Working on the client’s side has greatly enhanced my expertise – Dozie Okafor, Managing Director, PHD Nigeria

Mr. Dozie Okafor got in the saddle as Managing Director of PHD Nigeria, a leading media buying agency in the country and a member of the multinational Omnicom Media Group in June, 2017. Until his latest appointment, Dozie, as he is fondly called, was Media Manager at Coca Cola Nigeria.

A career advertising media planning and buying executive, Okafor had earlier worked in PHD as Head of Media Strategy and Planning for five years between 2011 and February, 2016 when he moved to the soft drinks giant, Coca Cola Nigeria as Media Manager.

Earlier, he had worked at rival media buying agency, MediaReachOMD for two years between 2009 and 2011, where he left as Deputy Manager, Planning.

The budding company executive studied Electrical Engineering at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, where he graduated in 2005.  He took over from Bayo Adisa, erstwhile managing director of the media buying agency.

In this interview with MARKETING EDGE’s AMOS OLADELE, ANIETIE UDOH and JOSEPH EKENG, he reflects on his experiences at both agency and client ends of the brand management divide and reviews the industry as a whole in a very exciting and illuminating manner. Excerpts:

What has your experience been like for the number of months for which you have been in the saddle here?

The last couple of months have been probably one of the most challenging periods of my life. What I tell people and myself, is that if you don’t find yourself in a challenging environment where you have butterflies in your tummy, then you are not pushing yourself.

For me personally, I always like to find out what is that next hub that would give me that feeling that I am finally stepping out of my comfort zone one more time.

I am trying new things; so I think that it has been very interesting. There has been a lot of support both internally from my group and from the clients who have also been extremely fantastic in the last couple of months.

I think the major switch has been that for the past ten years, I have been more of a strategies person; and I have been a planner. Making that switch to now be sitting up and overseeing the entire business and looking at it from a very different angle, is probably the biggest difference for me, so far.

What would you say is the general mode of the media industry right now compared to about two or three years back?

I think that what has been different is that three or four years ago, the crop of the media agencies that were at the top echelon is a bit different from what we have now.

There is a lot more competiveness; there are a few newer and more vibrant players, PHD inclusive, that are coming into the fore and they are now being a force to reckon with within the media industry. This is one significant change.

Another significant change is that we are beginning to have an influx of younger CEOs. I won’t go into naming names, but when you look across the media industry, you are beginning to see a lot more of younger people taking the helm of affairs and it is not just on the media agencies’ side alone, we also see it happen on the clients’ side as well. People that were before now brand managers are now marketing managers, commercial managers on the clients end and it is fostering a lot more vibrancy within the industry on both ends of the divide.

How would you compare the experiences which you have had both on the client side and the on the agency side? Is one more challenging than the other?

Let me start by saying that one of the major reasons, if not the only reason, why I moved to the client side was simply because it was Coke.  I had told myself that I would only move to the client side if it was one of the top five brands in the world and Coke is one of them.

There were offers before Coke which I didn’t accept but when the Coke offer came, to be honest with you, I didn’t need more than 24 hours to agree and decide to take it.

Working at the client end and working at Cola-Cola, in particular, was probably one of the best times of my life. Coca-Cola exposes you to a lot of best practices. It exposes you to lot advancement in terms of the way marketing communications should be done.

It allowed me, for the first time, to see the entire chain of this whole marketing communications end to end; and also helped me to be able to track the deliverables, to see the effect of my media on the bottom line.

To be able to sit with the research team and do some market variant analysis that shows me, real time, the impact of my media campaigns on the return on investment for the business and even enables us to do a lot of future planning for the brand.

Most importantly, it drove into me a larger sense of accountability for the money that one is spending because now, you are not just sitting at the agency end and spending the money, but you are sitting down there and giving account for every money that you have spent and, believe you me, you give account for every kobo that you spend. If a year doesn’t go as you planned, you know what is going to happen the following year. That, for me, was an eye opener.

Significantly, Coke was a place where I learnt a lot and, believe you me, if you are someone that wants to learn, you want to read, you want to travel, you want to be exposed to best practices across the world, Coke is the place to be.

