Skin for Skin: An Author’s Lens Between the Conquests, Intense Battles and “Betrayals” in Beloved Industry
The marketing communications industry witnessed a harvest of books in 2018. A move, industry watchers described as a step in the right direction. The three most critical books by practitioners include “The Villagers” by Feyi Olubodun, then sitting CEO, Insight Publicis; “To Every Man A Brain” by Kehinde Salami, President, Experiential Marketing Association of Nigeria (EXMAN) and “Skin for Skin” by Lolu Akinwunmi, former APCON Chairman and Group CEO, Prima Garnet Africa. This shows the industry is coming up and coming up good!
“Skin for Skin” is 392-page well-written prose that succinctly tells the story of one of the most successful and traumatized agencies in the country. Like the Author warned in the preface, setting a mix-grill tone for the book, he noted, it will be a tough game to decipher if this is a spiritual or professional book!
As the true Christian the Author professes to be, it will be difficult to separate spirituality from business in the book. This is because most of his decisions – be it around Prima Garnet or its businesses are steep in spirituality. It’s, therefore, an uphill task to separate between Lolu, the businessman and Lolu, the minister of God!
The Author who is the founder and Group CEO, Prima Garnet Ogilvy (later rechristened Prima Garnet Africa) in the usual “In the Beginning” stuff, tells the reader how he came into Advertising and his meteoric rise, thanks to being a teachable young man, always willing to learn.
In Lintas, where he cut his professional teeth, the Author demonstrated superlative prowess, integrity, and professionalism while learning from masters such as I.S Moemeke, Ted Mukoro, Bola Oyeledun among others. To underscore his dedication, he wrote, “Between 1982 and 1986, I got three promotions from Assistant Manager to Senior Manager. I was single and totally committed to the job and fiercely loyal to Lintas. My annual assessment indicated a robust future within the organisation. Then in 1988 I resigned”.
While the Author enjoyed and savoured the fun, prestige, training, comfort, and exposure the profession offered while at Lintas, he was spotted and headhunted by Alan Olabode, Managing Director, Promoserve. As revealed in the book, the movement to Promoserve was the hand of God for him to learn the humility of the game when it gets “bad” beyond reasonable!
He painted a vivid picture of the decay and rot he found in Promoserve this way, “N50 to buy stationery was a challenge”- Pg 27. It, therefore, became an instructive learning curve for the Author. However, working with others, the comatose agency got back on its feet and the seed for Prima Garnet was also sown albeit inadvertently.
The Author made the reader understand that the issue of doubtful integrity against the management signposted his departure from Promoserve. However, this was not peculiar to Promoserve alone. “Many businesses are driven by corruption. Advertising is no different and Nigeria no exception”, he noted on – Page 32.
In Chapter 5, the Author acting out his Christian belief, responded in the affirmative to the contentious issue on the possibility of “running an agency based on Christian principles especially in Nigeria”. Without knowing why, “I remember I went on my knee, swore and told him (Allan) that with God it was possible”. This was the first kernel of the Prima Garnet seed.
Though, doubts began to mount as the vision began to form and began to chrystalise which is the bane of many a number of young entrepreneurs. “A week later, as the Holy Spirit will direct him, Pastor Oduyemi would make uncannily accurate remarks about my plans as if he was privy to them”, Lolu wrote. This became for me, one of the most moving parts of the book that set the tone and mode for the then embryonic Prima Garnet.
In a way, while doing this, the book brought to the reader’s attention Promoserve’s precarious situation and ailing fortune as it then applied to a number of agencies and still does to some current players.
“Promoserve certainly had a lot of character”, the Author wonders, “That so many years of active and professional service could so casually be lost because of absence of vision….” With this hindsight and current trends, the Author did enormous justice to issue of integrity, vision professionalism and selflessness in running great agencies. All of which and more contributed to Prima Garnet success and staying power to weather the storm, when the hard time reared its ugly head.
Phase two of the book featuring the sub-theme “… Still on the Power of Vision” quickly established that the emerging agency as a creative force and advertising powerhouse to reckon with. It’s famous “We’ll take your brief to town” cleverly hit the right cord and set the tone for success. As a pious Christian and yet ‘positively’ clever businessman, the Author confirmed on most occasions, despite the agency’s established knack for uncommon creativity, an unseen “third hand” always intercede to make an inroad for the agency even in difficult terrains.
