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We See Isolationism Rising in Africa

Updated: Nov 14, 2019

Kwame has been a 2-time juror for Pitcher Awards in the Channel category and a vibrant advocate for Creativity Week in Francophone West Africa. In this conversation, he tells us about his African roots, work, aspirations, creativity in Africa and his assessment of the adoption and impact of the UN SDGs.

Kwame Senou, Senior Vice President, Opinion & Public

Kwames are found in Togo, Benin, Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire to mention the obvious ones. What is the connection?

The naming structure in the southern parts of West Africa is the same; categorized by day and sex. Kwame is a boy born on a Saturday. Kwame(s) are found where the great Akan people are established. The Akan are all originally from the Pra Ofin region in Ghana, they did spread from there geographically west to Côte d’Ivoire, and east to Benin Republic. Today they are one the largest groups in the region with ethnicities like Bron, Adjoukrou Ashanti, Baoulé, Agni, Appolo, Attié, Abbey, Abidji, Adioukrou, Alladian, Abouré, Ebrié, Avikam, Tchokossi, Akuapem, Denkyira, Fanti, Wassa and Ewé, Guin, Ané, Adja, Tchokossi/Anoufo, Tchumbuli. It is a testimony to the fact that we are the same in West Africa. With colonization, there are few interactions happening between these diverse ethnic groups despite the visible similarities in culture and traditions. The lack of documentation doesn’t help which would have made it obvious that we are the same people.

You are of Ghanaian origin, born in Benin Republic and married to a Nigerian, how does it feel sharing this diverse African background?

Sharing this diverse African background has made it easy for me to adapt. As a business leader interacting with clients and partners from different origins, understanding diversity from a personal point of view is a plus. I am more tolerant, more adaptable and my brain is already wired to embrace differences. You must be aware that Nigeria and Benin Republic are having challenges over the smuggling issue, most people are forced to take sides. Because of this diversity, I can understand both standpoints and speak accordingly. It is truly a blessing to me and I am grateful to God for this.

You have a large network of partners in more than 24 African markets and have visited almost all. What do you have to say about African Creativity?

I have observed 2 kinds of approach in Africa, one that is a copy paste of the western approach to creativity, very light, extremely controlled and minimalistic. The second one is very bold, explanatory, full of details; it is usually comedy-based or humour-led creative concept. Most top creative agencies were led by westerners until recently. In the last couple of years, with African creatives leading in many agencies, we have seen the movement going in the second direction. Does it work, I believe so, I have worked with telecoms and technology companies who have used creativity to get ahead of their competitors. I loved reading “The Villager” by Feyi Olubodun, it helps to cement the comprehension of African audiences especially in coastal West Africa. We need more of that, more publications from creatives to understand the code, the framework, the culture and so on. We also need data to prove the validity of our ideas and change the way our creativity is thought of on global stage. We are yet to have our Cannes Grand Prix campaign.

As the co-president of Morocco Africa Business Club, can you please let us in on the core values of this club and how it is impacting Africa?

Building a bridge between Morocco and Sub-Saharan Africa on a business level was our ambition when we started. We were even thinking ahead of the AfCFTA to create mutually beneficial relationships between African businesses in general. Through the Morocco Africa Business Club, we have been able to link businesses from Morocco to SSA and the other way too. This has helped to change the narrative in many cases and open doors for more opportunities and revenue. Unfortunately, the failure of Morocco’s attempt to join ECOWAS has caused enthusiasm to drop among businesses and key contacts. Now that the AfCFTA is ongoing, we are going to give a new direction to the club, maybe rebrand. At the heart of it remains our goal to build more bridges between the business hubs in Africa and the other countries in Africa. We see isolationism rising in Africa especially between governments. Linking our businesses results to less “rejection syndrome” and a healthier sense of nationalism.

Having had access to influential African leaders and as an optimistic African business leader, what do you have to say about the impact of the UN SDGs in Africa so far?

I will be straightforward on this. There’s not enough awareness for the SDGs and it is only limited to the development agencies and ministries. From many reports, out of the 17 goals, Africa is on track only for 3. The goals 5, 13, 15 (gender equality, climate action, life on land). My personal experience is that the framework is not really understood by people here and that has not driven sufficient efforts in Africa around it. If it is the main framework, development strategies should be built around it and more emphasis needs to be put on it.

Gender equality is the one that has driven conversations, and we can see the impact it has in terms of health improvement, access to education with free primary school initiatives, protection against violence, access to property and financing but there’s still a digital gender gap to tackle and so much still has to be done.

Today, Harmonies Media Group covers 15 countries and offers a media service approach focused on the achievement of business objectives through strong professionalization of media investment management. Looking at different challenges facing African brands in trust and partnership, how do you break borders to expand your business in such conditions?

In a management book, “The India Way”; written by 4 Wharton School professors, they explain that the principal practices of the India Way to do business is improvisation and adaptability. I do recommend it to whoever is doing business across Africa. This is our approach to expansion.