For me, therefore, the time that I spent there, a year and some months in all, helped me to develop that knowledge base that I needed to take up this (new) role.

Is one more challenging than the other?

I will be honest with you, having been on both sides. The agency end is more challenging and I will tell you why. The agency end is more challenging because you deal with a gamut of things in a single day; there is no other job where you can be talking telcos in the morning, alcohol in the afternoon, condoms in the evening, pharmaceuticals before you go to bed and expecting to remember everything and we do that day in day out. So, that is one of the major challenges of working in the agency end, and every client expects 100% from you. You can’t give your 100% to MTN today and tomorrow, you decide to give 50% to Unilever because you are tired, there is no excuse for that.

Meanwhile, on the client end, you are laser focused on achieving certain goals and targets for that brand. You are so laser focused that sometimes, you have a three-year plan and all that you are doing is executing the plan ruthlessly. Even then, the ability to zone in and just deliver on those KPIs is available to you at the client end which is not so much so at the agency end.

Secondly at the client end, the ability to have control around your strategies, your spend and your execution also helps you to develop strategic plans; whereas at the agency end, things can be a bit fluid, and that is because not all the variables are within your control.

So, I would say that when you put everything together in the overall, the agency end is probably more difficult.

Coke made you see marketing communications the way it should be done given the fact that Coke is a global brand and this market is a local market in a global community. Did you notice any gaps between the way it should be done and the way it is done here?

I don’t want to call it gaps but I would say that there are a lot of opportunities that local companies can learn from multinationals like Coca-Cola. Companies like Coca-Cola recognize the fact that global brands are indeed global and must be represented in a certain way across all markets but they also believe in a liquid and linked idea – Link in the sense that whatever strategy they are deploying in your local market must be linked to the central idea which the global company holds dear; but liquid in the sense that they take into cognizance the local nuisances and variations, a Kenyan, for instance, is very different from a Ghanaian, a Ghanaian is   different from a Nigerian and even in Nigeria, the Igbo man is different from the Yoruba man and you are allowed to be liquid in that sense as long as they all tie in to the overarching global idea.

For local companies to build global brands, they need to adopt those kinds of systems where even if you are migrating to Ghana or any other neighboring country, there must be a global look and feel for your brand, an identity that the brand has which can now be localized as long as they remained linked to the master idea.

How have you been able to deploy that experience into what you are doing right now?

Having said all that I have said, I always had the intention to run my own agency or head an agency. That was my ultimate goal, quite honestly, except that I didn’t expect to do it as soon as I am doing it now. My plan was to do it in three to four years’ time and that would have allowed me work with Coke for three to four years. My plan was to at least get to a certain level or grade within the Coke system that would allow me to step aside to set up own business with confidence or be a part owner to an existing business. It just happened a lot sooner than I had anticipated.

What that has brought to the table is the depth of knowledge that can only come when you have been a client and the quality of our presentation, the understating of our clients’ businesses, our ability to discuss marketing communications beyond media planning, our ability to discuss routes to market, connections planning, and our ability to talk brand strategy. All these come from being exposed to the way global companies operate.

If you have not had that experience, when you sit with a marketing director that has the full view and you as an agency person only have the media angle, you will naturally be a very small portion of a very big conversation.

Within the entire marketing mix, there is a lot of conversations and if you are not able to tie in all those conversations when you make your pitches, you lose people. Now, when we go for pitches, you would have a sales person present, as well as a procurement person, a marketing person, the General Manager and, of course, the Managing Director. If you cannot communicate in their language, you might have a difficult time.

What coming from a company like Cola-Cola helps me do is to speak everyone’s language or, at least, they are able to translate my idea into everybody‘s language so that they understand from their own point of view what the impact of my strategy is going to be on their KPIs, so that has been very helpful.

Why did you take this offer to become the Managing Director of PHD?

I think that one of the reasons was simply the home coming that it is for me. If it was an offer to take up this role in a different agency, the answer from me would have obviously been No. But I accepted to take it because, like I said, it felt like a home coming because half of the people working here, I recruited them; they are like a family to me. We don’t only work together, we hang out together.

