its role more effectively, and do more than just vetting and setting syllabuses for higher institutions. This led us to embark on the review of the fourth code, which culminated in the fifth Code. The work on the Code demanded a lot of tact, diplomacy, political adroitness and the need to manage many interests.

Was it smooth sailing? Far from it. From when we started, foreign interests that did not want it attacked us ferociously. They imagined that if we were able to put the reform in place, it would stop them from taking over the Nigerian advertising business. At some point, I was reported to the National Assembly that I was using my position in APCON to stop certain foreign interests from operating in Nigeria. I had to appear at the Senate to clear this. Then they reported me to the then Minister of Information, Labaran Maku, who investigated the allegation and found it to be untrue. Then they went to the Nigerian Investment Promotions Commission with the untruth that I was stopping foreign investors from coming into Nigeria. We showed the Commission proof that this was also not true. Then they went to the Corporate Affairs Commission with the same lie and we dispelled it. Finally they reached the Villa and the matter was directed to the Hon Minister again. Of course they used the media massively against APCON and I, sadly using Nigerian professionals in the odious campaign. They even recruited their friends in one of the telecoms and one of the breweries, all in an attempt to derail the reform. It was an intense battle. At some point, it took the Hon Minister of Information hosting an all-parties meeting in Abuja, where they were warned to desist from the campaign of calumny against APCON and I.

What was the industry’s response? Did you get your colleagues’ support?

Thankfully so. I received uncommon support from the AAAN, ADVAN, OAAN, MIPAN and the other sectorial groups. It was overwhelming because they all knew that what was at stake was the soul and the future of the Nigerian advertising profession. But for their support, concluding the assignment would have been very challenging indeed.

Many people, including yourself, have advocated that government should not allow foreigners to own majority interests in the communication industry for security reasons and because many take jobs that qualified Nigerians can do. Can you say more on this?

I remain convinced about this, and it is not because I am discouraging foreign investment in this area. Even though Nigeria has signed into international trade protocols, the government’s commitment is first to the interests of its people. Democracy is the government of the people, by the people, for the people and not the government of the people, by the people for foreigners. Secondly, public communication is very sensitive especially in a growing economy and polity like ours. Truth is whoever controls the organs of public communication will control and influence what the people see, read, hear and are exposed to. There is no foreigner who can be more patriotic than Nigerians; they come here to make money, period. There are grave security and socio cultural implications. So how can non-Nigerians, say Indians, South Africans, Dutch, Americans, Arabs etc., have the control of advertising agencies, print, and radio or TV stations? Whose interests will they propagate? I said it once and I am saying it again that the government and the national assembly must as a matter of urgency put laws in place to ensure foreigners cannot own majority interests in these areas by making it part of the First Schedule of the Constitution. And at any rate, all countries protect their people. America protects its farmers. Europe protects its aerospace industry. China does the same. Ditto India and Brazil. And in addition, why should we open our gates to foreigners to come do jobs that we have enough Nigerian professionals to do? Whose interests does the government want to protect?

Would you advocate the setting up of a Fair Trade Council in Nigeria to especially ensure local content protection in advertising and communication?

This issue came up during my last visit to the National Assembly. We should urgently do so. Foreign investments are supposed to bring in capital to expand the market, provide employment, expertise and money. How can a foreign agency do this when the accounts and businesses are already here? What values are they bringing in that they want to take the jobs of our people? Government should also insist on the number of foreigners that can work in each industry and the tenure. They must transfer skills to Nigerians. Chinese, Indian, Brazilian, French, American, British agencies are full of their nationals. Why must the Nigerian case be different? A so-called foreign agency set up here and appointed a Nigerian as the CEO, then a foreigner as the Managing Consultant. The Nigerian was the public face but the foreigner was the real power. Now this is a very senior Nigerian who has even held very senior industry positions. Will this happen in any of the countries I mentioned?

Along with the case of the difficult foreign agency you mentioned, will you tell us any other challenge you managed?

Yes. Traditionally, the Nigerian Breweries and Guinness have always been very fierce competitors, even though at some point in their history in Nigeria, they were related through their overseas and local owners. I should know because in my days in Lintas in the 80s, I worked as an account manager on Star, Maltina, FES (Guinness Stout) and Harp. Over time, their friendly disposition towards each other became more competitive. Apart from the battles in the market, APCON also became a veritable theatre of war.

