The Nigerian Media Revolution and the Digital Blindside – by Emeka Ezeagu
One of the more endearing stories I have experienced in my half-decade in the advertising business was when an agency I worked for charged a client 600 million Naira for a TV commercial. The year was 2014, and the commercial value of the agency business model was sky-high. Granted, it was far from what it used to be 10 years prior, but it was far from catastrophic. I was barely 2 months old into my first job in advertising when my colleagues mused about how another client was charged 1 million dollars for a TV commercial a decade prior.
Admittedly, I could not grasp the enormity of this charge or why a client was willing to pay that much. I was relatively new to the business, and quite simply, I had no way to contextualize it. I was in awe because I was very well aware of that TV commercial and it struck me that it cost that much to make. Nonetheless, 2014 ended on a high note for the business. That year, I recall, we shot more than four TV commercials for clients who were more than willing to pay top dollar for the work.
In stark contrast, 2015 was vapid. Although it saw a bump in ad spend, pundits opine it was owing to the presidential election that year and the series of political campaigns that were launched. It bore to reason as politicians have a knack for spending obscene amounts of money to reinforce their political philosophies. As for businesses, brands were hesitant to commit to the marketing objectives for the year due to fear of civil unrest and violence. As a result, we barely cut two TV commercials.
The volatility of the election cycle ensured that many agencies had not factored political campaigns as part of their revenue structure. No one had an assured grasp on the outcome of the year or the fallout of the elections. The toll on the agencies was telling; jobs were lost, and salaries were delayed. Agencies were split into skeptics and optimists. The optimists proclaimed a rapid recovery, arguing that it wasn’t the first time the business had taken that kind of hit, the skeptics called for an end to the existing model of the business: to them, it was the beginning of the end; the world was on the cusp of a digital revolution after all, and anyone who did not adapt would eventually drown in the stigma of being obsolete. It was the skeptics who prevailed; many sprang into action – eager to aid the transition to digital. Many, except the traditional media monolith.
The prevalent structure at the time ensured that we had total control of production and the means to get there. Especially for audio-visual productions which was, bar none, the single most potent source of income within the business model operated by agencies at the time. The agency provided costs for directors; cameras, locations and “miscellaneous”- and there was no objective parameter to justify or refute the high cost of production. Not satisfactorily at least. Word from the agency was etched in stone, and clients mostly had to take it at face value.
That was until 2015. The year before that saw the proliferation of mobile devices worldwide. Mobile phones overtook personal computers for the first time in 2014, and Nigeria was very much in tune with the surge. Nigeria was already the most mobilized country in the world, by 2016. A survey found an increase in mobile penetration from 40 to 74 percent in one year.
These growing trends were good enough for businesses to usher in a tacit erosion of traditional advertising. By 2016, TV commercials had become YouTube ads and print media had become social media posts. Clients had begun to demand that agencies shot “YouTube videos that we can run on TV.” What’s more, media agencies had ceded the means of content distribution to big Tech., and traditional agencies had slowly lost their monopoly on the means of production.
Clients had become more integrated in conversations about the means of production, and for the first time, owing to the transparent nature of the digital ecosystem, they had an objective way of scrutinizing the cost of production. For the agencies, the aggregate effects of an obfuscated costing policy had come home to roost; clients had wholly embraced the transparent and data-driven modus operandi of digital marketing.
Interestingly, questions surrounding the effectiveness of digital media within the broader Nigerian market at the time persisted, and answers remained largely elusive. Although many were quick to openly endorse the trend of digital evolution, skepticism about the extent of its potency was not lost on circles of social discourse: Is this digital thing really effective in Naija? Can it be? If so, how? How far-reaching is it? Do people have phones like that? Internet nko?
Granted, the palpable decline in consumption of traditional media especially within the youth demographic was undeniable. Blogs and mobile phones were steadily replacing newspapers and TV for the younger demographic. Before 2013, one could fairly predict that most families would cloister themselves around the TV to watch sitcoms like “Diego and Paloma”, at 9pm. By 2015, the means of content distribution were so dispersed that the idea of a family time was slowly going down a toilet swirl into oblivion.
