Want To Build A Billion Naira PR Business? Steal Ideas From John Ehiguese

In 2003, I met John Ehiguese for the first time. At that time, he had a job that I would easily kill for. He was a senior consultant at Corporate and Financial, a large PR firm in Lagos and he was calling the shot on the MTN account. But within 12 months, John walked out on that fantastic job to start his own PR consultancy. Later, he told me that all he was betting his future on at the time was the goodwill of friends and a 100,000 naira loan he took from his wife.

Now, his company, Mediacraft, hasn’t only become blindingly successful, in December 2014, Ehiguese was elected President of the Public Relations Consultants Association of Nigeria, PRCAN. His clients now include Google and Mobil. At the beginning, his move made absolutely no sense to many people who thought that he was about to go down for stepping out into the unknown at 44 years of age. Well, as we can all see, John Ehiguese didn’t die. This is the secret of his success:

Mediacraft Associates is 13 years old this year. How did you know, after hosting your own TV show, being a salesman, and being an employee, that this was the business you should be doing? What was the big idea?

When I left my last employment at C&F Porter Novelli, I decided to set up my own professional practice. I had a choice to either practice advertising or PR because I had garnered some experience in both areas and I eventually settled for PR.

It really wasn’t a difficult decision to make. One, I had more qualitative experience in PR (having worked on for about one-and-a half years as Account Director on arguably the biggest PR account in Nigeria at the time – MTN Nigeria). Two, I knew that I had very good oral and writing skills, an asset which I thought was more suited to PR. And three, I felt that the competition in PR was not as keen as that of advertising, and I was more likely to make an impact faster in PR.

What was your initial business plan?

I didn’t really have a business plan, in a formal sense. I just knew that I wanted to build a world-class PR firm, and I was determined to do just that. No business plan, no capital. But I had the skills, the experience and the guts. Plus, I was smack in the middle of my MBA programme at the Lagos Business School at the time.

When you hit the streets? What was your client acquisition strategy?

Simple. Just do a damn good job with every brief you get, and soon the clients will come knocking. You could say that my client acquisition strategy was essentially to secure referrals from satisfied clients. And guess what, that strategy has worked wonderfully well for us – till date.

How did you position an unknown PR agency to new clients, some of whom were already dealing with more established companies?

Well, at the time we started Mediacraft I really wasn’t well known in the Nigerian PR industry – I had only practiced PR professionally for about two years. But I had majored in PR at undergraduate level, and working on an extremely challenging account like MTN meant that I had had to sort of learn on my feet, in a manner of speaking. So the only way by which I felt that we could break into the industry was to, as I said earlier, do a good job with every brief we got. But I was fully prepared to pay the price, and grow the practice one step at a time. I knew that sooner or later we were going to start being noticed, and that’s what happened. You see, I belong to the ‘old school’ that preaches that there is no short cut to success.

In three months you won your first business – a major re-branding. How did you swing that?

Yes, our first major business was the Oando re-branding campaign in December 2003. And you’re right, we were barely three months old then. Well, we were invited for a competitive pitch, which we won, and we did our best on the campaign.

What were the fears you had at that time and how did you manage them?

No fears. I do not worry myself about such things. They are debilitating, and slow you down. Let’s just say that the thought of failure never for once even crossed my mind. Those who know me well know that I never have any fear of failure. Sometimes you fail in certain things, but that is just a temporary set-back. My attitude is that you simply pick yourself up and continue. I keep my eye on the destination, not the journey. The real testimony is in the ‘arrival’, not the ‘journey’. That is one of the cardinal principles by which I live my life.

You already had five children when this project started. For a lot of entrepreneurs and wantrepreneurs, it can be extremely challenging to combine the needs of a family with those of a new startup. How did you juggle the two?

You’re right, it was extremely challenging in those early days. Here I was starting out on an entrepreneurial journey, with a ‘full’ family of five kids, all in school, and without any capital. Plus, I was in the middle of a very tasking MBA programme. You don’t want to know the full story, I’ll save that for my memoirs. I wish that I could think of a stronger word than ‘challenging’ to describe what I went through back then. Sometimes I look back and wonder how we survived. But then I have always been a strong and determined person. I have had to work very hard for everything I have achieved in life. I approach life with a ‘Next Level’ mentality and for me, success is a journey, not a destination. That is one discipline that keeps me going, regardless of any storm. Plus, of course, the grace of God.

