“I settled down and studied everything I needed to know about advertising and marketing communications. You see, in anything I do, I focus on excellence.”
Dr. Ken Onyeali Ikpe, who holds a doctorate degree in Development Economics and chief executive officer of InsightRedefini Group, is not just a regular fan of Arsenal Football Club. He describes himself as a stakeholder of the club, which places more premium on sustainable strategy that delivers value over the long term rather than the per season win-the-cup style of other European clubs. Arsenal, on the other hand, looks far into the future and is in the game for the long haul, which informs the distinguishing way it manages its affairs. About 25 years ago Ikpe took a strategic decision to leave Shell Petroleum and pitch his tent with the then Insight Communications Limited, a much smaller firm but which had enormous growth potentials. He dug in to help grow the business and it has been a wonderful and rewarding experience. Today, his eyes gleam when he talks about the stupendous success of the integrated marketing company, which has grown to become one of the three groups that make up the TROYKA Group, a Nigerian multinational that is redefining the paradigms and pointing the way to the future.
Interestingly, in June this year, Ikpe won the prestigious Marketing Edge Lifetime Achievement Award in Marketing. He is also the President of Media Independent Association of Nigeria and a Fellow of the Nigeria Institute of Marketing. In this interview he gives a peek into his journey in marketing communications.
First, let’s take a walk down memory lane and talk about the Three Orange Men campaign. How do you feel when you recall it?
It was my first major product launch as Account Manager, back in 1995 and 1996. I look back to the Three Orange Men campaign with nostalgia – whether it has to do with the idea behind it, the structure, the execution, the outcome and the impact it had on the market and the sales of Mirinda as a brand.
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What happened was that the brand, Mirinda, needed to be rebirthed (if I can use that word) and refocused, and the challenge was: how can we do that without a big idea? Then I was a young manager. We needed to put Mirinda at the top in terms of image and market share of the carbonated soft drinks sector, which is a dynamic sub-sector. If you were asked to decide who is the primary target for the carbonated soft drink, you may be tempted to say children, because they are the ones that consume it. And they consume it for various reasons – the taste and the excitement built around it.
However, if you focus on kids as the primary target audience, the question is, who makes the purchasing decision? It’s not the kids, though they have all dynamics for a communication message. But the kid cannot make a purchasing decision but can only influence it. The challenge for that category is that you have to get the targeting right. And you must weave a communication that will address this.
The strength of our group is data, research and strategic planning. We have always been a data-driven organization. That gives us the ability to work from hindsight to insight. Our first advice to the owners of the brand (Seven Up Bottling Company) was that they had to collapse or ‘kill’ Crush – another orange-flavour soft drink in their stable – because you can’t have two orange soft drinks cannibalizing each other. And then repackage Mirinda and focus their efforts on building it.
But we needed a very big idea to carry the message and that was how the idea of the Three Orange Men came about. The orange carbonated soft drink comes from the colour ‘orange,’the flavor associated with it is orange. But we needed to give it an identity connecting it to the human nature and the story of our lives. The reason is that Nigerians love storytelling. The structure of any communication in this country, I believe is underpinned by storytelling. Any advertising communication that is not done in the context of storytelling, as far as I am concerned, will not go far. So we came up with the concept of the Three Orange Men. It took us many months to decide on the idea because it was going to cost a lot of money and effort to put it together. It came at a time the Nigerian political landscape was very dangerous. This was at a time of military rule, and a regime that would not accommodate any uncertainty around that time, neither would tolerate the tension and pre-launch anxiety, which the sudden appearance and disappearance of the Three Orange Men induced in people. The Three Orange Men looked, moved and acted like aliens from outer space, looking for anything orange in colour. The antics of the Three Orange Men became a national talking point. When Mirinda was relaunched on the back of this campaign, the result was stupendous for the brand; it shot up like a rocket, in terms of popularity and sales. When I remember that campaign, I feel warm inside because it was a major project for me.
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The Mirinda relaunch was a very dramatic initiative. What other major campaigns have you been involved in?
Big dramatic marketing communications initiatives have been my life. We relaunched Benson and Hedges in this country with Loud In Lagos, which was part of the Benson and Hedges Golden Tones. In the campaign for the then Bank PHB, as a bank of the future, we highlighted the power of technology (which saw a man jumping up to dunk a basketball in a net affixed to a high rise building). We also did the Apprentice (also for Bank PHB), the Milo Clap for Nestle, which is still incorporated into other commercials for almost 25 years, Pepsi Academy, Gulder Ultimate Search and many, many other initiatives that have launched several cardinal brands. My working life in the last 25 years has been about marketing communications.
I read that you have degrees in Development Economics. How did you develop this passion for marketing communications?