But the advent of digital media and its speedy embrace by the clients may not have entirely been due to the effectiveness of digital media. Despite the industry’s complete subservience to the newfangled media – for reasons spanning its revolutionary appeal to widespread claims of its “reach”, the data simply did not bear out in a nationwide context.
Whilst unique mobile penetration – i.e. The number of mobile phones owned by distinct subscribers -was upwards of 40%, smartphone penetration struggled, landing somewhere between 7% and 28% from 2014 to 2016 according to varying surveys. A statement in 2015, by the then Executive Vice-chairman of the Nigerian Communications Commission, Dr. Eugene Juwah, pegged smartphone penetration at 12%. Crucially, digital uptake was almost completely was in the big cities; and although Internet penetration was in the moderate percentile, social media penetration hung low at 7%.
To anyone paying attention, it was clear what the data suggested: although the majority of Nigerians had mobile phones, a large swathe of them were feature phones that had at best, minimal connectivity to the internet and social media, and at worst, no connection at all.
I say social media because digital advertising in Nigeria even till this day is almost exclusively a social media affair. Here, digital campaigns are typically made to create or leverage a social media trend, and then, they are sustained through banner ads and skyscrapers. Some of the most successful digital campaigns ever run In the Nigerian leveraged cultural linguistics to colossal success on social media, before it distilled into more impersonal digital mediums/forums.
For all the purported reach of digital media, it mostly did not account for most people who resided in the national suburbs and smaller cities with minimal to little connection on social media. People who were too in tune with the convention to pursue digital literacy, but too in-the-know to be considered out of touch. Instead, it focused on the townies who did not accurately represent the broader demographic of Nigeria.
The rationale for focusing on mobile devices is that they drive a huge chunk of Internet penetration in Nigeria. Opera’s 2016 report showed that 76% of the Internet traffic in Nigeria went through mobile devices, leaving a 24% gap for other devices. Considering what we know about challenges confronting the Nigerian digital inclusion, it is not beyond the pale to presume that the rate of Internet accessibility within the 24 percentiles would drop to a point where it contributes little to the discourse when we factor in these controls.
It is easy, especially within the digital media bubble, to come across materials that reaffirm the demise of traditional media. Between Journals, articles and dissertations, the experts assure us of a trend of traditional media extinction. Whilst this might hold true in the world at large, in Nigeria, the data gives us ample reasons to reconsider even till today. A 2019 report by Jumia found that while the number of smartphone users might have increased year-on-year, its penetration is still very insignificant. Living in an urban area, one can be forgiven for being oblivious to this trend. A trip to suburban Nigeria, however, offers a more accurate representation of Nigeria’s’ Internet and digital distribution.
The question of digital media adoption by clients, therefore, was less a matter of reaching a broader demographic than it was adopting digital as a tool to satisfy a pressing utility. In my assessment, the 2015 economic recession; the ensuing decline in consumer spending power and the need for brands to account more for every dime spent per consumer are factors that conspired to force the swift adoption of digital advertising. Then came the need to justify this conclusion through confirmation bias.
One of such justification was to create a false dichotomy that insisted that the surging youth demographic in Nigeria, and high rate of digital inclusion amongst them all but signaled the extinction of traditional media with the older demographic; and the birth of a collectively new predisposition to digital – with millennials leading the national enlightenment to digital utopia. Let’s call this argument the digital generational turnover.
This argument fails to recognize that drawing parallels between the rate of digital inclusion amongst youths and a speculative future of digital supremacy, is an oversimplification of what applies. It assumes that digital illiteracy and a lack of interest are the biggest hurdles facing digital uptake in Nigeria, and that most youths are well resourced to adjust themselves to an incoming digital revolution. Hence, as more youth take charge of the state of affairs in the country, digital adoption is normalized. This is hardly true!