Initially, when we started, we did not have any SOP for how we enter partnership. We had to bet on each partner that we met, using gut feelings. Once we decide to expand, we rely on a network to source contacts. Adaptability is very important as each African country has specifics that may not cut across and may require you to think and act differently - payments, tax rules, talent availability vary from one country to the other.

Over time, we have come around to develop a structure that defines how we handle the 3 main phases of expansion: identification of partners, agreement and operations. We have also learned to test run projects to confirm our ability to collaborate.

Since March 2017, you have been in collaboration with mediaReach West Africa, an affiliate of OMD. How will you rate the partnership and what are the benefits enjoyed by both parties?

At the inaugural meeting of the collaboration, Mr. Tolu Ogunkoya said that the goal was to build a bridge across West and Central Africa, and across Anglophone and Francophone countries. This statement describes what we have achieved so far in the partnership. It has been a pivotal moment for Harmonies. There is a need from clients for this type of collaboration that offers a broad coverage of the West and Central African region. Together, it is now a strong network that can operate from Senegal to DR Congo, without skipping the Anglophone markets.

Adama, Sidikou from Harmonies Media Group and MediaReach will continue taking this further as I have stepped down from my position last June for Opinion & Public. It remains one of the defining moments of my career and I have really enjoyed working with MediaReach in making significant progress in the industry and creating a case study for collaboration across traditional barriers in Africa, years before the AfCFTA.

It’s more than a year now, you and Marcel Aïssy founded the Opinion & Public communication agency in 2018 and it is greatly committed to a positive narrative about brands, people and governments of Francophone Africa in a digitally connected world. What led to the establishment of this agency and can you please explain the challenges you’ve been facing within this short period of time on this project?

We realized that the PR practice was a matter of individual consultants mostly specialized in media relations. We saw an opportunity there to develop a full PR practice and seize the opportunities in the market. We also saw an interest from many multinationals looking for communication beyond the traditional advertising that is easily available. Some early insights in our journey suggests that we are on the right path. Of course, as pioneer full service agency, we are facing many challenges. Talent availability is the main issue we are facing, we are also challenged by the lack of exposure to PR practice from client’s side. Crisis communications represent a great way to get PR known and accepted.

Which one of your campaigns this year are you excited to talk about in terms of its impact on both the brand and the audience?

In Francophone Africa, we are slow to embrace digital channels; so early this year, we took the challenge to convince one of our consumer packaged goods client. The client ran a promo exclusively on digital channels through our programmatic and creative designs and within a week, products were out of stock. This has driven the client to increase digital spend in a strategic way.

This is an opportunity for me to mention that the use of data should be before and after campaigns. We achieve so much with data that I am 100% data focused to drive my new business growth. At the Global PR Summit in Washington last October, we were told that clients don’t buy deliverables, they buy outcomes for their businesses.

With your experience working with Francophone agencies from different countries across Africa, what do you have to say about their creative thinking and way of solving brand’s challenges? Are there any notable differences with the Anglophone?

The main difference is the number of grey hair available. The industry is more matured in Anglophone compared to Francophone where the staff is much more junior. In the Anglophone markets, the influence of the western world through the language is very present, so we can see more and more creatives following the frameworks from the global agencies. In Francophone, the agencies are independent, so you may not find the sophistication of Lagos, Nairobi or Johannesburg and the agency structure is also much lighter. The French-speaking agencies employ less people as more roles are merged into 1 position.

The ownership structure is also less diversified with sole proprietorship and the absence of board of directors being rife. The business culture is also different with an opportunistic approach. Francophone agencies tend to be “do it all” and not specialized or practice oriented as we may know in Anglophone markets.

What are some of the challenges facing the creative industries in Francophone countries? And what do you recommend for various agencies to do to improve the situation?

Skills shortage is really a serious problem. Universities and Schools do not deliver the skills that agencies need and the professional studies offering is absent locally. The few talents available are costly to employ and have high attrition rate.

Another challenge is deregulation, there are no regulatory bodies or active professional associations that can provide rules adopted and followed by everybody. The 1-man agency can compete with the network agency. This has plunged the entire industry into a price war that is giving more negotiating power to clients and zero profitability to agencies.

Data is a big challenge, from an acquisition standpoint to its use. It is only in 2018 that audience measurement was made available in Ivory Coast. Most consumer data are tailored to one client, and mostly commissioned by the Telco’s for their sole usage. A widespread use of technology is also yet to be seen in the region.

In 2020, Pitcher Awards will be expanding to include campaigns created or implemented anywhere in Africa. As a jury member in the previous editions in 2018 and 2019, what are your expectations?

I have no doubt that Pitcher Awards will celebrate creative works from the entire African continent. However, I would like the Pitcher Awards to come up with stronger awareness campaign in other regions to ensure enough participation. Ghana and Nigeria are still the main markets from where the winners originate.


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