The Essential Biodun Shobanjo and “The Will to Win” – Toni Kan

Biodun Shobanjo, advertising czar, serial entrepreneur, TV star, dapper don and grand old man of the marketing communications industry is a man that excites very strong emotions.

In considering the man, one might create three broad categories; those who admire and like him; those who admire but don’t like him and then those who hate his guts. Think of that proverbial elephant and the seven blind men and you begin to understand the enigma behind the personality of Biodun Shobanjo, the man who just celebrated his 50th year as an advertising icon.

For starters, he is to his children a loving and responsible even if parsimonious father who will not throw away a stamp; to his protégés, he is the epitome of managerial acumen and panache as well as marketing communications excellence while to his traducers, Shobanjo is a hyper competitive adversary who does not play fair and who has been accused of not just snatching accounts from other agencies but also of engaging in sharp practices offering inducements to get accounts.

Born in Jebba to a father, Joseph Shobowale Shobanjo who worked in the railways and hailed from the royal family of rustic Aiyepe and a mother, Morinatu Shobanjo whose grandfather was the first chief Imam of Aiyepe. Their son Abiodun Olusina was born on December 24, 1944. His father’s job as a Weighbridge Superintendent saw him moving across Nigeria from Jebba to Zaria to Enugu.

By age 8, Biodun Shobanjo had attended schools in two different cities and when his father was transferred to Enugu, he decided that his son who had started school needed some measure of stability so he planned for Biodun to head to Lagos where he was enrolled at Ijero Baptist school. After an attempt at attend Methodist Boys High School was truncated, Biodun was sent “home” to Odogbolu Grammar School where his life underwent a sea change under his principal, Victor George Chinwah.

Tragedy struck in 1959 when his father, Joseph, died suddenly at 49. His death cast a pall on his middle class family and signaled a significant shift in their circumstances. A key part of it was that Biodun was unable to continue his education beyond secondary level and was constrained to get a job, first in the Customs and Excise Service, then at the National Broadcasting Corporation before heading to advertising at Grant. It was at Grant that the man we have all come to know as Biodun Shobanjo began to emerge.

The choice of the word “emerge” is intentional and reminds us of an Achebean proverb – “You cannot plant greatness as you plant yams or maize. Whoever planted an Iroko tree – the greatest in the forest? You may collect all the Iroko seeds in the world, open the soil and put them there. It will be in vain. The great tree chooses where to grow and we find it there…so it is with greatness in men.”

Did Grant advertising, owned by the flamboyant Adeyemi Lawson make Biodun Shobanjo or did Shobanjo merely pass through Grant on his way to greatness? To make an informed decision you must read Dotun Adekambi’s incisive and insightful biography, a clear-eyed and comprehensive exploration of the essential Biodun Shobanjo. Written over the course of a decade, it runs to 542 pages. While this may be considered a big book it is still slight when you consider Biodun Shobanjo’s humongous achievements or the fact that he is 77 years and 77 years rounds up at 934 months or 4,004 weeks or 28,105 days. You get the picture.

Dotun Adekambi’s book begins at the tail end of Biodun Shobanjo’s stellar advertising career with his nunc dimitis. “At the end of December 2004, I will stand down as Chief Executive officer of Insight Communications” he announced to a stunned room full of newsmen on Friday December 10, 2004.

The news sent shock waves across the industry as many tried to make sense of what “stand down” meant and who would be taking charge with Biodun Shobanjo no longer at helm.

The man to take charge was Jimi ‘Baale” Awosika, his longtime second in command,  whom Shobanjo described as “perhaps the most knowledgeable and intellectual powerhouse I have ever met in this business; we were the principal architects of this company (and) he has, as it were, been my understudy from the day I hired him at Grant Advertising some 27 years ago.”

Biodun Shobanjo, according to the foreword by Dr. Yemi Ogunbiyi, took over the baton of advertising from the “Banjo Solarus and Sylvester Moemekes’ and raised the bar in a profession where the former were trail blazers. Biodun Shobanjo as Dotun Adekambi writes “rewrote the rules of advertising” as afar Nigeria is concerned by choosing “to lead and not to conform” making him a firm believer in the Saatchi and Saatchi “Law of Dominance” as encapsulated by Philip Kleinman.

For a young man who had to jettison his dreams of becoming a lawyer following his father’s death, Biodun Shibanjo has basically followed the John C Maxwell dictum of a man making his own luck “by working hard, practicing self-discipline, remaining persistent” and in doing so has made success the true measure of his métier believing as his biographer writes that “it is good to be big. It is better to be good. It is best to be both.”

