CEO/Lead Consultant of Ladybird Ltd, Mrs Olubunmi Oke, is a past president of the Association of Advertising Agencies of Nigeria). She tells CHIMA NWOKOJI, SYLVESTER OKORUWA and SEGUN KASALI her experiences of the two worlds and how it shaped her world.
HOW was your childhood years?
Growing up was a mixed bag. I grew up in the United Kingdom. I was born there and brought to Nigeria when I was eight. When your child grows up in the UK, the orientation and training would be a bit different. You would be open-minded. I would go out to the park and climb trees. My father never for once said a woman should not do this or do that. We didn’t have such stereotype. We were even dealing more with racism. We were taught to be more confident in our own scheme.
We were in an open society in the sense that we were exposed to so many things as young children-different colours, different challenges. My upbringing was much different from an average person, which I didn’t realise for a very long time. But when I came to Nigeria, I experienced what is called culture shock. My parents separated when we came back to Nigeria. I was coming back to a culture that was almost opposite of Nigeria›s. In the UK, you are taught to know your parents’ names in case anything happened, whereas in Nigeria, they would tell you don’t call your mother or father by their names.
That was the first culture shock. The second was in Nigeria, you don’t look at adults in the eye. It means you are rude. But in UK, I was taught to look straight in the eye. All these strange behavioural patterns, which I couldn’t comprehend, made me realise I needed to take a decision that I could think for myself. So, I was brought up to realise that as a child though you may be young, it doesn’t mean you are not intelligent. So, I had to develop a survival mechanism where I could listen to adults.
I won’t argue much because if you do, you are considered rude, but I still did what I wanted to do because I learnt one thing in life, which is, you must satisfy yourself because at the end of the day, you are responsible for your own life. I mean when you are young, you are naive about may be race and responsibility. I would say I understand both cultures very well now. When I got into advertising, I was already familiar with international brands because we grew up with those brands as children. I thought I could bring my exposure into local brands.
You were eight and there was a divorce for you to handle at such an age. How did you do it?
I think that is where parents come in and it is also by the grace of God. I went through a lot of mind-searching because I could analyze things. Also, the environment was different. As a young child, I had never seen red soil in my life. I had never seen palm trees. So, I knew I was in a different environment and I started seeing lizards all over the place, which I had never seen before. That struck me straight away. Having grown up in the UK, I also realised that I could deal with the cold. In those days in the 60s, you could pull your jelly out and it would freeze. You know some things you have to experience before you know what it is really all about. So, what I discovered was that my first shock was really dealing with societal expectation. When I was in Secondary school at Holy Child College in Obalende, the logic was that brilliant students registered for seven subjects and those who were not brilliant did nine.
I was never afraid of challenges, but when it dawned on me that I was very sure I would fail two subjects, I decided it would be wise to concentrate on the seven subjects and dropped the two that would be energy wasting. I tried to explain to those around me but they did not to understand. I dropped the subjects. It took two years, both home and school, to notice that I had dropped the subjects. I notice in Nigeria that we are not very careful. They don’t have eye for details but children can. So, when I saw the loopholes and they asked for my report card, I would say it was on its way. I was staying with aunty then. They were too busy. They won’t be bothered to confirm whether you registered or not. By the time they discovered, two years had passed. By the time they discovered, it was late until they saw the almighty school cert. At that point they now called for a meeting where they asked why I registered for only seven subjects. I said I dropped it since I was in form three. I told them the risk was more if I took nine subjects when I was sure of seven and I didn’t want F9 on my papers. Luckily, I got my seven credits and that was what took me to my «A» levels. I remember everybody telling me I was good at debating and suggested I become a lawyer. I asked how many points I need to become a lawyer.
They said 11. I was ready for that energy because I didn’t really enjoy school because of the way they were teaching us you know all these cramming. I didn’t realise it was a different type of intelligence. I was very visual because I learn a lot by visuals. In fact, all my cousins and siblings used to come first in class. I never came first in class. Maybe out of 33, I would come 32. It tells you human beings are very funny. Since they always tell me I needed to pass to make sure that I become something in life, I said no problem. I just asked for the pass mark. They said 50 per cent. I said no problem, I would score 52, 57 and if I tried, I would score 60 but I won’t even score 45. So, in a way, I could actually make my own decisions. Later, I realised that I was very decisive and could also think out of the box. One day, my husband said everybody saw things from a perspective but I always have different ways of seeing things.
