The Brain Behind Africa’s No.1 Marketing Agency: Lanre Adisa
Lanre Adisa is the founder of Noah’s Ark, a multiple award-winning marketing communication agency that redefined how advertising is perceived in Nigeria. He and his team are the brains behind the awesome Airtel ads that could pass as comic short films and a host of other visual creatives that captivates nearly every Nigerian household.
Despite building a vibrant and internationally-recognised marketing firm ranked No. 21 Ad agency worldwide and No. 1 in sub-Saharan Africa, Adisa wouldn’t take credit for that. He says he’s ‘just a bloody copywriter.’
In this interview, he tells Business Elites Africa how he quit a good-paying job with no safety net to start Noah’s Ark, which he believed was a higher purpose. He also talks about how he landed his first client and the setbacks that followed.
BEA: What sparked your interest in marketing communications considering you studied Linguistics and English at the University?
Lanre Adisa: I did not know anything about advertising back in the University, but like you said, yes, I studied Linguistics and English at the University of Ilorin, Kwara State. But my genuine interest was in writing more than anything else. Linguistics could be technical sometimes, so I didn’t find it interesting, and that was why I actually combined it with English because I was more interested in literature. Combining it with English gave me a chance to take credit for all I was doing. Having said that, because of my love for writing, I was involved in campus journalism and creative writing.
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As a matter of fact, I was the editor of the creative writing club magazine before I left the University. I took over from the current MD of ThisDay newspapers, Eniola Bello. What I enjoyed the most was the creative writing class. I knew I wanted to write; I just did not know what form or shape it would take. The two career options I had at the time were journalism and academia. But during my compulsory one-year National Youth Service Corps (NYSC), one thing led to another other, and I ran into someone who was the MD of an advertising agency.
He discovered I had a flair for writing, and he encouraged me. He gave me a list of some agencies I could apply to, and I wrote to a couple of them. There was a particular one I never wrote to that opened that year in 1990. That was MC&A Saatchi & Saatchi. I got introduced to see the director, and we talked, and the next thing he asked me was when I would want to start work. I was like, ‘start work?’ I didn’t expect things to move that fast because I was observing my NYSC in Ibadan at the time. Then he said, ‘if you’re really interested in this, I’d advise you to take up this opportunity now.’ So I did my last month of service at MC&A Saatchi & Saatchi as a trainee copywriter. That was where I started, and I’ve not looked back since then because it gave me a chance to write, which was my ultimate aim. Although I struggled a bit in reconciling my love for literary writing with commercial writing, but things resolved themselves down the line.
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BEA: How did your career progress from there to when you founded your company, Noah’s Ark?
Lanre Adisa: First and foremost, Saatchi & Saatchi was the best way to start my career. I spent four years there. I am grateful that I started there because it was like every other Saatchi & Saatchi agency worldwide. It was the number agency globally at the time, and the mantra was ‘nothing is impossible.’ They did a lot of wonderful stuff, and those in the Lagos office felt like we were part of that big community. It’s good for a young person with raw talent to write to start from such a place. It gave me a worldview that has not departed since then.
So, after four years at MC&A Saatchi & Saatchi, it seemed like the steam was going down a little bit, and there were some managerial and management issues, so I decided to leave my job. But I did not know where to go because I couldn’t think of any other agency like Saatchi & Saatchi. So, I resorted to freelancing for close to one year. I was offering my copywriting skills to interested agencies. That one year gave me freedom and time to reflect and think. I came into advertising with the infatuation to write, but the one year made me realise the importance of my role regarding the brands I’ve had the opportunity to work with. It is a responsibility, but people don’t seem to know that you could actually take a brand up or down.
So, for an existential reason, I had to return to the advertising agency setting because I was going to get married in 1995 and needed to put food on the table, and freelancing was not doing that for me. I just took the next available advertising job to get back into the industry. But I became a wiser person. The one-year break was a blessing for me. I will advise people that if they are at a crossroads in life, they should just take a break because it really worked for me. I came back a different person.
I took a job at Rosabel Advertising agency and spent six months there, the shortest I ever did anywhere. This was because when I was ready to return to the industry, I spoke to some gentlemen I was consulting for who used to be at Saatchi & Saatchi. I asked them to employ me, but they said they couldn’t afford to hire me at the time because they were just starting their agency.
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They were the ones that even recommended that Rosabel might be a good fit for me. That was how I joined Rosabel. Two months later, the gentlemen came back and said can we hire you now? I said, but I gave you guys a chance, it would be very rude of me to leave now because I just joined them, so I told them to give me till the end of the year because I joined Rosabel in July and I left there in December 1995.
So I joined Franchise Communications in January 1996, left in 1997 for Insight Grey, and resumed there on April 1, 1997. I left Franchise because I wanted something bigger. I felt the agency wasn’t giving me enough challenge. I had too much free time on my hands, and I needed a bit more of that energy.
I had an interesting time at Insight. I joined them as a senior copywriter, a step lower than where I had left. It was actually a downgrade, but I told them to drop the title and call me a copywriter. After doing that for a year, I was promoted to copy group head role, which was a managerial position, and subsequent year I was made the deputy creative director. After two years of joining Insight, I was basically co-managing the department, which probably spoke to how they saw my performance.
I left Insight eventually in 2003 to join TBWA Concept. They were the guys handling MTN back then. They still work on MTN now, interestingly. So I joined the company as a creative director in 2003 and left in 2008 as an executive creative director to start Noah’s Ark.
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