‘At GDM Direct, We Know the Heartbeat of Our Clients’ – Victor Afolabi

Mr. Victor OlugbengaAfolabi is the Managing Director/CEO of GDM Direct, a leading direct marketing and online services agency in Nigeria, which is also a subsidiary of Hazon Holdings. Afolabi is a pharmacist, health economist and visionary entrepreneur. He founded Hazon Holdings, a conglomerate with interests in pharmaceutical distributions, health insurance, marketing communications, outdoor advertising, insurance brokerage, real estate, print production, commodity trading, investment and financial services.

In this exclusive interview with AMOS OLADELE and DANIEL ETEGHE, this frontline advertising practitioner cum entrepreneur, who is also an alumnus of the famous Lagos Business School, speaks on the agency and its consistently rising profile on the horizon.

To what extent do you consider advertising agencies as forces behind the brands?

I find advertising agencies being very crucial to helping brands do well because, basically, they are ideas organizations which have a lot to offer in terms of the values which brands have to offer their consumers. Truth is, it is the advertising agencies that create the narration, they are the ones that tell the stories that help the consumers and the target groups to understand the benefits of what brand owners are bringing to us; they understand the importance of patronage of any particular brand, its unique selling points, and how any particular brand is able to resolve an existing tension in a consumer’s life, which is basically the essence of the existence of the said brands. Remember that each brand is created to resolve a problem, to resolve a tension in a consumer’s life.

Now, the challenge is I have a solution, somebody has a problem and the person who creates the connect or who creates the narration for the other person to be able to understand, the decoder of what you are saying and the receiver, that person who does the actual decoding of the message is actually the role the advertising agencies play. We find them very crucial because advertising partners, all your partners generally, are crucial to your survival and existence as a brand and as an organization; and of course it is not only the advertising guys that play, the way you consider your logistics, your supply chain people, the way you consider all partners that you call your stakeholders, that is the same way the advertising guys play a significant role in the industry in helping to build these brands and in helping to create the connect between them and their target audience.

Yes, I see the advertising firms play that role. I have seen that, at times, in the nature of communication, there have been remarkable distinctions between brands that are struggling and brands that are doing well because of their ability to create that top of the mind awareness. You know that there is a consumer funnel; it is from awareness to consideration to       trial and from trial to purchase. So, the person who creates that first opportunity for you to even enter the consideration set of the mind of the consumer is the advertising guy. First, he creates that consumer’s set and once he has created that awareness, people begin to talk about the product, the problem it solves, leading the consumer on a push to want to try. It is when you get to purchase that the organization begins to make money and then our job is to make sure that loyalty and other schemes and promotions now support to ensure re-purchase.

This explains why globally, advertising is a big industry to reckon with and I think in Nigeria also we play that same role. There are quite a number of agencies there in the whole industry from the ATL guys to the guys in the BTL, to Integrated Marketing Communications experts (through-the-line, TTL). We have seen a lot of bespoke digital agencies, we have seen the PR agencies and all these come together to form an industry that helps to build these brands. And once a brand’s equity is strong enough, it begins to enjoy a pull and no longer a push. When you begin to enjoy a pull, that is when you become an established brand and that is the hope of every marketing manager, of every marketing director – that your brand becomes a powerful brand, whereby, the pull force is strong. When you have a strong pull force, you can now do what is called ‘brand extension(s)’, that is, the name is put on other extensions, and it will enjoy the same patronage; you begin to do joint promotions, attaching other brands to the one doing well. I have gone into all that to demonstrate my view that agencies are very formidable.

Narrowing it down to the BTL, that is one sub-sector where your ROI is always seen quickly, close to instantaneous; feedback is almost instantaneous and it is easily measureable. Don’t forget that the issue of measurability has been a debate for long before now, but with the marketing and analytic tools that are coming out, measurability will be succint. Even then, quite a lot of what advertising does is subjective because it is an unseen force behind brands; yet brands that take it for granted, and assume that advertising is not important loose out in magnanimous ways.