It is his single minded dedication to excellence and success that has brought him on a collision course with colleagues and other industry practitioners. Driven by heroic vanity; that consuming passion to achieve more and press on once one summit has been surmounted has led to the abiding accusation of not playing fair. The book is replete with instances one of which is Grey/Promoserve/Insight fiasco which was described as “too cold, too calculating and extremely provocative.”

But while his traducers focus on his take-no-prisoners approach to business they fail to talk about his co-competitive initiatives that have helped not just to strengthen the industry but has brought it respectability especially in the eyes of clients who hitherto treated advertising agencies as errand boys who could be owed millions without payment plans. Two examples would be Insight’s disengagement from BAT and ETB

Many years from now, when historians  write and talk about Biodun Shobanjo, they will fixate on Troyka Holdings, the holding company conceived around the “Japanese ‘Keiretsuí system” under which most of his entrepreneurial endeavours are/were warehoused from the successful to not so –Halogen, Black Onyx, The Quadrant Company, Promoworld, Optimum Exposures, All Seasons Mediacom, Media Perspectives, Hot Sauce, Insight, MC&A, Assagai etc but the truth is that Biodun Shobanjo’s serial entrepreneurship began in 1979 when the dream of setting up his own shop was planted in his head by Saleh Nasreddin of the NASCO group and watered by Jimi Awosika.

Insight opened shop in 1980 with 18 staff on its payroll and quickly signaled a tectonic shift in the industry. By the turn of the decade it had inched up to the top and was angling to displace the biggest players.

While figures and company statistics can be contested what cannot be disputed is that Insight has been a garden for harvesting some of the best and brightest in the Nigerian advertising landscape from Enyi Odigbo (DDB) to Udeme Ufot (SO&U) to Sesan Ogunro (Eminent) to Lanre Adisa (Noah’s Ark) to Longley Evru (Angels Communication), Phil Osagie (JSP Communications), Lere Awokoya (TBWA Concept), George Umunna (Consultant), Paris Agaro (Franchise), Gbemi Sagay (S.H.O.P.S), George Noah of (LASAA), Julia Oku and many more.

It is also imperative to note that Insight has produced 5 presidents of the Association of Advertising Agencies of Nigeria (AAAN) – Biodun Shobanjo, Udeme Ufot, Enyi Odigbo, Funmi Onabolu and Kayode Oluwasona

Biodun Shobanjo’s contribution to the industry has been acknowledged by honours that include the Doctor of Letters (D.Litt) Honoris Causa from the Obafemi Awolowo University in 2019; Sun Newspapers, Advertising Man of All Time award in 2013; Silverbird Extraordinary Achievement award in 2018 and Most Influential Personality in Advertising in Africa by Africa Development Magazine, Ghana amongst others.

In concluding I will crave the reader’s indulgence to tell two stories. Halogen Security, the security firm owned by Biodun Shobanjo was founded as a child of necessity and speaks to the fact that the best businesses are those that emerge out of an urgent need to provide a service and solve a problem. After a deadly attack and dramatic shootout with supposed assassins, Biodun Shobanjo decided to set up a company that would provide bespoke security services to individuals and corporates. As at 2018, Halogen Security Limited employed over 16,000 people positioning it as one of the biggest employers of labour in Nigeria next only to government.

The second story has to do with the fact that the biography of Biodun Shobanjo is a book I wanted so badly to write from the moment I first met the man when as a staff of Hints magazine we paid a visit to Insight. That must have been in 1998. I had found him an enigmatic and charismatic personality whose story I wanted to learn about.

My opportunity came almost 10 years later, when as Head of External Relations at Bank PHB, I was in charge of producing the hit reality TV show, The Apprentice Africa. Our search for The Boss in the mould of Donald Trump and Alan Sugar narrowed down to 3 names – Frank Nneji, founder of ABC Motors; Ben Murray Bruce, founder of the Silverbird Group and Biodun Shobanjo.

After much deliberation, we all decided on Biodun Shobanjo because of his vast business concerns, his longevity and sustained success but most importantly because the businesses that created his wealth could be tracked. There were no missing details. That was when my “hunger” to write his biography began.

One Sunday, as I spent hours riding through Lagos Island and getting history lessons from Jimi “Baale” Awosika, I had mooted the idea of writing Mr. Shobanjo’s biography but Baale had told me that Shibanjo had already committed to another writer.

If The Will To Win was written by me, the style and tone would be different but the story would have been the same because there is only one way of telling the Biodun Shobanjo story – boldly and comprehensively on a large canvas painted with words which is what Dotun Adekambi has done.

To end, there are the usual typos and editorial snafus but my major concern is with the outing of Johnson Adebayo as the loose lip who might have “inadvertently compromised the plan.” My concern is that with Adebayo dead and unable to provide his own version of events it would have been best to keep his name out.

The Will To Win: The Story of Biodun Shobanjo by Dotun Adekambi, Havilah Books, 2019.

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