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How Kenyan advertising will get its groove back

By | January 31st 2012

By Dominic Murray

Just before nine o’clock news, a television commercial comes on. The advert opens with a celebrated local female musician (let’s call her Celeb) wielding a toilet-cleaning agent as she approaches a house. What follows is one of the "strangest" conversation ever.

Celeb: wait… no there’s no one from that house (knock, knock)

Woman: (feigning surprise) wait! Celeb is that really you? …

This painful to watch TV commercial, is a depiction of a worrying emerging trend in the country’s advertising scene. Creativity is dead. The quality of ads airing on radio and on TV is wanting. One is left wondering what happened to the once vibrant advertising industry.

As an advertising practitioner, I am as guilty as my colleagues of churning out adverts that don’t really meet the threshold of our creative calling. But why is this happening? What exactly ails the advertising industry in the country? To say as is, the creatives in Kenya are sacrificing wit, grace and intelligence in their quest to make the client’s cash register ring.

William Bernbach, the father of modern advertising, must be turning in his grave at some of the commercials in Kenya. This is because he held the view that the consumer is not an idiot who needs to be fooled, lectured or hammered into listening to a products message.

"The truth isn’t the truth until people believe in you; they can’t believe you if they don’t know what you’re saying, and they can’t know what you’re saying if they don’t listen to you, and they won’t listen to you if you’re not interesting, and you won’t be interesting unless you say things imaginatively, originally, freshly," he said.


As creatives, we need to get into the consumers psyche. To do this, we need to get off our offices and hit the streets. Spend more time with mama mboga as we write the next Royco radio commercial, talk to ‘soldier’ at the gate and find out what he looks for in a torch battery before scripting the next Eveready TV commercial, share a drink with a Guinness drinker and find why he swears by his drink before working on the big Guinness campaign.

Because interacting with the consumer is the only way we can understand what their needs really are. In short, creatives need to get consumer insight right before offering a creative solution. But here’s the catch. It’s no longer easy to just have a chat with consumers and find the problems they may be wrestling with.

Consumers can’t tell you what to do. They can tell you about their experiences, and maybe suggest improvements to your idea. But they can’t directly guide the creative process. That’s our job. That is why we must be able to translate the messages we get from the consumer. Because the answer is not lying out in the open, it must be mined. This requires looking beyond what mama mboga says and deriving what motivates her, even when she doesn’t know what that is. It requires connecting those motivations to plausible new creative solutions that will satisfy her needs.

Above all we must believe in local solutions. They always work best. According to a research by Consumer Insight, despite the globalisation trend, with companies enforcing a "one sight, one sound, one brand" strategy, locally conceived and produced advertisements continue to be the most recalled and loved adverts in the country because of their local touch.

Creating new ideas is easy. Making the right connections is hard. But it’s the only way to engage the consumer wittily, gracefully and intelligently. And as Bill Bernbach reminded us, "Advertising doesn’t have to embarrass itself in order to make the cash register ring."

—The writer is a Communications student at the University of Nairobi

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