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INTERVIEW: From selling bread as a graduate to owning a leading marketing agency – Ized Uanikhehi, CEO of Loose Media bares it all

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At the GAGE awards on April 24, 2021, Vbank got a seal of approval as the best digital bank in Nigeria.

Not many will remember that the digital bank was not in existence December 2019 before the lockdown a year ago. But if you are Ized Uanikhehi and your team spearheaded the marketing campaign to launch and manage the brand, you will never forget how everything happened.

You will recall being contacted to help the company’s management to hire a marketing agency, and how you somehow became that agency, you will recall the investors being impressed by your smarts, style and your determination to succeed and urging you to start an agency, you will recall how fate connected you with Don Jazzy to make the most exciting project of your career so far.

However, maintaining success is like being in the middle of the hurricane. And since the launch of Vbank and the agency, Loose Media, Ized has been thrust into a new terrain of being obsessed with getting strategies to put her heavyweight clients at the top of their industries.

She takes a rare break to reflect and explain how she was destined to be here with NewsWireNGR’s Oladele Owodina.

  • What was growing up like for you?

The young Ized was a regular kid mostly considered smart in school. You know when you’re coming  top of your class and people think you’re smart but it wasn’t spectacular for me because I come from a family of smart kids.

My dad was a self-employed agriculturist, he was a businessman and a consultant. He was very involved starting farms around Edo state, and he did a lot of traveling, setting up farms in Kano, Okene, Kogi State and before he would go, he would write his feasibility studies or business plans and he would tell me to type it up for him. I practically learnt my ABCs, spelling and writing, typing with a typewriter before he got a computer. 

Typing up my dad’s business plan and feasibility studies taught me so much that it became my go to when I am broke or in between jobs, I typically fall back on writing business plans for people. I have been known to write really good feasibility studies and business plans that’s going to raise a lot of money. People still come to me even now but it’s just that it is time consuming work and I’m mostly very busy.

  • What was your most memorable childhood experience?

My most memorable experience was being expelled from secondary school. What caused that was embarrassing because it wasn’t even something that bad.

I went to Catholic private school, JSS one to JSS three. It was a really good Catholic school in Benin or just on the outskirts of Benin. It’s still in the top ten in WASSCE results. The school didn’t allow provisions, but my granddad at some point was like the PTA Chairman or something and all the people in school knew me as baba’s child.

It wasn’t a privilege, but I just became the person that people would send to go and buy biscuits or things they wanted, you know they were all contrabands. I was the one who would talk to the site workers, get the money and then they would go and buy it. It wasn’t like they were giving me extra, maybe one or two biscuits, nobody was giving me anything extra but I was helping them to buy it as the middle man.

Then one day somebody saw me and reported me to the principal and for some reasons when they called us to the principal’s office, I should have cried and been remorseful but I just thought it was not important, or wasn’t a big deal and it was one of the reasons I was expelled.

I think the principal came from the US or wherever she came from to become the principal in Nigeria for a bit. She said I wasn’t remorseful when other children were crying; I was just standing there; I didn’t think it was that serious so they suspended all of us and when it was time for me to come back, they didn’t allow me to come back.

So it wasn’t like I did anything bad but I know that it was agbalumo that I didn’t even get a bite out of that caused it. See ehhn, I can’t even tell my children this gist, they must not hear it.

Somehow, I think it changed the trajectory of my life though.

  • Your background was in Biochemistry, how did you find yourself in marketing?

You know what’s weird? A lot of the people that work in this agency and of course other agencies because I’ve actually asked read biochemistry and microbiology. Maybe the opportunities are not out there, I’m not sure why. But a lot of science students end up in the creative world.

Ever since in school I’ve always been what people would call a marketer.

So to be truthful I guess I don’t say it much but I don’t have a “creative talent,” except for telling and writing stories, I am not very talented in things like drawing or singing or being artistic. I have great innovative, creative ideas, but you know those people that create, design and do artistic stuff, or people that can bake fancy cakes, or play a musical instrument, I can’t really do that. 

I however can identify talent when I see one and maximize the opportunities, so right from secondary school I could recognize somebody that could do something that’s nice like creative designs or bake cakes and so I decided to play to my strength- be the middleman, connect buyer to seller and take a commission.

So, I would then start to market their business, talent or services even if It was singing, I would tell them my friend would come and sing at your show, or DJ. I would say my friend is a good DJ, he would come and play at your event, so they’ll pay the DJ N10,000 and I’d take my own profit, we’d share then, it’s not like now that everyone wants to pay only 10-15%, Lol,  then it was like 50-50% because I brought the deal and you did the work.

