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Your Client is Not a Witch

Akinwale Muse is a seasoned strategist operating from Lagos, Nigeria and the United Kingdom. Over the past 5 years, he has led strategy conception and execution for financial institutions, oil companies, FMCGs and governments at multiple levels. He is currently a business evolution director at The Hook Creative Agency.

In this interview, Muse expresses his thoughts on the agency business, content production, learning and more.

Hey Akinwale, let’s take a quick step back to your early years, how did you get to this point?

I am a dreamer. I have always been fascinated by the idea of building things, and being a part of transformational programs. I tried a couple of ventures when I was in university, but they didn’t quite work out. Then, I realised that I function best as a part of a group, not as a solopreneur.

So right after university, I joined Net Sailors, a web development and hosting company as a co-founder. It was the early days of the internet in this part of the world, and we saw an opportunity in helping businesses take advantage of the budding online space to scale their operations.

In 2009, I moved to South Africa to study at the University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. While studying, I worked as a freelance digital marketing consultant advising small businesses and startups. I also set up TransAtlantic Trading, a commodity trading company, operating between SA, Nigeria and Ghana.

I moved back to Nigeria in 2012, and co-founded 1705 Productions. It was a ride while it lasted, as I had the privilege of working closely with advertising agencies and brands, producing content across Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa.

1705 exposed me to the advertising space and I found the creative process intriguing. Nothing beats seeing your ideas come alive and impacting business growth. That feeling of Yo, I was a part of this is the reason why I find what I do very interesting.

Additionally, being the non-technical partner in my previous venture, I have had to manage the business and strategy side of our operations. At Net Sailors, my partners were web developers, at 1705 my partner, Akinshola Muse, was a film director and cinematographer, and now at The Hook Creative Agency, my partners, Adebayo Owosina, Sam Ochonma and Toheeb Balogun, were core creative guys in our early days.

What a journey you've had! I’m interested in learning more about your time as a director at 1705 Productions. What did that role look like?

I wore several hats. I started out as the business manager, then moved on to content production and later served as the Business Director, where I was responsible for production management, business development, partnership and client success.

What did content production in Nigeria look like back then in 2012? I mean that’s about 10 years ago, has anything changed profoundly since then? At least from an observer point of view considering your current role isn’t exactly production-related.

A lot has changed between then and now. There’s a whole economy around the content space. PwC estimates the Nigerian entertainment & media sectors revenue to rise to about $15bn by 2025.

In my opinion, everything comes down to the democratisation of access. Unlike in the past, where you require expensive and high-end film equipment, software and technical expertise to produce a piece of content, today, viral content can be shot, edited and distributed on platforms using low-end smartphones. There are a lot of free tools, and tutorial videos online for content creators and enthusiasts.

And on the consumer side, the barrier to owning a smartphone and data is becoming lower, therefore creating an opportunity to consume content on the go. There are multiple video platforms and content options available- YouTube, Spotify, TikTok, AudioMack etc. That people stream 694,000 hours of content every minute on YouTube speaks to the health of the content economy.

Let’s quickly look back at your educational background. Do you ever look back to that moment and say ‘that really paved the way for me in my career’?

I consider myself a philomath. I’m quite inquisitive and interested in learning new things. I have had the privilege of being a student of science, psychology, marketing and business management across several institutions.

I started out at Lagos State University (LASU), studied at the University of Witwatersrand and Stellenbosch University in South Africa. I’m currently enrolled at the University of London. I have also attended executive programs at the Judge Cambridge Business School, Stellenbosch University, Tekedia Mini-MBA amongst others.

Was 1705 Productions a company you founded while studying in South Africa or before that time at all?

No. I co-founded 1705 when I moved back to Nigeria in 2013.

Tell me about your time at Net Sailors.

That was my most daring move ever.

I got bored of school in my second year. I didn’t know what I would do but was convinced that I was not going to be a 9-5er. I thought that I could lead a more impactful life building businesses and people, whatever that meant at the time.

I came across a magazine called IT Digest and SUCCESS POWER, a radio program aired by Rev. Sam Adeyemi. The content shaped my initial thinking, gave me confidence to think I could be the next JACK WELCH, one of my earlier role models. I discovered Google AdWords and the possibility of helping brands to get online, and felt equipped to concentrate on the new possibilities ahead of me and build a business out of it.

In all of these, I had a ‘partner in crime’, who was equally bored of school, trained himself to become a web developer, came up with the idea of starting a business and invited me to join him as a co-founder at Net Sailors. Over the life of the business, we developed about 40 websites, registered and hosted 350 domains, and also managed tens of digital marketing campaigns.

