[INTERVIEW] Sean Riley, CEO of Ad Dynamo Speaks on Developing Digital Ads Talent in Nigeria; Twitter Ban – TechEconomy Nigeria – TechEconomy.ng

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“So, we need brands to understand that better creative delivers better results; distinguishes your brand from competitors, helps you to stand out. And so as brands adopt that change in perception it will grow the creative part of the industry”
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Nigeria is not new to Ad Dynamo. The company proudly set its feet on the ground in Lagos from as early as 2011. Obviously this is when Ad Dynamo was around as an ad network, and Nigeria was a really big successful market for them. One of the big evolutions of the business, of course, was moving towards exclusive representation of partners such as Twitter, Snapchat, Spotify, Yahoo and that fundamentally changed the business.
There was a setback in 2021. We all know that Twitter was shut-down for 9-months in Nigeria, which caused Ad Dynamo a bit of momentum. But it’s back to business as usual. The company is growing rapidly in Nigeria and we dare to say that Ad Dynamo is finally giving a very large market the level of investment that it demands.
In a request Q&A Session, Sean Riley, CEO of Ad Dynamo gave some insights into the company’s acquisition, skills development, the digital ad market in Nigeria and future trends.
Excerpt:
Please, speak more about the recent acquisition of Ad Dynamo by Aleph Group, and the free digital academy launched in Nigeria:
Okay great. So we’re very excited to be a part of the Aleph family. I would say one of the really important points to highlight behind this is that we have known the senior leadership team at Aleph for many years. Interacting with the guys for 7 to 8 years. We know each other really well, which has made transitioning into the Aleph family a very smooth process for us, and knowing each well makes that so much easier.
Gaston Taratuta, the Founder of Aleph, is very passionate about global education and feels that what is really going to accelerate growth across all emerging markets, is by closing skills-gap, by introducing more career opportunities to young individuals across all emerging markets. Nigeria is really key in that regard.
To explain how important Nigeria is to Aleph worldwide in terms of extending its training program, Digital Ad Experts, Nigeria is the first market where an English version of the product has been made available. Aleph began where its roots are, Latin America, and Nigeria is the first market outside of Latin America where we’ve opened it up for local candidates.

Digital Ads Nigeria

Maybe if I can talk to the Ad Expert for a minute, because it’s not always that clear. I think the website is being refined a little to make the opportunity clearer to individuals. There’s a lot of free training on the site that anyone can just register and complete free of charge at any time. And you can slowly but surely complete a comprehensive set of tools in digital advertising. But then we also have the online ad degree, a more formal process that takes three months to complete and this is peer-to-peer learning. There’s a dedicated instructor who guides all Nigerian students through the process.
The goal is train 500 students at a time. There are two very different elements. The one is everyday opportunities where you can log-on and complete courses, and then there’s the other one the online Ad Degree.

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Something very important about the online Ad Degree is that Snapchat and Twitter have invested in Aleph. So a part of the process is that you receive a Twitter Certification, you receive a Snapchat Certification as a part of the process. So really for an individual there are a lot of certifications that you gather by going through that process.
How are you navigating the current market given all the challenges that some brands are facing, particularly Twitter?
If we look at our current growth in Nigeria, we had two dedicated people in Lagos at the start of the year, as of today we have 14 dedicated people representing us in Lagos. And, of course, they are supported by a larger team of dedicated people in either Nairobi or JHB or Cape Town that help to support the Nigerian market. I can’t disclose numbers but I can tell you what’s been interesting for us – Nigeria has been a tricky market over the past decade. It’s the one market that breaks so many rules where we’d have a great quarter then we learnt the hard way with Nigeria that one good quarter means nothing for the next quarter.
It’s been a bit of a lottery on a day-to-day basis, but over the past three years we have kind of seen the market mature, a lot of predictability coming into that. So, we started to see straight line growth, quarter-after-quarter in Nigeria regardless of what we’ve been seeing in world circumstances.

