Bharat Thakrar, a Kenyan national, is the founder and CEO OF WPP Scangroup, East Africa’s largest Integrated Marketing Communications company. In 1982, Thakrar founded Scanad, his first advertising agency, and through a blend of organic growth and acquisitions, built it into Scangroup, an African marketing communications behemoth that is listed on the Nairobi Stock Exchange and has a market capitalization of more than $70 million.
In 2013, Thakrar, 63, and other shareholders ceded a controlling stake in the business to WPP, a British multinational advertising and public relations company. Scangroup subsequently rebranded to WPP Scangroup. Thakrar still remains the company’s CEO and the largest individual shareholder.
He recently recounted to me how he got started in the advertising business and mused on the future of the industry.
Walk me through the story of how you got started in the advertising business.
I was born when Nairobi was still referred to as ‘the green city in the sun’. The city was much greener with a lot less people. Traffic flowed, allowing you to easily move from one end of the town to the other in less than 10 minutes. Life was less complicated and the media was not as sophisticated.
I began my formal education during the colonial period when the European, Asian and African children went to segregated schools. Highridge Primary School where I went served the Asian community but it was not well funded by the government and lacked library facility making us take a bus to the McMillan Library or the Nairobi Museum to conduct our research.
My exposure to the advertising industry began with my father quite early in my life. He was commercial director at Skyline Advertising Agency, the largest advertising agency in Kenya at the time. I remember accompanying him to work where he would put me in an empty office to study in preparation for my Certificate for Primary Education (CPE) examinations. Whenever I got tired of reading, I would sneak to the studio on 5th floor and watch in fascination as artists created advertisement letterings by hand. Soon, I picked up on this skill and began to create my own scribbling.
I was a naughty boy and as a disciplinary measure, my father decided to send me to boarding school in India for my secondary education. While there, I got involved with producing a monthly newsletter, became film-secretary with the duty of availing bi-monthly movies for the students. However, while exploiting my creative side I also excelled in electronics. Combining these two qualities allowed me to create colorful posters that highlighted the upcoming screenings for the school notice board thus heightening their anticipation. I had discovered my passion – to communicate a story through pictures and words.
I later returned to Kenya to complete my advanced certificate (‘A’ levels). I majored in Physics, Chemistry and Biology because my father’s wish was that I pursue medicine in the United States of America. While waiting for the high school results I obtained a temporary position at my father’s agency to keep me occupied. My first project, a market research was exciting and I surpassed the agency’s expectations. They spotted my potential and convinced my father to shelve the idea of sending a 19-year-old to a foreign country. They may have foreseen that I would one day be very successful in advertising.
My working career kicked off with an account executive trainee position on the Colgate-Palmolive account at Skyline where I was promoted to account director within a year. Unfortunately, soon after the company closed its operations and I moved to another agency called Advertising Associates which was later bought over by McCann Erickson where I handled the East African Industries (Unilever) account. We launched Close-Up toothpaste, Blue band and Royco Mchuzi Mix products. Back then; all media planning and buying had to be carried out with meticulous precision as there were no computers, special media departments or production departments. Those formidable years working for these companies became my training ground. Sadly, my bubble bust when I was overlooked for a much deserved promotion at McCann that I was well qualified. I resigned and left to start my own business with a friend.
Our company produced, distributed and marketed sundry food products. However, in less than two years, I was burnt out because I did not really enjoy the work. We agreed that my partner (who later became my brother-in law) would proceed while I left to start SCANAD in 1982.
I established SCANAD alone and declared it open for business without a single client. It was a one-man show as I held all the positions from accountant to media manager. I pushed and believed that at the end of the day the final creative product was more important in a business. I rocked into the office at 7:15 am and left around 11 pm every day, except on Sunday.
Entrepreneurs are people who have the natural ability to seek opportunities that will lead them to excel. They tend to start small by running a hands-on business and then grow gradually by replicating the lessons learnt and applying proven principles. This is the story of my journey I established a small agency and grew it into a formidable agency. Thereafter, I established a second agency which turned out to be a fine agency and replicated the venture in Tanzania and Uganda.
I provide leadership and mentorship as part of the employment package when they join my agencies. As a hands-on business owner, I teach them to become leaders and also reward them when they do well. Producing outstanding work is fundamental to any successful business and without a good team this cannot be achieved.
What has been your most gratifying experience as head of WPP Scangroup?
