By Javan Onguru
“I don’t vant see, ‘Vee Kerr, Vee Kerr, Vee Kerr!’ yelled an exasperated Indian gentleman across the vast boardroom table, evidently seething and frothing at the mouth. “I kennot say, ‘Vee Kerr’ vhen I’m not selling anything! I vant sells!”Before I proceed further, anyone not fluent in Indian English will find a translation sufficing: “I don’t want to see, ‘We Care, We Care, We Care!’ I cannot say, ‘We Care’ when I’m not selling anything. I want sales!”
This dressing down took place during the very first post-launch review early on a Thursday morning exactly THREE days after the grand unveiling of the discussed-at-length and greatly debated Warid Telecom. We promulgated the brand campaign—festooned with much pomp and ceremony and razzmatazz—premised on the emotive ‘We Care’ platform which we thought at the time was a decent strategy to introduce a Middle Eastern-owned telco setting up shop in Uganda. What we did not reckon, however, was His Excellency His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Nahayan Mubarak Al Nahayan hiring a superfluity of Indians to administer the operation and with them came the innate life-or-death hyper-urgency to sell, sell and sell, at high decibel if need be, in addition to the utter disregard for brand building that has become synonymous with Indian commerce, at least in this part of the world.
While we were struggling to absorb the shock of this assault, Client swiftly went behind the agency’s back to out a parallel campaign that might assuage this pressure for “sells” inside just a couple of days of launch, complete with all the bells and whistles and bits and bobs that have come to characterise the modern Ugandan radio ad; never mind that a sales component was dovetailed into the strategy all along or that no one knew jack-shit about Warid Telecom or their capabilities at the time, or even that the tactical campaign betrayed no discernible semblance to the brand campaign personally approved by H.E. the Sheikh. This series of unfortunate events, I believe, marked Ground Zero for the racket, clatter and clutter we hear on Ugandan radio today. (Aside: Must every radio ad feature that aggravating man perpetually bellowing at the top of his sore voice?? But I digress...) Apart from heralding the beginning of the end for Warid, within just one week of being introduced to the Ugandan public, that particular development also sounded the death knell for creativity in Ugandan advertising.
|This has got to be one of the low points of Ugandan|
advertising, even by Airtel standards.
Why bother labouring to write a half decent radio ad when you can hire that lunatic to scream your barely intelligible, hardly succinct and wholly unsettling sales pitch, all day and all night without fail? No brand affinity necessary. Why even bother to craft a lucid campaign when you can sacrifice your brand at the altar of ‘quick returns’ while pestering and harassing potential customers left and right with sales promotions every single day of their lives, month on month, all year round while at it? Perhaps they knew that their tenure in Uganda was short-term, but the net effect was that Warid rapidly metamorphosed into an undesirable and cheap ‘promo’ commodity (note: not brand), a reputation that followed them into their last days. Everyone had a Warid SIM card which was promptly retrieved from the wallet or wherever else it was buried every time a promo materialised, which was pretty much every other fortnight; no one had Warid as their primary number. No brand affinity required. In short order, other telcos borrowed a leaf from Warid’s peculiar brand of advertising and because telcos command the biggest share of ad spend in these parts, this lunacy immediately became the norm, what with every single advertiser without exception jostling for the podium to scream at full decibel; subsequently we now see everything, from iron roofing sheets to sanitary pads, taken to market in this aggressive tone oddly reminiscent of an Evangelical preacher in the throes of the Holy Ghost. So the next time a client approaches you with that well-worn cliché ‘cut through the clatter’, this is precisely what they are talking about. Ugandan radio is practically ‘unlistenable’ to.
|Airtel's entry for the 2014 Loeries.|
Now DNA is a curious phenomenon. Unless a mutation occurs, it is pre-programmed to propagate, replicate and assert itself in successive generations. And so it transpired that in 2013 Airtel acquired Warid for $100m and with it the proclivity for jarring communication and an etched-in-stone predisposition towards absolutely no creativity in advertising. Airtel then proceeded to set the bar much lower than did its precursor via unashamedly divesting international award-winning campaigns, tagging their logo onto them and passing them off as their own and then deliberately entering them in other international awards, ostensibly unaware that the world is nowadays a very small place thanks—ironically—to the Internet, their key revenue stream second only to Voice. You can’t make this stuff up.
As earlier noted, other telcos long ago took cue from the Warid-Airtel tag-team (thereby opting for the path of least resistance) and are now up to their eyeballs in this hapless miasma of hopeless imitation. It is indeed a sad day when one witnesses two telcos apparently independent of each other producing literally the same poster for public consumption, complete with the exact same concept, visuals and even copy, the only point of divergence being logos and brand colours. This egregious lapse in judgement can be quickly attributed to the emergence in Ugandan advertising of this creature called the ‘Google Creative’ whose first port of call is Google Images (or Shutterstock, Getty Images et al.) in search of ‘ideas’ the moment a job lands on his or her desk, a practice diametrically opposed to the time-honoured process of mulling over the brief and coming up with considered, original ideas and executions. Sadder still is the decline of the Strategic Creative.
|Do we still have creative agencies in Uganda?|
The Ugandan advertising landscape is littered with a surfeit of these Google Creatives, a disproportionately large number of whom now masquerade as Creative Directors, “Executive” even. Matters are not helped one bit by the super-urgent and kneejerk approach that has become the modus operandiof the telco industry, which scarcely leaves any time at all for anyone to produce anything original or nominally consequential. As one of my readers pithily observed recently, “...and both MTN’s and Airtel’s agencies have the same really tired old idea of ‘My Paka Paka’ and ‘My Pakalast’ recycled from MAAD’s original ‘Pakalast’ for Warid.”
