Africa: Continent of advertising opportunity

At the annual TBWA Africa Conference, speakers shared their views on why Africa is a breeding ground for creativity and innovation.

Keith Smith, president international of TBWA Worldwide

Keith Smith, president international of TBWA Worldwide

Six out of the 10 fastest growing economies in the world are on the African continent. It’s not news that Africa is offering unrivalled growth potential at a time when global markets are depressed. And while Africa’s nations are attracting international investment and enjoying internal growth, creativity and entrepreneurial spirit are also burgeoning – and the advertising industry is able to leverage these strengths to develop creative solutions for Africa.

Big companies and entrepreneurs

“There is more opportunity in emerging markets partly because there is more growth in emerging markets,” says Keith Smith, president international of TBWA Worldwide. “The US and the UK are experiencing zero growth, but here we have markets with 5% or 8% growth. Young people are establishing their own companies and we can grow our brands on the back of those.”

At the same time, he says international clients are increasingly saying they need to succeed in emerging markets to grow and prosper, so the group’s established network – underpinned by a culture of disruption – in these regions creates huge opportunities for TBWA.

“We’re trying to build our offices in those markets. If we see a good acquisition or a startup opportunity to be ahead of the curve, we’ll take it,” he says. “For example, in Vietnam, we identified a small advertising agency with a very good retail activations business. We merged it with our agency and we’re now a top three agency in a market with 95m people. So we try to anticipate where the opportunities are going to lie and are creative about how to go into those markets in a meaningful way.”

Getting the right talent

In many of these kinds of areas, advertising and its social and digital counterparts are entirely new industries. On a continent with a projected 2.4m people by 2050, jobs will need to be found. And this is also where TBWA’s growth strategy of partnering with and growing local talent comes into play. But this is not without its challenges.

“The difficulty from our perspective is making sure that the people we partner with in these markets are the right sort of people,” says Smith. “It’s very important that you partner with a local company – and in some cases you are legally obliged to. Finding the right partners who understand our culture of creative and innovative thinking, developed over the last 40 years is critical. We look for people that we feel will work with our people to add an extra dimension to the way that we operate.”

He says this can be a difficult process in emerging markets, because it is so new and not yet well regarded. “Finding the right people is the most difficult thing in any developing market. It’s not the scarcity; it’s actually the fact that our business – the communications business – has to be seen as a sexy business in those markets. In China, for instance, it’s not seen as a business that they want their only child to go into. So we have to make sure our business is attractive, and make sure we attract the right people.”

While the African communications industry might be a decade behind Europe in terms of the skills set on the continent, Smith believes the continent is on its way to great success. “Africa is learning very fast. If you look at the quality of creative work when you go to awards show [it is] catching up really quickly.”

New channels: digital and mobile

Further opportunities are being presented in the form of new media. “The opportunity is getting bigger and revenue has grown over the past year. With a multiplicity of new media channels we need to be smarter in figuring out how much we can handle on our own and how much we need partners.”

Toby Shapshak, editor and publisher of Stuff magazine, agreed, saying digital, and especially mobile is a massive contributor to growth in Africa. “Africa has skipped all the legacy problems that have plagued the world for a long time,” he says, referring to outdated telecommunications infrastructures.

“We have real problems and we’re being innovative in solving them for the rest of the world. In the rest of the world, people are watching television or playing Angry Birds. We live on a continent where we do not have enough electricity. We’re solving day-to-day problems here.”

This, he says, is where mobile comes in. “Mobile changes everything. In Africa, It’s not just mobile first; it’s mobile only. The vast majority of people will experience the internet for the first time on a small feature phone.”

He points to the undersea cables up and down the coastlines of Africa, pumping bandwidth into the continent as massive drivers for innovation and growth. “For every 10% of bandwidth penetration, you get an average 1.4% GDP growth in a country,” he says. “Broadband is like the rain. The second you have rain, everything flourishes.”