Farah Golant is now CEO of Girl Effect International, the entity behind Yegna, a programme deeply rooted in Ethiopian culture and designed to highlight and address the situation of girls.
She has been in this post for eight months, with 27 years of experience working in and running market-leading businesses in the creative industries spanning global advertising, media and television content. In 2012-2014 she was CEO of All3Media, Britain’s largest independent television production group operating through 19 subsidiary companies based in the UK, US, Germany, the Netherlands and New Zealand.
Farah’s distinguished 25-year career in advertising, 22 of them spent in one agency, saw her rise through the ranks of Abbott Mead Vickers – Batten, Barton, Durstine & Osborn (AMV BBDO), Britain’s largest and most creatively successful advertising agency (a subsidiary of Omnicom Group), to become CEO in 2005. She joined the BBDO Worldwide Board in 2007.
In an exclusive interview with Fortune she recounted experiences from a very different world to the marketing arena in Ethiopia. This country in transition is making the big leap for inclusion of the private sector in the development playing field which is constantly growing in the process of refining itself. Local products and producers are incentivized, with manufacturing a top priority leading to more products. These products are meant to compete with giant global brands in the same big market space, despite the diversity in cultural values. The kaleidoscopic image, beautiful as it looks, is complex and the product of high end professionalism in advertisement, promotion and BRANDING. Farah Golant briefly sketches the basic tenets and essence of the field in her eloquent and flawless description of what goes into successful branding of a vision and ideas or even a country. Limited by language during her brief stay in Ethiopia, she has not been able to understand the billboard messages written in Amharic but this was compensated by sharp observation and perceptions shared by Ethiopians.
Sharing the outlook from a mind that contributed to UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s Business Advisory Group from 2013 to 2015 and served as a business ambassador for the Creative Industries of Britain, was most interesting, though limited by time.
SAMRAWIT TASSEW, FORTUNE’S EDITOR-IN-CHIEF was privileged to sit with this lived experience of branding, advertising, media and content – conscious of the big gap between the advanced, articulate world from which she comes and the local situation where products are advertised and promoted without the sophistication of branding.
Fortune: Thank you for the chance to talk with you in your tightly scheduled visit.
Farah Golant: Thank you for having me. This is very important to me because it is my interest – I’m very new in my job and I guess it would be interesting to talk to you about how you can bring new thinking to the work that we do at Girl Effect, but beyond Girl Effect, the notion of how the developed world is using media, technology, social media, to create brands that have very big audiences. So I’m excited to talk about the subject, but of course I come to the subject from a very different place – I come from the private sector, multinational firms, global brands that have enormous power, enormous audiences – so to talk a little bit about what an amazing thing it would be if a country like Ethiopia and the development sector was able to adopt now at a fast rate, the notion of branding, the notion of media, to create new audiences because that’s how ideas fly.
I’m very interested in ideas and how ideas can travel further as a brand, rather than just as words.
With exposure to the situation of third world economies, particularly Ethiopia, how do you see the chances and possibilities of values in ideas connecting with business and the economy and now, in your case, with development?
FG: I find it very exciting because there is so much opportunity and so much potential. I come from a very developed space but what I see in Ethiopia, in Nigeria, Rwanda and all of the countries in which we’re working with brands is, for a start, a rapidly developing landscape. The development of the Internet, access to technology, the development of the media landscape, television, radio – it’s all developing, so I think it’s a very exciting time and I also think it’s a time where the community, the audience, the nation is very interested in the notion of ideas and brands.
So my leap into this space is partly because I see potential. What I bring from the developing world is knowledge. There’s so much here – so many stories, so many ideas, so many beliefs, so many narratives that can be literally unleashed. A sort of bubbling up and waiting to be put into a code.
On the one hand it’s excitement, on the other hand, it’s to be very realistic about having a lot to do. The theory of global brands and global ideas can’t just literally be brought here. They have to be born here. My second thought is though I work with international/global brands, I’m very conscious and very committed to the idea that ideas have to be born in their culture. So you can bring knowledge and you can bring muscle but the birth of the idea has to be local.
So I’m excited about the potential but also about the skill with which you bring international muscle and international knowledge, international protocols – but that you look at what’s here and help a brand be born inside the culture. And I find that very exciting.
If it is all about belief system, culture and value system, is it not difficult for people like you who come from a different world to come up with the idea ?
