Mr. Udeme Ufot and Azuh Arinze

In Nigeria’s advertising sector, Mr. Udeme Ufot, the MD/CEO of SO & U Advertising, occupies a front row seat. A past president of the Association of Advertising Practitioners of Nigeria and Lagos Business School Alumni Association, he has done solely advertising for almost 30 years now and he’s still not tired. A man after our heart, the finicky dresser and fine gentleman is married to Dorothy, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria and they are blessed with two wonderful children. From Akwa Ibom State, he brought smiles (like he’s always done) to the face of YES INTERNATIONAL! Magazine Publisher/Editor-in-Chief, AZUH ARINZE, on Thursday, April 25, 2013 when he encountered him at his office on Oyetola Street, off Opebi Road, Ikeja, Lagos…


What makes a good advert practitioner?

To be a good advert practitioner, you need to be a very creative person, you must be able to balance creative thinking with strategic thinking, you must be as analytical as you are spontaneous in your reaction to things and you must also be a good businessman. You must be a good relationship manager because advertising has different areas and different skills come into play in different areas. If you are a client’s service person, relationship skills are important, if you are a creative person, your creative skills are most important, if you are a strategic planner, of course, analytical skills become most important.


What is the costliest mistake that most people in advertising make?

I think the mistake they make is to see advertising more from the area of flamboyance and they don’t see the business aspect of it or they don’t come to terms with the fact that all that we do is intended to sell goods and services. You know, no matter how good any advert is, if it’s not delivering on the strategic communication that was intended, then it’s a waste of client’s money.


Why do most people not make it in advertising?

I believe they are unable to make it because they lose focus. They lose focus and they forget that the objective of communication is to sell goods, services, ideas. They also sometimes lose sight of the fact that as in all businesses, the client is the key and they must therefore work towards understanding the client; the client’s needs and delivering on those needs. Importantly also, they fail to understand that the agency is the bridge between the client and the consumer and for you to be able to effectively connect the consumer with the brand, you must understand the consumer. Many agencies fail to make adequate investments in understanding the consumer so they can generate insights. It’s based on the insights that you can bring communication that will connect with the consumer in the most effective manner and compel him to take the action that you want him to take.


What does it take to run a successful advertising agency?

As in all businesses, it takes the grace of God in the first instance. It also takes an analytical mind and it takes the mind of an entrepreneur to be able to see opportunities and convert them into profits. So, at the end of the day, to be a good advertising person, you must combine the other points I mentioned – the creativity, the analytical mind into a sound business mindset that would deliver profits to the business.


When can a man be said to have succeeded?

That’s a tough one (Smiles). Success can be relative. It depends on what you are pursing in life. For some, financial success is most critical. They want to get tons of money and love to say hey, I’m financially successful. As a colleague of mine said many years ago, the single measure of financial success that cuts across all businesses is how much money you have in the bank. But life goes beyond that. Success itself comes from being fulfilled at what you do. Money does not always bring happiness.

Having earned a reputation professionally does not always bring happiness. At the end of the day you need to have a balanced score card that when you look at yourself within the context of the society, you have impacted lives, you have made a difference in the society, you have made contributions within your community to other people’s success and I think that is true success. If you are succeeding only for yourself and have a pile of money in the bank, that is not true success.


Why do some people attain success but are unable to sustain it?

Various circumstances can do that, but I think the biggest self inflicted cause of loss of success, in my view, is the lack of focus. When you are focused on your business, you can see trends changing and you can therefore be in a position to predict that probably in the next five years, even in the next 10 years, this is where I should be with my business, because if I don’t, the changes in the industry, the changes in the environment can leave me behind. So, you need to be able to be that proactive in your thinking; forward thinking. They live for the moment and they continue to mine and harvest what was started years ago and before they know it time passes them by, they become yesterday’s men and the businesses struggle, they lose relevance and of course a majority of their clients and their customers and they are in doldrums.


What do you like most about what you are doing?

