BRANDPERSONALITY: GOVERNMENT COMMUNICATION NEEDS A LOT OF PROFESSIONAL HELP. – John Ehiguese, MD, Mediacraft Associates

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john ehiguese june

John Ehiguese has treaded many paths. He has been a marketer, a broadcaster but when he berthed at the shores of Public Relations he knew he had come to stay. 12 years after, he had worked on some of Nigeria’s most successful brands and in the process made a name for himself in a field that many appreciate but do not understand. Ehiguese is the Managing Director of Mediacraft Associates Limited, a Lagos-based PR Agency. Afolabi Idowu and Ayomide Oriade were in his to find out how Mediacraft has fared in its 10 years of operations and get views on the Nigerian business environment especially as it affects the marketing communications industry.
Please read on…

You recently clocked 55 and about 12 out of the 55 years were spent purely on PR practice in the country. Can you please share some of your milestone experiences with us?
I have been in total practice for about 12 years but before then, I had worked in other areas of the marketing communication industry; I have worked in marketing, worked in sales. I marketed and represented a foreign company in Nigeria. I worked in broadcasting. I was the first to produce and present a television programme on telecoms in Nigeria in 1998. It was called “On the line”. In terms of milestone, I think one of the early milestones was the fact that I was the first account director on the MTN accounts in Nigeria; that was in my former agency. I had the privilege of working on that account and I was responsible for providing PR support for the roll outs of MTN in at least 20 states of Nigeria between October 2001 and early 2003. At that time, that was the biggest PR account in Nigeria in terms of scope of work and what you are paid.
The second significant milestone of course was the establishment of Media Craft. When I left Corporate and Financial in 2003, I decided to start Mediacraft Associates and it is such a wonderful feeling to see that this small seed that was planted 10 years ago has grown so big that today we have a staff strength of about 30, and work for some of the biggest names in the Nigerian industry; we work for Nigerian Breweries, Cony Caminot Nigeria, Bank of Agriculture Kaduna, and so on. There has been growth in all indices of valuation.

In your opinion as a thoroughbred practitioner, what is the place of PR in the Brand Communications Mix?
PR is central, increasingly so too. This is because what we find is that brand handlers are looking for cost effective ways to communicate brand messages. And with the cost of advertising going higher, they are increasingly looking for below the line strategies of which PR is leading. You know that PR is more cost effective Naira for Naira than most above the line channels. We also find that with the growth of foreign direct investment (FDI) into Nigeria; a lot of these companies come from an environment where the use of PR is rife. So they are making demands here. We are increasingly finding ourselves in the position where there is increasing demand for our services; not just in the number of people who want our service but also in terms of quality of work they expect from us. So we are being forced constantly to raise our game and I think that PR is one of the most important functions of passing the brand message now.

How will you rate the level of PR development in the various sectors in Nigeria i.e Business, Government, Sports, Arts, Culture and so on?
Generally, it’s not where it should be; it could be better. There has been a lot of improvement and I even see signs of greater growth but it’s definitely not where it should be. There’s still tremendous room for improvement. You mentioned some sectors like Art, Culture, sports. Those are specialist areas that have little or no PR support. There are opportunities across the landscape, it’s for people to look at these opportunities and begin to utilise them. For example, there’s a PR agency in Nigeria that specializes in corporate and social responsibility. That is their forte. They’ve claimed that space. There is another one that specializes in technology brands. So there’s room for specialization if you want. Financial services, art and culture, entertainment, sports; these are areas that have huge opportunities. We don’t have many PR specialist agencies yet but I see them coming up as people begin to find critical mass in these sectors.
How effectively has PR been used in the building of successful brands in Nigeria?
I don’t think there is any brand that is successful, that has not been driven by some level of PR. The best way to build a brand is to have an integrated approach. What PR does for you is that you have the opportunity of telling a well rounded story about the brand. There is so much that you can tell about a brand that you cannot say through advertising. But with PR you can consistently message different aspects of the brand and tell a well rounded story which is very great in building equity for the brand.

