Igwe Okeke began his journey in media and marketing communication from childhood, and he intentionally toed the route that led to his career success against all odds.
He is the Managing Director of Carat Nigeria, the world’s first media agency and a subsidiary of Dentsu International, one of the world’s largest global marketing and advertising agency networks.
In this interview, Igwe tells us how he went against everyone in his life who wanted him to choose a different career path. He talks about the science of building a vibrant brand using a foolproof integrated marketing strategy and more.
BEA: Your professional career started in the lecture hall; as a lecturer, how did you pivot to marketing communications?
Igwe Okeke: I started my career at the University of Maiduguri, Borno State, Nigeria, where I observed my compulsory one-year National Youth Service Corps. I played a double role then, one was with the Office of Public Relations Officer, and I also doubled as an assisting lecturer in the department of Mass Communication.
After that, my career, as it were, started in content production. In 2007, I was an Assistant Content Manager for a company called DM Audiovisuals. We produced a very popular content called ‘Friend or Foe’, sponsored by Guinness in those days. I was deep-end in content production, in terms of what the content was about, and it gave me an opportunity to meet many celebrities.
I went into the banking sector, and I became the corporate affairs officer of one of the financial institutions in Nigeria. My experience and activities in the banking sector brought me back to what I had always wanted to do in school, advertising and media/corporate communication. Basically, that was how my career transcended from classroom to content production and eventually to advertising.
I came into advertising media about 16 years ago, and to be honest, it has been a fast pace of growth for me. It has been an insightful journey for me. I started my career in advertising as a media planner, and I moved into strategy development and then into the administrative part of the business, which I am doing now with Carat.
BEA: Let’s take it back a little. Your first degree was in mass communication. What piqued your interest in that field?
Igwe Okeke: Interesting! This is the first time I am actually telling the story officially. I only discuss it casually with my friends.
I’m someone you would say discovered his talent very early in life. And I programmed myself in such a manner that I did not lose focus of that.
As a child, I was fond of painting, and nobody taught me to paint. I would play on the sand, drawing pictures, and people would come and watch me do it. I remember myself as a child using my mother’s empty tomato purée cans, empty milk cans and used hair thread as tools of art – I would tie the thread to the tomato purée can end-to-end, and I’d wire my father’s house and speak loudly using the empty can as my microphone. I grew up seeing myself do that, and nobody taught me. I’d speak and sing, and people would gather around me as I ‘performed.’
Nursing mothers would come in the daytime and gather the children they are looking after and put me in the middle to sing for them. I would sing and talk, and I’d capture everybody’s attention. The crying children would stop crying.
So while in secondary school, I repeatedly asked myself self-examining questions, like, ‘what exactly am I? or who am I?’ ‘How was I as a child, and how did that transcend into whom I had become?’
I was asking those questions because I was good at sciences and art. I was not one of those guys that went to secondary school and would choose the subjects they wanted. I did all from physics, biology, chemistry, geography, agric science, history, literature, etc., and my results were excellent in all of them.
So I wanted to write my West African Examination Council (WAEC) papers, we were required to choose a certain number of subjects. Everyone wanted me to go into medical sciences, and my family also said I’m good at sciences, but I still had that sober reflection of what I was as a child and I told myself that as long as I am unable to change the innate abilities, then that is probably what I am and that is what I must pursue against the other interests they wanted me to express. So, unknown to my late vice principal then, who really wanted me to be in the medical sciences, I changed the subjects I wrote in my WAEC because something in communication was driving me.
So, when I was looking for a course to study at the University, it was also about ensuring that I aligned with my gifted area. When I gained admission into the University of Nigeria Nsukka, I first studied English and Literary Studies and but one year down the line, I applied to change my program to Mass Communication because I felt I was dealing with language and that wasn’t going to help me to express myself in the field of advertising, which is what I had always wanted. I asked myself, ‘what is that single thing that would help me express all that I am from my childhood, and how do I make it my profession because it feels like that is what I am built to do?’
When I wanted to change my program, I was told that I’d lose a year, and I accepted it. I started all over again from year 1 in Mass Communication. The essence was to build myself into what I am doing today. That’s what I have always been passionate about. I didn’t want to lose touch with my childhood because I felt that is what I am meant to be.
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