AISOP and the Story of Nigerian corporate slavery

A lifetime ago, before making the unusual move from Communications to Journalism, I worked at one of the busiest Marketing agencies in Nigeria. This agency was to all intents and purposes, the model Nigerian SME. It was youthful, it was ambitious, it hired lots of young people fresh out of NYSC, filled with new ideas, […]

AISOP and the Story of Nigerian corporate slavery
Advertising agency

A lifetime ago, before making the unusual move from Communications to Journalism, I worked at one of the busiest Marketing agencies in Nigeria. This agency was to all intents and purposes, the model Nigerian SME. It was youthful, it was ambitious, it hired lots of young people fresh out of NYSC, filled with new ideas, and above all, it paid well. By industry standards in 2014, my N159,000 salary fresh out of youth service in that industry was a king’s ransom. The problem was that as much as I loved working there and I enjoyed the relatively good money, getting into salary week at the end of every month always felt a bit like taking a blind turn at high speed on an unfamiliar road, hoping not to find oneself falling off a cliff.

To put it kindly, there was no such thing as “salary week.” It was sometimes “salary 2 weeks” or even “salary 3 weeks.” All one could do was hope that said salary would come in eventually, which it somehow always did, but not before giving your eyes a set of stress rings every month. It was not that the agency had a cashflow problem. In fact, for an agency employing fewer than 40 full-time staff, the volume and caliber of clients we landed was nothing short of amazing. The problem was that every single time we needed to get our clients to pay invoices – recurring or one-offs – it was one big clown circus.

One of my most unforgettable memories from 2015 was anxiously watching my boss dashing out to appointment after appointment with clients a few days to Christmas. The purpose of those meetings was to get outstanding invoices settled before the end of the year, failing which our December salaries – much less our 13th month bonus – would probably not get paid. On Christmas Eve 2015, a particular client called, summoning him across Lagos immediately to sign for 6 overdue invoices dating back over 5 months. If he did not come to claim the money that day, she said, the invoices would be forfeited. Long story short, it was an interesting few hours, but we eventually got our salaries. And our 13th month bonuses. Many sister agencies were not so lucky.

Read Also: Nigeria’s advertising industry introduces operating guidelines for practitioners

Pushback against AISOP: Why it is Ludicrous

The recent launch of the Advertising Industry Standards of Practise (AISOP) following consultation between the government and the Advertising Practitioners Council of Nigeria (APCON), generated a hysterical response from the Advertisers’ Association of Nigeria (ADVAN) – the umbrella body for corporate entities that pay for advertising. I will quote a section of the press release sent out by ADVAN to illustrate how breathless and panicked this response was: “The Advertisers Association of Nigeria (ADVAN) rejects the implementation of the new Advertising Industry Standard of Practice as it makes an unconstitutional attempt to infringe on the rights of private entities to determine their contractual terms.”

Reading this paragraph, one might reflexively come away with the impression of a professional body pushing back against the Nigerian government trying to meddle in private business. In reality, this paragraph and the rest of the ADVAN press release does not just severely misrepresent what AISOP is, but it also symbolises the Master-Slave relationship that exists between clients and creative agencies in the Nigerian Marketing Communications space. To understand why, let us take a look at what AISOP is, to begin with. It is basically a set of standards set up to govern corporate interactions in the advertising industry.

A cliff notes explainer of the standards is as follows: Nobody should make an agency carry out work without a written contract; All creative work submitted by agencies is subject to copyright laws; and all invoices must be settled within a maximum of 45 days from receipt. There are other elements included in the AISOP, but these are the main three – terms of service must be agreed and put down in writing, clients cannot steal agency work, and clients can no longer toy with the mental health of 25 year-old salary earners like myself in 2015 by refusing to settle agency invoices on time.

Perhaps just as significantly, AISOP also includes a proviso that mandates a minimum N1 million pitch fee, which cannot be waived, and all payments must clearly correspond to a specific invoice to avoid accounting or reconciliation snafus on the agency side. Do these sound like a reasonable set of standards to you? They certainly would have to me, back in 2015. It would almost seem as if these are the absolute barest minimum standards required to create some sort of sustainable advertising industry and creative ecosystem in Nigeria, or something.

Many of the corporate entities currently fighting back against these bare minimum industry operating standards actually have no problem complying with significantly more stringent standards everywhere else they operate

And yet as you read through the ADVAN press release sent out in response to the launch of AISOP, its response is “…Parties of full age and competent understanding are deemed to have the utmost liberty of contracting, and…their contracts when entered freely and voluntarily must be held sacred and be enforced by courts of law.” Or in other words, “These new collective rules threaten to standardise advertising practise in Nigeria and take away our slaves. Collective bargaining is against the constitution. We must be allowed to continue bullying agencies and wrecking creative agencies through corporate bullying and contract slavery.”

Nigeria is part of the world

When he speaks about the AISOP vs ADVAN saga, APCON Registrar, Dr. Olalekan Fadolapo always makes one specific observation – many of the corporate entities currently fighting back against these bare minimum industry operating standards actually have no problem complying with significantly more stringent standards everywhere else they operate – including in other African countries. I think that this is perhaps the most important point to raise about this issue, because I also witnessed this corporate Apartheid first-hand during my time on the agency side.

Several accounts were shared with foreign agencies because the clients were transnational, and I would observe that these agencies never needed to send dozens of reminder emails, make pleading phone calls to the finance department, or cultivate ethically sketchy friendships and relationships just to get their invoices paid. When their invoices were due, they got paid. It was as simple as that. The foreign partner agencies never heard the “We are having to prioritise what supplier invoices to pay out first due to cashflow constraints” line. They never heard “We’ll see what we can do before the end of next week.” They never found themselves summoned to Head Office the day before Christmas to claim half a year’s worth of unpaid invoices at once or lose all of them. Something was due – it got paid.

With us on the other hand, it was always something. Cashflow management situation today, internal audit tomorrow, “I’ll try to push your invoice” the day after that. It didn’t take a genius to figure out that many clients were in fact, taking liberties with us for the simple reason that we were Nigerian and in Nigeria, so they could get away with it. The Advertising Standards Authority of South Africa would deal very quickly and decisively with any client that dared to hold a South African agency’s money beyond 30 days of invoice receipt. The ASA’s standards mandated the payment of a compulsory minimum pitch rejection fee – worth the equivalent of N4 million. Good luck with trying to make South African agencies run through pitch processes set up to feel like episodes of Squid Game – you simply could not get away with any of that nonsense.

Over here, due to the absence of a substantial and fit-for-purpose set of operating standards, the same organisation that have no business complying with more stringent rules even in Ghana, suddenly believe that being required to have written contracts, obey copyright laws and pay as and when due, is in contravention of their constitutional right to cheat Nigerian agencies and even steal their creative work. To these organisations, I have a few simple questions.

Do you believe that Nigeria is not on the same planet as the rest of the jurisdictions you operate in? Do you believe that Nigerians simply do not deserve good things? Do you think that you will get the best value from your creative backbones when they feel unsafe, insecure and vulnerable due to the way you want to keep on treating them indefinitely?