Advertising guru and GMD/CEO of Verdant Zeal Marketing Communications, Tunji Olugbodi, talks about his life, career and family with KORE OGIDAN
Tell us about your background
I was born in Lagos and grew up largely in Surulere. We lived on Tejuoso Street, Yaba, for about 12 years. Before then, we had lived on Adeniyi Adefioye Street in Ikate in Lagos. That was on our forced return from Port Harcourt just at the outset of the civil war in 1967. I was only four when we made the perilous journey by road. My father was then a young executive at the Central Bank of Nigeria, Port Harcourt. Surulere holds many interesting memories for me. Tejuoso is a thoroughfare to the Tejuoso and Yaba markets and our house was very close to the Barracks Bus Stop (along Funso Williams Avenue). There, we witnessed many interesting incidents and episodes daily. One of the most indelible for me was the daily herding of cows every night at about 10pm, from Malu Road in Apapa to Tejuoso market. Our street was the thorough fare. There, herders were an interesting bunch who responded to the cat calls and whistling of the residents and way farers. It was always a spectacle to watch the cows in their hundreds, matched to the slaughter every night.
Ours was a middle class family. My dad was an executive at the Central Bank of Nigeria, while my mum was a business person. My dad was later posted to Kaduna in the mid-90s, and we went there for holidays for brief spells of time. My mum was the constant pillar then – a very enterprising and resourceful woman. She held the home front and did all sorts of legitimate businesses to support and augment the family earnings. Our home was open to uncles, cousins and aunties who came and left in droves. I have eight siblings; we are eight boys and one girl. Life then was simple, and authentic. No pretenses or airs.
What kind of child were you?
I was an easygoing lad who loved to read a lot. I also watched TV a lot. My favourite programmes were Combat, Bonanza and the Bar Beach Show, hosted then by the inimitable Art Alade. I knew the TV programmes by heart; all committed to memory from when the station opened at 4pm to when it shut down at midnight. There were no 24 -hour programmes in the early 70s. Growing up in Surulere opened me and my siblings up to the communal-style living of those days where everyone cared for one another. We knew our neighbours and we looked out for each other and mixed freely. We were our neighbours’ keepers in a manner of speaking. We also knew what line of business everyone was into, including celebrities. For instance, the Lijadu sisters used to live down our street. I have always loved the arts. I started acting from my nursery school days through primary and secondary school. And then in the university, it became very pronounced. I studied English, with a strong bias for acting and directing.
What do you remember most about your childhood?
I remember the ease with which we made friends and bonded with kids from all around. It was great fun growing up in the late 60s and 70s in Lagos. I recall then that even though we were what was regarded as a middle class family, we trekked to and from school – a distance of about two kilometres. We did not have the luxury of being ferried by a car and driver like is mostly the case today. That gave us the opportunity to do many fun things. On the way to and from school, we would stop to play football at Paddington Stadium – a makeshift open field situated among the cluster of LSDPC low cost housing not far from the stadium. We organised and played games. I recall we even had one called All Africa Games of Surulere, modelled after the All Africa Games that took place in 1973 where Nigeria was the hosting country. It was a memorable period for a young mind like mine. Growing up was fun.
What schools did you attend?
I went to Salvation Army Primary School, Iyun Road, which was not too far from the National Stadium in Surulere, Lagos. I was quite young when I left primary school at age nine going on 10.
I had a small stature which made me vulnerable in secondary school. I attended Ejigbo Baptist High School, Osun State and I was a left at a little over 14 years old in 1979. Ejigbo was a new experience for me as it took me out of my comfort zone in Lagos. I was in the boarding house. The culture shock was big- given the rural and agrarian nature of the community then. I had never been in such a setting before, not to talk of fending for myself. But this came in later as a big advantage in terms of sharpening my view on life as a pioneer of many initiatives. Our school motto then was “Nothing ventured, nothing had”. I believe so strongly in that even till this day.
For HSC, I went to Baptist High School, Ede, finishing in 1981. Ede was another interesting experience. In particular, it reinforced the strong spiritual values of mission schools on my young mind. For me, being of Baptist background made it all more instructive because both my secondary and HSC were Baptist schools.
After HSC, I went on to study English at Ogun State University, Ago Iwoye now known as Olabisi Onabanjo University. My university experience was one of the most indelible and character-forming periods of my life. We were virtual pioneers as the second set of the then fledgling university; so you can imagine the sacrifice and toil of both staff and students in their pursuits. But I loved the vision of the founding fathers, and especially the leadership of the first Vice Chancellor, Late Professor Olubi John Sodipo, Africa’s first Professor of Philosophy. We had access to the best faculties and teachers from Ife, Ibadan and Lagos at the time. It was illuminating.