What are the critical challenges facing PR practice in Nigeria?
The challenges are at two levels. Environmental challenges such as lack of infrastructure, work ethics, access to finance. All these problems are generic. But specifically in PR, we have issues of capacity, training, standards; the regulatory environment is not as strong as it should be, we are working at getting that better. We have a serious problem with lack of understanding of the kind of business that we really do and the kind of value that we can deliver to clients, and this is particularly painful when you have it on the client side; when you have clients who do not understand the value they can get for working with professionals in the business. There are also other issues I would not want to talk about now, but the good news is that we are constantly working at improving and overcoming these challenges. So I would rather focus more on the positives than the challenges because we are going to overcome the challenges.

As the vice president of PRCAN, what efforts are you making to make the association more vibrant and relevant in the polity?
The executive committee, to which I belong, has a three point agenda which is to grow capacity, improve the standard of practice in terms of quality of service that we render, and also to grow the market for PR. To grow the market for PR, move towards the public sector where there is a gaping demand for professional PR which those there are not getting due to whether they don’t know where to look or they are not interested or knowledgeable enough to know what they need. Those are the three areas we are looking at and we are working on them and doing our best. We’ve had series of successful training programmes which have continued to deliver value and we have all kinds of engagement platforms to meet especially the public sector to see how we can engage with them and get them to begin to appreciate the value of professional PR service. We are also working at improving standards, working with NIPR to strengthen the code of practice and enforcement of professional standard in the practice of PR in Nigeria.

Media craft is 10 this year. What is the success strategy behind Media Craft?
I would want you to know that all the blue chip accounts we got, we got them on merit. Mediacraft is founded on a tripod; faith in God, confidence in our abilities or professionalism and the power of vision. The major secret of our success is our abiding commitment to professionalism for the highest possible standard in everything we do. We try to be as professional as possible. It comes at a huge cost. Sometimes you don’t make as much money as you should, but I would rather pass on some money than deliver sub-quality work. That has been our strength. That is why today, 90% of the new business that we get are referrals. We let our work speak for us. And if you are going to let your work speak for you, then you better do a damn good job. And there’s also a very robust vision that drives this organization; vision to make Media Craft in all ramifications the number one PR firm in Nigeria. The vision is solid and still on course and we are gradually moving towards it.

Like you said, Media Craft has worked on MDA accounts. How is it different from working on the accounts of small and medium-sized companies?
You know the environment in which we operate. It’s sad to say but there appears to be more respect for professionalism and merit in the private sector than in the government sector because the private sector is profit driven and profit driven means you have to deliver. On the other hand, government is not profit driven. So usually you find that more interests are at play when you are dealing with government business. It’s unfortunate that there’s no overriding zeal to succeed in government sector and that is something we need to change. We need to entrench the culture of meritocracy in government business and it begins with getting the people in government to understand why they need quality professional help. It’s quite clear when you see the way government communication is handled that they need a lot of professional help. The question is do they realize that they need help? Do they know where to go? And are they willing to get such help to upscale the process of public communication in Nigeria? These are things we are working on and we know it will get better. We’ve seen a ray of light that few professionals now work for government agencies and we’ve seen the difference of employing professionals. I guess that over time the culture will permeate the entire space.

Mediacraft Associates just launched an industry sector-based online news and business intelligence platform with the address www.bizwatchnigeria.com. What is the rationale behind this?

First of all from the strategic point of view, look at the Nigerian demographics. 70% of Nigerians are less than 35 years old. 60% are less than 25 years old. We have a young population and most these people are “Netisms” meaning citizens of the net. They were born into the internet age. They all play in that space. So if you have a young population, who are the present and the future and you want to begin to get them to show interest in business early, you need to talk to them where they play and receive their information. So it’s inevitable that everyone should begin to look at the internet now. The statistics are incredible. There are 45 million Nigerians on the internet and counting; with close to 10 million on Facebook alone. You can’t ignore that market.
Two, it’s also a backup integration strategy for Media Craft because it helps our business. We are trying to build a community of people with business interests online which we can offer to our clients as value. And once we build traffic to that kind of site; imagine having over 1 million people visiting that site every day, then imagine the kind of value it would present to my clients. Total readership for newspapers in Nigeria is not up to 1 million. Finally, we at Mediacraft always pride ourselves in trying to raise the bar and stakes in PR practice. And this is another practical effort of ours to raise the bar of PR practice in Nigeria. It is sector driven. Depending on the sector you are interested in, you should be able to get on our portal and get up to date information at the click of a button. That’s the objective.

