'Ups and downs in our careers are part of the learning curve’ — Adenike Adebola
01 MAY 2021
Adenike Adebola is the Marketing and Innovation Director and a member of the Guinness Nigeria Exec Team. With an HND in Food Technology, she also holds an MBA from the University of Manchester, UK. She joined Guinness Nigeria in 2005 as a Brand Manager from UACN, and now oversees Marketing, Reserve, Innovation, and the portfolio strategy for Nigeria. Prior to her appointment to the top marketing job for Guinness Nigeria, Adenike has held many roles locally and internationally. Most recently, she was Portfolio Director, Spirits.
Prior to that, she was based in London accountable for Guinness’s communications for Africa. She was also responsible for Diageo’s non-alcoholic agenda for Africa spanning 15 countries, leading new market expansion, innovation and content creation. As a younger marketeer, Adenike was an embodiment of a dynamic thinker-doer, with a strong streak for strategy and commercial acumen, building a personal trademark over the years of delivering sustainable growth through the transformation of brand equity and long-term commercial performance.
Her leadership is premised on a personal belief that being the best version of yourself every day requires courage and commitment and the choice to be brave is yours and yours alone especially if you are a woman. She is currently a member of Diageo’s global task force on Inclusivity and Diversity, leading a new wave of brand accountability and participation with tackling negative female stereotypes in the media and in advertising.
In this interview with Francesca Uriri of Leading Ladies Africa, Adenike, who is married to Toyin with three children, spoke on her marketing career, the challenges and how she navigated her way to the top.
Let’s start from the beginning, how did your journey into Marketing begin?
I HAVE always had an inquisitive mind; I like to get under the skin of problems to unpack the ‘why’ so that I can build something to solve the issue; step back from it and go again if I don’t crack it the first time.
My first interaction with Marketing was in the first organisation I worked with after leaving school, UAC. At Mr. Biggs, I was appointed Brand Manager after spending the first three or so years in operations and I fell in love with marketing right away. Marketing excites me because there is always a new challenge; there are no guarantees, the unpredictability of the competitive environment and the adrenalin type energy that comes with working the dynamics, as well as the reward of winning the consumer choice is just what makes it so rewarding.
It’s been 20 plus years of operating in the marketing function. Since then, I’ve been exposed to local, regional, and global roles and I have to say, I still feel the same buzz.
So, did you always know that this was your chosen path, or was it unplanned?
Totally unplanned! I studied Food Technology and I always thought I’d make a career out of it. I remember setting my sights on the big-name food companies in Nigeria post-graduation, looking out for Management Trainee Programmes, and being disappointed, because a lot of them discriminated against HND holders.
I recall not being extremely excited after I got a job with UAC, and was placed in the restaurant business as a manager. To me, it felt like more catering than Food Technology, but it was a good start because I was intent on working for a proper Blue Chip company and nothing less. So, to me, that at least was a 50 per cent win. The rest is history like they say because, after that, I simply focused on being very good at everything that was thrown at me.
It wasn’t long before the MD at the time spotted me and took a chance on me as Brand Manager. Of course, as time went on and as every new challenge presented itself, I always did my homework, equipped myself appropriately, took courses that helped me become better, and basically learned whatever I needed to learn to set myself up for success.
In your opinion, what does Marketing entail, and what qualities are required to be a Great Marketer?
The textbooks describe marketing as the science and art of exploring, creating, and delivering value to satisfy the needs of a target market at a profit. The key theme that I often like to draw on when I think about the right qualities is the fact that it is as much art as it is a science — both critical in equal measure for success, especially in today’s dynamic world.
I believe firmly that what separates brilliance from standard in Marketing is the part that is art. It is the role of judgment, of a very connected mind, sharp intuition, and a good eye to see and feel beyond the obvious, going with your gut when your head is afraid and the ability to translate it all for your benefit.
The science of course ensures that you cover everything required; from commercial astuteness that drives profitability which is the end game, insights that support distinctive solutions for product, design, comms, physical and mental availability, pricing etc. But to be clear, the magic comes from the art.
People always seem to confuse ‘Marketing’ and ‘Sales’; can you share what the key differences are?
It’s very simple: Sales is transactional, it’s at the end of the line; I exchange money for a product or a service period. Marketing figures out what you need, why you desire it and how to put it in front of you and the story you need to be told so that you will willingly exchange value in excess of what it actually cost to make it so we can make money from it. The better the illusion of value marketing can create, the more profitable the opportunity.
Marketers are known to be quirky, creative, data driven people, would you say that this is an accurate description?
I’ll agree mostly. However, I honestly don’t like labels, because I believe that the more diverse a marketing team is, the better. All those qualities should be present; remember it’s a science as much as it is art. You do need your wits about you and some anti-status quo tendencies, something we’ve come to describe as being ‘edgy.’
