Beautiful, soft-spoken and inspiringly intelligent, Nnenna Onyewuchi is co-founder of Yellow Brick Road, an integrated communications agency in the heart of Lagos. Before we got a chance to sit down with her for this Whoot Africa interview, we had heard so much about her and how amazingly brilliant she was. Stepping into Yellow Brick Road’s office, one thing was visible as the casually dressed young men and beautiful women filed in to resume work for the day: it was a place for the creative.
Nnenna Onyewuchi is grooming the next generation of creatives via her business platform, supporting women like her to do even greater things, and unapologetically too. In this inspiring conversation, she shares on her life as a creative advertising executive, her journey so far and how she hopes to sit back in her 80s and be known as a woman who made a difference in the lives of the creatives who passed through Yellow Brick Road.
Can you share a little about Nnenna Onyewuchi, and the whole concept of Yellow Brick Road?
Yellow Brick Road is an integrated communications agency. What we do is help our clients make money essentially using marketing communications. We call ourselves a marketing communications agency instead of an advertising agency because we have realized over time that more advertising isn’t always the answer to the client’s challenges; sometimes the answer is simply a promotion, sometimes it is tinkering with the business process or a big TV ad. We are a full service advertising agency with strategy as one of our core offerings. We do planning and strategy for public relations. Although Yellow Brick Road does not directly execute advertising campaigns, we manage the parties that execute these ads. We started Yellow Brick Road in Nigeria as ZK Advertising in 2007. In 2011, my partner and I decided to rebrand ZK into Yellow Brick Road and we have been on a grand adventure ever since.
What inspires a woman like Nnenna Onyewuchi?
A lot of things inspire me, but on a daily basis, I am inspired that there are 35 people who work here, 35 people who will get a pay cheque at the end of each month. I feel a great sense of responsibility for the people that work for us. Not just that they get paid, but also because this is a place where young people and especially women can grow, learn and maximise their potential to succeed, a place they can feel comfortable and happy. One of the few things that also inspire me is the fact that a lot of the people who worked here have gone on to do well on their own. I envision a time in my 80s when I step out to an audience of over 500 people who have gone through Yellow Brick Road and have gone on to do amazing things. I want to be proud of what we built and the fact that those who have come through the system have become business owners, marketing directors and heads of brands. I want this institution to outlive me. I really enjoy when we do something I am proud of – like helping clients find that thing that unlocks a sale. Someone may argue that what we are doing is not brain surgery or finding a cure for some disease, but then, getting people to part with their money is quite hard. It’s an art and also a science and I totally enjoy when we get it right. I also come from a high achieving family so I am inspired by making myself and them proud too.
What has it been like moving from the US to Nigeria and then going on to become one of the best at what you do in a male dominated field?
To be honest, it helps that my partner is a man. Being a woman anywhere is tough; it’s not just a Nigerian problem. It was a problem in New York where I made less money than my male partners for many years. The challenge is that a lot of people in decision making positions are men and a lot of them have a very specific perception about women, especially women who dress down most of the time and whose age they really can’t guess. The approach that I have taken is to let my work speak for me. Without being arrogant or conceited, I am really good at what I do, I work really hard and I have the resume and the track record to prove it. Sometimes I get the “who is the intern look” when I walk into a meeting, but I find that once I start talking and I present myself with confidence and wit, the conversation changes. I make it a point to always go prepared, sometimes over prepared because I really want my work to speak for itself. I am not particularly a public person. I never want my public persona to be the thing; instead, I want my work to be out there and to keep speaking for itself. I am in a business where I face all sorts of clients; you have to be disciplined and be clear about where your boundaries lie and not compromise yourself. I made a decision very early in my career that I was going to get by on my abilities and work alone, and that has been working for me. There are benefits to being attractive, yes – it will get you in the door, but it won’t keep you there. Being a woman is a challenge, a global challenge. With the responsibility and influence I now have, I think it is important I use the opportunity to influence greatness in the women who work for me and to create a place for them where they can grow to be successful.
Looking back on the lessons you have learnt since starting Yellow Brick Road with your co-founder, what are those things you would do differently considering the brands you have worked with and represented along the way?
That’s a really hard question to answer because we are in a different situation now from when we started. We were born in a crisis; we lost some of our biggest clients along with 70 percent of our income. We had to let go of a third of our workforce at the time. We looked at some investment offers on how to make money, none of which we considered worth taking at the time. It was a really tough time for us. I had moments when I cried myself to sleep, but we really believed in what we were doing. We were able to pay salaries and never missed a month; this is something I am super thankful for. The advice I would have given to myself 5 years ago would be: understand that there is a certain benchmark that we should use to rate clients just the same way clients will rate us – there are clients who will waste your time, while some others are simply bad for your morale. There are some clients that will cost you money. There are some clients that we took on without really considering their true cost to the agency. Also, be much more disciplined about saying no. They say that “No” is the most powerful word in any language and especially in business. I have found this to be true. I would also have put in place the business processes at the early stage. Unfortunately, we were so busy trying to keep the business afloat. It took us a while to institute a board and get a chairman. Once we put those in place, it really helped. Another thing that we missed early was that neither I nor my partner was good at self-promotion. We literally didn’t take our own advice. In a way it turned out to be good because the reputation we have right now for the agency is based on the work.
