Biodun Shobanjo is one of the best brains in the advertising industry. Recently in his office in Lagos, the Troyka Group Chairman reflected with reporters on his 43 years in the business, including his corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiative.
Against the norm, Shobanjo says succession in his business is not tied to the family. Senior Correspondent, GODDIE OFOSE, was there.
Inspiration for CSR
Many years ago, I presented a paper at the University of Ibadan talking about the collaborative effort that should happen between town and gown, which is academics and those in business.
I made a strong case that various professions have a responsibility to interact with the universities because it is at that level that we open the eyes of undergraduates to the reality of the profession they are going to end up in. To achieve that, it may involve finding the time and lectures on both the theoretical and practical sides of the business.
I am embarrassed to say that I had a friend who was a vice chancellor of a university at a time and we proposed this to this friend of mine that people are willing to give their time to interact with students and share knowledge. But, maybe because of the protocol in the university, it was not followed up.
I believe that there are people in our industry who can sacrifice their time and share knowledge. That is the way it is done in different parts of the world.
Between National Cancer Prevention Programme and Advertising
There are certain jobs you don’t apply for. Those who were behind it must have done their homework, because I asked the same question, why me when they first approached me. They said they wanted somebody in their view who is credible, who could be regarded as being successful professionally and who has some good relationship with the media. That was how they recommended me.
They had loads of prospects and their council screened all prospects and settled for me to be the ambassador general. So, that was how I got selected to play that role.
When we discussed it and I reflected on it, I thought that it was an opportunity to also give something back to the society as regards my time and the knowledge and skill that we will need to deploy in achieving their objective. At the end of 12 months, we were adjudged to have done a fairly good job.
As regards what drives us to do the things we have being doing, the end of this year will mark the 43rd year that I have been in this business. Now, when a man has spent 43 years in any profession, the least you can then begin to think of is to give back to the society, to impact the society positively so that most things you are doing or you’ve done will also help others in attaining the standard that you have reached.
When you look at great people who have given back to the society, you will find out that those are the kinds of things that drive them. At least, they would have helped others to go to school or build institutions that would advance knowledge for the betterment of society.
Same way, at the stage I am now, I do say to people, how much food can I eat now, how many cars can one drive at one time? So, it is time to give back.
Within this organisation that God has enabled us to build, so far as we find such worthy causes we would strive to identify with them. As professionals, people must distinguish between those who are involved in building careers for people and those involved in conventional business.
We are not business men, we are professionals. We eke out a living here and it’s from our little resources that we give back to the society.
Choice of University of Lagos for multimedia centre
It was a child of circumstance. The University of Lagos (NILAG) has an advancement board that looks at private-public partnership and identifies what they want. They approached me and said the department has a building but it needed more room.
The first brief was whether I could build one more floor. I asked them why they expected that from me. They said they had looked around and no one had impacted the industry as I have. It was the chairman of the board that came to see me and my initial reaction was to say no.
But they put more pressure and then the late Vice Chancellor, Tokunbo Sofoluwe, also lent his voice. So I agreed to put the additional floor but insisted on seeing the building to be sure of the state. By the time we got there, my engineers found out that the building couldn’t carry an additional floor. If they put any floor, the building would collapse.
I thought that was a good point for me to withdraw, but they said I could not go away like that. “Since it was one storey building, we needed a two-storey building, why don’t you build it for us?” they asked. I said, what do you mean, I only earn salary, and how do you want me to do that? We joked about it and that was how we started.
Later, when I looked at the contribution of our group to the marketing communications industry, I realised there shouldn’t have been a better organisation to embark on the project. I don’t know of any group that is as represented in the area of marketing communications, the support side, as we do.
We have about five or six companies offering marketing communications support and we will always draw our manpower from the universities and polytechnics. It only makes sense to align with that kind of initiative.
So, that was why I agreed. But I told them that we have to move at my pace because I am not a moneybag. Everybody signed up to that and we were doing it gradually. Recently, the building was commissioned.
To me, if the students who are going to be part of the raw materials we would use do not have a good studying environment, the lecturers don’t have good offices, it is obvious we won’t have a good output. We felt that it was what we needed to do.
Thinking of extending this to other schools?
I don’t think my intention is to replicate this in other schools. To be honest with you, I operate in Lagos, so it’s only logical that the University of Lagos, which is nearby, can make the approach.
Why it took this long to invest in CSR
We should make a few distinctions here. This is not about a corporate institution, it is about Biodun Sobanjo, an individual. So, this is about what Biodun Sobanjo has been able to do and what he is doing. This would be the context of what I am and what I have been able to do as a professional.
What the experience of four decades has done for you
Very exciting, we came from ground zero. In these 43 years, what we tried to do was to build various companies as we went along, starting with Insight and the other eight companies we have. As the team leader, as it were, you needed to do a lot of conceptualisation.
There is no company that we have in our group that I am not the architect of. There will always be a need for us to go into a new area, we see the opportunity and we follow it.
So it’s that ability to be able to see the opportunities and pursue them. Most things that we do are within the interest of our clients because the client will always come first. We failed as well. Some of the companies that we started failed. But the important thing was that we learned from those failures so that we don’t repeat the mistakes.
Here we are, we have every reason to be thankful to God. There are challenges and when you add the group, we have about 14,000 people.
Thinking of succession
Nobody runs any of our businesses that is a Sobanjo, or an Awosika. We’ve always made that point here. This is not a family business. This business is for Nigerians. The closest person to me, Jimi Awosika, is from Ondo, I am an Ijebu man; Ken, who runs MediaCom, is an Igbo man.
This business is for Nigerians, so far you are qualified to work here, we would give you the opportunity. My family also knows, because I say to them, even to my children, that there is no automatic place for them if they don’t possess the means to work here.
Principles that have helped you personally and contributed to the lives of others
I don’t think there are different principles from those successful entrepreneurs used. If you have a profession, the first thing you need to understand is that the raw materials you need for sustainability are people. Not just picking people on the street, they have to bring something to the party; knowledge and skills.
Knowledge you acquire in school if you went to a good school, then you need skills that you probably won’t acquire until you begin to work. So, somebody needs to teach you. What we do is a combination of both because we recognise that we work in an intelligent environment.
A man who is a marketing director of a multi-billion naira project and needs to sell the things that he’s churning out every day needs the help of people who understand how to connect his brand to the consumer. You may not necessarily have got that knowledge from school; it is our responsibility to teach you how you connect the consumer to the brand.
From day one, we identified there was a gap that we must create a school, an opportunity to teach. That was why we started the management training school programme 23 years ago.
A university graduate that comes in goes through one year of training. Literally, we are giving you money free for that one year because you are in school. And by the time these boys and girls graduate and become what we call management or account executives, they are hitting the ground running.
If you go to any mass communication department of any university in Nigeria, I doubt if the students have the knowledge of advertising agencies by the time they graduate, not to talk of working in these agencies.
We were quick to realise that, so we started training. And as somebody said, hardly will you go to any advertising agency today and won’t find members of our alumni, either those who come here for the management training or at the executive level and rose within the ranks.
Even in our profession, the Association of Advertising Agencies of Nigeria (AAAN), a few alumni of Insight have headed the association as presidents. That shows you the kind of impact we are making in our industry.