Scangroup’s listing on the Nairobi Stock Exchange (NSE) is undoubtedly the most gratifying moment in my professional life. The company now belongs to twenty something thousand other people. It feels delightful to share the good tidings and watch others enjoy and benefit from a venture I established.
I believe that had I been to university, I would have accomplished this feat ten year earlier because a formal education would have provided the intellectual skill set that I eventually developed much later. I believe that under and post-graduation university education is vital today because its gives your mind the discipline in thinking. In hindsight, I should have taken an undergraduate degree in economics before pursuing advertising. This is what precipitated my decision to take a management training course at Harvard University in the US in an effort to fill the intellectual gap.
Is Kenya an easy place to do business?
Kenya is currently sitting in a good place as one of the more stable countries in Africa. We are better skilled with an enabling environment despite the political scenario. I will give the politicians marks for maintaining relative stability in-spite of all they continue to do. The political situation has been the cornerstone of our prosperity thus giving us an edge over all other African countries. Most of our multi-national pan-African clients have regional offices in Nairobi they include Coca-Cola, Nestle, Airtel among others. With Kenya’s fabulous weather and great people, Nairobi is en-route to becoming the financial capital of Africa and I cannot help but feel optimistic.
The upcoming generation may not understand historical significances of the current dynamics in politics like the older people but there is an undeniable sparkle in their eyes when it comes to capitalism. They have extraordinary commitment, great enthusiasm and inexhaustible energy that always amazes me. However, this is not limited to Kenya because it is happening all across Africa. We refer to them as the “Afro-optimists”. They are optimistic, have global exposure, are better versed with the digital media and are determined to succeed. It comes naturally to them and they form the back-bone of the majority who are the under 16 sub-Saharan Africans. This is why mentorship programs are a necessity. These young people have to be developed for the continent to progress.
Our civil society is growing by the day, maybe not as fast but we are headed in the right direction. The private sector must ensure that they create employment opportunities. Frustration due to unemployment leads to an instable social structure. Coffee farming used to be lucrative, but today no one wants to farm. Nowadays, it is not the thing to do. Cash crop farming was once a lucrative venture but no one wants to invest in farming anymore. We need to revive Agriculture in Kenya and Africa.
What would you want to be remembered for?
It would be an honor to be remembered as one who made a difference in the Kenyan advertising industry. I believe that I have transcended the impossible. Twenty years ago, no one could have imagined that I would succeed in my endeavor. It is no rocket science as determination, will power, honesty and sincerity is all you require. You also need to clear focus, work hard, a good team and a supportive family. You cannot do it alone.
What do you see in the immediate future of the advertising business globally?
The Advertising business as it is will cease to exist – the consumer decision journey as we know it has changed. Advertising is now competing with ‘User Generated Content’ (UGC) and brand communication is being controlled by user. All this because of the format of content consumption is now the mobile phone. So the brand needs to take advantage of this reality and for advertising to work it has to disappear. We have to instead create content that is cause-worthy, useful and entertaining. We have to use powerful storytelling to break the traditional dichotomy between thematic and tactical advertising. Today consumer brand interactions happen across multiple touch points and we have to leverage technology to create seamless and contextual brand messaging.
What has been your most memorable/successful advertising campaign till date?
Several, in the early days of SCANAD (late 80’s and 90’s), Rally Gum, Fiat Uno, Princess Patra, Knorr Soup, National Bank – Bank of the Vision, Trade Bank – (around mid to late 2000) for Tusker Milleli, Kenya Airways – Premier World (early 2010) Niko Na Safaricom, and most recently, ‘Stori ibambe’, ‘Never miss a moment’ and ‘This is my Kenya’ campaigns for Safaricom and several other campaigns produced for Coca-Cola, Unilever and Airtel for the region.
How do you unwind?
I am a happily married family man with two adult children. I focus on my family and professional lives conducting each with utmost privacy. I chose to minimize my involvement with unnecessary activities and refrain from attending many high-profile functions. I believe in humility because we should never make ourselves larger than life. When we lack wisdom our ego may get inflated which is a grievous mistake. We should strive to remain grounded.
We should use any free-time to ‘recharge our batteries’ because business the amount of attention required may drain you. The core qualities for success include, focusing on one venture, Sincerity and Honesty to everyone including yourself, Humility and Respect, Hard-Work and passion for what your work.
I am very hands on like all entrepreneurs, but also give latitude to me people. My greatest strength is to inspire and motivate and the ability to get the best out of people.
How do you account for your own success?
As the great Bhagavad Gita says – Focus on your strengths and the rewards will follow!