Writing love letters for friends in secondary school prepared me for consultancy –Adebija
Gbenga Adebija is the Group Managing Director of Ashton and Layton and former Director General of the Nigerian German Chamber of Commerce. The former corporate affairs head at Cadbury Schweppes tells ALEXANDER OKERE about his education, career and some other issues
Before you floated your firm, you had a stint at Cadbury Nigeria, where you spent several years and rose to become the head of corporate affairs. Can you recall how you joined the company?
I would attribute it to a divine arrangement since my life has been significantly shaped by my time at Cadbury. I was driving past Cadbury sometime in 1992, when, on a whim, I decided to stop to see a friend of mine who had secured a job at the company. While at the reception I noticed an advert for management trainees that matched my academic qualifications and so I decided to apply. It was a very rigorous and exhaustive process and at the first stage of the aptitude tests, it was as if the whole world came for the interview. I was, however, determined to become one of the successful applicants because I had completed my master’s degree programme and was ready to join a corporate organisation. The process lasted several months and I went through about seven different stages but I eventually made it and joined the company in January 1993.
Was your entry into corporate communications based on passion or just a coincidence?
Prior to joining Cadbury, from when I was about 17 years old or so, I had become a contributor and columnist for The Herald, which was a nationally circulating newspaper. So, I probably hold the record for being Nigeria’s youngest-ever newspaper columnist. I also briefly co-presented a programme on Radio Kwara in addition to emceeing events on campus. Therefore, by the time I presented myself to Cadbury for employment, I was already firmly grounded in media communication.
Indeed, at the final stages, the interview panelists brushed aside my master’s degree in Microbiology and informed me that they saw me more as an out front person working in corporate communications, marketing or human resources rather than in the laboratory. At that stage, I was more than happy to accept any job offer and that was how I ended up in the corporate affairs department of the company.
An interesting footnote of my career is that I have never for one second worked as a microbiologist. My siblings always tease me by demanding a refund of all the family resources used in putting me through my first and master’s degrees in Microbiology.
What other academic qualifications do you have?
Apart from my master’s degree in Microbiology, I am also an alumnus of the Nigerian Institute of Journalism, Lagos Business School, and the University of London. I remember seeing the Chairman/Chief Executive Officer of the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency, Gen. Buba Marwa (retd.), a few times around the University of London campus and telling fellow students that he was a former governor of Nigeria’s most economically-vibrant state, Lagos. I have also received broad-ranging business education around the world, especially in the USA, UK, Denmark, Holland, France, Germany, Poland, UAE, China, India, South Africa, Kenya, Ghana, Republic of Benin, Singapore and Nigeria.
What was your most memorable experience as a student?
As a secondary school student, right from when I was in Form One, I coached senior boys in Form Four and final year students in English and Literature. This was a smart move to reduce the level of bullying I experienced as a new student and in my latter years in secondary school, I became famous throughout the school for my literary skills, especially in writing love letters for my friends to send to their girlfriends. I never knew this was preparing me for the consultancy services I would set up later in life. If I had charged money I probably would be a billionaire today.
What was your aspiration as a child while growing up?
I wanted to be a medical doctor, specifically a paediatrician because I love children. That was why I studied science right up to the master’s degree level. Thankfully, I never became a medical doctor because I later discovered that I was not emotionally wired to be in that profession because I hate to see people, especially children, suffer. To see children in misery and discomfort makes me tear up every single time and I am sure that would not be a good quality in a medical doctor. I would also have liked to be a Roman Catholic priest but God passed me over and chose my younger brother instead.
Where did you spend your childhood and what was it like growing up there?
I was born in Lagos, started my education in Kano but mostly grew up in Ilorin. I am the fourth out of six children born to my parents. My dad was a civil servant while my mum ran a business, so it was very much a middle-class family. My dad was also educated in America and was an extremely cosmopolitan person with a great passion for knowledge. He was ‘Google’ before the invention of Google and it was from him all of us inherited a compulsive love for reading. I must have read thousands of books even before my teenage years. Perhaps, my first ever appearance on TV or in the media was when a former governor of Kwara State visited the state library and was pleasantly shocked at seeing a seven-year-old kid with piles of books in front of him. My mum was the disciplinarian and I remember many times wondering if I was an adopted child. Both my parents instilled the enduring values of hard work, integrity and other Christian values in all of us. It was a wonderful childhood and I would say I had the best upbringing and best family I could ever wish for.
Do people ask you what the ‘X’ in your name means?
Only my wife knows the real meaning of X. Nobody else knows, not even my children who have also asked many times because their teachers and friends were curious about the meaning of X. I get asked this question from all over the world.
Would you like to tell me?
As against your original plan to start your own company in your 50s, Ashton and Layton was founded earlier. Were there times you doubted the chances of success of the company?
Like every business in Nigeria, the company has evolved and gone through different phases and faces, but we have an unwavering belief in the sustainable success of the company. Even when I left the company to work as Director General and CEO of the Nigerian German Chamber of Commerce and then as Director General of the Nigerian British Chamber of Commerce, the company remained active and was fully operational. This is an encouraging indication that we are building an enduring institution. If I again leave the company for any external roles, I am confident that it would continue to be run effectively.
How would you assess the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on marketing communications in Nigeria?
It is unfortunate that integrated marketing communications are usually the most adversely impacted whenever there is an industry downturn. However, this is a perennial occurrence and it is expected that by now IMCs should have adjusted to this situation. It goes back to what I previously shared about a comprehensive review of the business, to achieve appropriate scaling in the relevant areas in order to achieve business profitability. By now, IMCs must have developed intrinsic flexibility and adaptability to deploy innovative solutions during periods of diminished activity. Any serious IMC player must have prepared extensively for 2021 based on the 2020 scenarios, so I confidently expect a much better outlook for 2021, despite the prevailing pandemic. Lessons have been learnt from last year and these insights should be creatively deployed to ensure a much better outing in 2021.
Do you think PR firms are adjusting easily to the new norm?
The PR sector was impacted by the pandemic which required all stakeholders and major players to review their playbook and reinvent themselves in order to remain relevant. It also provided an excellent opportunity for PR companies to engage in a comprehensive and broad-ranging evaluation of key imperatives and a thorough examination of fundamental practices and operating philosophies. Hopefully, the outcome of all of this should lead to greater standards of stakeholder value now and in the future.
Among all the key decisions you have ever made, which would you say was the best?
Marrying my wife is the best decision I ever made in my life.
It is because the choice of a spouse is the most important decision you could ever make in life.
You said you met your wife when she visited your office as a student of the University of Lagos. What did you find intriguing about your wife when you met her?
My wife is a gorgeous woman, so it was her beauty which first attracted me. Then we became best friends and gist mates, which has been the case for 22 years now. We met when she came to my office at Cadbury, which is one of the reasons I have said that my career at Cadbury really impacted my life. If I didn’t work at Cadbury I would not have met her.
Your children are quite young. Do you sometimes think you should have got married earlier?
I married at the right time to the right person. The children are wonderful by-products of the marriage but not the main reason for the marriage.