Like an irreverent minister, the Author calls out the specialists in the underhand version of the business which said was and is rife, he has this stern warning, “If you are involved in these nefarious activities, and if so far you haven’t suffered for doing them, God is either giving you the chance to stop, or is fattening you for a big slaughter”.
Chapter 13 confirms the obvious, “Nigeria is a tough terrain for agencies”. Bringing this puzzle to life, most of this chapter attested to how the demand for sleaze and such unethical practice cost good agencies legitimate businesses. On this occasion, however, Lolu gave kudos to Mr. Jacobs Ajekigbe, MD, First Bank for justifiably coming to the rescue of his team already marked down for the slaughter’s slab. Mr. Ajekigbe like the “third hand” intervened and restored the business.
Similarly, the Writer called out V-Mobile (Now Airtel) and principals of an unnamed Korean electronic company on accounts of unbecoming business conducts but no one was able to rescue the agency on this though it stood its ground. “Sadly, it’s a growing menace if care is not taken will destroy the profession”, the Author lamented on Page 129.
There is no gain-saying the fact that Prima Garnet had a meteoric rise in the Ogilvy WPP family with the Author’s appointment to the board of Ogilvy Africa. Of course, it came with privileges and growing respect for the Prima Garnet Ogilvy agency brand and its CEO. The impressive businesses and accounts won by the Nigerian agency some single-handedly turns the agency the centre of attraction and envy from Nigeria, to Ghana, Kenya, South Africa, and London.
The agency’s fast-rising profile and many conquests became its Achilles’ heals, Chapter 17 seems to suggest. It details Martin Sorrels and WPP’s insatiable quests to cunningly take controlling equity shares in the Prima Garnet Group.
Unsuccessful, according to the book, Bharat Thakrar and his Scangroup’s shenanigans were introduced to the equation and the battle-line, became more intense. The Author detailed every step of the protracted battle that almost spelled doom for the Prima Garnet brand. This is the main focal point of the book with enormous learning for industry practitioners and individual entrepreneur.
In and out of subsequent chapters, the Author discusses this “Mother of all battles” and its excruciating effects on the business, his person, finances, family and suppliers and the industry at large.
But thankfully, the Author and his team had the last laugh! From boardroom wars to waiting game or delaying strategy, blackmails, threats, legal tussles etc. This aspect alone could have made an entire book. No wonder the Author earlier hinted three or four books could be easily written from “Skin for Skin”. This is true.
The battle which featured Sorrell, Bharat and their “minions” against the Nigerian agency, offers agency operators unquantifiable learning on affiliation, growing organically or otherwise; the issue of the having the right board in place, professionalism and standing it all (having a thick skin) in the face of oppression and victimization.
The role of the “unseen hand” was quite evident in the battle. To paraphrase the Author, every one of the assailants’ next moves was revealed to him one way or the other. Find out in the book, embattle Mr. Akinwunmi received very sensitive mail that was supposed to be confidential among the “enemies”! Such is the awesome power of the “third hand” in this “Titanic” battle.
The Author also gave a worthy dose of the several appointments and calls to service – such as AAPN now Association of Advertising Agencies of Nigeria, AAAN President (Oh the Abuja epic battle for the soul of AAPN could easily be another book on its own); Chairmanship, Advertising Practitioners Council of Nigeria (APCON); CEO, FGN’s Brand Nigeria project – “Good People, Great Nation”; formation of the ACAPR; Chairman Business Committee, all helped in no small measure and equipped him for the battle ahead.
It is evident that the Author may not have come out of the debacle totally unscathed, Bharat and his Scangroup never remained the same while WPP’s Ogilvy is just about picking up its pieces. In the book, Lolu was just short of saying “Sorrell, (former WPP Lord), got what he deserved” with his unceremonious departure from WPP.
How was the case settled? Yes, an out of court agreement was reached. The conditions involved were left hanging with the reader left to wonder! The Author never talked about the dollar-denominated huge out-of-court settlement that is gradually breeding life back into the comatose Prima Garnet operation. The battle paid off for the Author, Lolu the dogged fighter, maybe Prima Garnet Africa and of course, the biggest beneficiary being the Nigeria ad industry!
