Victor Gbenga Afolabi is an authority in Nigeria’s experiential marketing landscape, he is also the head of GDM Group, where he sits as the Chief Executive Officer. Recently, he won the Industry Star Award for experiential marketing at The Industry Summit and Awards.
In this interview with MediaConsortium Magazine, a leading brands, business and marketing publication, he discusses the dynamics of business of marketing and marketing communications industry. Excerpt:
The Industry Summit/Award 4.0
I think the industry award for us like any other award is an opportunity to get feedback. One of my mentors said “feedback is a gift”. We are thirteen and half years in the industry running as an agency and providing solutions to our clients. Every time we get called upon to be recognised, as an individual in an organization capacity, we think it is feedback from the ecosystem- from all our clients and the industry. Again, if it is feedback, we tell ourselves that people are watching and there is no slowing down. For us, the moment we stop getting recognition, it means nobody is hearing about you anymore. So, we must continue to give value, we must continue to improve and show that we are an outstanding agency.
Challenging year for marketers
Saying that 2023 will be a challenging year for us, is stating the obvious. The moment we stumbled into 2020 Covid-19, there was a fundamental shift globally across the marketing industry. Some businesses went down while others uncovered new opportunities. Competitive edge narrowed in some places, and the area of skills where others used as an advantage became a liability to others. The moment that happened the consumers changed fundamentally, where you find them, what they consume, how they consume.
Our industry structure immediately changed. The cost to serve became dynamic, and why? If we are not reaching the consumer on social media, digital media, and influencer marketing, it doesn’t make sense. With Covid-19 these channels became the channels to reach them. Also, the profitability of that sector is extremely narrowed. The time of huge margin is gone forever compared to what it used to be. The margins have narrowed down, inflation has become something else, the cost of funds has skyrocketed. Fundamentally, the industry has changed, and the competitive edge has also changed.
When you look at the financial sector for instance, the big players at a time were feeling like there would not be any room for the smaller ones to grow, but after 2020 what’s the case now? Fintech is taking over the space, gaining the customers of businesses whose pride was the number of branches simply because the digital came and changed the structural analysis of the industry. You need to understand the new dynamics of the market and how to reach the consumer in a generation where celebrities are no longer influencers but influencers have become celebrities, where people are no longer watching movies anymore but, skits have become movies. And we are in the business of connecting brands with consumers, therefore our business structure has to change.
So, we repositioned our focus in the industry looking for new verticals to optimize profitability and bottom line. If you are not creating new verticals, and you want to run business as usual, you will wake up one day to find out that you do not have any business. The industry has changed, consumers have changed, the channels have changed, how to reach them have changed, the experience have changed, the cost to serve in terms of reaching them has changed fundamentally.
General elections and the industry
Businesses in the marketing sector are complaining because they expected more television commercials. But, when you look at it critically, you will begin to ask: why do I need to spend 50 million naira on television commercials when people are not watching television? Why am I going to spend so much on radio jingles when people are not listening to radio like before but watching skits? Why do I need to run full page advertisements in the newspapers when the ‘sorosoke’ generation don’t read newspapers?
What do you do with influencer marketing? What do you do with opinion shaping? Do you have the tools for sentiment analysis? Have you invested in those tools that could help you? Here, we were doing surveys, research and all manner of permutations. Do you have such competence? If you do not have such competence, there’s no way you can benefit from the election spend. We were running surveys every two weeks and we were telling our clients where there was vulnerability, not only from the ward level, but, from the local government and state level. And as we were getting those sentiment analysis, they were using them for action. The question is; was money spent during the 2023 general elections? Yes, did it go in the traditional direction? No, and that’s why the industry feels that the election did not have so much spend. So, the challenge again for the industry is, how and when people spend has changed?