Again, most of the clients that are here, I pitched for those businesses. So, all things being considered, it was a very familiar territory to be honest with you – especially in terms of the technical aspect of the job.

It is an unfamiliar terrain in terms of running a business. I have never been a Managing Director before, so this is the first time; but you see, there is a renewed confidence that you also have when people that you look up to are confident in you. I think that that also sparked something in me to say, you know what, if all these people see something in you, then there is definitely something, they all can’t be wrong. Thus, it sparked a renewed confidence in me.

Where you need to go and polish yourself on is on the financial angles, understanding the business, running your P&L and once you have fantastic financial people and financial managers around which I do, you really can’t go wrong.

As such, I saw it as a combination of me brining on the technical aspect of the job, also carrying on my shoulders experience from the client end, coming back into PHD, having familiar clients, a workforce that I am very comfortable with that I knew they had the competence to deliver on the job. And when I look at the trajectory of the agency from when it started up until now, they have been progress every single year.

The billings have increased year on year, the number of clients has increased year on year, and retention of clients is at its highest ebb, so it can only get better from here. Therefore, considering all that, it’s like the best choice that I made.

What would you say are the major skill gaps in the media industry right now?

I think the major skill gap is data science. The industry has evolved so quickly that a lot of agencies in Nigeria are playing catch up. I have had the opportunity to pitch for businesses with my PHD colleagues in South Africa, in Ghana, in New York and when we go for these pitches, we see the gaps that we have here in Nigeria. But the good thing is that technology, data science; these things are up for grabs right now; they are not hidden from any of us here. It is just your willingness and ability to access these things and requisite information.

Luckily for us, here, one of the things that PHD is known for, globally, is thought leadership. PHD has some of the most sophisticated planning tools ever; we have a planning methodology called ’SOURCE’. I won’t be able to elaborate on it now. It uses some of the most cutting edge marketing theories and science to run the models and churn out strategies for our clients.

For me, that was also one of the allures to PHD in the first place. Their ability to think ahead of everyone and they are very forward thinking in the way that they approach the media and marketing.

I think that in the industry generally, we have a lot of improvement to make when it comes to data science, that is being able to accurately measure our audience, record deliverables across different media types, estimate return on investment, and develop a regression analysis that gives a client a sense of what kind of return on investment he is expected to get for a certain kind of spend.

One of the things that we are working on, internally, is developing regression analysis for clients that shows them the relationship between their share of the market and their share of spend and thus helping them to estimate what kind of spend that they need to make to achieve a certain point raise or increase in their share of market.

That level of details and conversation, unfortunately, isn’t happening in all board rooms of agencies in Nigeria; but it needs to start happening because that is the way these companies think.

We also have to realize the fact that the conversations are no longer local; likewise the competitions are no longer local. My competition right now may not just be a person down the street here in Ikeja GRA, my competition is a global competition.

When I go to South Africa to pitch, we pitch as PHD not as PHD Nigeria; there is a representative from Nigeria; myself, there is someone from Ghana, someone from New York, someone from the US, someone from London, etc. We will all be there representing PHD and speaking about your own local market. There is always the technical and competence height that makes all of us to be the same across board. The client will definitely notice if he sees a variation in the quality of the output at the conversations at those kinds of pitches.

Another gap that I would mention, apart from data science, is the lack of a thorough understanding of the clients’ businesses.

A client always wants an agency that understands what it does and understands it properly not just understanding how much the agency spent last year. You need to understand his business to the extent that when you walk into the boardroom with the marketing director, he must believe that, you live and breathe his brand. You should be able to engage him in conversations that go beyond the spots you ran on TV last week; you need to be able to engage him in route to market conversations, and so on. That is the kind of things is that build the client’s confidence in you as an agency partner; and he starts to truly see you as a partner in his business. It goes a long way to oil the relationship between you and your client when he sees that you can display a high level of competence in marketing, not just in media.

Was that what you went out of the country for when you recently did your recruitment?