We didn’t call it marketing then it was just something that I loved to do and I think I was born to sell.

Also, when I was in the university, we were not very rich so my father calculated the pocket money by the number of days you’re spending in school and then gives you a certain amount maybe like N1000 or N1,500 per day multiplied by thirty days.

Instead of directly taking my N45,000 to school and managing N1,500 per day, I would go to the market and I would buy second-hand clothes or a whole full bag of jeans and whatever clothes were reigning at the time. By the time I was going to school, I’d literally be going with like two or three thousand naira but as soon as l start to sell, my N45,000 would be tripled.

It was something that I just did on the side, but I don’t think it was lack of contentment, it was mostly just looking at what I had to get more.

During NYSC, I went to Lagos and bought three (3) Pentium 1 computers with my first allawee as well as allowance from home and started a mini computer school and sold recharge cards.

I made use of every opportunity, I remember when I made over a million after NYSC. I got to Abuja then; at some point, I met this pastor; he worked with the church and this church was selling a huge space that was not too expensive in Katampe, Foursquare church I think. So I offered to help them sell. They told me the price, I marked it up by N200,000, I sold six plots and I made like 1.2 million out of it.

So I learnt making money didn’t necessarily mean I had to do the work, I just had to know who was willing to pay for it and that comes easy to me hence the move.

  • You were once a rookie  you have risen through the ranks to become an executive in the marketing space. Can you tell us things you could have done better over the years?

I am not big on regrets, because I have a tendency to still go back and do the things that I should have done. So I deliberately do not hang on to things I should have done or shouldn’t have done. I also feel like life is a matter of time and as long as you’re still alive you can still do all tomorrow.

But when I started to make money, and I started to grow my business, What I should have done more was collaborations. I’m now old enough to understand the power of codependence – the power of Ubuntu – I am who I am because of who you are. Everyone needs everyone.

I also don’t believe in coincidence; I feel that things happen for reasons and that human beings are codependent beings. We are like the foundation of each other, This life is built on the principle of Ubuntu. When I got into digital marketing, I noticed that a lot of us were working individually, people didn’t like to collaborate, and that affected the growth of the individual and growth of the industry.

When I travelled to the US and I saw the social media marketing space and I thought of what they were doing that we could do in terms of sharing their customer insights as case studies or white papers and how everyone could learn from it instead of repeating the same mistakes.

I think that the reason the digital and tech space here in Nigeria is not growing big as fast as it should is because of this lack of collaboration, I believe in communities as a driving force for growth. I did not collaborate in the early days; I was also one of those people that liked working in silos. So I would advise young people to always collaborate, collaboration is important.

You’re a Nigerian CEO, but we see you making dancing TikTok videos. A Nigerian CEO doing TikTok videos! That is a bit surprising?

I just decided to because I want to, I think the question should be “Do I do my job well?” Yeah. Do I make money for my brands? Yeah. Are my investors happy? Very happy? Does it matter that I’m dancing? Does my dancing online affect my bottom line? No. 

So, I’m seizing the moment, I’m not going to be  un-Ized because it makes other people comfortable. I posted something online one day, I can’t remember; it’s something crazy, and one of my staff actually quoted “It’s a trip for me to call this woman boss every day” like he quoted the tweet on twitter.

Are they happy? Yes. As a matter of fact, we barely have any churn in my office. Is the respect there? Yes, why do I have to be un-Ized because it makes a group of people feel better or it puts me in a box about how a CEO should be. When I’m in my board meetings and I am talking to people I don’t dance, I literally just got out of a meeting with the president of the Transcorp group, like we just finished a meeting on Teams, I didn’t dance in the meeting. When I’m in a meeting, I’m not going to be dancing and I’m sure everything went well.

They are happy with what we presented, and that’s why clients give us the job. In fact, if I go home to dance and I post online, it’s because I’m happy and I want to dance, especially since I don’t know how to dance by the way, so that I got you to watch my bad moves is also marketing, what you don’t know is it keeps me top of mind, people rarely forget when they see those things, it keeps me top of mind and when it’s time to remember who you want to interview like in your case, people you want to call for the job, you were like let’s interview that Ized lady, that one that’s doing Loose media.

We got investment for Loose media in the middle of the pandemic. I didn’t dance in that meeting; they saw something that made them give me the money and they all follow me, they’re all on my Whatsapp status, and if they see me dancing, sometimes they quote it and say well-done or something or they laugh (LOL) because I still do my job and I do my job well. Eyes on the price. 100% of the time.