I like what I’m doing because it’s exciting, it’s fun and it gives me flexibility. It makes me a very versatile person, it gives me the opportunity to express my creative skills, which is something I enjoy doing and it’s very versatile in terms of what I can do in the course of even one single day. Now, in the morning, I can be discussing banking and wear the hat of a banker; in the afternoon, I can be discussing how to sell Chivita, talking about how to be a manufacturer, a consumer good marketer and selling fruit juices; in the evening, my concern maybe how to sell Guinness Stout and so I need to understand how the bar man needs to serve an iced cold bottle of Guinness and how the consumers enjoy that Guinness and when they hardly enjoy it, who are most likely to buy it and probably before I go to sleep, I may need to brainstorm on a late evening session with my guys on something as off point as…(Thinks) community relations for Exxon Mobil. How do I make the communities around Akwa Ibom State where Mobil operates believe that Mobil is a true son of their community; thus positioning Exxon Mobil as the most respected oil company in Nigeria. So, all these require different skills, different understandings, but it’s still about creativity. But I need to understand what these different clients do to know where I can effectively connect with their strategies and look for creative expression for that strategy that will deliver the kind of communication that they want.


What don’t you like about what you are doing?

Maybe just the fact that the amount of effort one puts in does not always deliver the kind of reward that one should get. I think that advertising people work, especially in Nigeria, much harder than they are compensated, and they are under-appreciated. I mean, we help people make millions all the time and they pay us reluctantly most of the time. I believe that agencies can be better compensated. There are very brilliant people in the industry and it’s gone beyond what used to happen in the past when people probably went into advertising because they couldn’t do anything better. Now, there are people who by choice have gone into the industry because they enjoy what they do and think that they can make something out of it. I think that they too deserve more reward from what they do.


Most people accuse advertising agencies of not paying media houses, why is this so?

It’s a kind of chicken and egg situation. In business, there’s no way you can avoid some level of debts. But the challenge is that one debt can lead to another debt. I have heard different stories, but my point is – for agencies to pay you, media houses, their clients must pay them. And sometimes clients fail to pay or delay to pay and that affects an agency’s ability to pay. But all responsible agencies should be up and doing in ensuring that they pay their debts. Sometimes it may be delayed because they are sometimes trying to sort out their treasury and balance payment, but eventually they do pay.


What is the greatest thing that advertising has done for you?

I think advertising has made me very fulfilled as a professional; I have been very privileged and blessed that this is all I’ve done all my life – from when I left the university to NYSC, I’ve only done advertising and I’ve had too many opportunities that I must thank God for. I will put it this way, under 15 years of practice, I was able to rise up through the ranks to lead my industry as the president of the Advertising Association; I’ve had the opportunity to move beyond advertising where I actually contributed to the Nigerian economy through my tenure as a Board member of the Nigerian Economic Summit Group. I’ve been able to rise up within the ranks of the Lagos Business School alumni to be President of the LBS Alumni Association and these wouldn’t have been possible without the opportunities that I gained through advertising to become a respected professional and to be able to put myself in a position of interest and earn respect in my society. So, I can say that, as I put it when I spoke at your anniversary (YES International!’s 1st Annual Lecture/Cocktail Party on June 19, 2012), I set out to pursue fame, fortune and fun in a career in advertising and I thank God that I’ve been fulfilled and that I’ve been able to create an environment where people can come in, work with me, they can also thrive and learn and some have even gone on also to fulfill their own ambitions through enterprises. I have a lot to thank God for.


What has advertising not done for you?

Making more money (General laughter).


SO & U Saatch & Saatchi, what distinguishes it from the other advertising agencies?

I think it’s our sheer client’s focus. We commit to our clients. One of the things that helped us or part of the things that helped us to grow over the years has been our total commitment to our client’s aspirations. When we commit to work for a client, we give that client everything that we’ve got. I always say to my clients, I’m available to you 24/7; no matter where I am, you can reach me. And I expect my managers to be that committed, totally involved with our clients and build their lives around them, and we leverage our creativity to ensure that they succeed.


SO & U Saatch & Saatchi has been running for over 20 years now, what can you say has kept the company going?

