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An Idea that is strong Enough Transcends Language

Updated: Oct 14, 2019

Jonah Otieno is the the Chief Executive Officer of 5ive ltd, an East African creative and branding services agency. In this chat with Creativity Week, Jonah shares about the ideas behind setting up 5ive, his work and views about creativity in Kenya and Africa as whole.

Chief Executive Officer 5ive LTD Nairobi at an event in Beijing

What inspired you in forming 5ive and how has the journey been so far?

I did the first Cannes Creative Leaders Programme and when I came back, the agency that I was Creative Director of at the time wasn’t ready to embrace the new learnings. So I resigned, had my resignation rejected, waited out the notice period, then went back to Nairobi to start. I was in limbo for a while though before I got it off the ground.

Please tell us about some of the campaigns that have shaped your agency.

We are just about to launch the impact report for M-KOPA Solar. This is a Pay as you go Solar solutions company that we have worked with for the long term and so far, we have the solution in 750,000 homes in Kenya, each household saving about 650 USD annually that would have previously been used to purchase other fuel sources such as Kerosene, firewood etc. Translated this is 1.7 Million tonnes of carbon averted since launch and this means that across the customer base, this is a saving of over 400 Million dollars. The customers also have the option to upgrade from the basic solar lighting solution to cookstoves, smartphones, cash loans, Solar TVs and we’ve just launched a Solar fridge. It’s great to do work that upgrades lives with tangible human outcomes rather than the beautiful but sometimes self-serving and eventually ineffective work that some clients claim agencies have been doing lately.

In a recent interview, you said that “There is a slow but steady shift from Western influence in our approach to advertising and I figure when we get to that point, then our work can stand out enough that we can start winning more awards in international competition yet still be relevant in our respective local contexts”. Do you think we will ever get to that point because of the strong cultural influence today via cable TV and the Internet? Secondly, don’t you think the more we look different, the less we would be understood by an international jury?

A lesson that I learned early but that keeps cropping up is that an idea that is strong enough transcends language. I find this especially true when it comes to music and music videos. We have people that will sing Nigerian and South African songs word for word without a clue as to what is being said. This is also affirmed in the number of times you will look at a foreign ad in

Lürzer’s archive or adsoftheworld for instance and only read the caption to confirm that your initial understanding was correct. A solid concept still transcends oceans and borders. Create for your home audience first. If the idea is built on real insight and properly crafted, it should be easy to judge and even if it goes over the heads of the international jury, you didn’t compromise relevance where the ad needed to work the hardest which is in your home country.

You’ve worked in India, Ghana, South Africa, Tanzania and in 2012 you were invited as one of the foreign jury members for an advertising awards in Nigeria. With your exposure, what would you consider similar and what would you consider different in the creative approaches of the various markets you’ve worked in?

There is a lot of similarity both in the approaches and challenges. The best work is always launched off of strong local nuance/insight. When we sat on that jury, there was some work that we could immediately see was done for the awards. Or lifted, sometimes wholly, from work that had been done elsewhere. This didn’t get very far. There were concepts that looked bland until a fellow juror peeled off the layers by explaining the context locally and while I didn’t always immediately get it, it was amazing when the penny dropped and how much work was grown off of something that was intrinsically local

Pitcher Awards is planning to unite African creativity in 2020 and provide a common platform for authentic African ideas to blossom. What would you like to see?

Advertising is actively in competition with memes, with podcasts, with make-up tutorials, with games… the list goes on. It would be great to see work that created quantifiable advocacy in the same way that these other things do. Awards submissions can be largely masturbatory, by industry for industry. Impact as a metric should be ranked higher. It’s possible to do work in other African countries without ever leaving yours. Collaborations and how ideas translated from one country to the next would be great to see. Universal insights and creative similarities to inspire the younger cohort. I think this would be a fantastic idea if run well.

No doubt, the economy of Kenya has recently seen immense expansion, from the strong performance in tourism, education, telecommunications to agriculture and now Kenya joining the respected league of oil exporting countries. Is this positive economic outlook also reflected in the creative sectors?

I think the work has definitely grown in leaps and bounds and this is largely due to embracing digital and tech. It’s a thin line though between investing in gimmicks and getting digital/tech to work with solid ideas. Some people have figured this out better than others have. Economically, the quandary in the Creative industry is the same globally. In the end clients want us to do more year on year, for less. We’ve accommodated this and it’s not sustainable. There will have to be a shift and my strong sentiment is that it will only ever benefit one of these parties and the other will break. Maybe this isn’t such a bad thing if it forces us to relook at our models.

Kenya is known worldwide for its wildlife. How much of the Safari culture is reflected in the creative outputs of Kenya?

This question is the same as asking how much of the Jollof rice culture is reflected in the creative outputs of Nigeria. I think every country has a stereotype perpetuated outside it but we definitely aren’t trying to fit that into every creative output to sate an external audience. It would be amazing to have this question start with ‘Kenya is known worldwide for its art or music…’ Thankfully there are people avidly pushing for this so maybe with time. We love our wildlife though.

Kenya is one of the Africa countries that has an indigenous language as an official language. How much of advertising is done in Swahili and how would you compare the creative quality of original Kenyan work done in Swahili and those done in English?

The advertising is done in a mixture of English, Kiswahili and Slang/Sheng

What do you have to say about the Kenya movie and music industries? Are they making the nation proud locally and on international platforms?

We are listening with a lot more pride to our local music. There is suddenly younger and more prolific talent and less influence from other music on the continent. We had a bit of an identity crisis prior but the sentiment now with hashtags like #playke calling for us to aggressively and unapologetically play Kenyan music means there is new fire. Music incubators such as what has just been started by Muthoni Drummer Queen and the Wednesday night club for film by Toni Kamau are fuel for the resurgence. It’s in the right hands now.

Besides your own work in your own agency, who are those that regularly inspire you in the Kenyan ad industry?

Robert Ng’ang’a, Max Ngari, Francis Karugah and Allen Kambuni are consistently pushing the envelope as far as lateral thinking on creative output for the digital age goes. I’d say they are people to watch.

If you were not doing advertising, what do you think you would be doing?

Farming. Growing Avocados. I lie. I have no clue and this concerns me.

What is your overall impression of the winning work at Cannes Lions this year?

It’s always the world’s greatest work but some pieces like Stabilo’s ‘Highlight the Remarkable’ really stood out for me for just how far outside the initial execution the idea was able to live. I love when work is able to create organic participation and submission from people who may not have even been the initial target. ‘Create conversation’ doesn’t have to be just a buzzword.


Well put Jonah. Keep aiming higher


Max Ngari
Max Ngari
Oct 14, 2019

Well said! Thanks for the shout-out. Humbled.

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