Although, I think I can be better. They look at it like okay she’s doing well; they look at the news every day and they’re happy, at board meetings they are like well-done Ized or improve this, change that but only as it concerns work, nobody says “Ized reduce your dancing a bit.” I also work for a creative agency, we are “loose,” Like literally the band is Loose Media, we’re not uptight. Maybe if I was the CEO of a bank, I would not dance. No, actually, it’s a lie, I can’t even lie, I’d still dance.

  • What’s the most exciting project you have done? Because I know you worked with Max, you have experience with Tora Africa, You’re with Loose Media.

Launching of Vbank to be honest. Regardless of what you thought about the launch, when anyone mentions top 3 Digital banks in Nigeria now they’ll call Vbank, but there was literally no Vbank in January 2020, so just being a part of launching a brand that is becoming very important to most people is very exciting.

  • Did you pitch for the V-Bank project?

No, I went to pitch for something entirely different for TORA, actually you won’t even believe I was trying to help them recruit an agency, a marketing agency at the time, as a matter of fact it was the Vbank team that convinced us that we needed to set up an agency because of what we were doing and how we were doing. I was still in the room helping them talk to the agencies that will take over the job and come and run it. I guess somebody said “ why won’t you guys just do it?” And one thing led to another that led to another that led to another.

Has it been 100% all the time? Naaah, we’ve made some mistakes to be honest, it’s not like everything has been grand, but again like I said people who stay in their mistakes are people who don’t go too far in life, at least that much I know. I know that we can’t dwell on those  mistakes, we fix it, learn from it and curate the journey so we can keep doing better. We have also made some new clients now and have other clients in the same space but V is dear to my heart because it was Loose Media’s very first client.

How and why did you decide that Don Jazzy was the best persona to promote V-Bank?

So, some conversations started when we were looking for an ambassador and for a couple of reasons, he was one of the names that was called. The MD of the group sent me a DM and said; “ I like Don Jazzy”, then he asked me to talk to him. You know the funny thing is Don Jazzy is actually one of the easiest celebrities I’ve worked with, he will sit and speak with you to plan your campaigns, he understands what works best for his fans and followers, he would be like “I don’t think that thing would work, can we try this instead” he was very involved.

When I first approached him, I already had his number at that time because we have had some conversations in the past, and I sent him a DM.  He didn’t answer me immediately by the way, but I’ve been told to reach him and when they tell me to reach somebody, I have to. I tried to call him, his number did not go, it was unavailable, his DND was turned on, so I sent messages saying kindly check your Whatsapp “I need to ask you something.”

Later that day, same day, I got a response saying “Hello Ized, you said you wanted to talk to me” on WhatsApp

He said he had earlier downloaded the app, and was intrigued by it, such that he didn’t mind working with V-Bank as an ambassador.

He didn’t approach us, he just had the app and signed up, so by the time I then approached him, he just smiled and was like, he knew it was gonna happen but he didn’t know how it was gonna happen. He just has those kinds of things, I think it’s grace, he has that kind of grace where he knows this thing is coming but he’s not sure how, and then the thing comes and works for him.

  • I think he has been fantastically so far. Everyone knows him with the brand already

Yeah, he has, but we would work a little bit more. People may have related him to giveaway too much, LOOOOL, so we are re-strategizing, he has been great though.

  • I like how you hired a female creative director in an industry where I think there are more male creative directors

Yeah, she’s very fantastic actually, she’s better than most male creative directors that I know, to be very honest, Elizabeth Ughoro is better than every male creative director that I know.

  • Was it an easy decision?

Super easy, am I not a woman? Although to be honest It wasn’t about sex or gender or anything to my partner Charles Avackaa and I, if you come to the Loose Media office, well, it’s an equal mix of male and female, I think almost equal as a matter of fact. If the men are more, it’s like one person more or if the women are more, it’ll be like one person more, but it’s just about equal, Charles and I decided a while back to hire for talent and skills and culture fit. so for us, it was not about gender, and so far we have been lucky, we have an amazing team.

 So, what scares you most in life?

If you say your fears out, is that not you jinxing it so that it now happens to you.

  • Just maybe you are about to defeat the fear

I believe in purpose; I believe that everybody comes to earth for something, and everybody has a purpose, and I think I know my purpose, I’m sure that I know my purpose, but sometimes I’m slightly worried; what if been I’ve been living in the wrong purpose, and then I now find out that shit I should have been doing something else or not.

I really really hate to fail and recently, Loose media is now one of the most important things, at least beyond my son. Loose media is one of the most important things in my space and just being so, it is currently giving me sleepless nights. I constantly think – Do we need this? Do I need to do more?

