Uncovering Hidden Talent: A Conversation With A Creative Director Ndukwe Onuoha

Hi Ndukwe, could you introduce yourself for those that don’t know you?

Ey up! I’m Ndukwe Onuoha, a Copywriter and Copy Director at Oliver Agency, where I lead a team of incredible creative talent to create communication assets for a global client.  Before this, I spent 14 years creating culturally relevant advertising in Nigeria.  

Apart from my day job, I am an Arts Council England-endorsed Spoken Word Poet, and have released two albums that are available on your favourite streaming platform.  I am also working on my short film, ‘Ada Ani’, which is influenced by my Igbo (Nigerian) origin and seeks to place our culture and worldview in mainstream conversations.

So, let’s start at the beginning. What got you into the creative economy in the first place?

Poetry.  Or, more accurately, a random conversation with a friend.  Or, if I want to look at the interconnectedness of things, I’d say Fallon’s famous “It’s a Skoda – honest” campaign.  All these things, at different moments, played a part in making me curious about the industry, leading me to where I am now.

First, I saw the Skoda ad, and thought I’d love to do something like that someday.  Then sometime in 2006, I was speaking with a friend, and he told me about how he interned at ad agencies during school breaks.  He told me about the different departments and mentioned that since I wrote poetry, I’d be able to get into copy.  So, in 2007, armed with a collection of my poems, I went cold-calling at the doors of ad agencies in Lagos and, probably to stop me calling, the guys at SO&U (formerly Saatchi & Saatchi’s Nigeria office) hired me as a copy trainee.

What is it about the creative economy that interests you?

This might sound cliché, but I am most excited by the power of the creative economy to drive development, empower young people, and pull families out of poverty.

Let me give an example.

In my home country, Nigeria, there is a problem of unemployment and underemployment.  With a criminally deficient real sector, there is very little for a recent graduate (when they do graduate) to look forward to, in terms of jobs.  However, we are blessed with a young, creative, and insanely talented population, who have used the power of their imagination to revive the Nigerian creative economy, making it a powerhouse on the African continent and beyond.  Today, Nigerian music, food, movies, fashion, art, and talent, are a staple in many countries.  This has had the knock-on effect of creating employment for many young people and lifting their families out of poverty.

We know you are interested in poetry. How do you bring your poetry into your day to day working life, and what benefits does it bring to your work as a Creative Director?

I owe a lot to poetry.  In 2008, I attended Anthill 2.0, in Lagos.  It was my first-ever open mic event as a poet, and it was at this event that I met a lot of the people that would shape my spoken word poetry journey.  This network has inspired me to perform on different stages across the world, as well as produce two spoken word poetry albums, eventually leading to my moving to settle in the UK.

As an advertising Creative Director, poetry helps me think deeper about the ideas I come up with for clients, challenging me to treat each brief as an opportunity for layered storytelling.

When we spoke last, you were talking about the telling of authentic African stories. Why is it important, especially in such a multicultural country like the UK, that we tell authentic cultural stories about Africa?

Chinua Achebe, one of Nigeria’s best, and most-celebrated storytellers, once said that “until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter”.  Truer words have never been spoken.

When you read, listen to, or watch content about Africans written by non-Africans, it’s always the same old stereotypes rehashed in new settings – a people beset by poverty, crime, wars, simple-mindedness, and always in need of saving.  Or, if you are really brave and utterly without scruples, like the journalist Trish Lorenz, you take “Soro Soke” (the defining phrase of the famed #EndSARS protests in Nigeria), claim to be the author of said phrase, and write a book about it.

But we must tell our stories, and we must tell them well.  I am happy that the lazy, cliché of Nigeria as the poster child for internet fraudsters is now being replaced by the much truer narrative of the country as the hot bed of creativity, entrepreneurship, and forward-thinking, future-focused young people.  This is the power of harnessing the creative economy to tell your own story and is the reason I am very passionate about it.

Talk to me about your transition from Nigeria to the UK. What are the differences, and what are the similarities within the world of advertising and marketing?

The ad industries in Nigeria and the UK aren’t so different when you look at their ambitions of trying to gain more mindshare for our respective clients.  Where the difference lies, in my opinion, are the audiences.

Because Nigeria is a much more communal, storied society, our communications tend to lean towards layered storytelling that tugs at the emotions.  Tied to this is that low internet penetration at all levels in the country, and the consumption of more traditional media, means that digital and social advertising are mostly at basic levels.  

The exciting challenge, therefore, is to create advertising that must hit the mark the first time one is exposed to it. 

What do you think the UK Creative economy is missing and what do you think you could bring to it as a creative director?

The fact that the UK is more culturally diverse than ad land.  I believe there’s a need to stop creating communications that only pander to people within our circles, and start listening once again to the Target Audience, and telling their own stories by mirroring their experiences.  This is one way to remain authentic and create acceptability for brands.  That should be the new purpose.

We mentioned last time that the creative economy can often be concerned about pushing boundaries in the UK market. how do you think this mentality holds the creative industry back?

With all due respect, I think there’s an obsession with form, rather than substance.  We’re a fad-driven society, and it seems everyone wants to be on the newest, shiniest platform, without caring to find out how much – if at all – the target audience cares about this platform.  That the media shouts itself hoarse about something doesn’t necessarily mean the people are interested.

So, if we are going to keeping moving in leaps and bounds as an industry, sometimes it pays to just slow down and listen to what the people want.

Thank you for sitting down with me, Ndukwe, it’s been a pleasure. Finally, do you have anything to plug?

Thank you for having me.  I’d love for everyone to listen to my newest spoken word album, NWA CHUKWU on their music platform of choice.  I’m also trying to bring my short film, ADA ANI, to life, so reach out if you fancy supporting the vision.