You have to be a master of preempting what will happen and why based on what has already happened, which is what the data helps with. Then, you also need all the creative ambition and capacity to develop something that places your brand at an advantage, depending on what winning means for you. You also have to be able to sell that dream to the external audience, as well as internal stakeholders, which is where the capacity for storytelling shows up.
In your 20 plus year journey, what has been your career milestones and low points, and how have you navigated both?
Twenty years is a long time and I have stopped keeping track. I know that I cannot change the past; allowing low points to drain my energy is an absolute waste of the future and me. So, I take the learnings and move on quickly and promise myself not to make the same mistakes again.
The low points are an opportunity to learn and discover yourself and I do my best not to miss those opportunities when they show up. I also used to take the highlights for granted and move on quickly, but I have learned and am getting better at recognising them as an opportunity to stop and celebrate and to draw energy from them for myself and my team, energy that fuels us to take on what’s ahead.
I believe that the ups and downs in our careers are a part of the learning curve; the real tragedy is not recognising them. That part is a choice you need to make each and every time, understanding that nobody else can do that for you, even if the only learning you take from it is a reminder that “this is only a job”. That in itself is a perspective that can frame a better you for the future.
Still on failure, can you share any instance where you failed, and what lessons you learned from it?
The one I like to share will be when I worked with a difficult boss who was intent on breaking my spirit by making work difficult. I held my ground for almost two years and pushed myself against all odds, refusing to walk away, expecting reason and performance to prevail. While he didn’t overtly break my spirit and make me the puppet he needed me to be, I walked away with a chip on my shoulder; second-guessing myself for a while afterward. It’s important to note that even though I completely found myself again, I also learned how to recognise the moment to walk away and stop taking it; a lesson that most career professionals need to learn. I learned that exposing yourself too long to anything that constantly bruises your confidence is worse than proving to that source that they are wrong.
As a woman in the C-Suite, would you say there are specific challenges women faces or do they impact everyone regardless of gender?
I think the challenges are mostly the same, and while there may be dimensions that are unique to females, they are disappearing in a lot of organisations. I work for Guinness for instance and Diversity and Inclusion is something that we are very big on. Apart from the demands of family life in Nigeria (where I come from), we are more traditional and it, therefore, feels like the woman needs more than 24 hours in a day to keep up and matchup, and of course, the occasional boys club behavior there isn’t really any major difference.
My view though is, if there is a men club, then create a women’s club that provides opportunities for growth and advancement. Also, it’s important to find creative ways to extend your capacity with traditional home responsibilities so that 24 hours is no longer such a barrier, giving you space and freedom to thrive at being yourself.
As a leader and people manager, how do you keep your team motivated and efficient?
I believe in ownership, commitment, and accountability. Choose your team well and create an enabling environment so they can flourish and feel that everyone’s voice counts. I inspire my team to shoot for the stars, to be the best version of themselves every day, to be comfortable with vulnerability and open to ask for and offer help, to take pride in their own growth, development, and impact. More importantly, we try to find the time to play together. The team is what we make of it and everyone has a part to play.
The year 2020 was a challenging one for teams globally, what were some of the things you did to manage that process for yours?
2020 was weird, I’ll be honest; I found it very daunting. I am a physical person; I touch and connect with people personally. So, while those zoom meetings made sense initially, it very quickly became a challenge. We have a team meeting every month (still on Zoom), but we try to encourage everyone to have their videos on, just so we can aid that visual connection.
We have activities that encourage people to share more of themselves; if the kids peep in, we don’t mind; sometimes, a child is hanging on their parent’s neck while we are on a call, we don’t mind. Something that has helped my team immensely is the fact that we’re a switched-on team. Everyone is on the case with their work and focused on their own outcomes, so this means that people don’t need to be policed; they just get on with it and reach out when they need help. On the whole, it’s truly been a journey; I’m craving getting back to working face-to-face in one location, and look forward to when that’ll be an option again.
What do you do to unwind, and how do you keep your creative process fresh?
I lose myself in music. I think I probably play it too loud, but no apologies; music is my hiding place. Sources of creative inspiration abound all around us, you just need to know where to look and be deliberate about spending your time wisely. Or as they say, “Stay Woke!” I also do a lot of podcasts in addition to creative platforms online and on social media.
However, I think staying connected with alive minds is one of the things I love to do the most. I find that creativity is most stimulating working through a problem and thinking aloud together. This output is better refined and brighter when you work with brilliant minds.
If you weren’t in Marketing, what would you be doing?
Hmmm… that’s a great question. It would have to be music or organising events.
What’s your outlook for 2021?
I fully intend to give more of myself to impact young professionals