By Dotun Adekanmbi
Generational disagreements did not begin today. In 1971, Biodun Shobanjo, then 19 days short of his 27th birthday, had cause to disagree with ‘old school’ thinking.
On December 5 of that year, he had resumed work as an Assistant Account Executive with Grant Advertising Limited then located at 148 Broad Street, Lagos. This decision ran contrary to the counsel of one of his uncles, a retiree of the Nigerian Railway Corporation, who felt he should have taken a job that guaranteed a pension on retirement. He believed that his nephew’s choice was misdirected by the short-sightedness of youth. Shobanjo, on the other hand, felt that his uncle did not get it. Why would a young man intent on living the good life early in his career settle for comfort only in old age? Both men hoped their respective positions would someday be proved right.
From an early age, Shobanjo had learned not to conform to conventional wisdom. He liked, and still likes, to walk a different path, buoyed by the stubbornness of hope and palpable dissatisfaction with issues and circumstances built on the notion of ‘that’s how we used to do it.’ In choosing to be different, however, he armed himself with knowledge, positive energy, an uncanny ability to work with the best of talents and a drive to remain focused regardless of the strident noise of the marketplace. These all worked to his advantage and eventually elevated him to the status of a guru in his chosen field.
Fifty years into his journey in advertising or, in an enlarged context, marketing communication, Shobanjo is today widely acknowledged as having made a mark that deserves more than a chapter in the history of the profession in Nigeria and, indeed, the African continent. He started in search of the good life. Half a century later, he not only found fame and fortune, but he also became a force that continues to redefine industry standards even after he had left the day-to-day administration of the business seventeen years earlier. He speaks in superlatives; his work rate is almost extra-terrestrial and the soft side to his outer hard mien is often hard to imagine, as most people tend to view him as a walking definition of ‘steel’.
I have seen much of Biodun Shobanjo, personally and professionally. As a young professional and a total stranger viewing him from afar, I truly believed he was the personification of evil, at least from a professional perspective. But was that not the inevitable picture one would have had of him, given the stories around him in advertising circles, especially in the 1990s? My first physical encounter with him was, wait for it, at a cemetery! How about that for a man whose life story I would later write? That encounter changed my perception of his humanity. When my professional life came within the purview of his supervision, it was a defining moment in my own life and career. I saw true leadership at work. I saw a man who was willing to replicate himself as many times as was humanly possible and as many times as there were talents waiting and willing to be changed. And I saw a man so positively daring with his vision. As his biographer, the different sides of him that I had experienced made it so easy for me to affirm the notion that in truth, ‘who dares wins.’ My collaborative work with him, which culminated in my book, The Will To Win: The Story of Biodun Shobanjo, was produced essentially to further affirm the popular saying that any man can achieve whatever he can dream and believe is possible.
I consider myself lucky to have experienced Shobanjo in 29 out of his 50 years in marketing communication. Those years covered my time as a business journalist, as a staff in Troyka Group and as his biographer who not only sought to tell a great story of leadership and enterprise management but chased after the true definition of excellence, which he exemplified. What have I learned? Plenty.
The first is that there is no substitute for quality work. The conception manual of Insight Communications, which he led his youthful team to establish in 1980, emphasized ‘Selling on Quality Not On Price.’ Quality in the circumstance is not nuanced. In his worldview, no body of work deserves a ‘quality’ tag if it does not embody hard and smart effort; if it is not game-changing and if it is not pin-point accurate in delivering on target. Honestly, this drive for perfection could be exasperating. Shobanjo knows this and he jocularly alluded to it in a meme he posted to Troyka Group staff sometime in 2005. It said: “Dear God, please do not grant me strength. If you do, I’ll break the head of my boss.” Or words to that effect.
Without argument, Shobanjo’s uncompromising love of quality attests to the success he has made of his career and the careers of several men and women who have passed through him over the years. He indubitably built a ‘School of Communication’ that has produced leading lights in every arm of the industry in which he played, from advertising to public relations to out of home and even to hands-on industry training. There is hardly any communication agency of note in today’s Nigeria that does not have a Troyka alumnus on its staff roll. Much of that success owes to his admonition for staff to challenge everything and anyone, every time. He always headlined that fact in every situation by offering several barrier-breaking, frontier-pushing and confidence-building ‘because’ that engenders enlightenment, acquiescence and loyalty of work colleagues, especially in the junior cadre. This contrasts with the bossy ‘I say so’ disposition of many senior professionals in other establishments.
As an equal opportunity employer, Shobanjo succeeded greatly in building an enterprise management system with a core hinged on talent and the ability to deliver at the point of impact. He built the system around young people and he trusted the leadership emplaced by the internal system in each business unit. He thus has little need to micro-manage the leaders of the subsidiaries. As a result, only knotty issues get to his table, which in turn remains whistle clean. This, perhaps, should be no surprise considering that the Nigerian Enterprise Promotion Decree (otherwise the Indigenisation Decree) of 1972 shot up his career at a time he had bosses who also trusted him and believed in his ability to lead decisively to achieve results. Truth be told, few enterprise owners in Nigeria are as trusting of their staff as Shobanjo is of Troyka Group managers. A few times, though, the trust was misplaced. But the system soon evolved a rapid disaster recovery mechanism that continues to work efficiently.
One side of Shobanjo that is loud yet deliberately understated is his kind-heartedness. He has for long been a solution centre to people and institutions in need. Not just financially but morally. He preaches strong life sermons with his own life. He gives without counting the cost. He leads by example. The work ethic he preaches in the office is the same as what he teaches at home. He values friendship which he cultivates not on account of age but by the premium on loyalty and can-do. As he loves to say: ‘You are my friend, not because I see you every day but because of where I place you in my heart.’ In 50 years, he has made an indelible professional mark. In all ramifications, history will be kind to Biodun Olusina Shobanjo.
*Dotun Adekanmbi is a communications consultant and author of The Will To Win: The Story of Biodun Shobanjo.