There must be a lot of parental influence somehow
Well, because they allowed me to be myself. Not only is my father well-educated, he decided to enlighten himself. You can go to another person’s country and not imbibe any of the thinking, but my father is a very enlightened person. I remember in those days a white could tell a black lady that look at this black lady and my father would tell me go back and respond to whatever he or she says to you. I would go back and say you too you are a pig you are this you are that. I would fight back, but not necessary physically. So, I grew up with a lot of confidence. My father would tell you how you should do things and not why you should not do it.
What I normally say is that a strong woman is a result of a very caring father that actually takes part in a child’s growing up. In my formative years I was very close to my father. That helped when I came to Nigeria. But for some reasons, their relationship didn’t work out. They remarried, she went her way and that was it. Interestingly enough, I discovered that on my father’s paternal side, my aunt was also a very strict woman. So, I grew up with a few different people, but I was always seen as a stubborn child.
If everybody wants to eat Ogi and I don’t want to, does that make me stubborn? I just have a mind of my own. You shouldn’t be afraid to be labeled what you are not. You must have the courage to say I want to eat cornflakes. What I desire to be in life has nothing to do with what my parents could afford because if I allowed that to determine my achievement in life, I might not have achieved anything. So, that is the same principle I grew up with. There’s also a father in heaven that could provide for me. I could win a scholarship. That was the mindset I had. That your parents are rich does not make you rich. They are running their own lives.
You sure have memories of the yesteryears.
I really did not like the fact that my parents were separated, so I used to pray to God that I won’t have the experience and my children too. I give God the glory for He has been very faithful. At least, I have been married for 30 years. I’ve crossed silver medal and working towards gold (laughs). It was really in my heart that there are more disadvantages than advantages of children not growing up with their parents if you ask me. That is not to say that it is bad. What I have learnt is that some people are even better off not growing up with their parents because some parents will spoil the child to the extent that they become incapacitated, whereas it is the challenges that make champions. Another advantage is that it made me have empathy. I could understand when I see other children from the broken homes. It helped me to understand brands of both local and international and because of that, I always try to compare and contrast. What is strange is that my mind is like that of a European, but my body is very Nigerian.
I have been influenced by a lot of different things, especially when I was in the University of Lagos. I learnt what is called determination. I just put my mind on what I wanted to do and do it very well. I will give you an example. I was never a sport person but in Unilag, if you do sports, they would give you accommodation. I did my analysis of which sport I could do so I decided to join the Judo class. I won a medal but my objective was accommodation and I got one.
Does any of your children think like you?
I always pray that none of my children should take after me. I want them to be themselves. That’s one thing I always tell them, even as a twin because people will always compare them in life. My prayer is always that my children will be greater than myself in whatever field they choose. The only thing I would say that they have appreciated is they have understood the need for cleanliness, orderliness, how it makes you get ahead in life. They realise there is a lot of hard work that goes into career, building life and the determination to do what you want to do.
What is the greatest lesson you taught them?
I will give you the story of my two sons. My son got into what he is doing now purely on his own merit in the UK. As a career woman, I didn’t realise how much I have used my children as guinea pigs. What I mean by guinea pig is by exposing them to my world because you are a mother. That is why they say if you empower a woman, she will empower her family. Everything I did, everywhere I went, they knew about my story. By the time I came back from work, I would come with a new brand and ask them what brand it is. I would use them, test them and tell them we could only use that brand in the house. They get to know why. They also followed me to meetings all over the world.
