The increase in African Facebook users and the somewhat higher levels of digital advertising spend have spawned new digital advertising and social media agencies in many African countries. Traditional advertising agencies have had to either get in-house capacity or buy into the new agencies. Russell Southwood spoke to one of the new breed - Serigne Barro of Senegal's People Input - whose history reflects the changes that have happened.
First there were African web agencies back in the early 2000s. Then there were agencies who handled SMS messaging on mobile (VAS services) and now there are digital advertising and social media agencies (see Background Briefing at the end of this article for examples). Many of the successful SMS messaging agencies (like Karanja Macharia's Mobile Planet) have quit the field or are doing something else (Kofie Dazie's Rancard). The market got saturated and the advertisers moved on.
What they moved on to needing were agencies that could do a combination of digital advertising and social media strategy. Individuals who were good at social media for themselves turned this into a job: Uganda's Seanice Kacungira leveraged her high profile as a former radio DJ. Traditional advertising agencies were often slow to understand and offer online advertising. It offered less lucrative opportunities than the commission-based traditional approaches.
However some -like the Scanad Group - set up the their own agency (Digital Squad - see end of article) in order to compete. Others like Rob Stokes' Quirk (JWT) and Matthew Buckland's Creative Spark (M&C Saatchi) were bought by big global agencies looking for new business opportunities in a world of one digit growth.
Launched in 2002, Serigne Barro's People Input perfectly mirrors the history described. Initially it started as a web development agency doing websites for clients in the very early days of the African web:"The market was not mature and no-one understood what a website did. We did a lot of websites for local and regional companies to get a portfolio." It was an African start-up before start-ups were fashionable,
In 2004 it shifted to mobile offering SMS/VAS services and did this in Senegal, Mali, Guinea, Cote d'Ivoire and Cameroon:"The money was coming in and we were doing well but we were not focused on developing the business. Turnover multiplied 3-4 times. We didn't invest in human resources. We were still only 10 people."
In 2008 disaster struck. It had built a large proportion of its business on SMS and the National Lottery forbade the use of SMS-style competitions. Then you needed authorization and had to pay 50% of re=venues for the privilege:"These were the nightmare years - 2003-2009 - and they were hard times. All the companies doing this disappeared but we still had the web agency. We talked of closing."
In the end, one of the two co-founders left and Barro found a local investor and enlarged the company with a new vision in 2010. It now operates in Senegal, Cameroon and Cote d'Ivoire, providing a combination of social media strategy and digital advertising campaigns and creating apps.
It now employs 54 people and has done over 300 digital projects. It launched its own pi.lab (in 2013) with the goal of creating apps that met local African needs. Clients have included CFAO, Oxfam, Tigo, Impact Securities, ATP and Diageo and lots of banks. It provided services to an agency in charge of the President's electoral campaign in Cote d'Ivoire.
"We strongly believe in local opportunities and that's our priority in 2016. It is working with Stanford University's SEED programme in its first African cohort:"They are helping us to scale." Even with their current scale, they find themselves competing internationally:" "We compete with international digital agencies from South Africa and Morocco."
It has built 5 B2B products and a number of B2C applications including a its own local Instant Messaging platform called Ginger (which has already got 10,000 users) and a range of Africa "stickers".(emojis). With Ginger, he says that "Our dream is to create something like We Chat and create a gateway to other services." For example, it has a VIP Club (with nearly half a million Facebook likes) where users can interact with music celebrities.
It has also built a VoD platform called Archives d'Afrique for a famous Francophone broadcaster on RFI which carries programmes about former Presidents of Africa:"You can pay for VoD streaming with iTunes, Google or airtime." When interviewed in December, Barro told me that it had 7367 Android users and 1516 on iOS. To watch Serigne Barro talk about the apps People Input does, click on the link below: