Issues of lobbying for jobs, nepotism, and god-fatherism among others have teamed up to compound the challenges of exiting the difficult business terrains created by pains of the pandemic of the last two years in Nigeria. How has the experiential sector in Nigeria performed in those challenging times, and what are the steps needed to put the sector on the path of consistent growth? One of Nigeria’s eminent players in the sector and CEO of Lilvera Group, Buchi Johnson shares his thoughts with MARKETING SPACE team, how the sector can contribute to the growth of the nation’s economy. Excerpts…
How will you describe the business of brand activation and experiential marketing in 2020?
We all understand that in 2020 it was more or less like a paradigm shift. The entire process was changed. It was about survival and instant drastic change that the current administration promised us when they were contesting elections.
Taking it down to your question, one of the strategies that we used in surviving was collaboration. We found out that no man is an island even if originally the system was built that way for a man to be an island; we had to collaborate and synergize to form a stronger unit.
For us, how we survived in 2020 was strategic. We collaborated with the likes of brands in the FMCG industries, online digital space, with known and unknown brands as well. It was about everybody putting in the energy to survive. So, our survival was on collaboration.
How will you rate the performance of the sector since last year?
For 2020, it was a nosedive for most experiential marketing agencies. Though, some of us survived it because of the continuity plans that we had put in place. Like I do tell people, there should be a unit for the pandemic going forward in every business. We need to understand that things could change at any point in time.
As we know that most businesses always have business continuity plan and some have solution plans. It is now a new norm that everybody has to institute that department in their business. How did we survive in that sector? It wasn’t agencies’ time in terms of experiential marketing. For us, it was a slap on the face where there were lots of restrictions; businesses had to apply collaborative applications into the marketing space of brand experiential.
Agencies were doing activation that was distance focus; we needed to apply a different norm which is now a new norm. We needed to apply strategies that would still preach the COVID-19 protection, as well, trying to sell the brand we are representing. It was a difficult time for almost all the agencies in terms of performance.
I am not sure most agencies had a good book compare to how most of them would have wanted. For us, 2020 was not good enough within the brand experiential agency space. For 2021, they told us to go back to drawing board and come up with strategies that would work and face the new norm that we have presently.
To what extent would you say that the pandemic have impacted positively or negatively on your business?
I don’t really want to speak for myself as an individual. I like to speak as a body that we represent, that is EXMAN. If I have to go with your question that, how did we get out of the pandemic? I would say we didn’t and we still haven’t. There is no strategic way to get out of it.
The only strategic way to get out of it is to go back to the drawing board. Part of the drawing board is to be more strategic. The typical example of this is the virtual ways of engaging customers. They don’t have to be physically there but virtually-physically there and experience that particular product. We are trying to work on virtual mode where we can get a group of 5-10 people in an activation spot that we have created, where they are virtually there and they are also feeling they are physically there. We take them to the presence of experiential marketing as a whole, be it an event, product experience, sampling, or activation as the case may be.
They are actually there and they are feeling that product almost real. But what you are feeling on the virtual is not far from what you are going to get on the actual physical. Modules like that are still in the pipeline being cooked up, different strategies are being cooked up as well.
What has happened with the pandemic is to change the narrative of what we know and it is not a rocket science for us to come up with different ideas or approach to engaging the end customer. This can only take us back to the drawing board to learn.
I have senior colleagues in the industry who have also advised us to come up with different ideas. Right now, it is a playing level field for everyone to come up with different concepts on how we are going to engage end customer. There will be no other way to get that done than to create a separate department to take care of all these things.
We all know brand experiential marketing has been physical, getting to interacting with end customer one-on-one. So, there is going to be different modules just like the online digital. Online wasn’t really there in the 90s but now it has come to stay as a space. We as experiential marketing experts have to create different modules that will be applied going forward.
Now that activities in the marketing communications industry likewise other sectors of the Nigerian economy are gradually taking shape, what are your expectations in the remaining quarters of 2021?
For me, 2021 plan has already been exhausted. We should be looking at 2022 and the rest. We already have our strategy plans, looking at our drawing board on our business object for the year, we would say in the scale of ten probably we must have ticked only five out of ten.
In the last quarter of the year, we can still tick a couple just to be sure that we have achieved 80 percent if not 100 percent of what we stand out to achieve for the year. I don’t think the question should be directed to 2021, it should be directed to 2022 given the current circumstances.