I would say yes and no. If I say that all those things are what I am looking for, then I might be asking for too much. Too much in the sense that based on the fact that I know that we have those gaps it presupposes that whoever you are interviewing will not have that knowledge; but what you should be looking for is that person that gives you the confidence that you are able to take on this new learning; or if he or she has laid the foundation and is ready to accept that kind of thinking.

We weren’t looking for your conversational media planners and buyers; we were looking for thinkers and those people that we have interviewed here will tell you that the interviews are very different from the kind of basic things that we will ask an applicant. Nobody comes here to play around. We are looking for thinkers; we are looking for people that solve problems because that is what we do here every day. We solve problems.

If the client has a marketing problem, we provide solutions; simply put, I am looking for people that will provide solutions and I want to be able to have conversations with you around marketing problems, brand strategy, and see how you are able to provide some solutions to that challenge and provide a rational answer to why you are proposing such solutions.

Could it be that your recent account wins informed your latest recruitment exercise?

I won’t lie. Yes. It definitely was a motivation to go out and get people. One of the things about running an agency is that the agency grows as the business grows. You don’t keep a workforce of idle people because an agency is run on very slim margins. It is a high volume business with a very low margin; so the only way that we survive is by keeping the workforce extremely low but everybody has to do his or her job with 100% efficiency.

Again, it makes it a tough business to work on and it makes it a tough place to work in as well. So what tends to happen is that as the agency wins accounts, the agency expands.

We moved into a new office here largely because of the expansion that we are experiencing and the new clients who now needs to be housed in certain offices. We had certain conversations with the clients before they came on board and we guaranteed them that their businesses would be housed with separate dedicated teams, and that naturally led to an expansion.

But when we are recruiting, we are looking for people that will deliver on the scope of the needs for those particular clients. For instance, what we were looking for when we were recruiting for the Unilever team is different from when we were recruiting for the MTN business.

Unilever being a multinational is extremely focused on data, so there is a lot of analytics and when recruiting, you are looking for people that are very good with numbers, people that are very good in research, understanding brand strategy, developing long term planning, and so on.

MTN, on the other hand, is a high volume business, high operations, and then you are looking for a different type of skill sets. You are looking for people that are highly operational, quick to deliver on timelines, quick turnaround, and those kinds of things.

Telecommunications is an industry that is extremely busy round the clock, so you need people that can be able to keep up with that pace.

Will you like to talk about some of your recent account wins?

Yeah! It has been a very busy year for us at PHD. I think that this year is probably one of the best years for the agency, till date. This year alone, the agency was able to bag MTN, Unilever and, most recently, Hayat Kimya (makers of Molfix); and starting from next year we will also be handling JSK.

Like I said, it has been a busy year; these clients require servicing and what we have been doing for the past couple of months and which is still an on-going process, is putting the appropriate things in place to ensure that there are no gaps in servicing all these clients.

Putting all that into consideration, how do you run PHD?

What I would say is that for us, the ambition is that by this time next year, we want to be in a position to say that PHD is definitely within the top three media buying agencies in Nigeria. That is the ambition and we are definitely going to get there by God’s grace, not just in terms of billings but also in terms of the technical competence of the job and there are things that we are putting in place to make sure that happens.

I think that we are beginning to get a lot of clients that are now migrating from just asking questions around how much discount we will give them but are now beginning to say things like, tell me how I should build this brand; tell me what the return on my investment will be if I put X amount in; tell me what I need to do if I need to achieve a 4% increase in my market share.

Now when those questions are asked because they have left the space of the discount conservation, we are now talking brand strategy and branding, that is where we need to be because once you do that properly, the 2% additional discount wouldn’t matter if you are delivering a 10% increase in their market share.

But it is about choosing the bigger part of the conversation and dealing with it thoroughly and as long as brands like MTN, Cola-Cola, Google, etc., are in business, this would be the trend.

All Google companies continue to spend millions of dollars in Nigeria and they continue to lead those conversations; agencies are going to be forced to up their games in terms of their technical competencies, especially realizing that the conversations are no longer local.