The challenges facing the uptake of digital in Nigeria, has less to do with a paucity of knowledge and an interest gap that can be remedied by a generational turnover; and more to do with a slew of economic roadblocks that affect the old and the young equitably. Issues like a rigid wealth distribution and the effects of income inequality, are some of the major issues facing digital adoption in Nigeria today, and they bear no concern to the age demographic of likely victims. So even as today’s youth, who dwell in areas with low economic opportunities, become tomorrows’ senior citizens, they are likely to confront the same issues that stiffened digital growth with their parents.
A way to understand challenges facing the digital unraveling in Nigeria is to view it primarily through two lenses. One lens focuses on the age as a driver for digital adoption. Say, The age-demographic lens. The other lens focuses on regional economics as a driver for digital adoption: the regional economic lens.
If viewed through the age-demographic lens, the prospect of digital uptake favors the digital generational turnover argument where one could be led to believe that an overwhelming youth population with a proclivity for digital learning equals a future of digital supremacy. Viewed through this lens, there are ample reasons to be optimistic.
Seeing it through the regional-economic lens, however, would mean taking into account the nuances of inequality in the socio-economic structure of Nigeria. Where mega commercial hubs like Lagos, for instance, are handed a huge advantage – like higher exposure to a diverse pool of people who can drive digital enthusiasm, and more income opportunities to afford digital pursuits – in the nation’s economic and enlightenment growth hierarchy, while the smaller states are mostly deprived of the same thing.
Viewing it through this lens, one must conclude that as with most other sectors, the economic divide is at the core of the stranglehold on the Nigerian digital potential; and that we cannot make a nationwide digital transformation till these issues are addressed. By Nigerian standards, that might take a while.
The regional-economic lens presents a more accurate representation of the problem because contrary to what location bias would suggest, the overwhelming majority of the youth aren’t based in cities like Lagos. They, in fact, are scattered across state lines; and yes, into states without the proverbial socio-economic silver spoon. All told, viewing the digital adoption problem through the age-demographic lens has left us blindsided in our aggressive pursuit of digital transformation.
Put differently, if the purpose of adopting digital media is effectively to reach more people, it was – and is – clear, in practice, that that wasn’t – and isn’t- the case. Indeed, if the efficacy of marketing dwells on maximizing consumer reach and engagement, it would stand to reason that we explore the most effective route to consumers. In the context of Nigeria, the tacit undermining of traditional media advertising goes against this Principle even today.
Perhaps I should note that this is not a commentary on the effectiveness of digital media as a tool for brands to drive consumer engagement and uptake; it is simply an exploration of the extent to which the myth of digital media effectiveness in Nigeria, led to the undermining of a more effective traditional media.
There is much to be said about the usefulness of digital for targeted advertising in Nigeria. For example, if a brand is organizing a youth-oriented brand awareness event in one of the big cities, it would be amiss that they do not use digital as their prime advertising medium. But in a myriad of cases where the goal would be to communicate their product to the population at large, It would be foolhardy to extrapolate the digital realities of big cities to the nation at large and treat digital advertising as a panacea to the perceived traditional-media-induced problem of reach.
A critique might reject the underlying premise of this piece, they might say: but the adoption of digital media has more to do with brands leveraging a consistently positive curve in favor of a digitally dominant future. This is true. Currently, the data points to the steady growth of digital media that, if aided by a near-perfect economic future, indicates a strong showing for digital media sometime in the future. The problem, however, is that we are in the present. The challenges facing the growth of digital media in Nigeria still hold, and although they may seem negligible in the urban digital bubble, these are real problems facing real people. If we seek to maximize consumption and patronage within the consumer class, it seems to me that we must reconsider our position in the Nigerian digital echo chamber and work obsessively, to create a synergy between traditional and digital mediums. Until then, there is only so much to gain by continuing the trend of viewing traditional media as a secondary means to attain our marketing goals.
Emeka Ezeagu, a practitioner in Advertising, contributed this piece from one of Nigeria’s leading advertising agencies. He can be reached through – K.firstname.lastname@example.org