One agency is trying to change the face of advertising in Nigeria.

By Yash Egami

For Nigerian-based Insight Communications, the question of whether advertising in mainland ?Africa has a long way to go or whether it's people's attitudes toward the region that needs change was heavily underscored at the most recent Cannes Festival.

"My partners and I applied for visas to attend," recalls Executive Creative Director John de Villiers. "They were denied by the French Consulate while mine was granted. They looked at my partners and then they looked at me and said, ‘You are allowed to enter, they are not.'"

"Now you tell me why?" he says, still seething from the incident.

It was the sort of unequal treatment that he had grown accustomed to since joining the agency in 2001. De Villiers hails from South Africa and is white; his partners at Insight are Nigerian and black. Cape Town and Johannesburg are seen as modern and hip, while Lagos is not. And even though his agency is Nigerian owned, his bosses still have a tough time gaining legitimacy overseas and even in other parts of Africa.

Though he has seen first-hand the pros and cons to working in Nigeria and South Africa, De Villiers feels that Nigeria's advertising scene has the potential to offer a richer, deeper experience. "South African advertising is very pale and the culture of the communication in that part of the world reflects that myopia," he says. "I sometimes joke with my South African colleagues and tell them that I come from their future. One day South African communications firms will have to tell themselves the truth and recognize that their current advertising vernacular is outdated and only relates to the ‘haves' and not to the ‘have-nots.'"

By his own admission, advertising in Nigeria is still in its early stages, but it is slowly catching up. Insight has been handling accounts from banking to beverages, with their most recent work for Heineken's Nigerian distributor bringing them to New York for several days of shooting.

Amaechi Okobi and Tony Agenmonmen, both from Nigerian Breweries, describe the advertising scene in their home country as a "potpourri" of styles.

"Sometimes you'll find very sophisticated advertising and then sometimes you'll find cartoons," explains Okobi. "If you were to watch a typical channel in Nigeria, sometimes you'll probably ?think that you're in Europe or the US. But then there's also some very basic advertising that's ?local and indigenous."

Because of satellite television, the Internet and globalization in general, advertising standards in Nigeria are rising to the same levels as Western countries. Nigerian Breweries' latest television campaign for Heineken has a significant six-figure budget and high production values that are becoming more common in the country, especially with international clients.

"If you think about the fact that we're all the way here in New York to shoot a 60-second ad, people in Nigeria take it fairly seriously because the Nigerian consumer is a lot more sophisticated than one might think," says Agenmonmen. "You want to give them something that can compare to whatever he or she would see anywhere around the world."

Adds Okobi, "Our consumers are exposed to MTV, so they know what is current. They know what advertising looks like for Budweiser or any other brand, so they want to see advertising for our brands on television that matches other advertising. So that's why it cannot be anything less."

Clients from all over the world have started to take notice of the region's untapped market, especially considering its favorable economic climate. "Nigeria is blessed with a vibrant cash economy which is oil and trade based," says De Villiers. "The country has a potential critical mass of around 120 million people and the economy is firing on all cylinders. The city we operate from, Lagos, is Nigeria's business capital with a population of around 16 million people. By 2010, they estimate that Lagos will be the second biggest city in the world after Mumbai."

Aside from the financial aspects, the new business opportunities present a chance for Insight to make its mark on the global advertising scene. Though affiliated with Grey and WPP, the agency is still 100-percent Nigerian owned, which makes it the largest black-owned agency on the planet.

Says De Villiers, "Our communications ideas are rooted in a vastly novel set of assumptions, truths and insights. I love being here because I am able to positively encourage our creative staff to confidently leverage these differences of approach so that the end effect is a world-class set of communication ideas and tools that are truly Nigeria-centric and the product of the real core Africa."

"I hope that soon our independent approach will enable us to break through and develop an alternative way of communicating. If I was a seeker of recognition, I would hope that one day we would be appreciated by the rest of the world for creating something different to the style of advertising you see at Cannes."

To read more about Insight into Africa, pick up the latest fall issue of one. a magazine.

To download a pdf version, click here.

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