National Honour was a big surprise to me – Udeme Ufot

UdemeNot a waste of talent, as his father had feared, but an enigma in marketing communications and advertising. Udeme Ufot flies high that he is easily recognised simply by his first name, writes OLUMIDE IYANDA

Udeme is a great man. No, we are not referring to the pilot in the popular Guinness television commercial (TVC), but Udeme Ufot, Group Managing Director of SO&U Group, a leading marketing communications and advertising agency in Nigeria.

A lot of stories have been written about him. Individuals and organisations have honoured him. And there is the Member of the Federal Republic (MFR) national honour conferred on him by President Goodluck Jonathan on September 29, 2014. Even the harshest critics of the federal government agree that the honour was well deserved.

Presidential recognition has been in short supply in the advertising industry in Nigeria. Perhaps because the practitioners have not projected themselves as much as the brands they sell. It, therefore, came as a surprise when Udeme’s name appeared on the 2013/2014 National Honours list. He was travelling from Cape Town to Johannesburg in South Africa when the announcement was made. He switched on his phone upon arrival in Johannesburg to see text messages from Nigeria congratulating him on the announcement of the award. Given the snub advertising practitioners have received in the award of national honour in the past, Udeme thought people were playing pranks on him. His wife was not immediately convinced either.

Confirmation, however, came and Udeme declares “it was a big surprise to me”. He was encouraged that his gospel – that when you do your best in this country, sooner you will be recognised and given the appropriate honour – has come to pass.

According to his company’s website, “Udeme began his advertising career as an art director with Desmark Advertising, where his unique illustrative style and flair for writing quickly drew attention. He soon joined Insight Communications where he also showed a flair for client service work, rising to be Deputy Creative Director in the five years he spent with the agency.

“Following an agency attachment course with German Saatchi and Saatchi affiliate, Scholz and Friends, he returned home with a burning desire to redefine existing templates.

“He co-founded SO&U in 1990 with a vision to be the most creative agency in Nigeria within two years.

“With close to three decades of marketing communications experience under his belt, Udeme is a past president of both the Advertising Agencies Association of Nigeria (AAAN) and the Lagos Business School Alumni Association. He is also a board member of the Nigerian Economic Summit Group.

“He remains one of Nigeria’s most revered figures in marketing communications.”

Udeme and his partners, Sagay and Julia Oku, didn’t have a fat bank account when they started SO&U in 1990. What they had in large supply was their talent, passion and common goal to succeed. And there was N60,000. Another agency started a year after with over N2 million take-off capital.

Starting out with a shoestring budget was not easy. One of the corporate ads that they produced in the early days had the headline “We are Long Distance Runners”. It was their story told with images of cement blocks and planks.

“All we had as a table and chair on which the first media plan of the agency was written was a makeshift table composed of two upright cement blocks and a plank on it. We had four chairs. We were that humble in our beginning, but one thing we did not lack was the passion to succeed. Our lack of fund was at variance with the high passion that we had.”

Apart from the challenge of finance, there was also the issue of contact. The trio – with expertise in copywriting, design and art directing – was largely in the background prior to launching out on their own. Such people are hardly seen, let alone heard, in the advertising industry. The ones with the designer suits and flashy cars in client service are the stars of the show. Those are the ones with the contacts. To make matters worse, the industry was not known for seeing people from creative background launch advertising agencies. It was common back then as it is now to hear people say “creative people cannot run businesses. They are just creative minds.”

In the words of Udeme: “The perception that we will fail was not uncommon. It was historical. It was a tradition.”

Even two years down the line, when they had started making very heavy impact on the industry, some people still thought it was only a matter of time before they would collapse.

But they had a simple strategy.

“I said to my colleagues how we would win in the marketplace is to use what we have in greater supply and not worry much about what we did not have. What we had in mega supply was talent. When we started, I had one of the best ad directors in the business on my team. I had someone who was very fresh as a copywriter with unusual style and very smart. Luckily, I was also involved in very minimal client service in my last days in Insight. With my minimal client servicing skills, we could draw whatever small opportunities we could find into the agency. What we then did was to make sure every ad we put out forced the world stop to ask: say who did that?

“Everyone loves good things. When you do good work, people would ask who did it and come knocking on your door. Like my father would say, when you build a good mouse trap, the world will beat a path to your doorway.

“Our vision was to be known, in 24 months, as the most creative advertising agency in Nigeria. We felt that if we achieve that objective, the world would come to us. So, for our first three years, most of the clients we had came to us through referral or clients who just saw our works and asked their corporate affairs unit to come get us. Every kobo we made in the first three years went into kitting the business and kitting up ourselves. We trained ourselves. We put the entire agency through marketing programmes to polish our marketing skills. We bought equipment from the agency to facilitate faster and better work. We went for every training programme in management we could find.”

Looking back 24 years after, Udeme gives God all the glory. Some people genuinely felt he was crazy to leave a fairly comfortable employment where he was seen as a star.

“People said to me: you must be crazy to risk the potential you have here for the unknown. But I wanted to be famous. I wanted to have fun doing what I love doing, without having some boss saying you can’t go this way or that. I wanted to be in control of my creative products. I knew I was good at what I was doing. I enjoyed doing it. It was a career that I chose,” he told us.

Udeme had to fight his father who put him under pressure to read law. “He felt I was a waste of academic talent for going to read design in school. But I knew where I wanted to go to. I also wanted to make a small fortune to be comfortable. I like good things, and good things do not come cheap.”

All he wanted was to have fun, fame and fortune doing what he loves. “I felt if I could achieve those three Fs, then that’s all I need. When I look back now, I cannot but give thanks to God, my family and my friends. I also thank my clients who supported me and my team in the agency. I enjoy what I do. It is still fun till today.”

It has not been rosy all the way. SO&U’s affiliation with American global communications and advertising agency, Saatchi & Saatchi, which began in 2002, ended last year. The two worked together for Guinness, but once Saatchi & Saatchi lost the account, its network in Africa became irrelevant.

From resuscitating brands on life support to consolidating the ones on solid ground, Udeme has done a lot with the greatness in him. And he is not stopping anytime soon. Nobody knows about the greatness in him better than his wife, Dorothy Udeme Ufot (SAN). Their union is blessed with Aniekan and Dorothy Jnr.