You spent 4 years at that company. My takeaway from this is that that role prepared you for your next job and subsequent education and it also did the same for your current role at The Hook Creative Agency, am I right?

Yes it did. It gave me the faith to believe in the possibility of my own ideas. It also brought home the reality that things are not always as they appear –– there’s never a guarantee for success but with hard work and an open mind, you may just get lucky.

In simple terms, there’s no singular recipe for success.

Talking about your role at The Hook Creative Agency, you started out as its sole strategist, what did that role teach you?

Honestly, it didn’t feel like I was the only strategist. My partners were core creative guys and it helped that like me, they are also outcome-driven and not just about the art.

However, being the guy that was saddled with the role of a strategist, I knew that I had to be the pathfinder. One of the things I got right from the beginning was commitment to problems –– I was laser focused on the real problems that clients were trying to solve, the consumers they are solving for and how their products/services can be positioned to help the consumers make progress.

I understood that Research is key to the strategy development process. I spent time studying great campaigns to understand the insight generation process. I became very big on research, from quantitative survey to focus group, social sentiment analysis and role playing.

How did you end up being a strategist by the way?

Prior to The Hook, I’ve been involved in businesses and was saddled with the responsibility of creating, delivering and capturing value for our stakeholders. The experiences taught me how to think and execute strategically.

One of my partners, Toheeb, sold me on the idea of becoming a strategist. We had worked together on a project years before The Hook and based on my contributions to the success of the project, he convinced me to make the transition to strategy. Little did I know that we would end up founding an agency together.

However, the transition was not without its challenges. I realised that the creative guys and clients have little or no respect for strategists, because they do not seem to add any value to the process. In the early days, I remember going through about 20 pitch decks from different agencies and couldn’t tell the difference between Agency A and B. The documents were boring and templated, with little substance but a lot of buzzwords.

I reasoned that If copywriters and art directors are required to conceptualise new solutions for every brief, why can’t a strategist do the same. I challenged myself to build a department that will actually be a key resource to the agency and clients, and it feels good to see the dream taking shape.

I’m deeply fascinated by your response and that leads me to ask which particular brief you received that made you feel ‘oh my! This is the brief I’ve been waiting for!’?

I believe that no one brief is the same. I consider every brief a challenge and an opportunity to learn, create and capture value for our clients and the people that they serve.

However, I believe the briefing process could be a more collaborative process. Clients need to bring in their agency-partners early in order to uncover the real business problems. This way, it is easier for the agency to have a skin in the game and work with the client to arrive at a solution.

You worked on the ‘You’ve come this far, let’s take you farther’ campaign by Meristem. The campaign has a really calculated feeling to it. How did you approach the strategy conception for such a long-running campaign?

That was a classic case of client - agency collaboration. There was mutual trust and respect, we had a couple of false starts, but we were undeterred. The agency and client were just focused on birthing a change.

Meristem started out as a stockbroking firm and evolved into a wealth management company, but were struggling to convince prospects that they could deliver wealth management services.

The first challenge was to understand the stakeholders that they serve. Who are the mass affluent, how are they different from HNI, where and how do they live, how do they want to be served and what keeps them up at night.

Unfortunately, there were no [reliable] stats on the mass affluent at the time. People confuse anyone that subscribes to the Ikoyi club; lives in Ikoyi and drives a Prado as a high net worth individual. So the onus was on us to carry out a proper mapping of this consumer segment.

From surveys to focus groups, lifestyle mapping and ethnographic research, we were able to create our archetypical mass affluent and observed that having worked so hard to attain enviable positions in their careers, they are still very much at risk of dropping off the cliff. They are at risk of inflation, currency devaluation, job loss and the impact of any shock to their lives, then it becomes apparent they need a hand to walk them through their fears. Why not position Meristem as a partner on this journey.

The campaign started running during Q1 2020. What does it feel like to see your work get this type of support from the client?

Credit to the client, especially the brand management team headed by current HerVest CEO, Solape Akinpelu, at the time, and the Group CEO, Wole Abegunde. The audacity to launch during the lockdown, at a time when the world was shutting down, was a big risk. Thankfully, It paid off in huge numbers for the client.

Aside from the Meristem campaign, tell me about some of the other works you enjoyed concepting strategies for.

Beyond advertising, there are a number of impactful projects that I have been involved in across the private and public sectors. From strategy development to product, service and public policy design.