I think we’ve been able to create a culture. From day one, we set out to create an agency that would be outstandingly creative, outstandingly professional in its approach to business. Being that professional and insisting that things be done boldly in the culture; the culture of excellence, a culture of professionalism in all that we do has ensured that while people come to the agency and go, the agency continues to thrive, because the culture is there and helps the agency to continue to replicate itself as an entity. The key thing is that over the years, the agency has acquired a life of its own, independent of who the guys are. My greatest challenge, I always tell my colleagues, of that proof, will be the day I depart from SO & U and it does not only continue, but becomes a stronger entity. That will be the proof that truly a culture that goes beyond any personality has been entrenched in the agency.


With the benefit of hindsight, why do you think many people fail in business?

In Nigeria in particular, I will say that the circumstances are varied. There are many brilliant businessmen who failed on account of social factors, economic factors, because we live in an environment that is difficult to manage. Infrastructure is poor; people who run our kind of business elsewhere, all they focus on is looking for ways of connecting their consumers with their products. In our economy, you are chasing shadows, you are chasing the generator, to get diesel; you are being chased around by all manner of funny tax people. The distraction is huge. But that aside, there are also some self inflicted burdens that some practitioners do carry: loss of focus, eating your seed money instead of you investing. Inadequate investment in the agency or their businesses can make it difficult for them to weather difficult times when those tough times come.


What three critical business strategies did you adopt to get SO & U Saatchi and Saatchi where it is today?

The first, for us, was to focus on our people. We believe that if you have the right people on board, you train them and get them the right skills; but the first step is recruiting people who are talented, who have the right talents, who have the right attitude, bring them on board and then train and develop them; give them a plain field where they can thrive, that you will succeed. That was No. 1. No. 2, we believe that if we are committed to our clients, work assiduously towards their success, that success will not only reflect on our business, it will earn us referrals and respect of the industry and help us present case studies that showcase our capabilities and enable us attract new businesses that would further fuel that growth. Thirdly, we believe that nothing will make a difference like the passion that we exhibit in pursing our objectives. So, what we went for was that attitude that nothing is impossible; no mountain is too high to climb in delivering for our clients and driving our business. So, passion was a key strategy we adopted to ensure commitment and energy from our people to make a difference.


When is the best time for an employee to become an employer?

I will say that there’s no perfect time. Once the spirit moves you, that’s when you make your move. But you may want to look out for certain signs to tell you that probably this is the right time. Although, the person that will move, of course, will know and feel it best. My belief, however, is that probably the best time is in those years of your life when you have the most energy. Starting a business, growing it, driving it to success requires a vast amount of energy. You may be brilliant, you may be talented, you may be well connected, you may have adequate funds to make things happen, but at the end, the energy factor still counts. The money will not get up and work for itself, those connections will not convert to opportunities for you. You must go and see your friends, you must follow leads, you must have a network of contacts and then you must have learnt the skills; you must also have a good attitude in relating with people. So, at the end of the day, it’s how you combine all that you have that will make a difference. But in your most productive years, between 30 and 40 when you have the most energy to make things happen. That would be the right time to do it – entrepreneurship.

How does one go about informing a boss with whom you have a good relationship that you want to quit and be on your own?

I think you made a very important point – a boss with whom you have a very good relationship. I think that’s the most important thing. If you have a good relationship with your boss and he’s honest with you and means well for you, there shouldn’t be a problem. All it takes is that you get up and go to your boss and say, oga, I’ve worked with you for so long and I think the time has come; I would like to move on, and these are my reasons. No hard feelings. And I must appreciate you for the opportunities you gave me. I think it’s time for me to explore other terrains. And once everybody is open; you are open, you are frank about it, there will be no problem. Not when you plan to leave and you say okay, I will leave in 3 years time and for the last 2 years before you leave, all you are doing is staying in his company, committing 30 percent of your time to his business while 70 percent is spent running your own business on the side. When you are leaving, there must be bad blood.


Which brief would you want SO & U Saatchi & Saatchi to handle, but have not been able to secure?

We would like to work for clients in the telecoms sector. Telecoms is one area that is very competitive and they appreciate good works. But most importantly, they have the budget to support good works. Not just get the work produced, the budgets are also adequate to get the works exposed. Nothing makes an agency as proud as seeing its works on display, and I think we enjoyed that tremendously during the period we worked on MTN. I would say that if we have the opportunity, a client that we would like to work for would be a brand like Etisalat. I do admire what they do and it reminds me of our early days when we worked on MTN some years ago.


