“Ten years and counting…and each day is different from the next. What an exciting industry this is” ~ Alima Atta
10 years ago, Alima Atta sat in a room in her mother’s office and began Sesema PR, a public relations and marketing communications consultancy that provides services to its West Africa clientele. 10 years later, Alima is a successful PR professional with two awards from Lagos State University, Nigeria and an impressive portfolio of clients. Despite Nigeria’s challenging business environment and the influx of untrained public relations practitioners in the industry, Alima Atta has held her own.
A detail-oriented strategic thinker, Alima has great plans for 2013. Sesema PR will be holding a free training for young people with an interest in the PR industry in the first quarter of the year as well as managing a new musical accappella group – Digable Underground. Alima herself is looking forward to expanding into more production work and television. With a clear vision towards the future, Alima shares how she began and her journey as an entrepreneur so far with Ventures Woman.
VW: Tell us a bit about yourself and how you ended up in PR.
AA: I’m the 3rd child of my parents; I have a brother and two sisters. My father Abdul-Aziz Atta, was head of civil service and a permanent secretary in the Nnamdi Azikwe administration. He died in 1972. My mother Iyabo Atta runs the family property business. My sister Sefi Atta is a writer. I studied French and Sociology in University of London and always wanted to be a translator or a diplomat because I loved the language. I later decided to enter marketing and did a postgraduate diploma. I spent two years in the United States and when I returned to England I got a job in conference production in telecoms. While there I learned a lot of skills – event management, marketing, sponsorship recruitment and creative thinking. It was fun but exhausting. I decided to try something else so I went to see a recruitment consultant. She looked at my skills and suggested I go into PR. This was funny because I have two good friends in PR and I’d always seen PR as a fluffy field where you meet celebrities and have parties; I had no idea how much work it was! I decided to try it and went for an interview and I got a job at an agency and that’s how I started in it.
VW: Can you tell us about the LASU award?
AA: Lagos State University (LASU) has actually given me two awards and they have followed my progress since I started 10 years ago which is nice. I came up with a scholarship idea which was to take two students who were the top of their class and sponsor them through their course and then they come into my company to get practical training in the field. It’s a rewarding experience for me but also on a selfish level I want to help my industry by developing the manpower because the biggest complaint remains that students coming out into the workforce do not have the skills and knowledge you as a company needs.
VW: What has been your experience since starting up Sesema PR 10 years ago?
AA: Its been good and bad, times with many clients and times with none but it’s been fulfilling. When I started I was really lucky because my first client was Cisco Systems which a friend of my set up and this was helpful in getting other clients. The downside is when clients don’t recognise the value of what your agency brings and it creates conflict. Also the relationship with media is challenging because it’s not as fully developed compared with other parts of the world.
VW: Can you demystify the relationship between marketing, media, corporate communications and PR?
AA: All those fields are under the umbrella of communications and marketing is the umbrella under which PR, advertising and direct marketing fall. They are all about communicating the value of a product or a service. Corporate communications is very specific, it’s about communicating a company’s brand and also involves internal communications. As a PR agency, we would work with the corporate communications person in an organisation and handle areas they don’t such as media relations, market research etc. The media are the avenues we use to communicate our message so all of these fields work together.
VW: So why is there this conflict between media and PR agencies in Nigeria?
AA: I believe it is a lack of understanding. PR from putting a press release in a paper is not supposed to be paid for, so if you must give someone 10,000 naira to do it, it takes away from the essence of the event of being newsworthy, you might as well call it advertising. This is what happens in Nigeria. Also our industry is not as well paid as, for example, advertising. Even though we have come a long way in the last 5 years in Nigeria, because we provide a service, something intangible, people still struggle to quantify it. Many would rather take out a full page of advertising in a newspaper for one day than pay that amount for a month and have three people working to produce engaging communications about the company’s activities. These factors combined strain the relationship with media.
VW: Why is it so much more developed in other countries?
AA: Unfortunately, we have a lot of factors that devalue the industry in Nigeria. The country’s PR market is flooded with practitioners, many of whom are not professionally trained. So if a professional submits a proposal that costs a million naira and another practitioner submits one of two hundred thousand naira, we know who many would go with. Also paying journalists to put your releases in the paper devalues the newsworthiness. Everywhere else in the world PR is paid for on an hourly basis per level of the PR professional. Very few clients can grasp that method. Generally, appreciation of the value of PR in other countries is higher.
VW: If you had the power to change things what would you do?
AA: Definitely, create more unity in the industry which we are now doing with PRCAN. You have to have scaled certain hurdles to get into the association so if we can collectively build up the value of the industry we can get to the point where a journalist isn’t the PR person for an organisation because he/she has knowledge of media relations. As PR agencies need to show that there is more to PR.
VW: What’s been your most exciting campaign?
AA: We launched Beauty Concerns, a spa in Lagos, a few years ago. We saw the whole process from building the spa till the final launch which was very exciting. We also came up with the concept and ran the pilot for the Indomie Fan Club and it’s really exciting to see it become the biggest children’s fan club in Africa. It was the success of this initiative that led to us handling PR for Indomie.
VW: How do you balance life as an entrepreneur with other demands?
AA: Well I get holidays and time with family but I confess I do work a lot throughout except maybe at Christmas when everyone has shut down (laughs). I would say also, surround yourself with good people because you will have critics and issues. There are issues if you are a woman, if you are young, if you are new. You need people you can cry with and then laugh with. Also keep it fresh, have a place you go to get ideas and keep track of them. I also love reading, traveling and music to relax.
VW: You are a regular presenter on Smooth FM 98.1, Talk Business, can you tell us about that?
AA: Yes, I came up with that idea because I thought about how a few agencies have magazines. I didn’t want that because it’s expensive so I said why not a radio show? I’d already developed a medical radio show on Classic FM ‘Doctors on Air’ before so it made sense. The idea started as a marketing show but when I took it to VISA, who sponsors the programme, they wanted a broader business focus and since then we’ve hosted many great business leaders.
VW: Any final words of advice for young women that want to own their own business?
AA: Yes, never use your gender negatively; women have a key role to play in society and it’s important to think of yourself as a role model from the start. Focus on what it is you want to do early on, try different things but don’t get stuck without knowing where you want to go. Read a lot, it broadens your mind and that’s important for success.
Thank you Alima! Follow @VenturesAfrica on Twitter