FG: I think the most important part of it, wherever you come from, is the partnerships you form. You need to work with people who are of the culture, who know the media landscape, who understand ideas – whether or not they’ve been global, the fact that they are locally placed. So the first thing is you can’t just bring something and expect it to fly. What you bring is knowledge – how the brand works, how is the story told, how do you use radio and television, how you use social media – but all the implementation has to be done locally. And I think you need really great partners – with creativity. That’s another thing that’s so exciting about Ethiopia – how much creativity there is here. You think about music, and you think about art, theatre, the kind of tradition of culture here. What a lovely opportunity now to bring a modern take to that. But literally to release music that is for now – for the youth of now and not the youth of yesterday – from inside the culture.
I think you need local partners, local creators who themselves have great ideas and all they need is the global muscle. They need a little bit of muscle so you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. You don’t have to start from scratch. But I think it’s that blend between local strong capability and global experience and heritage. And then there are many ways that we do it. I have worked with American multinationals with British multinationals. I was on the British Prime Minister’s Business Advisory Board for the creative industry so I understand brands in Britain, brands in America. What you do is that you also learn how to transport ideas from country to country – so what we learn in Nigeria might be applicable in Ethiopia, what we learn in Ethiopia that we know will be applicable in Nigeria.
It’s how you create the flow of ideas – what global brands do is they go quickly. They flow very fast and in building Yegna here, not only is it strong for Ethiopia – the music, the drama, but actually the belief system that you could take. You could literally export a beautiful product from Ethiopia and put it somewhere else. It would have a different name, it would have different music, it would have a different format, but it could be an export into Nigeria or into Malawi or into any of the countries we work in.
In a way you work at the global level with a lot of muscle, then you work at the local level and you see what you can replicate. And that’s an idea, a belief system based on values, value of the girl, the value of the girl as a participant in society. Those values are the same. What becomes local is the name. It would not be Yegna in other countries. But there are some golden threads and then the belief system, the brand, shows up in different clothes. And that’s the skill of global brands – what is global and what you make very, very local and very culturally rich. And the reason you do that is because the audience here is Ethiopian, with Ethiopian values and cultures.
Lets zoom into the emerging business and private sector engagement landscape. It is a landscape of struggle to create a new identity and yet has high potential to replicate ideas and values transported from the well developed global sphere.
FG: But you know there’s a struggle taking place everywhere in the world. This notion of what can come from a global brand, versus local enterprise – products that know how to brand themselves, to create loyal audiences, to promote themselves – to become the Evian of Ethiopian Ambo. The thing is how they take the product, and make it bigger than the product. And that the product has a value system. It has badging, has a promotion, has a way to express itself, that is bigger than the product.
What do you mean ‘bigger than the product’?
FG: Well, it’s a really hard thing to explain. Ambo is not just sparkling water. I drink Ambo here and I know it, and I like Ambo. How do products differentiate themselves? How do you create customer preference? Why do you buy Ambo and the next person buys something else? Because it’s sparkling water that actually is more than sparkling water. It promotes itself, it has value, it has a narrative – a story. It promotes itself in a certain way that makes you have a sense of, ‘that water is for me’. And it’s to create a loyalty in the audience that says actually, I will pay a premium because that product, with all of its armory, creates a brand value that I associate with me. That is my kind of product that understands me. And that’s what brands do. They create – it’s not rational, they create an emotional connection with their audience. Why does anyone buy one product over another? If they were side by side if you were buying a chocolate bar, why would you buy Mars over another product? It’s because you have a kind of association – you have an emotional connection with that product. You’ve seen the advertising, you know that there’s a difference. They promote sport, or they promote CSR [corporate social responsibility]. This is the product – I know that they are very interested in urban regeneration so they do their CSR; they’re very much into sport, the product itself is promoted in a certain way, it’s sold in a place where… it all adds up – it’s all bigger than the product.
Where it’s distributed, how it’s promoted, how it’s priced, how it’s packaged, and importantly, how it tells its story.
I’m sure our readers would definitely want to know more – So are we saying that the perception is bigger than the actual product?