At inception, SO & U was standing on a tripod. There was Gbemi Sagay, there was Julia Oku and there was Udeme Ufot. Today, you are running it all alone, how does it feel to be doing it all alone?

It feels lonely. But it’s not too much of a surprise. By sheer co-incidence, one of the paintings that we acquired in our early days, which we chose to keep in our board room; that painting is by Jerry Buhari, an artist. It was called Leaders and Loneliness. And it was a large canvas that just had a seat in the middle and nothing else and it conveyed to me very clearly that it’s lonely at the top and so if today, quite a few of the guys who began the journey with me, people who have their names on the company – many people have come into SO & U and have gone, the company has subsisted. But then it’s been lonely. Some people I do miss, but that is life (Laughs). You should carry on!


The first three alphabets that make up SO & U were extracted from your names, have they not kicked against your retaining it after their exit?

In the first instance, let me say that they’ve been open-minded enough about such things. That’s one. No. 2, we remain friends


(Interruption) – Are they still directors here?

One still is, but we had a clause when we started the business as a way of protecting the founding partners that if any of the partners were to depart from the business in less than 5 years after inception, that partner will be compelled to sell back whatever equity he or she has to the company and unfortunately, Sagay left about the fourth year of the business and by that rule was compelled to sell. So, he no longer has an interest in the business. Oku left after 12 years and therefore remains a shareholder of the business and a board member and chairs one of our subsidiaries at the moment. In terms of maintaining the name itself, when we were setting out, some of the investors naturally were concerned for the same reason that you mentioned – that look, you are starting this business, relationships can be volatile. Things can go wrong and some people may depart. Don’t you think it’s a bad idea to connect this business with your names. What if somebody goes? But for us as partners, we were very clear in our minds when we decided to join our names to the business; that we may go, but the business would stay. And we have seen several examples of people who started agencies in the U.K who have probably moved to three, four agencies, but the agency that they founded is still there. I mean, I would give you a very good example – Saatchi & Saatchi. Morris and Charles Saatchi no longer own Saatchi & Saatchi. They actually have an agency called M&C Saatchi, which is now their new agency and it’s a major competitor to Saatchi & Saatchi in the UK. So, in our case, we had said to ourselves, yes, we may go, but as a testimony to the fact that three young people at a time, with no godfather, with little or no money, dared the odds and launched into a venture to make a difference, it will be there to remind us and for posterity too.


Why do you think that most partnerships turn sour after sometime?

Problems may arise due to improperly laid out frameworks. Sometimes people get into the entire thing informally and so when the tensions come, there are no guidelines for managing those tensions independent of personalities. Other times people just think about making money and they forget that relationships matter and you need to be clear in your mind that when you go into a business partnership, the person that you are partnering with has to be your friend. Having a business partner, the nearest thing that I can think that comes close to it is a marriage. Because when you marry a wife, you are with her every day. It’s for better or worse. And ideally, a partnership could equate almost to that. The only difference is that unlike in marriage where you go to a church and say for better or worse, exchange rings and vows and commit, in business, that is not there and a window for divorce if it becomes too difficult (Laughs) is always an option. I think that the most important things are having the right relationship, mutual respect and understanding and then that all parties are contributing their quota. Issues begin to arise when one partner feels that the other is not contributing well enough to the enterprise or the other partner feels yes, we are all working, but one person is enjoying all the goodies, what is going on? And therefore feels unfairly treated, unfairly compensated. But once you have understanding, these things are easy to manage.


You have risen to the pinnacle of your profession. Your wife, Mrs. Dorothy Ufot, SAN, has also risen to hers. How easy is it for two extremely successful people to live under one roof, because some people believe that two captains can’t navigate one ship?

