Kickbacks, lack of professionalism killing PR and advertising

Through roadside billboards, companies spend large sums on advertising. Photo by Faiswal Kasirye.

What you need to know:

Uganda’s advertising and public relations industry has been registering good progress but there is a big elephant in the room- unprofessionalism - and needs to be addressed. Jonathan Adengo spoke to players who presented their thoughts in regard to the challenge.

Blogger, advertising executive and secretary general of Uganda Advertising Association, Andersen Nada, kicked up a social media storm after she blogged an article roughing up the unprofessionalism in sections of the advertising and communications industry.
Nada wrote: “I am not going to be popular once this post is out in the open. But honestly, I do not care.”
Indeed hers had been a carefully thought out piece seeking “to document this moment in time as – hopefully – a starting point of an uphill task – building an honest, creative and result-producing advertising and communications scene in Uganda.”

The Star Leo managing director, one of Uganda’s oldest advertising firms, is at a vantage point and knows more than a little of what takes place in an industry that is controlled by third party contractors splashing billions of shillings on advertising, publicity and brand building.
Advertising and communication is massive business patronised by some of Uganda’s high end spenders such as telecoms, beer and beverage companies and banks, among others.

In there, some agencies handle both public relations and advertising but others specialise in one of the two.
It is a large industry involving media buying, publicity, brand activation and image building among other roles.
But amid all this, according to Nada, is an industry skidding off the professionalism grid and sucked into a network of kickbacks and bribery, uncompetitive tendencies and sheer lack understanding and appreciation of advertising and communication.
Asked what she exactly meant, Nada said in the deep abyss of bad governance, bad habits and lack of rules and regulations, it was “time we strip off the veneer and reveal the rot that the whole communications industry has been suffering for a very long time”.

The industry, she said, is entangled in a facet that has no beginning and no end in sight but the start is now to unchain it from the claws of dishonesty.
“The vicious circle (sic) is exactly a circle with no apparent beginning, no clear instigator but with everyone sucked in… marketing and communications managers receive envelopes with tokens from suppliers, agencies and media alike. “Media requires facilitation to come for press briefings and events. And the system is deeply entrenched that it’s almost wrong to do any work in a transparent and straight-forward way,” she said via email with a tone of disgust.
Third party advertising and communication is widely built on mutual trust but in there lies the biggest problem, which perhaps forms the core of unprofessionalism that Nada highlights.

“The industry should ideally be based on fair play and merit,” Nada says “unfortunately we do not have any anti-monopoly regulations,” which analysts say forces agencies to bite more than what they can swallow yet losing an account (client) is enough to sink an agency.
In April 2011, ZK Advertising, one of Uganda’s biggest (then) advertising firms, closed after it lost Zain (now Airtel) to Moringa Ogilvy.
ZK had handled Zain’s (and Celtel) publicity and advertising budget for more than 10 years but it could not shield itself against the financial abyss it found itself in.
This background, perhaps could help to explain, according to analysts, the underhand methods that public relations and advertising agencies adopt to win over clients as well as to survive in an industry that has more than 24 known agencies.

Are Ms Nada’s concerns isolated fears or documented facts?
In 2011, Raynold Fritzford, an American researcher and media consultant, was hired by an oil firm, which we shall not mention here because it is not part of the article, to draw a media strategy but his findings as he says “left me with no option but to conclude that the advertising and communications landscape in Uganda is so skewed, lacks the basic tenants of professionalism and has accepted bribery and kickbacks as part of it”.
“It was a painful discovery. It was my second time working in Africa but I could not believe. The rot is deep. It needs a multi-faceted approach,” he said via email, highlighting how a manager of a certain agency, which we could not confirm, offered him $300,000 (Shs1b) to put in a word for his company to win the $1.6m (Shs6b) media and publicity campaign.

“He told me it was routine here. But I was amazed at how he thought I would risk my reputation because of a few dollars. I felt disgusted and never returned to his office.
“It is dangerous. How do you operate such a sensitive industry with no regulation. You cannot leave people to self-regulate. Someone must discipline the high lords,” Fritzford, who has also drawn a communication strategy for a telecom firm in Rwanda, said.
The researcher, who says he spent four months in Uganda seeking to understand the media landscape in order to draw an effective strategy for his client, widely consulted but “I discovered the rot of connivance covered in kickbacks to win favours.”

On his part, Caleb Owino, the Fireworks managing director, admits “corruption and lack of professionalism are twin diseases that afflict both the media and public relations sectors,” but “leaders across the divide need to not only provide professional training but also moral guidance … and clear cut codes of conduct and mechanism for self-regulation to bring sanity to an otherwise noble profession.”
However, Owino says there is need to streamline the industry’s pay even as he is quick to acknowledge that “pay alone may not deter bribery”, as the social pressure to show success for young professionals lacks role models to emulate but “I know a number of professionals in this market that have attained their success like the crow flies.”

Is it a case of exaggeration?
Owino, just like Nada, has had a span in the industry and their concerns could be valid but could be exaggerated in the eyes of Muhereza Kyamutetera, the managing director of Corporate Image.
“Frankly, I do not understand where you get this notion that the public relations (advertising) industry has a bad name and is unprofessional. I want to believe, this is totally unfounded,” he says.
Kyamutetera disagrees with some of Nada’s claims saying: “…communication is a scientific process that involves a series of facets such as research, strategy and execution. Arm-twisting, blackmail, kickbacks and bribery are not among one of the processes.”

However, he acknowledges that unprecedented growth in the sector could have attracted some quarks but “to the contrary, there is more professionalism in the sector compared to 10 years ago.”
“The few incidences of non-professionalism mentioned above, I would say are two-way,” Kyamutetera adds saying: “That said, the industry could do with more training- as there is way too few public relations experts than is actually needed. There is now, more than ever, a need for professional training and certification.”

Andersen Nada on market trends
Bribery and indiscipline in terms of attracting clients (accounts) has become rampant. Is it how the industry has been structured?
Media is the biggest expense within any communication budget and this causes players to become innovative in their persuasion techniques. This is a deep structural problem of our industry.
How would you rate Uganda’s PR professional conduct and that of other countries?
I believe we lack perspective and our horizons are very narrow.

What would you suggest can be done to give the communications industry the clean name it deserves?
We are already making decisive steps towards self-regulation. We have PRAU which is a very strong association and very determined to educate and groom members. We have Uganda Advertisers Association which is growing its membership and setting up rules and regulations for members in order to self-regulate.


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