What is your vision for Mediacraft by its 15th anniversary?
By the 15th year of Mediacraft, there would be Mediacraft Associates and there would be other PR firms. We would be clear head and shoulders above the competition. That’s the vision. We are gradually working towards it, putting things in place for it and I think it’s evidently achievable.

Do you think Nigerian companies in the Marketing communications industry require some level of protection from their more established western based counterparts. Let’s have your take on the renewed interest of major global agencies opening up shops directly in Nigeria as against the former practice of affiliation with former agencies?
There is no way you can protect them as the world is now a global village. There is no longer a Nigerian standard; everything you do now must be in accordance with global standard. With the advent of the internet, there are no borders anymore. These days, you can be a PR firm in UK and service a client in Nigeria. They don’t have to see you physically. How many of our clients come here? We do most of our communication via email. These days with email, teleconferencing, video conferencing, you don’t need to be physically there.
The challenge really is that we must put our hearts together and raise the bar of our practice to international standard. It is not negotiable! It is not about being protected because these foreign investors coming in, some of them are used to certain level of support services and they would demand that kind of services. If they don’t get it here, they would bring along their support agencies like we are already seeing, and set up shop here in Nigeria. So it’s up to us to raise our game. There could be some sort of merit in asking for protection, I don’t know what nature of protection that can be, but fundamentally, the best protection we can have as practitioners is to raise the bar of our practice to be internationally competitive and be able to hold our own against anybody coming from anywhere. It’s the dynamics that we cannot run away from. There might be some level of legislation at some point to give us some level of protection or whatever, my candid opinion and what is critical is that you must raise the bar of your practice to be internationally competitive.
Another angle is that, why must we all be chasing the multinationals? Why can’t we look at the SME segment and see if there are small companies you can work for and grow with. It might be a longer route but it’s valid for position. We have sports, art, hospitality and other various segments that are still virgin in terms of support. Someone told me the other day that travel for example is big business in India. Nobody has really researched it in Nigeria, but I won’t be surprised if it’s a big business that has not been realized here. It isn’t now, it’s surely growing. But is anybody looking in that direction? There are other small niches you can play in. We don’t all have to chase the MTNs and the Shells of this world; you can pitch your tent with promising SMEs and grow with them. You might not make much money in the early days but if you grow with them, as they grow you grow.
My point in a nutshell is that rather than us dissipating energy on fighting those people coming from abroad, we should raise our game. If Dangote had wasted his time on abating imported cement, he would not make any headway. He kept improving on what he’s doing and at a time, the foreign guy were like it doesn’t make sense coming to that market, it has already been taken. That is the future. That is the mind set I want all of us to have. Let’s raise our bar to international standard even if we have to borrow, buy, or rent resources from abroad.

How can we make Nigeria a great brand?
That’s a tough question. About branding, there is the substance and there is the communication. You cannot make a brand simply by communication. No matter how embellished you messages are, when people experience the brand and there is no coincidence between the brand and the message, it can never work. We need some kind of reengineering of Nigeria as a whole. For example, look at the touch points. What are the major touch points for Nigeria? Where do you encounter the Nigerian brand? Airports, Seaports, Websites, Embassies; these are touch points. What are we doing about these touch points? What do you find in Nigerian embassies abroad, Nigerian Seaport, Websites and Airports? We need to clean up all of these things.
You can say all the beautiful messages in the world but if at the point of experience, what people find is different from what you have been saying, then your brand building project is a waste of time. So we need to first build a strong internal brand and then externalize. The challenges are that we focus more on sending messages, but no amount of message can sell a defective product. Another thing we can look at is that we can take a single big idea and build our new vision around it. South Africa branded around Nelson Mandela, some other countries brand around tourism, Brazil branded around football. We can pick something positive that Nigeria is known for worldwide, then build our brand communication around that. We’ve not identified that yet. And until we do that which is the fundamental thing, we have not started.

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