Sean Riley CEO AD DYNAMO Speaks on Developing Digital Talent in Nigeria (2)

As a direct answer to your question; financial markets are depressed but we’ve seen that digital advertising often proposers in tough times. It’s the most measurable form of advertising. It’s where advertisers go where they start counting dollars or Naira and make every investment count. So, we’ve the whole COVID period for us as a business, we were fortunate to achieve growth despite a massive global pandemic.

On Twitter – they’ve been through good times and tough times. This is not the first tough chapter in Twitter’s existence. But we like to believe that advertisers will go to where they see value. And yes we have a bit of a side show right at night with management and Elon Musk but for now it’s business as usual, and as long as Twitter continues to deliver value to advertisers that’s the most important thing.
You mentioned that Nigeria is supposed to be the first place English version of Ad Experts was launched. Was it based on research? Also the gap you are trying to bridge; I’d like to know the gap?
I think what we’ve seen entering the market is a development – I think it would be very arrogant to say that Aleph is going to come and close a skills gap in any market. Aleph wants to be a part of skilling up more resources in the local market. But even without Aleph, and without our efforts on Digital Ad Experts we’ve observed a rapid decline of the skills set.
Digital advertising world is all about skills available. Anyone can load 100 dollars on any platform and spend it, but optimizing that and building great creative, are all critical attributes to achieving performance. We’ve seen that skillset develop in Nigeria.
And I think the easiest way of assessing that skillset is assessing the caliber of the people we are busy hiring. And the caliber of the people we are finding on the ground has been exceptional. If I think back 10 years ago to today, we think that the team in Nigeria is world class and can hold their own compared to any other market. I think we can put all frills on it, but we are a sales business and the one area we need to get better in Nigeria is (and this is not exclusive to Nigeria, it’s the way in very many of markets we operate in), but I still think it’s an environment to achieve good sales results with relationships.
This is an important part of it, but at the same time you have to get to the point where you are achieving results because you are delivering value. If you are showing compelling results and a compelling outcome it shouldn’t matter if we are best mates or not. That is still a transition that we are busy seeing but we are seeing that transition. We are also seeing brands and agencies maturing a lot. In my last visit we had a lot of big brands stating  that one of their KPIs is to pay their suppliers within 7 days…
As a follow up on that question, skills development is key; but are you seeing brands in Nigeria are able to absorb some of these skills because recently a lot of young people are eager to relocate abroad in search of better placements?

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We are absolutely seeing that trend. I think that what reinforces that for us is that brands are owning the shortfall a lot more openly. A lot of brands are recognizing the gap, whereas a few years ago brands would pretend there was no gap because they felt out of their depth or threatened by a fast changing world. I think all markets are going to have that challenge, not only Nigeria, of young talent wanting to cast their wings and go on an adventure abroad.

Sean Riley CEO AD DYNAMO Speaks on Developing Digital Talent in Nigeria (2)

I think after time a lot of that young talent comes back. A great illustration for me is that if I were to pull out our top 30 clients from 10 years ago to today at least 30% of our top 10 clients didn’t even exist 10 years ago. Which shows us that the change happening in Nigeria is fast. I think that talking about skill, a part of it is not only skill but attitude, for example in a market like UK it’s not unusual for a brand to spend 30 to 35% of total budget on amazing creative. In most African territories brands treat creative as an afterthought, and if they spend 1 or 2% of the total budget towards creative that’s a lot.
So, we need brands to understand that better creative delivers better results; distinguishes your brand from competitors, helps you to stand out. And so as brands adopt that change in perception it will grow the creative part of the industry. When we talk about digital, everyone focuses on numbers and metrics and the hard mathematical numerical part of the role, but creativity is a critical role to the development of the market.
You mentioned the Digital Ad Academy you recently launched. Are there special considerations before people are accepted? And where do you see social media space in terms of brand advertising in the next two to three years, as we know everyone is advertising on social media. Also, how are tackling the challenges in the market?
For digital ad experts, the only criteria are a willingness to learn. We have a belief that most young school leavers are a target audience, but someone could be in their early 40s or any stage of life and decide they want a more comprehensive knowledge of digital marketing so one of the criteria is anyone with an appetite. And we measure that appetite by asking candidates to complete a short bit of pre-work and the ability to devote the hour to pre-work and demonstrate an aptitude.