What career path did you choose after graduating from the university?
The original intention was to go back to the university as a teacher, but that never materialised, even though I finished top of my class. I was a top actor while at the university and I loved the arts; so I wanted to go study acting and directing at UCLA in the USA. But this was not to be.
The allure of journalism was so strong, although the university was also coy about having me back, I believe because of my active nature as student leader. We had few run-ins with the authorities and some of was ended up in detention before the union was proscribed. I was already a rookie reporter on campus and also had the rare privilege of being a freelancer for the The Guardian while in school. This was through the kindness of Dr Stanley Macebuh, the then MD, and my HOD, Professor Molara Ogundipe who edged me on and found me good enough to be “cultivated”. I enjoyed it all and am grateful for the experience. Eventually I joined The Guardian full-time as a reporter and sub editor- doing two jobs for the price of one. I was sub- editor of the editorial pages, which brought me in close contact and engagement with some of the famous columnists and writers then-Dr.YemiOgunbiyi, Mr. Edwin Madunagu, Mr. Andy Aporugo, Mr.Odia Ofeimun, Dr.Olatunji Dare, Mr. Femi Kusa, Mr. Lade Bonuola, Dr. Fred Onyeoziri and a host of others. It was a compelling way to start my professional sojourn.
Why did you leave the media for advertising?
To be honest, I became quickly disillusioned with the privileged access the media gave me to view what I call the “soul” of the society. First, I realised that you cannot even write or talk about all you know about what’s going on. Second, I was experiencing diminishing returns in terms of job satisfaction but I was proud to have been part of the strong flagship of media, as The Guardian was then known.
I was at The Guardian till 1989. I had joined in 1988 after I spent a year in Makurdi for my service year where I taught at Tilley Gyado College. Incidentally, I met my wife during the service year and we were married two years later. I joined Promoserve Ltd, one of the leading advertising agencies then which was owned by the inimitable Uncle Kehinde Adeosun. It was a rare privilege and opportunity to join the distinguished rank of budding advertising practitioners. It was the ‘happening’ profession then. It gave you bragging rights of sorts. Getting into Promoserve was a big deal back then. I remember that it was keenly contested. There were three positions for which over 400 of us competed. There were several layers of written and oral interviews and a final meeting with the MD. I considered myself lucky and was very relieved at the success. Promoserve was one of the happening agencies then. And being on Bode Thomas Street, Surulere, meant we belong in the ‘Madison Avenue‘ of Nigerian advertising. All the leading agencies were located within a two-three kilometer radius of each other; Bode Thomas, Sabiu Ajose, Eric Moore and Adeniran Ogunsanya streets. There was Grant Advertising, Rosabel Ltd, Insight Communications, Centrespread Ltd and others that belonged in that cluster.
I rose through the ranks in Promoserve, eventually becoming the Business Development Manager in less than two years. I also won the staff of the year award. I was lucky to have cut my teeth with some of the best practitioners then. I became restless and was on my way out to Oceanic Bank as head of corporate communications when I was invited to join the then in formation Prima Garnet team, led my boss, friend and brother, Lolu Akinwunmi. If Promoserve offered the opportunity to cut my teeth, Prima Garnet gave me the opportunity to sharpen it and it offered a platform for professional validation. I started out as a Senior Manager and eventually left as an Executive Director after 16 years. It’s been almost 12 years since we birthed Verdant Zeal and it’s been a most rewarding journey.
What inspired you to start Verdant Zeal?
I will simply say Verdant Zeal is a God-inspired vision. It was simply an idea whose time had come. But on a serious note, it is the zeal and desire to put a footprint across Nigeria and Africa, especially West Africa, which is why we are growing our brand across West Africa in a pragmatic manner.
Can you recall the first advert you worked on?
My first project was way back in 1989 on Access Bank. It was quite an experience!
What’s the most challenging advert you’ve ever worked on?
Every project has its own interesting story and narrative. There are several that have given me great pleasure but one that stands out is a rebranding project for Rivers State I did a few years ago.
What does your company do differently to enable you to have the standing you currently have and the client-base you’ve acquired?
The edge for us is to continue to understand the need state and mindset of the clients and the market respectively. We have a concept called OTOBOS-On Time, On Budget, On Strategy. This inspires and drives our trajectory. We also appreciate that each brand has a unique story. It is our duty to help discover, develop and nurture their exclusive narratives.
