A chance meeting with my former boss in Rosabel Advertising in the 90s in a local restaurant in Ikeja GRA inspires this exciting journey down memory lane back through 3 decades
I saw this advert in the Guardian, I think it was a half pager, asking “experienced copywriters who can prove it” to apply for a position in the then bustling Ikeja advertising agency, Rosabel. The first thing that interested me was the ‘writer’ part of copywriter. Well, I thought I could write even though I didn’t have any experience writing copy in any advertising agency—or anywhere for that matter. But I instinctively thought I could try to get one of those 2 slots advertised if it had to do with creative writing.
Well, I wrote some interesting kind of application basically hyping my creative writing skills and my campus exploits as Editor of Bang Magazine at Obafemi Awolowo University and a few other things in place of a job history, because there was not much else. It was my way for making up for a lot of blanks. What was important was to be called for a test. I would take it from there.
Getting a test invitation was not a given. Even at that time as the 90s decade was kicking off, getting a job in a top advertising agency was already a big deal if you didn’t have any experience. I learnt that the HR people start by picking out the first class graduates. Then they picked those with postgraduate degrees. In this case, there was a lady with a PhD in English who wanted a career as a copywriter (I never understood that. if you didn’t want to pursue a career in scholarship why go the whole hog and then start fighting first degree holders for a job, and then, as in this case, getting trounced?).
Anyway, the next category was the elite writers with epaulets to show how far they had gone in the copywriting craft. Typically you would have made the rounds between two to four agencies over a period of five to ten years to be in that category. It helped a great deal if you had spent time in one of the top 10 advertising agencies. That immediately made recruiters pay attention to your CV.
It’s only when these three categories have been sorted from the hundreds, if not thousands, of submitted applications that stragglers like me who didn’t have a first class, didn’t have any experience writing for an agency and didn’t have a masters or PhD would be looked at. Now imagine what chances my CV had among hundreds of other applicants? If you don’t get creative, you are looking at many years of a frustrating job search. I didn’t want to contemplate that. Not on an empty stomach!
So I sat down and designed, with pencil and plain paper, a combined CV and application letter that was bound to catch anyone’s attention. It is difficult to describe the exact details now but for sure you could bet your last dime that there was nothing like “I beg to apply…” Rather than begging to apply, I attacked the notion that you needed a lot of experience in an Ad agency (as had been advertised) to produce great writing. I argued that the capacity for great writing was not something that can be taught to adults in an agency. I suggested that the ability to write well was something you developed intuitively based on habits you acquired as you transmitted from childhood to adulthood: voracious reading, regular writing, and yes, sometimes, natural talent. I concluded that you cannot make a great writer simply by training him for many years in an agency. Of course, it was later that I got to learn about the finer details of strategic discipline in communications.
I didn’t write these things in a straightforward manner. It was graphic and loosely illustrated and very dramatic. All on just one page. I challenged them to give me a chance to prove that these things were true. It was a long shot given the large number of applications and highly qualified people. But it worked. I was later told that the creative guys had a good laugh over my application and, perhaps, their curiosity got the better of them. They wanted to see this guy. That was all I needed: A foot in the door.
I got a sharp brown jacket from my egbon and neighbour, “Uncle T”, Tope Ogunnaike who lived directly opposite my Uncle’s flat in Iponri low cost estate. It was a bit big (for then I was lean and mean) but it didn’t matter. I was in a killer mood and nothing was going to stop me at that moment. As I stepped out of the house, I balanced my will against that of all opposition and mentally pushed. As I arrived in Awolowo House, Ikeja, where Rosabel was domiciled at the time, and saw a deluge of sharply dressed applicants who had come for the test, my resolve momentarily took a hit. I took a deep breath and steeled myself. Let’s get this done.
Anyway, I wrote the test and eventually met a three man panel led by the oracle of advertising according to the Rosabel school, Chief Akin Odunsi himself. It wasn’t really an interview but an interesting and introspective talk time where they kept sizing me up and I kept trying not to demystify myself after the gambit that got me a foot in the door.
I thoroughly enjoyed the session. Lots of laughs all round. I felt so good that I pushed my luck a bit by pointedly asking Chief Odunsi as the session drew to a close, “Sir, I hope I am getting this job?” The Chief wasn’t going to be caught off guard. He calmly and briefly explained that he was yet to speak to a lot of candidates so it was not possible to make a decision yet. Despite that I was completely certain I would hear from them. It was right in his eyes.
One of the three man interview team was a certain dark, lean and sharply suited man in his early 30s who spoke with a casual authority and had a habit of gesticulating with his hands to drive home his point. He immediately caught my attention. I was to learn later that his name is Tayo Ken Suleiman.
