Côte d’Ivoire is back in the committee of nations after post-electoral violence plunged the country into civil war in December 2011. The commodity-rich West African country is the world’s largest cocoa producer and net exporter of crops including coffee, banana and pineapple to the European Union (EU).
Côte d’Ivoire is also a leading agricultural economy with oil deposits. It accounts for 45% of the gross domestic product (GDP) of the eight West African Economic and Monetary Union (UEMOA) countries.
The return to political stability and the economic optimism in the country have been great motivation for corporate high-flyers like Fabrice Sawegnon— Côte d’Ivoire’s brightest spark in advertising and CEO of Voodoo Communication. Now he, along with others, can dream and plan big about expanding enterprises and taking Africa to the next level of economic growth.
It almost did not happen though, for Sawegnon. His company was headed to the scrap-heap, along with many other casualties who also suffered in business, as a result of the post-election uprisings. Voodoo lost about 80% of its revenue in that period. A contract came just in time to avert the demise. The sizable deal was from President Alassane Ouattara’s office for the production of presidential campaign billboards.
“We won the contract to produce billboards during the campaign. The communication strategy deal for President Ouattara continues to date,” said Sawegnon.
Voodoo currently leads the pack in Côte d’Ivoire’s advertising industry with an annual revenue of $20 million. The company is expanding and recently opened offices in Benin, Cameroon, Gabon, Mali and Niger. Another office is due to open in the DRC.
On the day of his interview with FORBES AFRICA, Sawegnon—the pioneer of Afro-centric advertising concepts in Côte d’Ivoire—sits in a plush office fitted with all the décor suited to an executive’s taste. He is ebullient and speaks passionately about advertising. He cuts an image of a CEO on top of his game.
This is a long way from 1999 when, at 28, he set up office determined to be a non-conformist in an industry dominated by Western views and opinions. He used the name ‘voodoo’, derived from fetish cult worship in Benin, to provoke and draw attention.
“I have always been an inveterate entrepreneur. The idea to start my own company came when I was an employee at McCann Erickson. Prior to 1999, the advertising and marketing industry was dominated by Europeans. The name ‘voodoo’ was meant to give a clear African cultural reference point, ostensibly to position the company in the industry. We believe that advertising hinges on two things: technique and cultural bias. Success did not come on a platter,” explained Sawegnon.
Several European advertising firms approached him for partnerships. He turned them down because he believed an Afro-centric ad company should guard its “independence jealously”.
Voodoo has 300 employees across Africa. The thrust of the engine is a crop of enthusiastic creative and artistic employees who, under the leadership of Sawegnon, have powered the company to its current success. Sawegnon, a quintessential ‘local’ breed businessman, is giving the multinational advertising giants, such as McCann Erickson, a run for their money. Voodoo holds big accounts such as France Telecom (Orange)—which operates both fixed land lines and mobile telephones in Côte d’Ivoire; Western Union; Castel beer and Attijariwafa bank—a subsidiary of a Moroccan bank.
Work teams are structured to achieve optimal effectiveness. A dedicated team of marketers and creative staff is assigned to each account. Sawegnon said the team approach had helped them to deliver sterling performance to clients across the continent. Adding, “I believe in using raw talent that can be molded to produce the desired results. Talent can be cultivated when the environment is conducive.”
To demonstrate his determined commitment to Africa, Sawegnon recounted how he queried “made in America” ad campaigns that promoted a soft drink company showing white children playing in the snow at Christmas while the target public in Africa did not necessarily identify with the cultural ethos.
“I was told that it was appropriate to show such ads in Africa since experiencing snow was considered to be an aspiration of African youths; and that African people dream of visiting countries that experience snow in winter. Of course, I did not believe a word of that assertion.
“I told my colleagues at Voodoo that if a Chinese firm beat us to the game in Africa, it would be because we had lost our cultural finesse. Foreign companies might have a capital base to play with, but they couldn’t know Africa better than us,” he said.
Sawegnon considers his high work ethic as central to his rise from humble beginnings to a successful entrepreneur. He also received personal satisfaction from seeing his staff enjoy the fruits of their labor, saying, “I feel proud to watch my executives drive sleek cars and living the dream.”
He lives by the philosophy of passion and teamwork. The latter because he believes “a person working alone cannot succeed”. Sawegnon encourages young entrepreneurs to participate in creative ventures, However, he concedes that, “although you need teamwork, you equally require visionary leaders capable to chart the course for the team.”
Sawegnon views the sharing of experiences as one way to encourage entrepreneurs to forge ahead in hard times. He is convinced that there is space for Africa’s emergence. He said that youths needed to “show ambition” and aim to reposition the continent. He believes that there was still hope that talent could still be cultivated and that a new crop of corporate leaders could be developed.
Formidable success in advertising has not been a cause for Sawegnon to take things easy. In 2009, he diversified into publishing, with two magazines titles: Tycoon, a soft sell magazine, and Life magazine, which spotlights Ivorian celebrities.
“Tycoon features profiles of business leaders. It is a qualitative magazine which does not touch on the monetary aspects as this is deemed to be culturally unacceptable in our country. Highlighting values is closer to my heart. I am the publisher but I sometimes write the preface or editorials,” he explained.
Sawegnon also invested in an event management company that specializes in billboard advertising. As if that were not enough, he is poised for his next project: the launch of Côte d’Ivoire’s first television station, Life TV, once the Ivorian government issues audiovisual licenses later this year. The plan is ready for him to branch into private television programming and production in a country ripe for business following 12 years of political and civil strife.
The success he has achieved in business makes Sawegnon more keenly aware of the responsibility to give back.
“Those of us who have succeeded owe it to society to give back, especially towards empowering youth and helping to spur micro development initiatives in Africa. As entrepreneurs, we create wealth through job creation and add value to the microeconomic effort. I sincerely believe that if all of us entrepreneurs played our part, our efforts would snowball into a powerful force that would propel Africa forward.”
Sawegnon is a graduate of the prestigious École Supérieure de Commerce of Abidjan, where he majored in marketing. He joined the ranks of Young & Rubicam in 1994 as product manager at Metallivoire Jal Afrique (roofing materials, roofing sheets and paints).
The battle for the soul of advertising in Côte d’Ivoire is not yet over, but Sawegnon has made his intentions clear—to conquer the country and the rest of Africa.