Bullets, bribes, and billboards: All in a day's work for Seven Brand's Jasmine Montgomery

Elliott Haworth
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Lagos General Views
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Jasmine Montgomery is a lunatic. Her words, not mine.

But not your swivel-eyed, skydiving, cross-the-South-Pole-using-solar-power kind of lunatic. Far more interesting. She’s the Indiana Jones of marketing; an intrepid child of the commonwealth, your average puts-up-billboards-in-warzones kind of lunatic.

If one were to make the opposite of a bucket list, Montgomery, founder and chief executive of Seven Brands, has probably lived in, visited, or marketed to the locations written down.

“Our whole strategy is about trying to bring London-calibre brand-building and advertising to the bleeding edge of emerging markets,” she says. “By which we mean, beyond the obvious, beyond Bric.”

Having led FutureBrand’s London office until the financial crisis – or “when the world fell off the edge of a cliff” – she and her colleague Piers Guilar found themselves out of work.

Rather than wallow in misery, they instead set up their own agency, poaching their first client, Zain (one of the biggest telcos in the Middle East and Africa), from their erstwhile employer.

With a foot in the door, a decision to stick in the region was taken. But they were gong to do things differently.

“Everyone who wants to invest in Africa goes and puts an office in South Africa, which is just so highly flawed,” says Montgomery. “It’s not real Africa. They kind of pussy out, they go ‘ooh Africa’s got a billion people, it’s a $4 trillion market, that’s exciting. But am I willing to go and sit in N’Djamena, Chad? No way, I’m going to Joburg to sit there with all the white people’. And we just really don’t think that’s the way to get your feet under the table.”

To say she gets stuck in is, perhaps, an understatement. From Iraq to Nigeria and many in between, Seven has set up offices, often containing little more than bare essentials, in some of the world’s most turbulent states. But she says, having boots on the ground sets the firm apart in its field.

A flak-jacketed Montgomery in Iraq (Source: Seven Brands)

Located in the “sort of post-colonial outposts” of South Africa or Dubai, one cannot appreciate the cultural disparities, identities, and technicalities of neighbouring nations.

“These places are obvious, everyone’s there, and you don’t differentiate yourself,” she says. “You don’t learn anything, and you’re no more equipped to go and create brands for Angola, Nigeria, or Tanzania by sitting in Joburg than you are sitting in London. So I find that a bit limited. I think people are a little bit scared of the world.”

Scared, Montgomery is not. Learning to view these markets through a non-western lens is just part of the job. The use of certain colours, for example. Black is associated with witchcraft in Africa, so be careful. Or understanding the unwritten rules of billboards in Arabic countries, another.

“If you have a billboard, you’re not supposed to have the model looking directly at the camera if it’s man, because if a very traditional woman walks past and looks at the billboard, she may be offended by the eye contact that the man in the billboard is making with her. Or her husband might say ‘how dare you look at my wife’ to the poster.”

It goes without saying that practices seemingly obtuse to western eyes are everyday life elsewhere. But humility – accepting that you don’t know everything – has helped Montgomery to win work.

Many firms fall into the trap of merely replicating their western ad campaigns abroad. Think of those comically-dubbed French ads that make their way onto our screens. Assuming that because an ad works in the west, the same applies elsewhere is facile. Seven’s application of co-creation with local communities to understand what they want and like helps them to conjure up unique, locally-relevant advertising.

Conversely, Montgomery says that sticking to western values can pay dividends. Boko Haram have spread a myth in northern Nigeria that Coca-Cola makes you impotent. So while constraints and social constructs exist, and localising is important, brands can do something quite subversively positive by being themselves.

“A lot of the world thinks about the westernisation of these cultures as a bad thing. But the fact that Boko Haram sees Coke as something that they have to boycott just goes to show that the democracy and the freedom that Coca-Cola presents as part of its brand is counter cultural to something like Boko Haram or Isis, and that can only be a good thing.”

There is one aspect of regional culture that Montgomery won’t be a party to: bribery. It’s an everyday, pervasive part of business deals across the Middle East and Africa. So much so, that, sticking to Seven’s principles, her team’s refusal to push brown envelopes across a table raises eyebrows, and costs them work.

“I have the funniest story,” she says. “A very large, parastatal organisation in Kenya invited me in for a meeting and said: ‘we have just rebranded, our chief executive is passionate about transparency, and now, we have a $2m budget to bring that brand idea to life through a process of culture change. Is that something you do?’

“‘Yes of course,’ I said, ‘we’d be happy to spend your $2m’. So I talked to him for a considerable amount of time about the process, and at the end, by way of chit chat, I asked, what is the process by which you will award the contract? And he said: ‘ah, well. I will award you the contract and you will give me 10 per cent’... The irony was lost on him.”

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