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Saracen OMD’s humble journey to billionaire club

Oyunga Pala @PeopleDailyKe

In the art of war, the underdog wins by employing unconventional tactics. Courage may get one to the battleground but to win takes something extra. About fifteen years ago, on October 1, 2002,a small ad agency with a peculiar name, opened its doors to business, in a global industry that munched local upstarts for lunch and spat them out before dinner.

Saracen OMD came into existence as the audacious dream of four young ad agency men daring to create Kenya’s first independent media agency. The four Saracens were Sammy Thuo, Lenny Nganga, Frank Maina and George Wanjohi.

Frank left in the early years to pursue his own ventures. I attempt to deduce that something extra that turned Saracen into a billion- shilling company as I sit across from Thuo, one of the co-founders of Saracen OMD, now the second largest media agency in Kenya. The spacious Saracen OMD head offices are located off Kabarisan Drive in Lavington, Nairobi.

The location is homely. For all its success, Saracen retains an air of understatedness. I witness none of the buzz and flash, stereotypical of media agencies. Thuo’s office does not look like a billion bucks.

On the wall is a framed black-and-white newspaper article published in the Business Daily in 2003. A young Sammy, Lenny and George resemble a geek boy band than the new face of advertising that they were poised to be then.

The office is a repurposed single storey family home and Sammy occupies one of the upstairs ensuite bedrooms with wardrobes intact. The only trophy of success is a picture to the right of his desk with former Cabinet Secretary Anne Waiguru presenting him a prize at Top100 SME contest flanked by Josphat Mwaura, the CEO of KPMG.

We have a scheduled lunch meeting, where I get to interview the two other co-founders, Lenny and George. Sammy looks at his watch and ushers me out of his office. Time is flying. George who runs the Uganda office is in for a few days and this is the only opportunity I have to get all three in one sitting.

We pile into George’s Mercedes to a Chinese restaurant about a kilometre from their offices. George justifies the choice “The sign says, Chinese restaurant for African dishes,”. It is the kind of sign that would attract an ad man. The conversation between them is spontaneous and it is evident they were friends first before they became business partners.

Lenny and George have known each other since they were five years old in Madaraka estate, Nairobi. Sammy and Lenny met at their first day of work at the Ogilvy and Mather offices in Nairobi in 1994.

They later regrouped in McCann and Erickson where they worked together until they took the leap of faith. The menu is almost cryptic, written partly in Chinese with English translations that might as well be Greek. The eager waiter explains that the cook is Chinese and does not speak English. George reckons, “ At least we know it is a legit Chinese restaurant”.

I find their personalities distinct. Lenny, has a gentle nature. He is contemplative and talks about his grounding principles with unflinching ease. George is sociable, gracious and prone to witty and poetic quips.

Sammy lean towards a geeky persona, cerebral, forward and proper in speech. Their decision to lose sight of the shore and sail into the bloody ocean of business upstarts was triggered by a turning point moment. After almost a decade of experience in the agency business, they encountered a black ceiling.

“What is a black ceiling”, I ask out of curiosity. George smiles and Lenny who is a gifted story teller volunteers to give me some context. “In 2000, in McCann, we decided we wanted to launch a new media agency called Universal McCann with a different P and L.

It was quite successful”. By the time they left in 2003, Universal McCann was the biggest ad agency in Kenya. But the year 2000 was watershed for the trio. They had been mulling over starting a business but remained hesitant to take the leap of faith. That year, the CEO of McCann Global made a promise to Wall Street that they were certain to deliver on a profit.

In the third quarter, the profit prospects turned bleak and a moment of panic ensued. All McCann offices were ordered to cut headcount, irrespective of whether individual agencies had made a profit.

The directive left Lenny conflicted “We had just consolidated all of EABL’s media. Why was I going to fire guys just because someone in New York says so and we are making money?” The relationship with the seniors deteriorated after that directive. An intrepid French MD named Thierry Dubus resigned shortly afterwards and his replacement, an East Asian, a guy hired as group account director for the Coke account from Jordan, was promoted to MD before he set foot in Kenya.

When he arrived, his first order of business was to put out a staff memo saying no one should have more than two tea spoons of sugar. Sammy reacts, “He brought in headmaster rules”. The new MD’s leadership style was stifling.

The situation became untenable and staff said, enough is enough and led a rebellion. They got a petition signed by all staff, faxed to London and then marched into the office and ordered the MD out! George recollects, “I think we are the only agency that ever fired an MD under physical threat”.

However, to replace the ousted MD, the company brought in the guy who was running McCann Uganda, a man who reported to Lenny to become his MD and who happened to be white. That was the black ceiling and they had to make a call.

The food arrives. It is one big bowl of mixed vegetables, potatoes and chicken in stew. George does the honours of serving and as he scoops through the goulash looking for bits of chicken he comments, “Clearly, these guys are like Africans. They know how to stuff you with starch”. After that incident, the Saracens decided to build something of their own.

They drew inspiration from two people who set sail and showed them that there was life outside secure employment. “One was Ndirangu Wa Maina who had been passed over twice and denied a promotion.

He left to start Consumer Insight”. The person who replaced Ndirangu was Paul Kukubo. In less than three years, Paul quit to go and run 3Mice. “Everyone in a senior position who was black was leaving to go and start their own businesses”.

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