How? Over many years, and especially with the introduction of the regime of supervised exposure of alcoholic ads in the media, each brewery was quick to report the other to APCON if it saw or perceived any infraction by its competitor. Indeed when I was appointed Chairman, one of my predecessors in office quietly counseled me to avoid this potential pitfall, and be very careful in managing it. The conflict had gone on for many years, but I was determined to resolve it during my tenure; so I chose not to take the advice. At some point, one of the Breweries’ CEO wrote a very strong memo to APCON strongly hinting at complicity against us. I immediately saw a very serious situation, if it was not well and quickly managed. So, rather than have the APCON secretariat follow the usual procedure to attend to the matter, I took it up, did a reply to the CEO, assuring him, we would promptly look into the matter. I immediately set up an investigative committee to do this, instead of using the APCON committee, and appointed a fellow and council member as the chairman. If I waited for the APCON process, there might have been delays because of the process, and the matter required that we acted with dispatch and wisdom. For good measure I put the Hon Minister of Information in copy. I deliberately did this so he would have fore knowledge in case anyone wanted to go to him for malicious reasons. The committee invited the two breweries and their lawyers, spoke with the APCON ASP etc., and at the end of the day, it turned out the allegation was not only untrue, the brewery that made the complaint repudiated it. For me though, the very sad part was that the accusing brewery went to town in the media, running a vicious campaign against APCON, the ASP and its chairman. One got the distinct impression that the main reason was to make enough noise so that government would move against some key people in APCON. At the end of the day, we sent our report to the Information Minister and he studied it. He later sent a letter commending us on how the matter was handled, and advised that all the materials from our investigation be carefully preserved as historical documents.

Can you tell us some of your achievements?

Quite a few. I will mention some of the key ones: The Council successfully implemented the fifth Code Review following an industry-wide consultation through the APCON Committee on Advertising Practice Reforms (ACAPR) from 2010. The implementation commenced from January 2013. Unfortunately the Chairman of the Committee, a distinguished fellow and practitioner, Willy Nnorom passed away in 2014. We will continue to miss him. One of the mandates of the Council is to regulate and approve the various syllabuses and standards for the practice within higher institutions, which award diplomas and degrees. During the period, we accredited several institutions of higher learning including the Pan African University/Lagos Business School. If APCON does not approve accreditation, no higher institution can offer courses leading to a diploma or degree in marketing, advertising etc. We also organised various stakeholders’ seminars/workshops and several executive programmes. We added over 1000 new members through students’ registration, over 1000 Associate Members, over 100 upgrades from Associate to Full Membership and several Fellowship Awards. We also worked with the National Institute of Marketing of Nigeria on streamlining membership registration and signed a memorandum of association to seal this. Vetting and approval of advertising materials is one of the core responsibilities of the Council through the ASP. During the period, vetting application rose by over 70 per cent and compliance level by over 75 per cent.

I am happy to report that even the various political parties send their materials in for vetting. While we still experience some leakages, the awareness is higher, and compliance is more regular. One of the biggest challenges we have is the spurious exposure of uncensored trado-medical advertisements promising unsubstantiated reliefs for various ailments and diseases. During the period, we commenced discussions with NAFDAC for a collaborative relationship, which was to ensure that all trado-medical advertising materials were simultaneously vetted by the three bodies. My council could not conclude the project, and hopefully, the next council will continue where we stopped. We continued to work very closely with the Consumer Protection Council in ensuring that sales promotions were honest, and not abused, delivering on all the promises to the consumer. This has been one of the most successful projects undertaken by my council. We went into a partnership agreement with the International Centre for Alcoholic Policy (ICAP), Washington, USA for the effective management of communication materials on alcohol beverage.

Through this channel, APCON and the beer sectorial group of the Manufacturers Association of Nigeria successfully hosted the three international seminars and conferences in Lagos and Abuja, which involved delegates from many parts of Africa. The Beer Sectorial Group of MAN also sought our assistance and support for the provision of technical support for the setting up of it Self-Regulatory (SR) Secretariat. Hopefully, APCON will hold a similar summit with the telecoms operators and other stakeholders within the industry to review overall communication and especially tactical campaigns and promotions. We feel very proud of the work done in this project and especially appreciate the roles of the local and international partners. During my tenure, APCON was invited by the Ghana Advertising Association (GAA) to advise and help them set up their own regulatory body. APCON also continued to actively interact with the office of the Hon Minister of Information, offering the support of Council and our members for government policies and activities. On our own initiative, our members in AAAN, developed messages that supported some key government policies, thereby identifying with the government’s plan to administer effectively. I am happy to report that the relationship with the office of the Hon Minister is very cordial, and use this opportunity to thank Labaran Maku and the current acting Minister of Information as well as previous Permanent Secretaries and other senior officials of the Ministry for their support for APCON.