It is a very interesting story. After I returned to the country, I served the mandatory one year national youth service in Shell Petroleum. After that I kept back for another one year. Fortunately for me, Shell was not employing. I was just on contract, (and I guess that made it easier to lure me). So, Insight Communications Limited approached me. It was like this: “Looking at you from afar, with a PhD in Economics, we think you will make a fantastic career in advertising and marketing communications.”
At the time I knew next to nothing about advertising and marketing communications.
But I was convinced and I joined the company in 1994, but with the understanding that they would pay for me to retool – go back to school to study marketing communications. I settled down and studied everything I needed to know about advertising and marketing communications. You see, in anything I do, I focus on excellence. And now 25 years after I am still here; the relationship with Insight has taken me everywhere for various senior management programmes in a business school in South Africa; I went business school in Spain, I went to Chicago, came back here to do an executive business programme at the Lagos Business School.
Why I say that not being hired by Shell was fortunate is because it coincided with my identity and character. Recall that I studied Economics, which is very vital to every human activity. The strength of an economist is that he can forecast, he understands human nature, supply and demand and therefore he understands the consumer. Who are you creating advertising for? The consumer. So if you don’t understand the consumer, you can’t create effective adverting. So Insight understood this and was looking for people with strong background in Statistics and Economics to form the nucleus of its strategic planning unit and that was why they came for me. I can understand demographics, psychographics, disposal income and forecasting, and with all that layered with the knowledge of advertising and marketing communications.
How did this play a role in the huge success that Mediacom became?
Right from a young age I have always wanted to be the head of a goat than the tail of an elephant. If I had remained at Shell or any other multinational, I would be important but in the catalogue of men I would not be up there. I could give 25 years of my working life without making serious impact at that highest level. But if I went to a medium sized company with huge potentials for growth I can be head of the goat and contribute maximally to the organization, to Nigeria and the science of Marketing Communications, which to the glory of God, in the last 25 years, I think I have done. So when I look back, I think I made the right choice.
Today young people are being encouraged to take risk and establish their own businesses. Given the choice you made, what is your advice to young people?
You have to understand who you are. In the Bible, the reason some strong men like David, Solomon and some others fell away was either they didn’t define their identity or they strayed away from that identity at some point in their life. If you define your identity and what you are, you must ask yourself, every step you take in life is it in alignment with your identity? If it is, then you do it, whether you are training, recruiting, selling or buying. Somebody like me, I am not too sure that I am an entrepreneur. I knew that from time and I knew that I could become a manager par excellence. Not everybody can own a business but every business needs a manager. So I decided that I would be manager. So, for me to sustain it, I have to be the best category of manager you can find, and so I had to train myself accordingly in this business and stay with it.
The late Dimgba Igwe used to say that somebody should be known for something. What would you say you are known for?
(Takes a deep breathe before saying…) At the risk of sounding immodest, I think I fall into the category of top, top class manager. I am strong on productivity and efficiency. I am a value creator.
We have looked at what you have done so far, where is that taking you now as a person and the group?
A little while earlier you asked me about Mediacom, which was the first substantive company I managed as a Managing Director within the Troyka Group. At the height of my account management experience and skills at Insight, Mediacom was just two years old and was troubled. The Board of TROYKA Group wanted me to create the business for sustainability. At the time, I didn’t consider media planning, buying and management my strongest points while I was at Insight. So I did not go there as a media specialist. The Board wanted a top class manager of people, process and resources, not a specialist. So, I was given a mandate to turnaround the business and grow it to sustainable profitability. I am happy with the success achieved there, because if google the name, Mediacom, my name is associated with it. I did not create it, but I resuscitated it and managed it for 16 years to high-level profitability and credibility in the media independent practice in the world. In fact Mediacom is a reference point. Having done that I have been moved around to a couple of other subsidiaries within the group. I didn’t quite why that was the case. I thought I was being flung from east to west, left right and centre. But I was patient. I didn’t know that I was being prepared for my current responsibility.
TROYKA is the holding company, which owns three groups: InsightRedefini Group; Serengeti Group and Halogen Group. The InsightRedefini Group is made up of six companies, namely: Insight Publicis, Starcom MP, Allseasons Zenithg, Quadrant MSL, Leo Burnett and The Creative Counsel (TCC). I run InsightRedefini as Group Chief Executive Officer.
Today the TROYKA Group has a total of 22,000 staff and 13 companies that make up the three groups. It is a Nigerian multinational. Going round the subsidiaries has given me a helicopter view of the business and enabled me to gain extremely valuable exposure to integrated marketing communications and strategic business development capabilities, which Insight is known for as a leader. Today, there is hardly anybody of note in the Nigerian marketing communications industry that has not passed through the group at sometime point in the person’s career. That tells you how deeply entrenched and widespread the group is and its contribution to human resource development at the managerial level. We have produced a lot of successful people and we are very proud of that.