I think the most important thing is that when you are in a Christian marriage, all parties know their responsibilities; what each party has to bring to the table. A man is the master of the home and has a duty to ensure that he conducts himself accordingly. The woman, no matter how highly placed, is the home maker and therefore must commit to do likewise – understanding, mutual respect for each other and love. When two people have come together under mutual respect, with a strong love and appreciation for each other, they can be better placed to weather storms. Success should not drive couples apart; it should actually bring them together. My wife would always say that my drive in setting up and running SO & U was also a key motivation for her to say look, this thing is possible. It also drove her to her own success and at the end of the day when we come back home, there is a lot to share. When we’ve done all the skirmishes, at the end of the day, we come back home and we begin to relate our experiences on the warfront of business; we encourage each other, we share experiences. So, we actually turn the bedroom somehow into a small business class (Laughs), I’m mentoring, she’s encouraging and she’s supporting me. Yes, my wife sees a stake in SO & U, I see a stake in Dorothy Ufot & Co, because it’s one family. So, it’s important that she succeeds, it’s important that I succeed. Yes, the man must bring the bread to the table, you must understand the husband you married, you must also understand the wife that you married. I know very well that I encourage my wife to go all out and succeed in her profession, because I know that the kind of person she is, if it were otherwise, she will not feel fulfilled or be happy. And of course that is going to affect her marriage in a way. So, I encourage her. I give her all the support and of course she’s very concerned and we’ve been very blessed that even in raising our children, they also have come to really appreciate what we do as parents, how it affects their lives and everybody is very supportive.


Why do most marriages crumble?

I think people lose sight of the fundamentals. When two people have committed to going into marriage, the most important thing is the two of them and they must constantly commit to keep up the excitement, keep up the fun and keep the love burning. It’s only natural that after a while someone in whom you saw only excellence begins to show signs you may not like, but you have a choice not to keep focusing on those inadequacies and perpetually finding faults and become total nuisance to each other. What then happens, you begin to drift apart. Then somebody else catches your fancy and before you know it irredeemable differences set in and there’s no way it won’t fall apart. And as in everything else in life, a successful marriage requires lots of investments, lots of commitments and loyalty to each other and that is the key.

You dress very well, how did you cultivate the habit?

Don’t forget that I’m an artist (General laughter). I have an eye for good things and so I guess it comes naturally. I like to look good. Being properly dressed gives you confidence, it opens doors. You recall a commercial that opened with ‘Looking good is good business’. That was Kessingsheen many years ago. So, I believe looking good is good business. I also have a wife who is very finicky about how she looks and makes a fuss about how her husband looks. So, if I were to fall short, I will not be allowed out of the home. I have to be properly dressed.


Why do most people find it difficult to dress well?

Honestly, I can’t understand why. Maybe they don’t like themselves (Laughs). Because if you like yourself, you want to put your best foot forward, look your best whenever you come out. Because you wanna make an impression when you step into a room. As a business person, you want to step into a gathering and people will recognize you and grant you audience and it makes things easy for you. But if you choose to look tardy, no matter how brilliant you are, no matter what knowledge you have under that head, you may never have a chance to show how good you are if your appearance puts people off. So, I cannot understand honestly why people would choose to look untidy and look tardy, without looking after themselves.


You handle the Guinness Stout brief and in one of their commercials, one of the lines there says ‘Udeme my friend is a great guy’. Did you strategically set out to use your name or it was a co-incidence?

It wasn’t my decision to use the name, Udeme. It wasn’t by accident either. On the Guinness business, when it comes to their key brand work, we work with Saatchi agencies in London and in Cape Town and the concepts were developed jointly between our creative team in Lagos, the creative team in Cape Town and the guys in London. But when it came to the choice of a name, we needed to use one that will cut across our different markets in Africa. So, the guys in London asked us for a name, a Nigerian name that they felt would resonate with Nigerians and would inspire images of greatness and respect and so we gave them the Nigerian names that we felt would inspire that respect and success. Somehow, they didn’t like those names. We didn’t include Udeme. But by the time they came back to us with the finished work for approval, the name had been changed to Udeme and despite my protestations as to whatever embarrassment it may cause me as the agency’s CEO to have my name on the commercial, they would not back off. They told me it was a consensus between London, Cape Town and even the client and when I made a fuss, they appealed to me to please let it be, because if I should insist on the name being changed, it was gonna cost them four weeks’ set back and the campaign was meant to break in two weeks, so I had to give in.

NB: First published December 2013

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