This explains why we (at GDM) have our long term plan which is to become a marketing firm reputed for creating very strong connections between people and their brands; that is where we are going, that is our destination. So, I started leading this vision from the BTL point because that is where you build the fastest credibility and impact in what you do – you do an activation, you see the impact; you do a direct sales activation, you see the impact; because you can quickly measure it, it quickly resolves that argument about whether or not it is working. I personally think that this is also why the BTL industry is very critical and you will see that most organisations now devote 60 per cent of their budget to the BTL.

 As an indispensable force behind its client brands, what has your agency put on the table to deliver on this great mandate to its clients?

As a BTL agency, I have heard clients say it, over and over again, that we come across with very strong ideation. An ideation, for us, is basically coming up with concepts and ideas and ways of execution that help to stimulate demand. There lies our strength. Of course, this strong ability to create the right campaigns and ideation are fueled by a lot of strong insight about the landscape and strong insights about working with their consumers because we have strong understanding of targeted groups and how to do proper profiling.  We also, above all else, pride ourselves in understanding very well what the tensions in the lives of our clients are. It is critical and I keep insisting on it.  You need to understand the brand manager as well as know what his tensions are. The question is, the proposal you brought to his table is it going to reduce the tension or turn it up?  These may look intangible but they are the critical things that have worked for us in the past seven years. Added to this is that GDM always brings to the table of its client strong capacity. We make bold to say that when it comes to capacity in the industry, very few can rival GDM, in terms of manpower, resources, spread and turnaround time. Only a few agencies can be assumed to come close to us. That is why we work for many of the top brands. We have competence, which means that we know our onions. We pride ourselves in really knowing this thing and that is why we have been around for seven years. It took us less than five years to get to the top three position in agency rating, top three to top five in turnovers and number of accounts. I can clearly tell you that we really know our onions, so we understand what we do and we are competent in whatever we do. We have very little patience for ineptitude, lackadaisical attitude and incompetence. Thus, we are careful in how we recruit our people, careful in designing plans and campaigns as well as frame works that retain our people. Above all, character is important because it is a value. Our character comes from our values. We are guided by three fundamental things namely: strong capacity, competence and character built on passion, integrity, excellent, team work and discipline. These have helped us greatly in the last seven years to come this far, and, to a large extent, helped us to become an undisputable leader in the industry. GDM plays a dominant role in the BTL industry.

How will you assess the Nigerian integrated marketing communications sector?

I think it is extremely fragmented. I think it is not well structured currently; there is extremely low barrier of entry which has led to a lot of quackery. The Experiential Marketers Association of Nigeria, EXMAN has started doing something but, of course, we have not gotten sectoral approval from the Advertising Practitioners Council of Nigeria, APCON and all that. It is a journey.  EXMAN came into existence about four years ago; so it is a very nascent industry. People who don’t know what it takes to do campaign go about with their briefcases and they get jobs because they know the brand managers. These quacks do poor and shoddy jobs, then, people will resort to generalising that there are no good agencies. So as an agency, we are trying to run as a proper firm, though, it is tough because clients complain of high cost. We have 80 permanent staff and we have offices in about five geo-political zones of the country because we want to stay close to the market. How do you run the organisation?  There is no electricity; we use inverters to give us light. There is an added cost. How do you run that kind of structure while clients want the same project manager or client service person for the next three, four or five years? How do you pay them, how do you keep them, how do you motivate them without creating a career progression for them? All these create a lot of problems for the agencies. Most of the quacks who parade themselves as integrated marketing communication agencies operate from their homes, boots and cars. They have zero overhead. Once they get a brief, they and their friends and the brand manager bring people together and just throw out something. The risk in this for a client is that he is not in Sokoto, Zamfara or Kebbi, where he commissioned the job; so he would not know the quality of job delivered. The client ends up shortchanged as his brand is being damaged through poor quality of job done by quacks.  Principals and clients need to understand that the agency is an extension of the brand; they must represent the brand in every way. When you engage quacks to run your campaigns, they will destroy your brand.