In terms of social evolution, and where brand advertising is going – part of me immediately goes to Augmented Reality – looking at Snap Lenses, Instagram Lenses, TikTok, augmented reality has become such a part of brand advertising. When we talk about snapchat the metrics are very different we don’t look at clicks, we look at playtime.
With lens it’s not a banner that someone saw by accident, it’s a lens that someone chose to engage, make a video of themselves, share with friends, on snap off snap, and same with TikTok or with Instagram Lenses.

In Nigeria, for example a brand with a lens generates two years of playtime in a single day, which is a lot if you compare it to TV views, YouTube or any other video. But at the same time, it’s really important to say that different brands have different target audiences, different objectives. I am a big believer that each brand has to go hunt for its sweet spot, based on who your audience is, where they are in the purchase cycle, and what you are trying to achieve. If you are asking for a trend, it’s that brands are going to choose less social platforms and try to excel at them rather than try to be present across all of them.

Expensive data: Nigeria is comparatively cheap to many African territories. But something all our partners have done with local telcos is to do zero-rated deals, where we pick up data costs on behalf of the user. But a lot of those deals have not been promoted well enough to the local market. We have not told Nigeria that you can use Twitter free of charge on this network, as an example. This is something we realise we can be better at.
How would you rate Nigeria as a business friendly environment in Africa? How much are you committing to training young Nigerians? And lastly, as an advertiser you have been here for 10 years, the issue of Twitter ban is still controversial, how much did you lose to the Twitter ban in Nigeria?
How friendly is Nigeria in the context of Africa; it has progressed to be reasonably easy. In the past we have found getting a single answer on tax, or on various elements has been tricky to get clear guidance on how to go about operating but this has improved a lot.
Bizarrely, Ghana loves to believe that they are the best in West Africa, and we have found the hurdles have been much bigger than Nigeria.
Obviously, the Naira-dollar issue that is ongoing has been costly to us at times. Many years ago the government formally linked the naira to the dollar overnight, we lost 50 percent of our cash in one minute; that was irrecoverable.
So the naira-dollar exposure has been an ongoing issue. But we’ve also seen partners such as Twitter, that opened up local billing in naira which has started removing that risk for local businesses, and really we believe if you’re in Nigeria you should be working (earning) in naira; you don’t go to another market and force them to pay in dollars, but the exposure that the naira presents does make that tricky. However, we’ve started to see more stability; we’re comfortable doing business in Nigeria.

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In terms of the training. Aleph has a dedicated team running digital ad experts. Their goal is to skill 8000 Nigerians. That’s an ambitious goal. We’ve seen a strong uptake and we’re comfortable we’ll see that. We know that digital ad experts take a lot of effort, as you know the industry moves fast and changes fast, so maintaining current content, adding new platforms as they emerge is a never ending task so the work will never be complete.
The twitter ban: Obviously, a market that we’ve been operating from, 10 years of steady growth to zero income over the course of 9 months was a hit, but the biggest loss to us was the loss of talent.

We were busy building out a dedicated Twitter sales team in Lagos and we lost a lot of talent because of that, and we had to restart that process once they switched on. For us, the loss of talent was the thing that hurt us more than revenue if we look back over that tricky time.
Somehow controversial: so, recently we’ve seen digital platforms having their headquarters in Ghana, as a company where would you choose to be – what’s your preferred destination?
That is a controversial question (smiles). Maybe we should step back and recognize that when we look at the market where we want to be present in Africa, it’s not driven by which market we prefer or where we think the biggest opportunity is. It’s also driven by the existing partners we happen to represent.
For example, we have no platforms that are strong in French speaking countries within Africa, and it doesn’t mean that we don’t believe there’s a big opportunity but you have to follow the markets that have the biggest audiences on those platforms as you have to go somewhere where you have something to sell. So for now I would say that it would be tricky one for us to choose. I would say, one challenge that could prevent us from putting all our eggs into Nigeria tomorrow, by having a central operation out of Nigeria would actually be the ease of traveling in and out of Lagos.

