How Advertising ‘Shamefully’ Became My Career – Alausa
Abolaji Alausa, the young creative director of the Noah’s Ark ad agency in Lagos, Nigeria, majored in painting at Yaba College, got his first job in the industry with Rosabel Leo Burnett in 2006, and then did a five-year stint with DDB, Lagos. Thanks to his efforts, Noah’s Ark has become the first Nigerian agency ever to have had their work featured in Lürzer’s Archive. Michael Weinzettl, who enlisted Abolaji Alausa’s help for the jury of last year’s Lürzer’s Archive Student of the Year competition, talked to ‘Bolaji about his career and advertising in West Africa.
L.A.: Hi, ‘Bolaji, how does a guy from Lagos, Nigeria, find himself at Miami Ad School Berlin?
Alausa: You shouldn’t believe everything you read on the internet. I never did. I attended Miami Ad School Berlin through teleconferencing for just a few months; it was an introductory package titled “How to make great campaigns – A taste of Miami Ad School.
L.A.: Please tell us about your early influences.
Abolaji Alausa: That list is rather long and biased: the late Frank Frazetta, Moebius (Jean Giraud), Joe Kubert great artists that I never got the opportunity to thank. Siku’s (Ajibayo Akinsiku’s) work on Judge Dredd, Simon Bisley’s work on ABC Warriors, and Jim Lee’s early work on Xmen …these guys literally drove me to art school.
L.A.: When and how did you first get exposed to advertising and when did you get interested in it? When, in other words, did you decide that it might be a career for you?
Alausa: I’ll be honest here: I shared the same disdain fine artists have for commercial artists early on. The ad boys in school were the unserious ones. All the ad boys cared about was freelancing and making money. God forbid I joined them and lose my soul. After publishing comics, painting full-time and both were slow in paying the bills. Advertising shamefully became the career of choice.
L.A.: After you graduated from school and “sold your soul,” how did you proceed? What were the next steps in your career?
Alausa: I walked into Rosabel Leo Burnett with nothing to show but my published comic books, bragging that I could best any illustrator in the house. The Group Heads, smiled and gave me a copy test instead. I managed to impress them enough to get the job. After which I moved to DDB and stayed for five years, where I won Young Lions, and picked up an Epica.
L.A.: Since you are our first interviewee from West Africa, can you tell us a bit about the history of advertising there?
Alausa: The first Nigerian agency opened shop in 1928; expatriates dominated the scene until an indigenization law in the 70s led to Nigerian ownership. The 90s saw a rush for international affiliations: Lowe, Grey, Saatchi & Saatchi,etc. Creative directors are brought in from foreign countries. Now, there have been cases where some of these candidates excelled organizationally and creatively in terms of helping the shops woo multinational clients and, along the way, soaking in local acclaim. But those cases are few and far between.
L.A.: What is the idea behind calling your agency “Noah’s Ark”?
Alausa: First, we wanted an organic name, one that could start a story because that’s what this business is about. Scriptural clichés aside, what we’re trying to do with Noah’s Ark is create a truly safe haven for “creative animals” and save brands from the storm of sameness. It’s the pinnacle of a life’s work. Our founder/MD/ECD, Lanre Adisa, has been around for some years, and he never thought he’d set up shop. But once he decided to, he knew exactly what to do away with in the old model.
L.A.: What are some of the challenges of running an agency like yours in the region? What about the competition?
Alausa: Stiff challenges. It’s never easy to break away from the norm. From a planning and strategy standpoint, we do away with all the bollocks and hit hard on the insight. That can be strange to boardrooms steeped in buzzwords. On the execution front, we’re always trying to break taboos – while maintaining relevance to the central idea, of course.
L.A.: Who are some of your clients and what work are you particularly proud of?