For us, 2021 is gone; we have a lot of projects piled up running through the end of the year, some on the large, medium and small scales. But as it is, the economy is picking up we just have to stick around and see how it goes.
Can you take us through some of the challenges the business of experiential marketing is facing in the hands of Nigerian consumers?
I like to say that it is an endless complain; endless request and endless list of the challenges going by the current situation of the pandemic. There will be newer list that I am supposed to mention here but we will stick to old goals and probably stop there. I have to talk about the new goals, I am also just learning those new challenges, but for the previous challenges it has to do with nepotism.
We don’t have a level playing ground where credibility can speak for you. With all due respect and I stand to be corrected, most of the time, it has to do with lobbying who you know in terms of getting jobs and projects. This thing is not rocket science and I believe everybody within that space of business can achieve whatever business goal you want to achieve as experiential marketing individual.
There is no procedure or standard practice that is cast on stone given the current situation. I have just been allocated to a committee for EXMAN to talk about training and courses that we have for the year. I believe it was a good selection for EXMAN putting me within that team. I am going to come up with suggestions in terms of creating standardization, training courses and others.
With regards to number one challenge I mentioned which is nepotism where you have to know one brother or cousin before you get a job. Then, staffing as well, is one of the challenges that I will mention, people call it circumvention. People go behind you to steal your clients, this is not going to be an ending thing because your team, subordinate or boss will jealous you as the case may be.
Rather than telling you the truth or try to iron the situation, they run you down so that you can feel bad and leave. But from the subordinate point of view, they leave your business just to steal your client. These are the things that we encounter as experiential marketing professionals. Also, god-fatherism is not something palatable in the business. Like I said about nepotism, people don’t engage you base on your quality or allow an open pitch where winners will emerge.
They probably do like a selection where they invite less standard agencies to pitch for that particular project but at the end of the day they just want that brother or cousin to win. Another major challenge I will like to talk about is, we, experiential marketing agencies don’t open up for collaboration. In a space where two or more agencies work together, the other agencies will make you sit up and that can make you operate on the same level with them.
We should build synergy and collaborating team to move forward and even make more money through that as agencies. Part of the things that I think can move the industry forward is to build trust within our system. Trust should start with individuals, if we don’t trust ourselves there is no way we can achieve.
How does government policy affect your operations currently?
First of all, there are permits and procedures to actualize experiential marketing projects. The only issue we have with that is, there are due processes or procedural timeline that is totally off the hook.
For instance, if I am supposed to do flyers distribution in Lagos State I am expected to pay certain permits, state number of flyers I am distributing, if my brand ambassadors are wearing T-shirts, I will take permit for these T-shirts and there are other elementary permit I am supposed to pay, then build the proper route system before I deploy on the road.
But what happen in most cases is that a lot of briefcase agencies just activate, there are no proper regulatory system to stop them. Some large and medium agencies will always follow due process and pay government permit in every project they do.
Would you say that your industry has contributed towards National growth?
Experiential marketing has brought in investors. Prior to 2020, experiential marketing space has brought in loads of international investors because they see our market thriving.
So, how has it contributed to national growth, yes it has by bringing in more investors and also making the investors understand that the market is a wide space for them to operate. For example, product sampling, if you notice between the year 2014 and 2019, we had majority of alcoholic brands coming into the country.
Experiential marketing agencies had created references for a way of life on how you can be a ‘big boy’. How you can enjoy life. We made alcoholic brand more of an accessory where you walk into a bar and you are forced to either order a Hennessey, this was a brand that was known on the shelve many years back.
But you are forced to order a Jack Daniels or Jameson as of today. There are brands that were existing long ago, because of outdoor branding and one-on-one interaction, sampling and taste, Nigerians were able to relate with the brand almost immediately and the brand became number one as the case may be.
So, that made them invest more into the Nigerian echo-system and they wanted to stay. This is just me giving snippet on alcoholic brands. I understand that now it is a bit difficult because of the economy; a post pandemic. People are still leaving in pandemic state but if you cast your mind back to four years ago, you will understand what I am talking about. Because we use to see them everywhere and this is just on drinks. If I look at it from food perspective, I will also say the same. If we look at it from musical concert perspective, we will also say the same.
Numbers of concert being held then where experiential marketing was bringing in A list artistes into Nigeria from the days of DMX, R Kelly and others. Bringing in investors having the taste of African market has to do with brand experiential. When you come into Nigeria you see for yourself and say this country is global. When they go back to their country they speak widely for the business and before you know it the investors are also coming in.