Digital Ads in Nigeria

It’s not easy and it takes a lot of time to go through that airport, compared to many other airports in Arica. One of the logistical challenges to us placing a central office that serves much of Africa in Nigeria would be the airport and the ability to travel more freely.
I think there are a lot of options for young Nigerians out there, a lot of other training for soft skills, Java, coding etc., the challenge with applying digital skills is that’s easier for you to get a job to become a software developer faster that you can become a digital ads manager. Do you offer the trainees opportunity for somewhere to practice upon completion of the training?
So, on the training – it’s a good point, software developers are in great demand. Part of our vision is to help place those candidates that complete the online ad degree. We recognize that there’s no point in building talent and not helping them find employment. So part of what we hope to do is complete the ecosystem by connecting that talent to our customers and the agencies we work with in Nigeria and abroad. Aleph operates across 90 different countries worldwide, so there are opportunities to place some of the talent in Nigeria but for a foreign advertiser looking for local knowledge and competence with ability to help manage digital campaigns in Nigeria. We feel that the aleph network is large enough to assist a lot of new talent coming into the market.
An important factor on our role in the market, we never seek to – in some cases we’ll service advertisers directly, in other cases we will work with an agency and in some cases we work with an advertiser and the agency to achieve the best outcome, but we’re not an agency and our role and our mandate from each of our partners is to be an extension of them on the ground.
When it comes to end-to-end solution, we do have comprehensive solutions, Aleph has a strong global performance team, but that team will always look at working with agencies or brands to achieve the right outcomes. But our role when talking about end-to-end solutions is to help give you seamless access into Twitter, Spotify or any other platform that we represent at the same standard if you would enjoy if at their HQ in New York or San Francisco. We see our role as a facilitator of best practice and a facilitator of access. And of course everything we do is fully transparent, we don’t charge a markup, what you see on Twitter’s ads dashboard is what we would bill you, we don’t charge our customers in Nigeria for a service; we are paid by our partners to provide that.

Local market data is your next question, it’s a shared frustration for you and for us and many other clients in Nigeria and many other clients in other markets. So you know each of our partners goes through stages of being more or less free with their data, but what I can tell you is that our job is to answer those questions that you may have, so any client in Nigeria that has a challenge with data, or has a challenge in understanding how big is this demographic, how would I reach them, what are their behaviour it’s our job to surface that data and disclose it. We have always been prohibited from disclosing this publicly, I can’t tell you why, but those are the rules of engagement that we are given by the partners that we represent.  But we can walk into a room and confidentially tell you how big a certain demographic is and we can source that data for you.
What is the volume of your business in Nigeria?

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We can’t really disclose our numbers but I can tell you it’s a sizable multimillion dollar business, so it’s noteworthy for us as a group. I think when I look at my time in Lagos, and my first arrival being fascinated by everyone in the middle of the busy roads, paying vendors to rent one page from a newspaper and read the news with the sports page; and the news page with front page headline coming at a premium and the others being so much cheaper, and you go through the streets now and those guys are no longer in business, that shows you a rapidly digitising world in Nigeria.

