For three weeks, Tope Jemerigbe had waited with nerves on fire for this phone call. Now that she was on it, she knew there was only one answer she could accept from the man on the other end of the line. That man, Tarek Abdelnabi, must make up his mind today or Tope and her people would be out of time. Tope didn’t like to be out of time.
As she listened to Abdelnabi, the MasterCard marketing manager for Sub-Saharan Africa, she slowly leaned back in her chair and finally let herself relax.
“What a great guy,” she exclaimed as Abdelnabi hung up. At that very moment, Tope’s COO, Folabomi, sprang to her feet and clapped. All along, she’d perched on Tope’s desk, waiting for the outcome of the call.
“Oh my God!” Folabomi said. “Approved?”
“Approved,” Tope confirmed. “Hehe! Now we can start! And we have to hurry.”
Once Folabomi had left Tope’s office, Tope bounded forward from behind her desk. As she reached the door separating her office from the large open area where client service executives and PR specialists were hunched over desktops and laptops, she stopped.
Standing all of five-foot-eight-and-a-half inches and with legs planted wide apart and hands jammed into the pockets of her figure-hugging blue jeans, she let the smile on her face linger. She thought to herself: Can you believe we now have a multinational client? Isn’t God just wonderful?
But she liked to remind herself it wasn’t always like this. To her, it felt like it was just yesterday when circumstances had compelled her to take steps so uncertain they could have rescued DKK from the throes of death or conclusively buried the agency.
Before she took over as MD of DKK in 2012, Tope Jemerigbe had never seen an ad agency this dead and gone.
The house from which DKK operated at the time, on the lonely street behind Yabatech, looked abandoned and haunted. Inside, there were rooms with flaky paintwork that littered the floors. The only generator the agency owned struggled to survive one hour of nonstop function. Sometimes when government electricity went off, which could be as frequently as three times a day, the workers would find themselves reduced to a sweaty, anguished mess.
Speaking of staff, there were only five at the time. First, there was Sam, the first-time creative director with whom Tope had worked at STB-McCann. When they were colleagues at STB, the young man was only a group head but Tope took him to DKK and named him creative director.
Then there was Jamestone, formerly the audio-visual guy at ZK but now the only art director at DKK.
The digital guy was Fisayo, Tope’s younger brother who’d recently finished his undergraduate degree in Malaysia and had volunteered to help his sister.
In client service, there was one executive: Funmi. Like all the others, she was a greenhorn in her role.
The only carryover from the old DKK was Yetunde, the accountant. Before Tope resumed as MD, every other employee from the old era had resigned.
About seventeen years earlier, as he was riding the wave of his many triumphs, Kola Ayanwale had registered DKK as a second-line agency to Centrespread, the one he ran as CEO at the time. But after its initial growth spurt, DKK lost steam and crashed.
Now, Tope flipped through DKK’s books and all she saw was red. Debt to ex-staff alone was N22 million. If she added other obligations, the figure rose menacingly to N61 million. As she’d now accepted to be the new MD of DKK, she must also embrace its problems.
On March 1, 2012, she resumed at DKK. She was rearing to go. She couldn’t have predicted that four weeks later, an unexpected letter would arrive for her at the dreary front desk. That letter would turn out to be a court summons. Those former employees would have banded together to sue DKK for unpaid wages.
For about a month, Tope had been cold-calling some of her old friends. She’d dug through her phone contacts and found some of them working at such places as Ecobank, Oando, MTN, and Great Place to Work.
“I know what you need in this economy,” she said to them one after the other. “You need an agency that can think fast, execute faster, and charge you less. Whatever your budget is, I’m sure we can work something out.”
It was a pitch she’d had practised for months—months since she’d been forced to resign her position as client service director at ZK.
At the height of her power at ZK, she was atop the storied N400m-a-year Zain account. But the moment Zain took its business elsewhere, ZK owners kicked Tope Jemerigbe out on the street. Now, if she must remain in the industry, she thought, her only choice was a lower position—but with pay similar to what ZK last paid her—at STB-McCann Lagos.
She joined the newly re-created Coca-Cola business unit at STB-McCann but, as she’d feared, the conservative traditions in that place were too much a shock for her to bear.