How do you stay ahead of the competition?
We benchmark ourselves on continuous basis through thought leadership. We enhance capacity through skills validation and acquisition. We collaborate and build strategic relationships that benefit clients. We have fostered over the years the unique VZ capability as reflected in our core values called BACPAC- Bravery, Agility, Curiosity, Passion, Accountability and Collaboration.
Where do you see the advertisement industry in the next 10 years?
I see the industry leading national economic forays in strengthening market indices and creating real multi-lateral opportunities for the whole marketing and communication ecosystem. The world would not only have gone fully digital, but would have become comfortable with new ways of life and living. Advertising will be central to this, as well as forming ideas that will drive governance and new levels of ‘creative co creation’.
Do you plan to still be in the industry at that time?
The truth is I can never really leave the industry in a manner of speaking. Once a practitioner, always a practitioner. Even when I retire, I will still be involved in one way or the other. It might be by sharing knowledge and exchanging ideas across markets and nations.
How did you get into the movie industry?
I was never really in the movie industry as a formal or active practitioner. I would say at best I was moonlighting because of the passion and interest. I have had the privilege on featuring on a few projects and also facilitating others. But marketing communication has been my main pre-occupation. It is important to make it clear that I was never a professional actor- I never had the time to devote full attention. Marketing and advertising sucked me in. But then I was more active in the early days of my career because I obviously had a little latitude on time, then. I was able to feature notably on some of the works of Nigeria’s ace producer and director, Tade Ogidan. These were Hostages, Owo Blow and Diamond Ring. These are dated but evergreen. At present, I am involved in one or two projects that I am not at liberty to reveal details at this point.
My best moments in life have been on stage in my early days. It comes naturally. Unfortunately, I did not have the opportunity to grow and develop to any significant commercial reckoning. But I am working on ‘returning’ to my first calling.
You’ve been privileged to have seen the Nigerian film industry grow to where it is now. How do you think you’ll manage coming back when you’re ready? How will you deal with the competition and trending styles?
It is simple. I will be coming into a new school, a much different environment. Two things will matter. I will need to learn the new things and ‘unlearn’ some of the old things. Second will be to collaborate and co-create with people who are specialists in given areas. So, it’s going to be a marriage and alignment of skills, insight, creativity, commercial viability, innovation and differentiated value propositions. Thankfully, marketing communications has taught me the humility to observe and mirror the society for their need states.
What do you think about the artistes and producers being more interested in making money and gathering fame and awards than actually making good long-lasting content?
There is no shortcut to anywhere worth going. I think the industry will self-regulate and autocorrect itself. We must recognise the fact that the relevance of the industry comes from the assessment and patronage of the public. They have choices, they have options. When the standards fail or fall, they will move on to other platforms of entertainment. That will be the wake-up call. We must appreciate that money chases value and not the other way round. For the content, the plots are getting better because of continuous exposure to a universal audience. This is where we must commend efforts by organisations like MNET in the various initiatives to improve production standards generally.
Apart from advertising, what other business are you involved in?
I am somewhat a commercial adventurer. I daydream and fantasise a lot about constantly creating value, so I am involved in quite a number of disparate and wide-ranging interests. And these interests are three fold. There is what I call the family business (with my wife). This covers interests in travel and tourism, confectionery, as well as HR Consultancy.
The second is with my siblings, each one of them with different interests. This covers investment in the first background check company in Nigeria and the first team building company in Nigeria. There is also an events company and a videography production company, run by my sister. We are all bugged by the entrepreneurship spirit.
The third is investments of mutual interest that are personal in nature, but mostly formed with friends and professional colleagues.
If you weren’t in your current industry and hadn’t worked in the print media, what field do you think you’d have been playing in instead?
I would have been an academic. I always loved the environment of study, the ivory tower.
Do you plan to get involved in politics in Nigeria in the future?
We are all political animals. Everyone is involved in some level of politicking; it’s just that the majority are not gunning for elective offices. I have always been a politically conscious person. I have always, in some ways, been involved in leadership and governance. I was a prefect in my secondary school and at HSC. I was Vice President of the Students Union Government in my university days. That was my first real taste of contesting an elective office. I have been involved in causes that are political in nature. I have offered personal and professional support in different situations to people with political interest. Even now as a brand and communication specialist, I consult for politicians.
So, in a manner of speaking, I am in politics, but I am not a card-carrying member of any political party as of now. Will I run for political office in future? I am not ruling that out. Leadership is about competence and convictions. Too frequently, the field has been left to incompetent people whose only conviction is to fend for their own interest. It is important that people, who are capable and competent, join the fray.