Obviously Nigeria has the benefit of massive scale, so even though there’s a large population that is not digitized yet, the there is a part of the population that makes it a noteworthy market already. I think a lot of the platforms we work with, and in fact an important truth about social media, is that influence is very often not one-to-one, it’s one-to-many.
So if you are reaching one person who is a digitally connected person in a household, and the rest of the household is not digitally connected you are still influencing everyone in the household. Twitter especially, because news breaks faster, you go to find out what’s happening in the world around you. People on Twitter tend to be early adopters, so if you can reach one Twitter user in a household you tend to influence that entire household, so for us it’s not the power of one-to-one it’s one to many.
In May 2019 the U.S. wanted to separate advertising from the big tech companies, and the UK also looked at separating citing anti-trust concerns. Do you think that the future of digital advertising separating and outsourcing is better than companies running it themselves?
That’s a difficult question to answer. All I can say is that there has been evidence over years of big tech companies exploiting their access to data. Which I think can make competition very unfair and so any oversight that makes the environment equally competitive to all is welcome but I don’t have an answer to that very difficult question for you. What I can say is there absolutely is an issue that needs to be addressed.
In the last 10 years of doing business in Nigeria, what have been your biggest challenge, your wins and your milestones?
In the early years, the biggest challenge was local talent. We are measured and scared by our partners and our ability to represent them effectively. It doesn’t mean that Nigeria changed much, it could mean that we have changed. Because at the stage of your lifecycle when you’re an employer you attract different talent when you’re an ad network that competes with Google you’re a-nobody, and your pool of talent is smaller than you can hire from. When we look at Aleph and Ad Dynamo these days, people don’t work for us because they love Ad Dynamo they love the brands that we represent. When someone applies for a job with Ad Dynamo they’re not applying for Ad Dynamo (per say), they’re applying for Snapchat or Spotify. But our access to talent was limited in the past.

The naira-dollar rates have been a challenge, and it is still a challenge but slightly less of one. In most market it’s normal for an advertiser to be granted credit terms, and in Nigeria it’s no different we like to do that but if we get paid 90 days late and we extended someone credit in naira and we have to pay Twitter in dollars the exposure for us is enormous.
So, finding the compromise between giving local brand the best possible trading terms whilst managing our exposure to the naira-dollar exchange rates and what it does on any given day has been a bit challenge and continues to be a big challenge but we’re getting much better at it
What other plans do you have in respect to expansion in Nigeria? And also what new technology we should expect. You talked about AI, etc. is there anything new we should look out for?
In terms of growth, Aleph represents many partners that Ad Dynamo doesn’t, so we are hoping to bring a few of those to Nigeria. So, you’ll see an enlarged portfolio in the next 6 months. For those of you that don’t know, part of our model for operating is that we’ll never have an employee representing more than one platform.
So, our goal is to represent Twitter in the same standards as Twitter would represent them-selves and the only way we can do that is to have a dedicated Twitter team. So, for each partner we have in Nigeria we build a dedicated team. It is quite a big investment for us when we bring in a new partner; we have to build an entirely new team for that partner.

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In terms of new tech, augmented reality- we assist a lot of brands and agencies in Nigeria with creative; we have a team that can assist. We also have plans to introduce a level of self service offering to small and medium businesses.
We can’t justify a dedicated account manager for clients of all sizes. That’s a challenge, how do we give a level of service to a client on all sizes no matter what they spend so a self-service is something we’d like to bring to market to extend our offer to smaller clients.

Facts & Figures about Digital Advertising in Nigeria

  • Total internet advertising revenue is projected to grow from US$73m in 2018 to US$133m in 2023.
  • Online ad market has seen an unprecedented growth between 2015 and 2018, By 2023, online advertising is forecast to generate US$133m on revenue
  • The market’s largest segment is Video Advertising with a market volume of US$87.61m in 2022.
  • 68% of total digital ad spending will be generated through mobile in 2026.
  • Just recently, Advertising Practitioners Council of Nigeria (APCON now ARCON), the regulatory body responsible for advertising in Nigeria rolled out plans to regulate online advertising in the country in a bid to sanitise the industry and curb inflammatory advertising messages.

Recent Trends about Online Advertising and digital marketing in Nigeria

  • Covid has shifted and accelerated consumer behaviours to online trade channels.
  • The rise of social media apps like TikTok, Instagram and Facebook (Now Meta) is becoming entertainment hotspots for millennials and Gen Zs, turning more people to social media influencers and making them crucial to Nigeria’s advertising industry.
  • Advertising is becoming more data and technology-focused, with advertisers working to integrate some form of artificial intelligence or machine learning into the mix.
  • A Federal Communications commissioner is calling on Apple and Google to remove TikTok from their app stores over concerns that user data from the wildly popular social media platform is being accessed in China.

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