Chapters 32 and 33 are celebratory and comical. Helpers of the Prima Garnet such as Olorogun Otega Emerhor, Dewunmi Ogunsanya, Fidelia Osime, Jacob Moyo Ajekigbe, and others were celebrated and inducted into Akinwunmi’s “Prima Garnet Africa Hall of Fame” while the latter dished out odious descriptions for some spoilers. The Author captured these “characters” under laughable titles such as Mr. Kukuru Sambe; Mr. Greedy and Mr. Lackey. A comic relief sort of!
The 37th Chapter is another loaded portion. With visible annoyance, the Author stoutly opposed what he detests. In a satirical style, he narrates he had often gotten the short end of the stick in his dealing with employees who finally betrayed him. In the 4-page strongly worded chapter, the Author postulates on character, capacity, and spirituality. If you are an industry player, names will pop at you, for the wrong or right reasons, as you devour these pages with curiousity.
Part three and concluding section of the book opened with a quotation from the Bible “…And the rain descended, the floods came, and the wind blew and beat on the house; and it did not fall, for it was founded on the rock” Matthew 7.24. The reprinted some correspondences exchanged with parties to the debacle, defining business correspondent with clients, paid advertorials published in response to “campaign of calumny” to protect the Author’s integrity as annexure.
Despite all odds, Chapter Fifty-One, last in the book beams a ray of hope. “The sun Shines again in Prima Garnet, hope has been rekindled”, with a flurry of activities in the offing.
While it is obvious that a review of this nature can hardly cover much of the Skin for Skin 392-page, it will not be out of place to pick on a few areas that look odd in the midst of the obvious brilliance and author’s passion for a better industry.
Here, it is felt that the Author failed to do justice to the Prima Garnet brand. Despite its brilliance and over two decades of dazzling history, such agency should have to its credits, agencies or companies founded and or headed by ex-staff. Success is measured in part when a leader recreates himself in others ditto organisations. No doubt these scions abound, it, however, beats one hollow why the Author denied this enigma of an agency, this due credit?
A closely related question which begs for answer throughout the book is who were/are the creative “fire-force” behind the agency’s phenomenal great works aside from the Founder/CEO? Perhaps this lends credence to why employees don’t stay too long in one company. Sure, they might have been paid salaries but a little recognition in a ‘historical’ package of this nature will send the right signal to the industry and the up-coming folks. Methinks, it hurts no one, rather confers authourity, respect and enormous dose of large heart on the Author to acknowledge such heroes and heroines that help give character to the agency.
One is hell sure, Prima Garnet as a great agency would have produced scores of brilliant creative, client service and media wizards! Who and where are they? dead or alive? Definitely, some individuals would have stood out and still stand out, think they deserve a little mention at least in passing, all for the sake of the Prima Garnet brand.
Maybe, just maybe Lolu’s assertion on Page 302 could be responsible for the ‘deliberate’ skip? Full of regrets, he says in part, “… we still ended up with two or three cases of people who spent enough time with us but after they left to set up, ended up behaving in ways that still make us feel very ashamed that they were ever under our tutelage… I have deep regrets about the black legs”. Anyway, it’s the Author’s prerogative, what to include and what to leave out of his prized book!
Elegant prose, a good grasp of the story and events make Skin for Skin a delightful and enlightening read. The book stands out in morals, business etiquettes, decorum, professionalism and godliness. It will be a fantastic companion for students of marketing communications and investors in the industry.
Except for a few typos here and there, Skin for Skin is a fantastic book written with utmost brilliance. You can see the ‘passion and venom’ in the writer! The book’s many areas of divergent views will definitely ignite or inspire others to pick up their pens either in response to some ‘contentious’ issues or to just to emulate this Titan of a first time Author. Definitely, more is expected from Lolu’s table as he promised, it’s a “short break”. Mr. Akinwunmi plans to do a few more books on the Prima Garnet Africa Group and other related subjects. These will, therefore, afford him the opportunity to revisit and address some of the observations noted in this review.