For example, post-EndSars, The Hook partnered with a state in Northern Nigeria to re-imagine how the government can support young entrepreneurs, sustainably. The popular route is to give grants to entrepreneurs, but we observed that such initiatives often fail to make the desired impact on the beneficiaries and local economy in the long term. We reasoned that instead of grant, loan may be a better option but our studies showed that we may struggle with high default rates. We will also contend with the erroneous impression that similar programs are designed to drive political agenda, therefore the beneficiaries do not have the incentive to pay back. After all, it's their portion of the national cake, and no one will hold them by the neck.

To solve the problem, we interacted with the potential beneficiaries of the program and realised that people's attitude to bank loans is the direct opposite. They understand that there would be consequences when one defaults on bank loans, so we designed the program as a public-private sector partnership with one of the leading commercial banks in Nigeria.

That was a genius move. We brought transparency, fairness and the required seriousness to the application process, and today, it is one of the most effective social program in the state with over 85% repayment rate.

Quite frankly, I see you as a master strategist and since only a master can take one through the nitty-gritties, I’d like it if you tell me what you consider to be the backbone of any great advertising strategy.

Empathy, curiosity and a bit of paranoia are the backbone of great strategies. Think about all that could go wrong and the impact on stakeholders. A business can go burst, people can get fired and consumers can be led into making wrong choices. A strategist must think with an end in sight, and learn to align the interests of all stakeholders in order to achieve a positive outcome.

Let’s talk about The Hook. I’ve a lot about the work you and your team do. How’s the agency set up?

Talking about The Hook gives me goosebumps. The agency is not your typical advertising or comms agency. We are a purpose-driven creative solutions company.

We were very clear at the beginning that we are not here to do art, and excite our friends and colleagues. We are here to help businesses achieve sustainable growth, at scale.

This approach informed the choice of our role model companies. They are Accenture, a global management consultancy, IDEO – a global design company – and Droga5, one of the world’s most impactful advertising agencies, now a part of Accenture. These companies are constantly delivering values without losing their souls.

The most convenient way to describe The Hook is as an advertising agency, but our capabilities go beyond advertising or comms services. We are structured to deliver services from advertising to content production, business transformation, product, process and service design, data strategy, culture evolution, venture investing, performance marketing and platform development.

We are quite bullish in our approach, it’s about a commitment to problems, hence our SHAPELESS philosophy.

One question we asked ourselves when we started 4+ years ago is: how can we leverage storytelling, data and technology to build businesses that can bring shared prosperity to Africa? Our belief is that when businesses succeed, they would recruit more people, increase salaries and pay more in taxes. When the companies and stakeholders pay taxes, the government will have money to fix infrastructure, which can create access for people to get ahead in life, and then we can achieve shared prosperity as a continent.

We run a flat structure and empower team members to become the CEOs of their projects. We believe that there’s no one way to create solutions, so every perspective is welcome. It doesn’t matter if you’re an intern or the managing director, the best idea wins. All the time.

Interesting. Your role isn’t exactly a common role in the Nigerian ad agency landscape. Business Evolution Director. What does it mean to be that person in an agency as yours?

I am actually not a title person. I just want to be my unassuming self, get on the field, get dirty and help our partners thrive in an ultra-competitive and constantly changing world.

My day to day role is to spot opportunities and identify how the agency and its clients can leverage those opportunities [to grow their business]. And collaborate with various teams across the agency to create, deliver and capture value for stakeholders.

I’m surprised to find out that you’re also a co-founder at the agency, partner at your old production company and Net Sailors. This simply means you’ve been an entrepreneur through and through. What do you enjoy most about being your own boss?

It’s not really about being my own boss. It’s the opportunity to live a dream, to be a part of something greater than oneself, help business owners achieve their dreams and inspire the next generation

What lessons have you learned from working with multiple partners and clients at different points of your entrepreneurship career?

Partnership is like marriage, and no marriage is perfect. For me, it’s about defining our shared purpose and making a commitment to living it everyday. There will always be areas of disagreement, but what is key is the ability to stick to the ideals that bring us together.

For the clients–agency relationships, there are several lessons but the key is empathy. The understanding that the client is not a ‘witch’, that he/she has got KPIs; under pressure to deliver and has got a lot of distractions going on in his/her life.

What single tip would you give a young person trying to be a strategist these days?

Be curious.

Live for the greater good. Never take ‘NO’ for an answer, and remember that whatever you go through, the sun will shine the next day.

You’ve held the “strategist”, “director”, “partner” and “business evolution director” titles in the last few years. What do you think your next role will be?

Title means nothing [to me]. I am more excited about the opportunity to build, add value to a system, mentor the next generation and impact lives at scale.

I am excited about what we are doing at The Hook. We are building products and birthing new businesses within the organisation. We believe it's Africa o’clock, we are excited to be a part of the transformation going on across the continent.


Nice to chat with you, Akinwale!

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