Western advertising and public relations agencies are increasingly merging with African counterparts to attract international corporate clients looking to break into Africa — considered the last frontier for consumer markets.
However, the emphasis is no longer on polishing the reputations of country leaders but in promoting multinational corporations keen to extend their African footprint.
Western public relations agents in Africa are often associated with laundering the image of a head of state or a government. Strategy group AKPD Message, founded by former Obama campaign manager David Axelrod, has been linked with Nigerian president-elect Muhammadu Buhari, whose campaign message promising change edged him to the top in the recent election.
While whispering in the ears of African leaders continues, global communications firms are now seeking out multinational corporations wanting to break into a continent that hosts six of the 10 fastest-growing economies in the world.
Global communications companies have acquired or partnered with dozens of African agencies in the past two years, said Keri-Ann Stanton, managing director of Engage Joe Public, a public relations (PR) agency.
The explosion of mobile devices has contributed to the growth of locally owned digital agencies in sub-Saharan Africa that are carving their own niche and winning plenty of plaudits of their own, Stanton said
“We are an emerging market and we know that a lot of people are trying to get into the market and a lot of people have failed terribly. It seems like there is very much a shift - the first world is watching Africa for innovation," she said.
Africa’s claim as the “mobile continent” is reinforced by predictions that mobile broadband will increase by twentyfold in the next five years, with 930 million mobile subscriptions estimated by the end of 2019.
American PR firm Grey opened an Africa office in Johannesburg to service clients in Nigeria, Mozambique, Kenya, Ghana, Tanzania and Botswana. These are fast-growing markets, said Paul Jackson, managing director at Grey South Africa.
"We have seen a lot of multinationals not getting the returns in first world economies and looking to the third world markets and emerging markets for additional returns. Obviously, it is lot riskier ... these are markets that they don’t understand. But they know that Africa is the place they have got to be," Jackson said.
Africa’s emerging markets are unchartered territory for some multinational corporations bewildered by the nuances of the continent. Combined with a dearth of marketing data, on-the-ground expertise is a keenly sought commodity.
"It is really important any client and/or agency understands the various markets that they are targeting, those various nuances, the different cultures, the key insights that is going to make a product move in a very tough landscape. You have got to have on the ground representation; you can’t fly by remote control," Jackson said.
In October, London-headquartered Weber Shandwick announced it was merging with it South African sister agency, McCann PR, allowing the London-based company to significantly boost its number of South African business clients.
Fraser Lamb, chief executive officer and Africa chairman of McCann Worldgroup, said poorly informed advertising campaigns can be costly. A MasterCard campaign designed for Africa but developed in Dubai did not translate, he said.
"The campaign was a disconnect from the reality. For instance, in our truth about Africa, we talked about countries that actually have safari versus the perceived number of countries. The artwork that came from abroad was largely about safari and we said, ‘If this is for Kenya, it works; whereas in Nigeria - it’s [safari] scarce.’ It was a campaign that had to be adapted," Lamb said.
He said better research revealed that Nigeria’s MasterCard holders were more familiar with Harrods, a London luxury store, than elephants and lions.