Loose media is not up to one-year-old, can you imagine and we’re already doing work for Transcorp group, Eko disco, two banks, we’re working for two investment companies, so we have to sit tight, we have an Oil and Gas company that we work with; we have a power company, 17 major businesses on retainer in total, including companies in the UK and now we have (Loose Media has) adopted all their marketing objectives so you keep looking at it from all angles, then you look at it from the front, from the back, studying customer insights everyday, looking at their competitors, ensuring you are not missing a thing, everyday thinking how can we do right by the people that hired us. You want these people to be happy with your services. Because it’s not only a business reputation, but it’s a personal failure as far as I’m concerned. So you’re constantly involved, so I’m learning not micro-manage, I’m learning to step back and let people that we hire do this thing on their own, but it’s a bit scary looking at it from the outside.

I do have a fear of letting my clients down, it keeps me on my toes. But na the work we dey do.

  • The top three agencies in Nigeria are arguably X3m Ideas, Noah’s ark and DDB. What position do you think Loose media will be by 2025?

So, I’m not in this business to compete as an agency.

  • But on your linkedin, you said something like Loose will be like the number 1

I said “you will be asked what is the top agency in Nigeria, and regardless of what any online list say or the media say, the first agency that will come to your head will be Loose media”. I was very particular about what I was writing, it means that you personally as an individual, regardless of what the list says, we will be the agency you will remember because of how well we deliver at our job.

Top 3 agencies, somebody sat down and put that list maybe based on whatever it was that they looked at, and gave the endorsement.

We tried to pick the best of the best team and we do our best to pay well, slightly above industry standard, so that when you’re coming to take our staff it’ll be hard.

For Loose media, it’s about hitting our revenue expectations as promised investors, I think that if we focus on competing, we will lose the essence of why we’re doing this for our regular clients, so I feel like competition will distract us and remove our focus from this client. So for us now it is about –  Is client A happy? Is client B happy? Is client C happy? If they’re not happy, how can we make them happy? How do we meet their marketing goals and objectives?  Our client should be top in their industries, that’s what we’re focused on.

I think every agency has a unique selling point, our unique selling point is that we meet KPIs 100% of the time.

  • I think it is best you share your bread story or will you like to still keep it?

When I talked about it, I said if you ask me again I’ll talk about it, if you don’t ask me, then I was not destined to say it.

Well, I got pregnant, and I had moved to my parent’s home to have my baby and it had become “too hot.”

So, I left my father’s house. Everybody was on my case. I was a good girl, the good girl in the sense of I didn’t go out with a lot of men. So they didn’t expect me to be the one that would go and become pregnant before getting married.

  • How old were you then?

I was already out of the university then and already working, so I wasn’t young young, same guy I talked about earlier of being in love with right out of NYSC, so I wasn’t a young lady, I moved out and I was staying on my own in Abuja, I cut myself off from a lot of people, and at this point I was broke. All the money we had was finished because we rented a place, bought things in the place; bed, mattress, Tv, moved in with my son, I was broke broke.

I got to the point where that day I was holding my last N50 and I was standing at the gate of my house, I was outside the door, I was upstairs, and thinking; should I use this N50 to buy pap, so that I will make pap for my son without milk or anything to sweeten the pap or should I go and beg my neighbor and then use that N50 to buy Peak 123 so that the pap will be sweet for the boy?

I was still thinking then I saw a bread van. They passed, they entered into the street, and you could tell from the way they were reversing, going round that they looked confused. Then the guy driving stepped out of the car, there was a woman sitting at the back, I could see from the top, he was looking for who to ask. So I just came downstairs and I was like “are you looking for somebody?” And then he said that they’re looking for where the store is in the estate, that they want to sell bread. He said it was a new bakery they just started and they want to sell bread, so I was like “oh! I can sell bread ooo.”

As you know, I didn’t have money to buy the bread so the woman gave me a loaf free of charge, then she said if I sold the bread, I could make N50 on every loaf.

Yeah, so the price she was giving me was like a wholesale price but I didn’t have the money to buy the bread. So she trusted me by giving me the first 10 loaves, they’ll come the next day to collect the money and see if I had sold it. And then they would give me more bread, they were going to the different estates so that they’ll see where they can supply bread to. So she gave me the 10 loaves and one extra for myself, I decided to ask my neighbor for the pap by the way,  and I bought 123 milk, I made the pap and I fed my son. Then I went round the estate and sold all 10 loaves of bread in a matter of 30 mins.

  • Did you hawk the bread?

No, I went door-to-door in the estate and knocked and said I was selling bread, then in a matter of 30mins I’ve sold all 10 bread and I had N500 extra.