Tell us how you balance your family life with work.
My family has been very understanding, because I travel a lot and I’m always engaged. I serve in various capacities and on several initiatives, including presiding on some boards. I try to make up now by ensuring that no matter what, we have dinner together. We also take joint trips; especially family vacations. Occasionally, we take business trips together. Above all is praying together. That helps a great deal, with Christ as the anchor.
Tell us about your wife.
We met one wet windy morning in Katsina Ala, Benue State, about 30 years ago. It was at the NYSC orientation camp. We met at the registration queue and we ended up at the same platoon. One thing led to another and two years later, we were married. I have been truly blessed.
What qualities attracted you to her?
Her authentic way of life (what you see is what you get), her simplicity, her love for God, her intelligence and character. Her conduct reflects a strong and godly upbringing.
How do you bridge the gap of fatherhood with your son, coming from different generations?
My son is an extremely introspective young man, so we basically create time to talk. He questions things a lot and is very observant. We also try to do as many activities together, although we have a similar nature in enjoying our individual privacy. We are not very outdoor-oriented which is not exactly good altogether. He would rather be with a gadget, I with a book. But we are working on it.
What mistakes do parents make that keep their kids away from having a friendly relationship with them?
Not creating enough time to relate with them, to understand their sensibilities and needs. They must create time to talk and bond.
Are you friendly with your son?
Yes, absolutely so! He respects me more than he fears me. He fears his mum and respects her in addition.
What are some of the biggest lessons that life has taught you which you don’t think you’ll ever forget?
First is that what gives meaning to life is love for others. We must look at the need for selflessness and be our brother’s keeper. God’s love for us cannot be quantified. Second is that we operate under grace – God’s grace makes all the difference to life and living. Third is that excellence is constant work of genius, because what takes you there does not keep you there. Finally, you have to make your own rules and keep by them.
What is your advice for people in paid employment who want to leave to become entrepreneurs?
Assess yourself. Evaluate your strength. Overcome fear. Do the needful based on conviction. But you must have faith in God and in yourself because faith fuels victory and success.
Do you have regrets?
Absolutely none! I’m always full of gratitude to God because I appreciate the impact of having a settled home, career and progress in life.
What’s your fashion style?
Keep it real. What I call simple but elegant sophistication. I am not label crazy although I appreciate the reputation of good and reputable brands.
Do you have phobias?
No. I do not have any defined phobia. I try to conquer my fears by confronting them headlong.
Who are your major influences?
I have been influenced over time by quite a number of people. In the creative sphere, it is Prof. Wole Soyinka. In the leadership sphere, it’s been Nelson Mandela and Barack Obama. As a Christian, there is no life more unique to learn from than that of Jesus Christ. In my line of business, there are people like Mr. Biodun Shobanjo and Lolu Akinwunmi. For father figure, there is my dad, Chief Joshua Olugbodi and Uncle Sam Amuka. For can-do-resolute spirit, that will be my mum, Mrs. Bisi Olugbodi, and of course my wife, Biyi Tunji-Olugbodi.
How do you relax when you are not working?
I read and watch movies. And I also relax by day dreaming.
What do you miss the most about your life before entrepreneurship and advertising?
I miss the ‘me’ time – that I could spend in selfish abandonment, thinking only of me (and my family’s) survival and interest. Over time, I have adjusted from being an employee-manager of resources, to being a serial entrepreneur. Today, I have to think of many stakeholders that must be cultivated. I think of staff. I am concerned about growing the concerns. I contend with government shenanigans and policy somersaults. I am confronted with people’s sense of entitlement and an insidious culture of rent that pervades everywhere. I sometimes wake up and for a few seconds, I’m trying to remember which city I was waking up in – the travel, the meetings, the negotiations, the completion. But yes, these are the variables that make the victory sweet and meaningful.
Would you say you have risen to the pinnacle of your profession?
Well, I thank God for how far He has taken me. I will say I have achieved some modest milestones as a marketing communications expert and advertising practitioner. Over the years, I have sat on the board of the Advertising Association and served in different capacities. Today,I am a fellow of APCON. I was recently inaugurated as the President of International Advertising Association in Nigeria. But as far as I am concerned, in our line of business you never really get to the ‘pinnacle’. Your impact is best felt in the ability to continue to evolve and re-invent the wheel so you get better daily. So you never get to arrive; because the day you think you have arrived is the day you are gone.