GDM and innovation
Again, we will continue to double down on the vertical digital technology to bring superior value to our clients leveraging technology. That’s our strength, and you will begin to see a lot of that. If you don’t see us doing the traditional stuff during product unveiling, that’s because things have changed. We are working for a client where we built an in-house technology for data analysis which we use to run campaigns for them. These are things that give us a competitive edge. We have that competence and we started investing in 2017. We established the first data person and sent him for training. When you look at it, it’s been years of leveraging technology and data. People have continued to talk about data but the data we are talking about is different. We are not talking about data from research, we are talking about primary data, interpreting the data and using it for predictive analysis which is marketing. Those are the new approaches to marketing where we are trying to build competence around, and we are sure of bringing superior value to our clients through it.
The challenge with data
The data most marketing people work with are data driven by quantitative and qualitative research but, where we focus on has a lot more with predictive data.
What marketing agencies should be looking at in the future is this, the possibility of remaining relevant? Those are the kind of competence that marketers must begin to imbibe different from the traditional research that we have. Soon clients would begin to ask, I want to run a promotion, what’s the likelihood that the promotion is going to be impactful? Or we have done a promotion for example, help check what impact did the promotion create? Analyzing those kinds of spends are the things that brand owners will continue to ask from agencies. I am not saying that we are going to run away completely from the traditional approach, but, we have to start creating those things that will be needed for the future.
GDM in the next few years
We have moved into a full-scale structure, in fact, we have a Managing Director who is saddled with the responsibility of running the affairs of business on a day to day basis, while I am providing strategic leadership. We used to be outside the country but we came back because of the Covid-19 pandemic. But, now we’re in the UK where we will start marketing and consulting. We will be stronger on the international scene because we have a Diaspora community who wants to give back, who want to invest in our products and many of them are looking for marketing communications consultancy firms. As a group you will see us launch new products and new subsidiaries that will be focused on different plans. We are going to be launching an innovative e-commerce platform in the course of the year, and one or two technology platforms to make sure we differentiate ourselves from any other person in the industry.
Training and development
We don’t have a choice, every Tuesday we lock ourselves in this building, training and building ourselves, exposing ourselves to new trends. We have a full-scale data analytical department in our office. We sent people from our office to global training and conferences to ensure we keep exposing them to global best practice. We have a marketing hackathon which is unusual in the industry. Even some of the FMCGs don’t understand what a hackathon does. In fact, some of them don’t know how to use a hackathon to solve problems. In the global environment, hackathons are used to solve problems. In a developed environment, you use a hackathon to elicit a solution in an open manner. We have not gotten there yet, but we are running ahead of the clock. We are beginning to use hackathon to look for solutions for marketing and media problems, and with it provide solutions to organizational problems.
Again, it’s challenging for everybody in the industry, but the only thing to do is a thorough assessment of your strategy. You must prepare for change so that when it comes, you will be ready for it. All the businesses talking about closing shops did not anticipate change. Oftentimes, the change we are talking about will not warn you. The Covid-19 problem is not gone yet, now we are dealing with the Russia/Ukraine war.
This global change does not send us warning shots, but, for companies that continue to innovate, the change will meet them prepared. Trust me, there are some innovations that we already have, which if we were not prepared for, we would have gone down. Talk about when we opened the Eko Innovation Center in June 2019, some people felt we were playing. I said, look, we are going to use the innovation center to position all of our businesses. And when Covid-19 came, we were offering technology solutions. That preparation ahead of time gave us a competitive edge during the pandemic.
Again, it is a function of, don’t wait before the change comes. That’s my encouragement to our colleagues. Begin to anticipate that, when things go down, what should we do? I remember in 2019 when I was called to speak in a panel, and I said this industry may change, let’s look for new ways of doing things, let’s look for new data. But, my fellow panelists who were also agency owners were telling me that I was talking nonsense. According to them, road shows have been there for years and will continue to be there. Seven or eight months down the line, there was a lockdown, and when there’s a lockdown, how do you do a road show? For us in GDM, we choose to anticipate change, and that’s what is working for us.