Opinion: Size Doesn’t Matter In Competitive African Marketing Sector

By Ann Brown AFKI Original Published: January 25, 2017, 2:31 pm
competitive African marketing sectorPhoto: Adaora Mbelu-Dania

In Nigeria’s competitive advertising and marketing environment, Adaora Mbelu-Dania has learned that standing out sometimes means sitting down — at the table, that is — with agencies much larger than her own.

Nigeria’s creative scene became a little hotter when Mbelu-Dania opened her creative consultancy firm, A2 Creative.

A full-service creative consultancy and experiential marketing company, A2 says it’s changing the way corporations do marketing in Nigeria. Rather than rely on existing models to drive projects, A2 says it has a unique approach to servicing clients that gets people talking. It’s all about helping creative people monetize their passion, Mbelu-Dania told AFKInsider.

Mbelu-Dania counts among her clients a violinist, a graffiti artist and a contortionist.

Experiential marketing is a form of advertising that focuses on helping consumers experience a brand, according to CreativeGuerrillaMarketing.com. Experiential marketing tries to immerse consumers in a product by engaging as many senses as possible. It can encompass other marketing strategies from individual sampling to large-scale guerrilla marketing. The goal is to form memorable and emotional connection between the consumer and the brand, influencing buying decisions and generating customer loyalty.

Some of A2’s services include managing corporate and personal brands, managing creative projects using technology, helping clients track their progress online, engaging with target audiences, telling their clients’ stories visually and helping them flesh out a concept into a document for investors.

Mbelu-Dania was born in Colombo, Sri Lanka, and raised in Lagos. Her father was Nigerian and her mother, Sri Lankan.  She was admitted into the prestigious Queens College Secondary School where played basketball at college games throughout the country.  At 16, Mbelu-Dania represented Nigeria at the Global Young Leaders Conference in Washington, D.C., and New York. Mbelu-Dania went on to attend Northern Kentucky University in the U.S. There she studied economics and entrepreneurship, and was drafted into the National Honors Scholars Society and the Entrepreneurship Institute Honors Committee.

Mbelu-Dania worked as a credit risk analyst at Citigroup before returning to Nigeria in 2008. She was just 23 when she took a job as corporate communications manager for Optima Sports Management International, managing the company’s marketing communications for the 2010 World Cup. Next, Mbelu-Dania became assistant project manager for “Nigerian Idol,” and project manager for the TV show, “Nigeria’s Got Talent.”

In 2011, Mbelu-Dania was named Promising Young Entrepreneur in the MTV/MTN Meets Project. She was also named to the Top 30 Under 30 list by FAB Magazine. Adaora was nominated Entrepreneur of the Year at the 2012 Future Awards, Nigeria. She was among young Africans who met with President Muhammadu Buhari recently to discuss the way forward for the creative industry.

Mbelu-Dania talked to AFKInsider about how she is building a business in Nigeria’s competitive advertising and marketing environment.

AFKInsider:  What prompted you to start  A2 Creative?

Adaora Mbelu-Dania: I started A2 Creative because I’ve always been a problem solver, and a passion-driven creative. My academic background in business, and my experience working in Citigroup provided an opportunity to learn the business and numbers skills that most creatives run away from. I realized that with my knowledge in brands and business, I was able to monetize creative ideas and projects more easily than most people. I could source sponsorship and close sales, with negotiation being one of my primary skills. I actually set out to  help young creatives monetize their passion, and we’ve ended up providing brand strategy for already established companies as well.

We are co-founders of The Octagon, Kumanation, A2Hub (our training facility), and Socially Africa, our community development platform. A2 Creative is also the business and brand management company for GodwinStrings (violinist), Osa Seven (graffiti artist), and D Flex (contortionist).  We also provide brand consultancy to corporate entities.

AFKInsider. How did you fund the startup?

Adaora Mbelu-Dania: I funded the startup through personal funds that I had saved over a period of time. I believe in putting my money where my mouth is, and so I didn’t seek external investment for the business. We build on continuous re-investment.

AFKInsider: What were some challenges in starting your company?

Adaora Mbelu-Dania: One of the challenges of this industry is that the public tends to measure the success of your company based on how loud your noise is — how much you scream on social media about your brand, and how “popular” your company is. However, we are a quiet brand, because we believe in focusing on the work, and getting things done. We don’t aggressively market our company. In our line of business, your work speaks for you and we get referrals.

My age was also a big challenge. I started doing business at the age of 17, and as a result my portfolio and professional accomplishments are quite “long.” My reputation precedes me. Every time I’d walk into a room, everyone expected to see someone much older. This still happens very often.

AFKInsider: How do you make your company stand out in such a competitive market as Nigeria?

Adaora Mbelu-Dania: At A2 Creative we are people- and community focused. We aren’t robotic with our marketing strategies for clients. We understand human psychology, and strategically position our clients, and allow their brands to evolve based on feedback. We have multiple communities online that we use as test or focus groups to develop products and services. Some of our platforms are run with pseudonyms so that people don’t necessarily know who’s behind them. We produce great work, and continuously innovate. We are also very consistent with our delivery. We are continuously learning, and unlearning. We are open to criticism and to change. We are also always trying something new. We don’t allow ourselves to be limited by trends, or what is considered the “thing of the moment.” I push myself and my team to disrupt spaces, and build epic things. I believe in creating the trend, and not allowing the trends to define you.

AFKInsider: What were some early mistakes you made when starting the company?

Adaora Mbelu-Dania: One of the mistakes I made was over-planning. I thought that being an entrepreneur meant having a full business plan and mapping out the business completely. I realized later that it’s OK not to have everything planned out, and as an entrepreneur you will need to allow a fair level of flexibility, allow your business to evolve. We started off looking to provide seven services, and now we’ve honed in on our biggest strengths and stick to those.

AFKInsider: What has been your biggest business lesson?

Adaora Mbelu-Dania: My biggest lesson: size does not matter.

It is up to you as the entrepreneur to decide what sort of business you’re building. (Are you) comfortable being a small business, or trying to scale up, or enter global markets? All that for me is based on personal preference. No one should ever tell you that you’re not a proper business because of your size. We are a small agency, and have pitched for jobs alongside the popular or large agencies. We’ve been chosen over them several times. We are not afraid to sit on the same table as global agencies because we are confident about the quality of our work.

AFKInsider: What is the environment like for new entrepreneurs in Nigeria?

Adaora Mbelu-Dania: Nigeria is a land of opportunity yes, but it takes 10 times the energy, time and resources to do something that can be done in one day somewhere else in the world. Our biggest challenge here is infrastructure and structure. However, just as in superhero movies, it takes many good guys to overturn the bad guys. We need more entrepreneurs to stay in business, and keep pushing despite the challenges. We need to lay the structure that we want. It will take time, but I believe that the tipping point is very close.

AFKInsider: What are your goals for 2017?

Adaora Mbelu-Dania: My professional goals for 2017 are centered around building strategic pan-African relationships. We are interested in markets outside of Nigeria, and want to be part of the narrative that Africa is indeed a golden continent. We are looking to contribute substantially to the creative economy.

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