There is a lot more demand given to us, here at PHD, coming from our global offices not necessarily from the offices here in Nigeria. There are weekly Skype posts, there are monthly reports, and there are annual global conferences and we all have to be there to represent our local markets and all of that changes the dynamics of the conversation.

There is now a development of consulting firms making incursion into marketing communications. How do you see this trend and does it put any pressure on your organization?

I personally believe that media and communications will evolve and must evolve. When we started media, there was no digital marketing; there was no online advertising, at least not to the extent at which it is, today.

When it began to blossom in Nigeria, there were also some schools of thought which said that media budget would suffer; but rather than having that, what happened was that the agencies evolved into securing the competencies needed to deliver on the beat.

Now when it comes to consultancy, I believe that there is also space within the marketing communications industry for all these different groups to function. Even at the agencies, your roles will also evolve. We have clients that are taking up your services for the research and marketing science which you bring to the table; not necessarily for your buying.

We have clients that are coming to you that still come to you just for the buying. We are not saying that that doesn’t exist; it still exists but there are roles evolving in different spaces.

The role of strategist is also evolving; it is evolving from just creating media strategies to creating connection plans which go beyond the media strategy.

Companies like MTN are looking for an Integrated Marketing Communications plan and are asking agencies to work almost like a consortium and deliver a singular solution which was not the norm before now.

What you would had in the past was that a PR guy would come to sit at your meetings with the client; but now the client says, you go and sit together then come back to us with a cohesive solution and I think there is a role for the consulting guys, somewhere in that mix.

I think as things continue to evolve, everyone will eventually find a space within this whole marketing communications conversation where you can still operate and deliver value to the client because that is your ultimate goal.

The goal is to ensure that the brand looks good and once the brand looks good and makes money, the client looks good and we also look good.

I think that once we approach it with that mindset, then it is going to be better for everybody and better for the industry as a whole.

Drawing from your agency’s catch phrase of “Finding a Better Way”, what existing ways does PHD benchmark its findings against and how does it chart its course to “finding a better way” at every instance?

It is something that we say here every day, I mean we have it on our walls and, to be quite honest with you, finding a better way is looking at the status quo and asking yourself, how can this be done better.

It is a mantra that we use and that we apply to our daily lives, here at PHD; and it cuts across every media platform and every type of strategy that we put together.

A case in point is media measurement. The norm, here in Nigeria, is that we are only able to deliver media deliverables in terms of reach to GRPs, frequency, and so on; CPRPs and the rest across TV and Radio, largely because that is what MPS provides. But in reality, when you sit back and look at it, these are mathematical calculations which we can, by extension, apply to other media types.

What PHD has done is to develop a system call ‘source’ which enables us to estimate and project these same deliverables for outdoors, for print, for digital and it goes beyond that, it helps us to calculate between earned and owned media as well.

What that does is that it gives the client a more holistic view of what his spend is doing out there. It gives him an idea of even what his Facebook social media community is adding to the overall reach of his campaign.

That, in itself, is already finding a better way for the client to fully appreciate his marketing plan. It also goes in terms of how you even benchmark spend. So, what is globally acceptable in the industry when people want to benchmark how we should spend, it is either the easiest way which is to benchmark against yourself by considering what you spent last year versus now.

Or they benchmark by looking at the category and saying ok, this is what these guys spend, what is the average spend, what should I be doing to clock above the clocker. Those are very implicit ways to do it.

What you could do is start to think about these things in terms of big data and say, for the past ten years, what has been the trend, develop a regression and establish a relationship between spend and market share.

When you are able to do that, you are able to deliver to the client on a point by point basis how much he needs to spend to deliver a certain increase in market share and it is scientifically proven because you are working with an existing past data which is probably between a period of one decade. Now, it takes time to do all that regression analysis; but you see, there are clients out there that appreciate that quality and depth of thinking because once you are able to do a thorough job in terms of planning, execution is easy. The challenge is that if you don’t plan properly, execution becomes so tedious because you are cross correcting as you go along.

Another thing that we are trying to do is not to be the conventional agency in the way we deal with our clients and in the way that we relate with them.