The Prosecution rests, my Lords and Ladies.
The pain in the Ugandan advertising industry is not relenting.
During the weekend of 24th—26thFebruary it was variously bandied about that The Brand House had dropped a whopping 8 employees like hot stones, including an unprecedented 3 top level managers, one of them a shareholder. Now the veil shrouding the events leading to this bloodbath is drawing. I earlier reported that The Agency Formerly Known As Moringa is haemorrhaging clients faster than a dripping faucet in the still of night, this being the main reason behind the collapse of the purported million dollar Dentsu deal. I can now report that Bank of Africa is again going to pitch—barely a year since the last pitch where Moringa only just retained the account—after severing ties with TBH, which partly explains the Carnage at Moringa on Friday the 24th of February. But that is only half of the story: TBH has amazingly managed to lose SIX major accounts in the last 12 months alone. Is it not then conceivable that David Case should come out of semi-retirement in Nairobi to re-assume the helm of his sinking ship? Heads had to roll.
As rolling heads go, a little bird whispered to me that on that same star-crossed weekend, the Group HR Director at WPP-Scangroup was in town. Make no mistake: this was no Uganda Tourism Board sponsored sightseeing trip; it was made strictly in the call of duty and while here she wangled the dismissal of several ScanAd Uganda employees. I am reliably informed that she will be making another round trip later in March to lay off even more people. And this being pitch season, I have it on high authority that NSSF is also going to pitch. I also have it on high authority that the Fireworks contract is due for automatic renewal as has been the case in the past. So all you thirsty upstarts can strike that delectable account off your to-do list for the foreseeable short-term.
In light of all this, I am reminded of that eternal aphorism by the sagely David Ogilvy: “Unless your advertising contains a big idea, it will pass like a ship in the night.”
The industry is in bad shape.
Africa telco giant MTN Group last Thursday reported a staggering $108 million annual loss, apparently their first in 20 years. Could this shocking revelation possibly explain why MTN Uganda is mercilessly and shamelessly stealing our data and airtime, an ill-fated attempt to make up for this colossal historic loss? The unprecedented deficit resulted from a crippling $1.1 billion regulatory penalty that wiped out $770 million from their 2016 headline earnings following MTN Nigeria missing the deadline to cut off unregistered SIM cards. Now a new management team headed by CEO Rob Shuter and CFO Ralph Mupita is set to take over on 13th March with a brief to try and repair reputational damage from the Nigerian fallout which cost former CEO Sifiso Debengwa his job last year. They have already begun, it would appear, by firing MetropolitanRepublic as their advertising agency. Value for money can also be measured in monetary terms.
Back at the ranch, ownership of Uganda Telecom Limited, the country’s pioneer in mobile telephony and largest provider of landlines, reverted back to Government of Uganda last Wednesday after UCom, a subsidiary of Lap Green Network, their Government of Libya-owned 69% shareholder ran to the hills, completely unable to discharge its obligation in injecting capital to turn around the long ailing former giant. UCom also directed its five representatives in the Uganda Telecom board to resign. UTL has been progressively falling and failing for several years, particularly ever since Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, that darling of the Ugandan economy (and a closer than close friend to the ancient Kingdom of Toro) was raped with a bayonet and thus expunged from earth. Their market share has dropped from 30% to less than 6% today, and we now learn that UTL has not paid any taxes for the last five years.
The beginning of the end sneaked on UTL in the late 90s as they were preoccupied with putting on a show of shocking, never-before-seen insensitivity to the market, a rare variety of arrogance and sheer audacity that misled them to believe that they could and should walk all over consumers seemingly without consequence. Their enduring slogan is ‘It’s All About U’ which, when read between the lines, reveals that it really is all about them, the ‘U’ here standing for UTL. So they callously and casually disrespected their customer base until one day MTN entered the market and completely blew them out of the water; then along came Celtel who buried them, never again to recover or regain an audience with the contempt-weary and savvier Ugandan consumer who now had a glimpse into the Promised La-La Land of customer care and expedited service delivery. As their corporate image was steadily plummeting, so apparently were their fortunes in advertising: UTL has been jumping from agency to agency for the last several years, leaving a long, winding trail of unpaid media and agency fees in their wake.
|"Just like Bbale Francis, with UTL your airtime will never expire."|
And then they landed on the agency that crafted (for lack of a better descriptor) that ominous campaign featuring Bbale Francis and Alex Ndawula which turned out to be the final nail on UTL’s coffin. Soon after it launched, Bbale died (#RIP) and Alex was panned out of Capital FM, leading to a fully-fledged meltdown on Facebook.
Meanwhile, Nokia has reintroduced the iconic 3310 handset (“a chip off the old Nok”) to the global market. From what I gather, it is essentially (still) a 2G phone with nothing like the capabilities of the modern smartphone: an ‘updated’ version of the old-timey 2D, 2-bit Snake game, upgraded 2.4-inch colour screen (240 x 320 pixels, not hi-res), a slightly shrunken keypad, battery standby for up to a month (remember when you could leave home without a charger?), 2 MP rear camera and all other trappings of 20th century mobile telephony. Last week I was thoroughly amused when Fundi Frankobserved that the people excited about the new Nokia 3310 are the same people wishing Henry Motego (or Ambrose Ayoyi) played for Sport Pesa All Stars against Hull City. (Please ask a Kenyan to interpret the joke). Now everybody and their dog knows that Nokia is a dying-to-dead brand, but I can’t, for the love of Odin, figure out what plans are afoot by exhuming this cadaver. For the time being, the rest of the world is gearing for 5G. #AskingForAFriend