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Nigeria's Search for Lion at the Cannes: 10 Keys

By Akin Adesola

We are angry! Really pissed off! Who wouldn't be? We take our jobs seriously. We take advertising seriously. Because it is serious business. For some seventy odd years, advertising agencies have been toiling away, building brands and along the way creating some of the most recognizable names on store shelves. We work unholy hours and lose precious weekends. We find ourselves dealing with ill-informed clients, badly done research and censorship boards that live in another age. Yet, we don't get the recognition we deserve for our labour. Year in, year out, we get overlooked by the most respected International awards. We don't even get a foot in the door. Simply put, the Lions have evaded us. The Loeries have refused to perch on our shingles. The Clios, One Shows, D&ADs; - they are all no-go areas.

But hold on. Are we justified to cry foul? Are we right to feel so aggrieved? What exactly is holding us down and how can we surmount it? Do we have a blueprint for trapping the Lion in its den? Like everything else, providing a blueprint for winning awards on the international stage is at best a controversial, almost presumptuous exercise. Yet, shying away from controversy is a sure way to ensure that we never get there. In these short minutes, I will attempt to sketch a rough roadmap to the Lion's lair. This is not the usual advice on how to improve your creativity. Too much of that already exists. These are thoughts based on factual observation and honed by years of agonizing over the snub. Take it at your own risk. But remember that in risk lies the greatest opportunity.

The Ten Keys
Here then are the 10 keys in no particular order:

1. The Cannes Lions reward first and foremost The CRAFT of Advertising. As Michael Newman says in his book, "The 22 Irrefutable Laws of Advertising":

"'s a craft, more like a medieval stonemason's workshop (except that stone is easier to crack than a truly persuasive idea.) Advertising's role is as a transmitting device between marketing and consumer - it translates rational marketing into a different and more compelling language. Into the dialect of emotions, the fears, spirit and even the funny bone. Great advertising is at once personal and universal, drawing people together in a shared experience...and when it's done with enough inspiration, like great pop music, it elevates its success to something more like art."

Nigerian advertising lacks craft. And we allow too many excuses for maintaining that lack. For instance, how many of us have bothered to read Michael Newman's book, or Jim Aitchinson's "Cutting Edge Advertising?" to mention just two. The most experienced practitioners do not have a framework for handing down their precious knowledge to younger ones. The way out? We must develop the craft. In recent times there have been a sprinkling of training initiatives to help develop Creative talent. These efforts must be supported.

2. There are rules - written and unwritten - that determine what wins and what doesn't. The only way to know these rules is to learn them and become familiar with them. To become familiar with them, go to where they are made. Most agencies are still unwilling to sponsor their creative teams to the world's most prestigious advertising festival. And Cannes is not only for creatives. It is a unique networking opportunity. Each year it features a rich programme of Seminars and workshops that will benefit everyone in attendance. Attend Cannes!

3. Don't waste your time on clients who don't encourage cutting-edge work. Service them for the money. John Webster, the legendary Creative Director of London's BMP DDB once charged,

"Bad advertising is a pollution. Advertising that's infantile, as much of it is, treating the public like idiots, and irritating them, and shoving and pushing, I find that a pollution."

And yet, that is what many of our clients make us do. Bad advertising. Chief Akin Odunsi, the highly respected chairman of the Rosabel Group once told me of a conversation he had with a senior official of Cadbury's who had asked him why the agency never produced award winning advertising for them the way Rosabel had done for some other clients. Chief's response was that companies like Cadbury, Unilever, Procter & Gamble, Reckitt & Coleman would never win advertising laurels, because those clients were too meddlesome in the creative process. So, when you find a client that allows you space, pull out all the stops.

4. Develop yourself and develop your people. The most repeated excuse agency owners give for not investing in quality training of their people is that no sooner had you spent so much money on them, than they begin to look for greener pastures. But that is not an excuse. When you give people reason to believe that you are interested in their long-term career prospects, they are likely to remain loyal to you. So agencies need to begin to invest more seriously in the growth of their people. Don't be satisfied.

5. The Nigerian Lion will come from a Nigeria-centric ad with a theme that is globally relevant. Also, it must be simple, relevant yet unexpected. Again according to Michael Newman in the introduction to the book:

"Great Advertising is created through a combination of deep analytical skills with the subtle nuances of our truest blood-nature. Advertising is willful imagination. Applied to marketing. It's a discipline. The only art is the creation of symbols and stories that catch the fundamental truths of everyday life."

6. Nigerian advertising awards must become credible. Notice that I did not say "more" credible. The awards as conducted presently are too subjective. In all the years we have held advertising award shows in Nigeria, have we ever bothered to compile a comprehensive showcase of the best advertising and design work ever produced in Nigeria? How do we learn to avoid what has been done before? Such a compilation would help us to see where we are coming from, how far along we are and how much further we have to travel. In essence, they help us to benchmark our work against the best in the world.

7. The Key to the Nigerian LION lies in the hands of fresh young talent. Though creative in their own right, the bulk of current Nigerian creative talent is too unexposed, too poorly baked, too tainted with old misconceptions to deliver the goods.

8. India is currently one of the leading nations in terms of advertising creativity. They achieved this by first developing the knowledge base. Next they grew their ideas on their culture. They exported Indian humor and created award-winning ads around it. What do we have to export that is universally recognizable?

9. Run away from Image Banks. They curtail creativity. They are only good for jump-starting ideas, not copying. A truly original idea will be difficult to find in Corbis. Think up visual scenarios in your head first. If you find an image that matches it perfectly in Corbis, great. If not, create it yourself.

10. Don't copy others. Don't rehash old and used ideas. At the CANNES Lions, emphasis is placed on the search for truly original thinking. For example, as much as it is touted for creativity, the Bank PHB campaigns from Insight won't cut it. Nice bold colours, big budget commercials, heavy ad spend… but no truly original thinking.

What is the point in all of this? That in the search for the Nigerian Lion, we should take an aggressive, long-term developmental view. We are not quite ready yet, but initiatives like organizing the Young Lions competition is a firm step in the right direction. (Thank you, Nnamdi Ndu and Chini Productions). The demons to conquer are still plentiful, but we can knock them off one by one.

Akin Adesola, former Creative Director at Insight Grey and SO&U Saatchi & Saatchi is CEO of The Newton Project Room. This paper is excerpted from his submission at the roundtable on Nigeria's search for a Lion at Cannes organized by M2, Nigeria's authoritative journal on marketing & management.


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