What is the success story of your agency? Who are your clients and what is your relationship with them like?

GDM was incorporated in 2009. I used to work in a multinational; I quit in 2009 and GDM Direct officially kicked off on January 15, 2010.  January 15, 2017 was exactly seven years that GDM Direct has been in existence. It has always been pursuing the heartbeat of our clients – that has been the philosophy. We like to challenge the norm; there are lots of things we have started. When I got into the industry, we used to talk about operations department and clients service department. A client’s service man collects brief and comes to debrief somebody else called the operations manager and somewhere along the line valuable information is lost. We were the first to pioneer the concept of project leads. Our project leads are from end to end. Our operations are projectised and handled by the project department. A project person handles the campaign from end to end. So, we played down on client’s service and operations. Gradually, it started catching fire in the industry. You take the brief, you analyze the brief, you support the proposal development and ideation, you follow to the presentation, you execute the brief, you do your report, you do your invoicing and you close up. We have created people who have become experts comparable to a brand manager in what they do. They are the ones doing the campaign from end to end.

How do you ensure competencies in everybody to do the job?

That is our inner strength because basically our major strength is in our people. They are extremely passionate, they are dedicated and they are competent and it starts from our recruitment process. GDM is a tough place to work. Everybody in the Industry knows that it is a very tough place to work and it is high pressure environment. Basically, we live in the survival of the fittest milieu in this place. We sweat in the air conditioner because it is the reflection of my personality. I see work as a serious business, so I don’t play around. That is the way we have done things here. It is all about excellence, it is all about risk, and it is all about setting records and breaking the records. Trust me, before June this year, our operations will be totally changed. We are revamping the way we work, not because we have not done well to get to the top of the industry but because we think our clients need more. There are few things I will keep under rap, when we call you for media parley in June, we will tell you the direction that we are going. We are moving away from what we have been doing traditionally because we think the industry has moved on. If the needs of my clients have moved on, as industry leader, we should be the first to flow in that direction. If the industry has changed fundamentally, the expectation from an average BTL agency is no longer take this brief go and design an event. They expect a lot of ideation, a lot of business mindedness and business understanding from you. So, that business part which is expected as business managers, that skill and competence, which clients are beginning to demand are changing the whole industry and it is distinguishing the agencies that will survive from those that won’t survive. If your staffs don’t have an idea of business or management, then you have an issue because BTL now is about understanding how businesses are run, how they are managed and how you can support them. BTL is no longer, like I said, organizing weddings and arranging beautiful chairs and aesthetics; it has gone beyond that, it is more of a business solution. So, it is changing the competencies and the skills because the offerings and the needs of our clients are changing and our job is to pursue the needs and the heartbeat of our clients. That is what we have been doing.

What about your clients’ portfolio at the moment?

We just have a couple of multinational clients that we love to work with; we think that they love us, too.

You don’t want to name them?

No, we don’t name them; our clients are our clients. We like to keep them like this because we need to write to them to get the approval to name them.

Do you have any new clients?

We are pitching; we always pitch we love to pitch. We are pitching in so many accounts and we got a few renewals towards the tail end of last year. We expect more to happen this year. We make bold to say that we have not lost anything; it has been quite low but we expect to win more accounts. Last year, we had about four new accounts; this year we are also looking forward to adding more as the business continues to grow.

So what are you goals and plans for 2017?

For 2017, I think we are on course. Last year, we exceeded our target by about 12% of what we thought we were going to be able to achieve to close at 27% of the previous year, this year we are not trying to do 27%; we are doing conservatively 18.5 per cent growth forecast over last year. But looking at the first quarter, we think that we are on the right path. Our three years growth ambition plan is to quadruple this business. We want to quadruple the business within three years starting from 2017. That is four times the number; more than what we did in 2016.




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