So Nigerians can expect some restraint on the trado-medical advertisements soon?

Hopefully so. The President called on APCON to ensure compliance. APCON and the NBC organised a conference a few months ago, during which I addressed all the traditional herbal medicine practitioners, sensitising them on the need to be ready to work closely with APCON and the NBC. The response was very good and encouraging. I am also hopeful that the new council will take this up.

You rebranded from Prima Garnet Ogilvy to Prima Garnet Africa. Why? It is not unusual for any serious organisation to sit down and devise a strategic plan for its future. We have been fortunate as a group to have done very well in Nigeria. With a little immodesty, the history of advertising business, the profession and practice cannot be complete without the mention of our three key agencies, Prima Garnet, 141 Worldwide and MediaShare. We saw a great opportunity for us in Africa, especially in view of the great development within the continent, and took a decision to commence a gradual but purposeful foray and investment into the future of the continent; we want to be part of the success story. This is why we did a few things, including rebranding as part of sharply focusing on our intent, bringing in key and experienced human resources etc. We consequently adopted Prima Garnet Africa, to replace our former identity.

So how do you manage all these in view of the challenges facing the Nigerian economy?

Challenges also present opportunities. America produced some of its millionaires during the depression and prohibition. Economic downturns are cyclical; this one too shall pass. We cannot say that because there is a lull in the economy we will stop thinking, strategising and planning. So while the economy is playing itself out, it gives us an opportunity to review our operations in line with the new realities. Nigeria as an economy is too big to collapse under any cyclical economic challenge. While there will be casualties, there will also be winners who see an opportunity in the downturn and take advantage of it. We intend to play actively in the latter group.

We understand that foreign agencies are not too happy with the reform, as in their opinion, APCON is trying to stop them from operating in Nigeria, and that they plan to work against the implementation of the reform and even take APCON to court. What is your opinion on this? Only those with selfish agenda belong to this group. We have been speaking with some of them who want to know what they need to do to comply. And I am not sure anyone who has read the current edition of the Code of Advertising Practice would say that. APCON does not have the power to stop any qualified Nigerian or foreigner from practising, as long as they do all that the law requires; we are like the Nigerian Medical Council and the Council of Legal Education. I should add that APCON has worked and continues to work with Chief Anthony Idigbe, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, who is also a Fellow of APCON. We have been instructed on all the lawful things to do.

What is the situation of the case between Prima Garnet, Scanad and Ogilvy?

Why really did you take Ogilvy and Scanad to court? I should not normally comment on the case because it’s in court and this would be subjudice. However I can say a few things about aspects that are already public knowledge and not prejudicial. As you well know, we went to court for protection because Ogilvy acted against our agreement by setting up Scanad in Nigeria, and then issued us a termination letter after we had gone to court. We thought this was wrong, irresponsible, unlawful and unfair, as they didn’t want the court to listen to our prayer. The court ruled that all parties maintain the status quo ante pending the hearing and determination of the suit. By this, Scanad cannot operate in Nigeria and Ogilvy cannot terminate our contract. This is the status. Technically therefore, we are still the Ogilvy agency in Nigeria, until the court determines otherwise. We have faith in the Nigerian judiciary.

So Prima Garnet is still the Ogilvy agency in Nigeria?

This is what status quo ante means

Will your group ever go public? If the shareholders see a need for it. By the way, that should not be bad; maybe finally I will become a rich man!

Clients often appoint agencies through pitches… Creative, Strategy or simple Profile presentations. Many professionals felt these steps do not give the prospective client the opportunity to really know what they are buying into. What is your opinion? It’s an interesting question. Most pitches are show events, where in a maximum of one hour, the agency will have to dazzle the prospect. However, the point must be made that the process does not give the prospect enough information on the capacity of the agency. An agency may be very impressive at a presentation but turn out to be very bad managers of the brand after their appointment. We have always advocated that one of the better ways of selecting an agency is to find out about them from their current or previous clients. You will get all the information you want on their competence and reliability. But to simply pick an agency based on a 45-minute show performance is inadequate. Some agencies in America no longer take part in pitches. They tell such prospects to research and investigate them, and if they like what they hear, then they can make up their minds. Makes sense to me too.

Tell us how your successor was appointed? I do not know what finally happened in the hallowed chambers of the Presidency. All I know is that we recommended some names of eligible fellows to the Hon Minister of Information, accompanied with their CVs. He took the final decision on whom to recommend to the President as the final choice. The good news is that finally the government has appointed a right candidate and not an Ngozi Emioma.