A client will like to work with somebody that he likes and, let’s face it, we all want to work with somebody who is simple; so, being approachable to all your clients enables the clients to open up to you be it day or night on issues or challenges, problems that need to be solved and once you can try to drop some of the formalities, not all of them, you will see the relationship really blossom into a true partnership.

And it even goes deeper than that, we looked at our regular media plans and communications and we said, we need to start thinking beyond the regular point of advertising.

I will give you a few more examples, like if DStv continues to sell more explorers what does that mean to TV advertising. It means that time shift will now be possible, people will be watching more recorded movies, and so on; so if people are watching recorded things, they can skip your ad and what is the solution as a media planer; you need to start thinking content and what we are doing is that we are setting up content and talking with clients on how to integrate brands with contents and bringing them specialists in our own industry, people that do films.

How you can integrate brands with film, how you can integrate brands with music, how you can integrate brands with drama? This is because, as you may know, there are different techniques for all these things. Interestingly, companies like Unilever are embracing those kinds of approach in their marketing.

Print is another industry. So we are sitting with the top ten newspapers and we are asking them questions around, how are you integrating the newspapers with digital media or social media? If, for instance, you are printing 50,000 copies of your newspaper a day and you have million fans on Facebook, which should bring more value to you?

I think that a million people on Facebook that are reading your newspaper is a lot more important to me; so, how do you come back to me with a proposal that ties in your entire offerings so that when I buy advertising on your platform, I buy across not just the print because I am buying into you as an entity. That naturally brings your digital planners into the mix, it brings your editor in print, it brings also whoever is editing for you on social media, online. It brings everybody into the same conversation, for short.

However, it creates some complexity I agree because now, the revenue streams that were separate had to now come together; but, surprisingly, we have some newspapers out there that are willing to explore this kind of approach because they see it as they being able to tap into this lucrative digital advertising space and it also helps them deliver some level of measurability to clients which they have not been able to deliver up until now.

I think that with those examples, you can see how finding a better way always comes to play.

Every time we put a strategy before a client, we are asking ourselves, how else can this be done that will deliver better value than what is currently being done. I am not saying that how it is being done is wrong, it is absolutely fine for now; but think ahead in the next five years, is it going to be fine? If it is not, then you need to start thinking of how to solve it and PHD actually does that so well.

Every year, PHD releases a publication which is all about forward thinking. This year, we released a book called ‘Merge’ and it is really about closing the gaps between technology and us and how the role of agencies would evolve in the next 20 to 30 years. That is just the way that PHD thinks and we try to get our people to think the same way, too.

How does your normal day look like?

My normal day, unfortunately it is work; it has always been here in the office. One of the things that my people tell me is that I need to get out a little bit more but I think that it is really driven by the fact that I enjoy what I do.

Again, like I said earlier, on what other job can you talk about four or six different categories on the same day if not our kind of job? It exposes you to so much knowledge about the different industries and how different businesses operate.

You know so much about Insurance and at the same time, you know a lot about Telecommunication. You know so much about the ice cream industry and suddenly you know how to make soaps! It exposes you to so many things and, after a while, you are so engrossed in all these things.

So, my typical day is that I am here by 8:00 o’clock every morning and I probably leave this office 8:00 every night, if I am lucky. Sometimes, we are here till 9 or 10pm.

I try to make sure that the staff don’t feel compelled to be here. You are here because there is a job to be done. I hold everybody accountable to their deliverable, not to how long you sit at your desk. I am not interested in that, to be honest with you.

While I was at Coke, they were not interested in that either; it is about the deliverables and the timelines that you are committed to, that is what you need to focus on. The understanding is that everybody came here with a certain level of competence and it is that competence that has earned him a seat in this office; so he should have the maturity to deliver on his assignments without being forced.

In any case, we also try to have a good time. Every last Friday of the month, we try to have a couple of drinks, here in the office. We try to hang out and try to take it easy. We try to hang out with our clients as well. Luckily, we have a very funny client called Hennessy; you might have heard of them, they do know how to have a good time and it is always fun working on their accounts as well.


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