Tayo, I later learnt when I resumed at Rosabel as a trainee copywriter a couple of weeks after, was the copy guru of the agency. It’s really difficult to describe the awe with which we held him at the time for his genius for the sharp copy line. I am not sure I read many long essays from this man. But when it came to the three, four or five words, the short headline that expressed something in a clear, unambiguous manner, I could easily say he had no equal in the industry at the time. He was the General that the agency relied on to lead the troops to battle whenever it was pitch time.
He had an uncanny ability to make the resources of the English language deliver his message. He would explore familiar sayings and proverbs, adding and subtracting to make them create entirely new meanings. The sentence would look so familiar that you would have swallowed the message before it hit you that this was saying something entirely different. You fall in love. A real alchemy of words. A master of the cunning twist. And he did it effortlessly, when he wanted to.
At this time, Rosabel had a fearsome reputation for destroying the opposition in big advertising pitches. There was a clarity, strategic focus and direction in their work that even non natives of the advertising firmament could easily relate to. Tayo was at the heart of the creative team. He was an all round advertising man who was very comfortable in a suit and would always be the lead presenter for both strategy and creative. He was said to have the magical ‘gift of the garb’.
The icing on the cake was that he had a huge capacity for work, when he wanted to, and working overnight to complete a presentation was nothing to him. In fact, I remember that he created an ad at the time celebrating Rosabel’s notoriety for sometimes keeping staff at work all night and all weekend just to make the client happy. But trust me we loved it.
When I later joined ThisDay and started writing the campaign pages I had a culture shock when I visited Rosabel’s arch rival, Insight communications, where I went hunting for a story at a few minutes past 5pm and the entire office was virtually empty! Everybody had gone home! I couldn’t believe it. But that was the culture. Totally different.
Of course, there were a lot of other very brilliant minds in Rosabel’s creative department at the time. The creative director was Dotun ‘The Dot’ Adegbite. Tayo was Associate creative director and his immediate deputy was Nkoli Ogbolu (the copy group head): restless, efficient and a thorn in the flesh of non conformists on the shop floor. If you didn’t have a thick skin and the ability for a sharp comeback, Nkoli was going to be your albatross. Oh, but she could be gentle, sweet, motherly and comforting when she wanted to be. She would share her lunch freely. She wanted to know the demons plaguing you so she can attack them on your behalf. You just needed to understand her and you will be in paradise. She was a really strong willed woman.
I worked briefly with Nkoli too. She was the total opposite of Tayo Suleiman. Tayo would give you the general guidelines and leave you on your own to roam free for days. Then he would pop-in, maybe in 3 or 4 days, to review what you had done. If you were a writer with industry, you would have gone back and forth, back and forth on the brief. You would have thrown out a lot of rubbish and rewritten to an acceptable level of finish. He could then help you dot a few things and sharpen your direction; a few pep talks and off you go. But of course if it turns out that what you had written is rubbish, he didn’t hesitate to help you navigate your way to the waste basket.
But Tayo would always do it with a casual easy style. He would not raise his voice at you. He would be smiling while methodically and diplomatically explaining that what you were showing him was a piece of dung. And you will be happy with the way he told you. This empowered you to go back to your desk and get that stuff knocked out of your brain.
There was Mike Efunkoya, the radio production manager who held court in the agency’s studio and took charge of all radio production work. There was Wright Eruebi, of the “Wright cannot be wrong” fame who was in charge of TV production. Wright spoke with a well modulated accent and just loved to articulate stuff.
On my first day in Rosabel, I was the second to arrive in the creative department, with that brown jacket still. The first person was the brilliant graphic artist, Abdul Funso. Abdul is intense, informed and a real Lagos boy—absolutely a man of style who was extremely trendy and friendly. I could go on and on, but let me stop here for now. Working in Rosabel was a lot of fun and it was these types of contrasting brilliant minds that made it happen.
COPY WIZARD WALKS INTO BUKA
Present day: Here I was, sitting with my 17 year old daughter, Tofunmi, a fellow amala enthusiast and award winning author of Nowhere to Run, home on holiday from Pan Atlantic. This is more or less 30 years after the Roabel years, while eating a bowl of hot amala in one of my favourite bukas in Ikeja GRA, the original Tayo Ken Suleiman, the man who showed me how to write copy on strategy, walked in for the same treat.
It was good to see him again after so many years. We hugged and chatted. He wondered why I stopped publishing my magazine, M2, and I gave some lame excuses but promised him it was coming back soon. He told me I must ensure it covered marketing as it is practised today not like yesterday. I understood and agreed.
Business aside, speaking with him again after all these years was cool and refreshing. So I insisted on taking the above picture with him. Photo credit must go to Tofunmi Adeoya, of course. It occurred to me that many people will not know the significance of this chance meeting if I didn’t bore them with this long homily. So guys, that’s the point of it.
Featured Image: Akin Adeoya (left) and Tayo Ken Suleiman