That is Udeme Ufot? Correct

So, his was one of the names that were recommended? Correct.

What is your opinion of the new Chairman and your successor in office?

He is a thoroughbred professional; otherwise he would not be one of the fellows recommended to the Hon Minister. He has had very active professional practice and has also been the President of the AAAN. He is very active in many professional capacities and was recently awarded the national award of MFR. I have no doubt that under him, APCON will continue in the fine tradition of delivering value as expected by the government and the people.

Do you think he will support the reform?

Even when he was not the chairman, he did. He is a thoroughbred professional and was once the president of the Association of Advertising Agencies of Nigeria, the AAAN. He understands what the reform is about and he will be well advised by the council. Also remember that he is an entrepreneur who manages a group of successful agencies that was once affiliated to a big global group. He understands the intricacies of this matter and certainly knows what to do. And at any rate, no chairman acts alone or in isolation. Built into the council structure are also checks and balances that every Chairman must respect. I should know. And at any rate, the reform status is definite, has been gazetted and presented to the President-in-Council in Abuja. But we don’t foresee any challenges with the new Chairman and Council. So you have confidence in him I do. We are contemporaries and I know him well enough to say so. Some other stakeholders in ADVAN, OAAN etc., have continued to make the case that to date the AAAN has produced the six APCON Chairmen; they strongly believe they also should produce the Chairman. What do you say to this? It is a legitimate comment and aspiration. Anyone who is a professional and not honorary fellow of APCON is qualified. They however must understand the law, process, history and procedure. One that the AAAN single handedly gave birth to APCON. All the developmental work, liaison, indeed the very idea and concept of what became APCON was birthed by the AAAN, then AAPN. In addition, it is the only association mentioned within the APCON law; there is no mention of the other sectorial groups. This however does not mean they also cannot produce a Chairman. It is for the government to determine. For example, the name of a past president of OAAN and a fellow was part of the last list. It was also the same during the exercise that produced my Chairmanship. If the government in its wisdom continues to pick APCON Chairmen from the AAAN ranks, then there must be a reason.

Talking of gender, when will we have our first female APCON Chairman?

When the President appoints one.

The Goodluck vs. Buhari election is one of the most competitive and expensive in Nigerian history in terms of advertising. How would you rate the campaigns? Many have been brilliant; very brilliant. Others have been sloppy and unprofessional. Overall it is a good outing for the Nigerian advertising profession. Indeed I don’t think advertising has played any bigger role in any previous election as it has done in this one.

So what would you advise the President to do about his image, communication and legacy if he wins a second term?

By all means he must appoint a knowledgeable and experienced team at very senior level to manage and project the President’s Brand. It is clear that too many things happen around that office that are not being effectively communicated. Two, not much effort has gone into presenting who he really is to Nigerians. He should speak more about his challenges, successes etc.; he is Nigeria’s President and should communicate more with his people. He must be more responsive. When Kenya and Nigeria were bombed, the Kenyan head of state was addressing his people and the world within a few hours. GEJ was in Ife meeting a group of politicians. He should have left the meeting and should have gone to Kano where the bombing took place, and he should have addressed the nation. When a president does not do this, he leaves a gap that rumour mongers will occupy. It will be very tough, but it is doable.

Many have suggested that whoever wins the election between President Goodluck Jonathan and General Muhammadu Buhari should make use of Nigerian professionals in key ministerial positions. What is your take?

It is a very sensitive and tough issue. Usually, ministerial and similar appointments are used to reward party loyalists or those who worked hard for/with the candidate to win the election. Usually it is hard for the President to simply junk them for professionals when it is time to share portfolios. On the other hand, the history of Nigeria has shown that when dedicated and committed professionals are used in governance, the result is very good…Akinwumi Adesina, Soludo, Sanusi Lamido, Ngozi Iweala, Raji Fashola etc. So I suppose the President must consider his objectives and the best interests of Nigerians and do the right thing.

You have been the President of the Association of Advertising Agencies of Nigeria (AAAN), the pioneer Secretary and CEO of the Nigerian Rebranding Project, and the APCON Chairman. Technically, you have been everything the industry and profession can offer. What’s next after your tenure?

I am still the Group CEO of Prima Garnet Africa, and as I said, we are implementing a very ambitious and exciting regional expansionist programme. Plus, I frequently act as adviser and consultant to a few other interests.

And if you are invited again to serve the country in another capacity? The highest form of honour is to be invited to serve your country.