A marketing agency needs to look successful to attract big-budget projects, what was the John Ehiguese formula for maintaining the look of success in the early days?

The vision that you have for the organization you run invariably influences the choices that you make. We were barely three years old, and had a staff strength of 20 when we moved to a fully detached storey building office in Ikeja, in 2006. We really couldn’t afford it, but it was a sort of strategic ‘investment’, preparing us for the big league, as it were.

Did you ever run out of money and wonder where the next revenue would come from? What did you do to keep steady?

Sometimes. We had a particularly rough patch in 2009-2010, when we lost a couple of big accounts, and things got pretty rough for a while. But we survived eventually. Again, by the nature of our business, there is always a mis-match between the age-payables and age-receivables. Many of your clients have payment policies that sometimes can be as long as 45 days, but your suppliers expect to be paid immediately, sometimes in advance. So, you’re constantly under severe cash-flow pressure. And the situation is not showing any signs of letting up, even now.

What was your strategy for expansion, beyond the first client?

Simple. Do a good job, delight him, and ask him to recommend you to other potential clients. It worked then for us, and still does today. It might interest you to know that 90% of our new business comes from referrals by satisfied clients, past and present.

It appears to me that Mediacraft is quite great at winning pitches. How do you do it?

Mediacraft has a track record of always doing well at pitches but that does not mean though that we always get the business – even in cases where we clearly won the pitch! The secret is simple: I approach every pitch like a military campaign. For each pitch we have a distinctive strategy and plan. Remember, you are pitching your knowledge, skills and experience against other strong and equally determined agencies. You must take the project very seriously, and give it your best shot. There are other winning strategies we have developed over time, which I would not like to share here. Suffice it to say that it invariably goes beyond just having winning proposals – it has to be a total package, both technical and psychological. Beyond that, I always have it at the back of my mind that it’s a contest: you either win or lose. You must be psychologically prepared for any of those possible outcomes.

Apart from the initial 100,000 naira, how much were you able to attract in funding?

Initially, we had to source most of our funding privately, sometimes at very exorbitant interest rates. I remember the very first big loan that we sourced through a friend. We paid an interest of 45% over a 60-day tenure. That’s how bad it was! We also relied on some clients who were trusting and gracious enough to give us advance payment for some of the projects we handled. But as we grew and started working for high profile clients, we were able to begin to attract some level of bank financing, which is considerably cheaper.

PR is a service business; you don’t sell a physical product, how did you decide what was fair pricing?

There really isn’t a pricing standard for a lot of the services we offer as PR firms. Somehow , you just have to come to a mutually agreeable pricing arrangement with the client. However, for our size and profile, we have certain benchmark pricing, below which we won’t go.

In both public and private sectors, there’s often the question of payback to insiders on the client side who help you secure the contract? How do you evaluate the need to say ‘thank you’ to these people?

I know this may sound unbelievable, but we usually try to be as ethical as possible when it comes to issues like pay-backs to client. Like I said earlier, we secure most of our new businesses through referrals and successes at pitches. And once on the job, I have found from experience, that if you perform well, you will be under less pressure to ‘settle’ people who give you briefs. Our principle in Mediacraft Associates is: ‘You may not like us, but you have no choice but to like our work.” Besides most of the clients we now work for are big organizations that operate strict corporate governance regimes. Such practices are not encouraged, and would be severely punished, if discovered.

You launched an online industry journal and a digital PR agency. How important are these ideas to your global business strategy?

Our online publishing project (www.bizwatchnigeria.ng) and Digital Marketing subsidiary are attempts both at diversification and backward integration, if you like. As you might be aware, the media landscape is changing rapidly, and PR globally is in turn evolving into a multi-skill discipline. The scope and complexity of client demands and requirements keep increasing and changing. To remain sustainably effective as a PR agency, you also have to constantly review (and, where necessary, expand) your bouquet of competences. Our diversification strategy is essentially aimed at enabling us play the market better, especially as we move into the next phase of our growth, which is to become a world-class PR agency.

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