Looking at the 80s and early 90s, we had a lot of creative ads unlike what we are used to now. In our ads today, everyone is singing and dancing to sell a product, which is somewhat catchy but with diminished creativity. The standard of digital marketing and advertising today doesn’t match the creativity of the so-called digital generation. What are your thoughts?
I have this conversation about the state of advertising in Nigeria a lot. Could the industry in Nigeria be more creative? Yes! Has the standard fallen from the 80s? In some ways, yes! But I think that what everyone forgets is that the ads you remember are the stand out ones which are maybe 1 in 100 of the ads around at the time. If you look at the US and the UK, advertising is crap. Try watching foreign TV for a day and you realize 95 percent of the ads are nonsense, but 5 percent of the ads are still really good and those are the ones you remember. Maybe the problem Nigeria has is that while you can still pick a good 5 percent of the foreign ads, Nigeria only has 1 percent. Anywhere in the world, the bulk of advertising isn’t particularly good and there are reasons for this. Clients globally don’t have a lot of faith in their consumers’ intelligence, so the reason that you have that kind of advertising is because clients think that’s what consumers understand, and to be honest, it works. If you like an advert, then it is directed at you, if you don’t, then it isn’t. Jingles work when they stick in your head. It is always important not to judge all the ads you see by your personal taste as you are not necessarily representative of the people they are trying to reach. That being said, I think there is some laziness on the part of both clients and agencies. They simply believe that because a thing has worked for other people, it will work for them. There is a lot of “me tooism” with clients. Also, clients are thinking more about how to make profits and remain in business. They are not thinking of making more creative ads, rather they are thinking about how to move more units. The agencies are guilty as well. A lot of them are still interested in making the most creative advertising. However, it doesn’t matter how beautiful or exciting your ad is, if it doesn’t accomplish what the client wants for their brand then it has failed. Our job is to create the most effective advertising and move our client’s bottom line. I started my career in business development, and for the first year of my professional life I spent a lot of time writing business cases for advertising campaigns and that’s where I learnt to think about advertising as a way to drive business.
When you look at the number of businesses that are springing up today, what branding tips would you share with some of these businesses on staying the course and staying true to their vision?
From a marketing point of view, it is important to understand what you are selling and who you are selling it to. Nike doesn’t sell shoes; they sell the idea of performance. Decide what it is that you are about and find out as much as you can about your customers and target market. In Nigeria, distribution is 90 percent of the game. Coca-Cola is a good example; you are always 5 minutes away from a Coca-Cola selling point and that has been a driving principle that has built the brand into what it is today. There are aid agencies around the world that work closely with Coca-Cola by using their trucks to reach areas where aid and medication are direly needed, which speaks of how strong their distribution is. Remember, the answer is not always massive advertising. A lot of the buying decisions happen at the retail points, so you need to focus on what happens in the stores, how your brands are being displayed, tasting and sampling, etc. Depending on the kind of business that you run, the tactics will change but really what are you trying to achieve? Who is your customer? What are you really selling? If you can answer these three questions, how to do it becomes easier to see. We have been in business for 5 years now, and most people still consider us a small business. One of the things my partner and I resorted to doing once a year is the organisation’s retreat: we remind ourselves what it is that we are doing, why we are doing what we do, how we do it and what that means to us. I am a real believer in partnership; we are very different people but we are very complementary. We remind each other why we started this in the first place and why we need to stay true to our goals and visions for Yellow Brick Road as a company. We are very clear in building the culture we operate in, and we keep repeating it for each set of people who come to work with us. It is very important that when we are not there, people understand the culture of who we are enough to carry on with it.
In the Nigerian marketing space right now, we still deal with substandard products. Many manufacturers believe in little effort and massive advertising. Would you tell a manufacturer their product needs more work in terms of quality?
We are yet to experience that kind of situation so far. We haven’t had any product that was substandard. Usually by the time a product gets to us, they have built the product to satisfactory taste from the perspective of a consumer. What we had in the past was to help clients fine-tune their recipe in the case of a beverage company we worked with from a taste profile perspective and research. Thankfully, we are lucky we haven’t dealt with any substandard products on the manufacturing side. We have been privileged to have worked with the bigger FMCG companies whose quality we have no doubt about. On the service side however, we have walked away from a couple of clients whose services we weren’t sure of. Making money is great, but going to bed at the end of the day with the thought of doing fantastic and quality standard works means even more.
What would you want to be remembered for 30 years from now in the business world?
I would want to be remembered as being one of the people that changed the way businesses use information. I am a strategist and for me, data is always the answer, whether it’s big or small businesses that are using data in their product development, or as a way to build systems and processes within their organisation, or government using data for urban planning and real impactful development. I want to be one of the people who helped brands, organisations and institutions understand data and how such data can be applied efficiently and effectively to improve their outputs and for the overall greater good.