Alausa: The Indomie “Mama Do Good” TVC is one of the most popular commercials in Nigeria in recent times; for families, it’s some kind of national anthem. The Indomie Oriental Fried Noodles (Ife Bronze Head) print work, Power Pasta “Bowser and Bluto, Also worthy of mention is our viral video for VConnect, an online search engine for local businesses. Within a week of being posted on YouTube, it recorded almost two million views.
L.A.: What is the state of advertising in general in West Africa? Would you say there is a specific style that you don’t see anywhere else?
Alausa: The Nigerian and West African ad landscape has remained largely unchanged for decades: one campaign at the beginning of the year, occasional retail ads, PSAs, national holiday ads, a promo to jerk up sales towards the last quarter of the year, calendar and Christmas briefs in December to reward loyalty.
L.A.: Who are the targets for the ads you create? Who do you advertise to? A minority of the population in Nigeria?
Alausa: As the brief demands. A few campaigns are just for Lagos, while most are nationwide. In which case, several translations have to be done. Or we just run with pidgin, which cuts across the 250-plus ethnic groups.
L.A.: Would you say there is a big difference in advertising to people in your country? In Brazil, for example, there was for a long time (or still is) a high illiteracy rate among the population. This forced Brazilian advertising to appeal primarily through visuals, which led to lots of brilliant no-copy work from there, which then, I believe, influenced advertising worldwide.
Alausa: I gleefully await such a transformation. A recent UN report puts our overall literacy at 61.3% against Brazil’s 88.6%. So all hands must be on deck to ensure this happens. In the Ark, we always strive to strip down to the barest, and we get away with it with clients like Indomie.
L.A.: Who are some of the people in advertising you admire most?
Alausa: For shops: Barton F. Graf 9000, New York; Duval Guillaume Modem, to name a few. By default, I respect most of the big names, but the people I really admire are the guys who dared the same kind of odds we are facing right now and have triumphed. They inspire me. Karpat Polat and Ali Bati for Turkey, Ali Ali and Maged Nassar for Egypt.
L.A.: How do you get the inspiration for your work?
Alausa: Since we can’t all bring our muses to work, and have to crank out the ideas within the four corners of the office, over and over again. I just get whoever is in the room, which in most cases is Yemi Arawore, my associate, and I start talking. And in the course of that, we often stumble on the right question.
L.A.: What about digital work? Has that become as important in West Africa as it has in technologically more advanced countries?
Alausa: It’s gaining some traction. For starters, most brands now have one form of social media engagement or the other. There are a few multimedia shops that have made the digital transition. I don’t have the figures, but our computer and mobile usage is equally high,
L.A.: Can you describe what an average day in your agency looks like?
Alausa: Energetic. The team is young and driven; they completely get what’s at stake. Sessions are held on most briefs in the early hours, then the teams break away to flesh out synopses and comps. Evenings are for reviews. We all see what we have, and most times we’re dissatisfied so we give it a little more push.
L.A.: What are some of your (and Noah’s Ark’s) future projects and aims?
Abolaji Alausa: Our aim is to put a permanent dot for West Africa on the Gunn Report. Cheesy pun intended. And build formidable brands while we’re at it.
L.A.: What do you think of advertising awards? I know you’ve been to Cannes. How was that from your perspective? What struck you most about this experience?
Abolaji Alausa: Advertising awards are extremely important. I hear a lot of jaded creatives and shops saying otherwise, only to realize they’ve won their fair share. You hear words like “Only the bottom line matters” around here. Our industry has been around for almost a century, so it’s fair to say the books haven’t been bad, but what about the shelves?
L.A.: I know you’re very much in the know about great advertising from all over. What were the campaigns in the past year that impressed you most and why?
Abolaji Alausa: Lots of campaigns. I will mention a few. There’s a magical spot by McCann Oslo titled “Grandpa’s magic trick, Barton F. Graf 9000 spots for Ragu, BBH New York’s “Fear no Susan Glenn” for Axe– and, of course, “Dumb Ways to Die” by McCann Melbourne, for black humor.