Hope they didn›t find you too tough
In fact, anytime I see them now, they keep thanking me. At the beginning they didn’t understand, but they do now. Those are the best things when they come back to say thank you. I remember one Christmas. They came back and they just started working. They brought a lovely perfume. I found out it wasn’t cheap and I said; well, for them to be doing this, it is working. There was a day, years back, I saw them going to see their girlfriends. They had brought some bags wrapped. They said mummy what do you think about this. I said to myself; yes now you are learning. Don’t just give woman anything anyhow and you don’t say you don’t know. I told them you must pamper a lady. Let her feel good and nice. Women should bring up the men that they want to have in their society. My sons are very outspoken and open-minded because that is my style and that is the way I was brought up.
Do you eat local foods?
I do if I have to because I didn’t grow up with amala and ewedu. I am cosmopolitan, but I didn’t realize that for a long time. Out of my three siblings, I seem to be the worse because if I go abroad, I eat foreign foods. But the greatest thing I learnt growing up was the ability to adapt. I believe you should be able to dine with the pauper and with the king. What it means is that if the food is spread on the table, I can adjust. It doesn’t mean I will get there and say I am not eating the food.
Any of yours in the advertising profession?
Interestingly, one of my twin sons actually works with an advertising company in the UK at the moment. The other one studied Photojournalism for real estate. In a funny way, I would say yes but no and nobody else. Digital advertising is different. We pretty much share ideas and we can keep each other abreast of issues.
You talk like a due process woman
Of course, yes. I would take pride in being known as madam due process because it is due process that makes the world goes round. In Nigeria, the reason why we don’t follow due process is that many people benefit from no-due process.
What has advertising done for you?
Advertising and Marketing is a profession I fell in love with. After I studied Integrated Social Science in the University of Lagos in 1985, I actually wanted to be a journalist. I looked for a job but I couldn’t get one. I now went into Marketing Communication, which was then called Advertising. The rest is history.
What is the story of your romance and marriage?
Luckily, I have always believed in being a rounded person. I have always believed that if people don’t find you attractive, you should see it as a problem and I have no problem with people toasting you as a young woman. You should even actually prepare for people to toast you because if people don’t toast you, that means you are not attractive. But I believe a woman should deal with her different attractive mechanisms. I have learnt to choose while the ovation is highest. There will be a time men will be flocking your way not necessarily because you are the most beautiful, but because you are at that stage where you are an attractive young woman. You don’t wait until 45 and then make it a prayer point. Women have best-before date just like men, so why do you want to wait for best-before date? You are going to make it harder for yourself, so, why don’t you be practical? I met my husband when I was 20 going 21, but I got married at 24 going to 25. I don’t think it was early and I don’t think it was late. I think it was just at the right time. I had made up my mind that I wanted to get married.
I always believe in companionship. What I had to adjust was the delusion of what your husband would be like. I met my husband through a friend at a friend’s birthday at the university. We were four friends. Out of the four of us, three had a set of twins. They had told him that there was a friend of theirs and my friend resumed to have her 21st birthday party. He knew this lady will be here and they told him that if he was not going to be serious, he should not meet this lady. I had no clue about that. Anyway, he came to the party but I had met him at another party because he had studied abroad and came back. But when he asked me if we had met before, I said no.
You know we women know how to play hard to get. I knew I had met him before. He saw a picture with my friends and showed it to me. As God would have it, we got serious and we eventually got married. But do you know the interesting part? We have been looking for the person who introduced us for the past 20 something years now but we haven’t seen the person. That friend just disappeared. We don’t know where he (Dayo) is. He became born-again at a point. One of the intrigues when I was in Unilag was that you have to be brave to come out during the day time and he did. I was like, this man must be really serious because for you to come into Moremi Hall where everyone would see you.
In those days, you had to be sure of yourself before you came out. I felt he was a gentleman and we were both time-conscious. He always came in his Mercedes but I always made it clear to him that it was his mother’s car. Whenever he took me out, he would take a basket. I would say, whao for a man to do this, how considerate and organised. I was really moved by this first impression. I didn’t know it was drama, serious packaging and I felt for it hook, line and sinker. On a more serious note, I found out that I have been blessed with a man who is a very open-minded person. He is very encouraging. Not every woman has such opportunity. He believes his woman is a reflection of who he is. If my husband has one car, he would say you take the car and I would take the bus.