A successful entrepreneur in the advertising and media agency space, Dawn Rowlands’ career was built on pioneering new markets. She is now keenly eyeing Nigeria and says having the conviction to go on is most important for her.
Nigeria’s advertising and media market is on the cusp of growth. Newly-affluent consumers, new products and communication channels abound but navigating them with a clear marketing and media strategy remains a major challenge. Two things that are not lacking though are enthusiasm and innovation within the Nigerian creative industry and it’s this nascent market that is the core of Dentsu Aegis’s long-term growth strategy.
Dentsu Aegis is a media agency that builds a communication channel between brands and the people who consume their products and services.
And the woman who is driving the company’s foray into the Nigerian market is Dawn Rowlands.
Rowlands took control of the group in 2010 as Chief Executive Officer and increased revenue and staff at the company by 200% within two years. Her key focus now is expanding the group’s reach into Africa with a focus on West Africa’s largest economy.
“The kind of opportunities offered to young creative people by markets like Nigeria is phenomenal,” says Rowlands.
“The South African market is not moving fast enough and consumers here are completely desensitized to the conversations that brands want to have with them. In Nigeria, the market is completely fresh. When banks cold call consumers in Nigeria, they actually want to hear what they have to say. The level of innovation that allows is great!
“There is still a lot of work to be done in getting the quality of communication and content and that is a result of a lack of global exposure and competition. We can get in there and make a big difference,” she adds.
Rowlands’ career was built on pioneering new markets and what she calls “a relentless pursuit” of what she believed is right.
Born in South Africa’s capital Pretoria, Rowlands considered pursuing journalism as a career but was dissuaded by the lack of press freedom in South Africa in the early to mid-1980s. She pursued advertising instead and attended the AAA school of advertising and entered the industry as a creative.
“The industry was a great deal more fun than it is now. People spent more time on building relationships and we had more fun,” she says.
Rowlands’ first job was as a media assistant at a small agency after which she spent two years at media agency Bates Wells before moving on to its larger competitor Ogilvy & Mather in 1991. Her goal was to become a media director by age 26 – a position traditionally occupied by middle-aged men in the early 1990s. True to type, Rowlands became the youngest female media director at Ogilvy.
“I am one of those people that when someone tells you can’t do something, I stick to my guns,” she says, crediting Yvonne Johnston, former International Marketing Council of South Africa and Ogilvy & Mather Group Media Director as her mentor at the company.
Rowlands went independent three years later by founding the first strategy-only agency in South Africa with partners Peter Vogel and Jim Taylor.
“When you pioneer something, it’s hard for people to see your vision. And that’s ok. Having the conviction to go on is the most important,” she says.
The business went on to flourish and was sold to the Tempus Group in 1999 with Rowlands staying on in the company until 2002. She went on to found an agency operating the outdoor advertising space, which at that stage was a largely disorganized market capturing just 3% of total media spend. The business was sold to Aegis, ultimately leading Rowlands to her current position. She says that the agency has allowed her to exercise her entrepreneurial ambitions.
“As an entrepreneur, you want to work with like-minded people and Aegis is very entrepreneurially wired.”
Rowlands was named Business Woman of the Year in 2012 by the Businesswomen’s Association of South Africa; she received a global STEVIE award for Women in Business in 2012 and has served as a judge at Cannes Lions and the Cristal Media Festival Awards.
She lives in Cape Town and is a mother to two teenagers and has been married 16 years.
“My life is my work and my family. I have no hobbies and no time for myself. My family and my work are everything to me,” she says.