Then when you want to print a sheet, they print a sheet for N50, so I went to a business centre and I told them they should print “Bread sold here” for me and I did one printing, made photocopies and I put it around the estate and put my house number D10 – buy bread at D10.

The next day, the woman came to check if I had sold the bread, she was happy that I had sold all 10, this time she gave me 30 loaves of bread and I was excited because 30 loaves of bread meant I’ll make N1500. So, we started selling bread, some days you’ll not sell all of it and some days you’ll sell all, so it was like a mixed out but I was doing very well, then one day I had this idea to sell more. 

I wasn’t content with this N1500, it wasn’t constant and I wasn’t content. So what I then did was, it was big estate, King’s Court Estate in Abuja, a really big estate with over a hundred houses, maybe 200 houses, it had section A section, B section, it was huge, so I took my notepad and biro, this time no bread, carried my child on my back and knocked on every single door. I asked, what days do you eat bread? How many days a week do you eat bread? How many loaves of bread would you like? So, they’ll tell me we eat bread, Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, you can bring two loaves of bread or three loaves of bread every day.

So by the time I finished going round, I was doing about 200 loaves of bread a day, because it was not just that estate, there was a Citec estate just across the King’s court that was around Jabi airport road and I would sell so much bread that I wasn’t broke anymore. In a day I would have about say N10,000 profit and have some more, there are some days N5,000, there are some days up to N10,000 depending on how well wedo.

I did so well that I could now put my son in the creche, there was a creche in the estate that was taking N20,000 a month, so I put my son in a creche, and I had a desktop that wasn’t working well, I fixed it. During the day time I would go to the microfinance bank that was giving loans, at that time, when people would go to microfinance banks to take loans, they’d tell them to go and write business plans. Remember I told you that I write business plans.

So, I’ll go there, talk to some of the managers, so you know when they say go and write a business plan. They will tell them to call my number because I had arranged with them. My charge per business plan was cheap, maybe N25,000 or N20,000 for the business plan. I don’t know how much they were charging but they were constantly calling me, they’ll say Ized I have a plan for you, so in the morning I’ll go and pick the brief, you know I give them a brief form to fill.

From there I’ll go to the cyber café because I didn’t have internet on my laptop, so I’ll go to the cyber café and research everything I needed to know for like 2-3 hours, put everything in my flash drive and come home, I would pick my son from creche, wait for them to supply my bread, would go and do my bread round and when I’ve done my bread round, I’ll go back and start typing after my son has slept off, I’ll type till late then, I’ll sleep, you know, sometimes I’ll go and print and drop it off at the microfinance bank. So I was doing well all because of the bread and business plan, one day however, I was carrying bread on my head going round and then met somebody from the university saw me, and the look on her face was like I was suffering, I hate pity and this woman pitied me.

My baby was on my back, you know those baskets like laundry baskets that have holes in them? I had a big one on my head, and it was full of bread, she passed me and then she came back and was like “Ized! No be you wey you know book for school be this

  • But you were making more money than her then

I didn’t care. I was so ashamed of my life and I sat down and kept thinking “God, biochemistry, I’m now using it to sell bread, ah!”. Do you know I went to look for a job after dropping my son at the creche. Do you know how much the job was paying me?

  • How much?

The job was paying me N60,000 per month, I was making more money selling bread, I was making at least N300,000 a month because my bread supply was every day, my business plan that I use to do, at least 6 in a month, sometimes if I stress myself well, I could do like 8 in a month,  so I did 6-8 in a month and I was taking N20,000 – 25000.

This girl just messed up my thoughts, because she was laughing at me. Oh my God! So I went and got a job that was paying N60,000. Okay, maybe that should be one of my regrets, never let people influence you to make decisions that are stupid because I left bread to go and work in an organisation that sold tracking devices, and they were paying me N60,000. I thought I could do both, I thought I could sell bread in the evening, but you know those people that would make you work like hell. When I came into the organisation I was just a marketer, and then within two months, they made me the head of marketing, I was now the marketing manager because I could sell.

When I was selling bread and writing business plans, my son would go to creche on time, I’d pick him up on time, we were seeing a lot, When this work started that I was taking N60,000, they now increased to N70,000. I’ll be the last person to pick my son up, I would take him upstairs, before I feed him and play with him, we’re both tired and we’ve slept. I could not write a business plan anymore and I could not sell bread. The woman was still trying to supply bread,  trying to encourage me that I’ll make more money with the bread. I was telling her that people have started laughing at me, it wasn’t people ooo, it was one person that laughed at me but my head just multiplied it by 100 and maybe people are looking at me and laughing.

I was such a silly young lady. Still like I said, no regrets, working in that organization started me on a trajectory that led to Digital marketing. So I am grateful.