FG: I think what we’re saying is that the product has to be true. It can’t claim to be a mineral water and it’s not a mineral water. The product integrity has to be clear. And I don’t think it’s about perception, I think it’s about the story. Perception and reality have to be matched. So for instance if you claim to be a brand and you decide as a brand, you’re very differentiated because of your CSR agenda – that as a brand you give X per cent of your profits to corporate social responsibility, that’s not true and if the product and the reality are not true, you will be found out immediately. So if you claim that you have a certain CSR agenda, or that you promote sports, or that you source your cocoa responsibly – that you’re that kind of brand that believes in fair sourcing – perception and reality have to be the same. So it’s not about perception or reality but it’s about the story. Who eats this product or who drinks this product, who buys a Mercedes? What is a Mercedes driver? What is a Toyota driver?
People have associations with the audience and then people say, that association is me. I’m a Toyota driver. It’s slightly ephemeral, it’s slightly based on status. I want to be that kind of relaxed person or I want to be that very formal person. But it’s a way for the buyer to express a little bit, their personality.
So which one comes first? The story or the product? Do we start designing our product with the story?
FG: Yes! Because in a way, if you design your product – and people do it all sorts of ways; people make an amazing product and then turn it into a brand and vice versa – people have an idea of a brand and then they make the product but in the ideal way, why would someone buy my product over another product?
You need to be clear what your product is, your capacity to manufacture it, your capacity to distribute it? Where will it be seen? In what atmosphere is your brand consumed, but if you don’t start the story from the get go, you design a product that limits the story. The story and the product have to be built simultaneously. The best brands start out with a vision and a product delivery. And if you do them together, you have a better chance of making something amazing.
In this country these days media is all about promotion and advertising. That as it may be, price is the determining factor. The adverts and the promotions follow the product and not the other way round, What do you make of this?
FG: I don’t think it matters. When you’re building brands, first thing is you have a vision. Even if you haven’t expressed the vision you have one. So you find the vision. To know the audience – I can’t say that enough, to know your audience – your target audience and then construct your story. I don’t think it matters and I don’t think people should worry, ‘oh now we have the product but we don’t have the brand that wraps around it’. If you have a great product, you will find a loyal audience and you can build your story. It doesn’t matter if you don’t have a brand – if you’re just selling it on the practicality of the product. It’s just not optimized. You go further faster through a brand lens rather than through a product lens – Because the brand lives in hearts and minds.
As you have in the big billboards, growing in numbers, it is all about the product, That’s the thing. We are used to promoting the product. Have you seen the billboards?
FG: Yes I noticed the number, but I’ve seen nothing in English. But I got the ideas from interesting people.
What do you think is the role of branding beyond advertising, and the way to channel all resources into that?
FG: Well I think you’ve put your finger on a great hope – which is agencies, promoters, journalists – they’re storytellers. They’re the ones that construct the story, they’re the ones that make images, that create visuals, that create story lines for brands. So I think you have a very important job and I would study what other markets do. Nigeria has a very developed advertising media landscape. Kenya [too] – so where there are other markets where there is something to be learned, I would be studying and learning from case studies – and then there would be trial and error.
There’s no such thing as a wrong answer. There’s just a less good answer.
I have a great belief that Ethiopia with its creativity and its sense of self, as it’s rising, modernizing – we talked with Dr. Tedros about industrializing about building women in economic participation – and as its connection to technology changes, transforms things, this is the moment to learn and now leapfrog – to get ahead. Yes. It’s never too late.
Is there a big challenge ahead for that sector?
FG: I think it’s a sector as you have defined it, that’s about to grow up, about to become sophisticated. Anything is possible.
And globalization of ideas with their already developed top name brands that resonate deeply with people everywhere, is that a threat to the new ideas and brands yet to be born of the local context?
FG: No, no, of course not? Technology is there to guide you, media is travelling quickly. News is travelling in a way we would never have believed. There is more possibility now than there could have been 20 years ago. And there is a strong sense of a story to be told. Whether it’s products, whether its stories to be told, or Brand Ethiopia. Ethiopia is a brand. Ethiopia is a story – it’s an amazing place on the world’s stage so it should tell its story.
About valuing that a brand – how do you know you are on the right track in terms of developing your brand as transporting your idea and product right – on a practical day to day basis?
How much you’re prepared to pay for it? How far they’ll go to get it? What affiliation they have with it? Repeat purchases. How loyal they are towards the brand? How they advocate the brand? There are many ways to value the brand but share of wallet and share of mind [are foremost].
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