Thankfully, twelve months into her time at STB-McCann, Ayanwale hired her as managing consultant at Redline, the PR firm in the Centrespread group.
While some of the employees at Redline doubted her antecedents at first and others slyly resisted her approach to problem solving, by the 12th month, the PR firm’s bottom line had begun to swell.
Then one day, Ayanwale called Tope again and told her about DKK. The man wondered if Tope would like to give DKK the CPR it so badly needed.
Tope went home and thought about it. She debated with herself if her impulse was about to push her from the frying pan into the fire.
On the morning of DKK’s pitch to Visafone, the team of four from DKK sat in Jim Ovia’s waiting room. This was on the 12th floor of Zenon House in Victoria Island. A 70-inch TV was streaming CNN but all sounds were muffled. It felt as if you were in the cabin of an airplane.
On this floor, most of the Visafone employees spoke softly, and with extreme reverence for The Chairman. Nobody referred to the man as Mr Ovia. It was always The Chairman. The Chairman will be out in 30 minutes. The Chairman is on the phone at the moment. The Chairman knows what you’re thinking before you think it. You have to be sure of yourself before you open your mouth and talk to The Chairman. The Chairman brooks no nonsense. This palpable veneration of The Chairman made Tope a little nervous.
At 10am, an executive dressed in a white shirt and red tie pressed a silver button on the wall. A door swung open. Through the doorway, you could see an expansive, sterile conference room. The conference room itself was an anteroom to Jim Ovia’s opulent chambers. If he stood by the ceiling-to-floor windows, the man could take in the view around Ajose Adeogun Street.
Surrounding the long polished-wood conference table were black leather seats. At the head of the table was the Chairman’s chair. To the Chairman’s left, Mr Ayanwale, Tope, Sam, and Bukky sat, facing the large screen that had been mounted on the wall for presentations.
Tope collected herself. She prayed all of her jostlings since she received the brief three days ago would amount to something. The night before, she’d stayed up all night to knock the slide deck into shape.
She’d asked around what the retainer would be on the Visafone account. The previous agency had told her it was about sixty million naira per year. That’s five million naira a month, Tope reckoned, and immediately, she realised she would give her left hand to win that retainer. DKK needed the money like a newborn needed air.
Right now, she couldn’t even picture her DKK, within the next three years, winning much bigger accounts like Roche, MasterCard, and MTN. Or that it would be out of that godforsaken building in Yaba, and into more up-to-the-minute offices in Anthony, just one street away from CentrespreadGREY. As she sat there with her eyes fixed on her notes, all she could think of was what to say to these people who had gathered here to judge her pitch.
“Good morning,” Jim Ovia said as he marched into the room. His fashion was austere: a white cotton shirt, plain red tie, and a muted black suit.
In response to his entrance, there was a quick standing up and a chorus of “good morning sir.” Whenever he spoke, it was as if his voice boomed through the people.
“Good, good,” Jim Ovia said in his crisp and clear voice. He surveyed the room with a quick glance here and there. “Please have your seat,” he said.
He paused for a moment and nodded to DKK. “These are the people from Centrespread?”
“DKK, Sir,” Tope said. “Founded by Centrespread… but now independent and autonomous.”
“Good,” Ovia said. “This is what I am going to do: I will give you ten minutes to make your presentation.”
As she heard that, Tope saw her plan for an elaborate song and dance crash before her eyes. Her heart began to race.
Then, smiling a tad, Ovia continued, “If you don’t impress me before the end of the ten minutes, I will stop you and that will be the end of this meeting. But if you impress me, we can talk for a few more minutes.”
He looked from right to left. “I believe that is understandable to everyone?”
“Yes, Sir,” everyone replied.
“Good. Now you may start.”
Against the push of time, DKK raced through their strategy and finished with their big idea, which they called ‘Embrace Your Possible’.
By the end of the meeting, DKK had spent thirty-five minutes chatting with The Chairman. When he was done asking questions, he tapped the top of the desk rapidly and sprang from his seat. “Joseph will take you through the next steps,” he declared. “Thank you, everyone.” Then he marched back into his office.
Tope Jemerigbe exhaled. She knew she’d just won the Visafone business for DKK. She knew everything was about to change.
Illustration by Kimson Osaghae.