Africa is en vogue

George Issaias, Founder and MD of African Speakers and Artists

Born in Kenya, but having lived 12 years in the UK, George Issaias moved back to Nairobi in 2013 to set up African Speakers and Artists (AS+A). Prior to that, George spent 11 years at Jack Morton Worldwide, the leading global brand experience agency and one of the most highly respected marketing services agencies in the world. George brings to the table in depth knowledge of all facets of the event/festival, film and talent industry and matches it with deep ‘product’ knowledge and strategic thinking.

 Identified by True Africa as a key influencer in 'shaping the Africa of today,' George is focused on boosting the creative economy in the region and the continent. With a diverse roster of over 60 speakers and artists, AS+A is engaged with a vast cross-section of industries including music, technology, business and conservation. AS+A also works hard to leave a positive impact on the community and has worked closely with various causes; including conservation, education and humanitarian efforts.

I know you from your days at Jack Morton Worldwide in London, what prompted the move to Kenya?

It was a combination of factors. On the one hand, it was feeling that I’d come to the end of an amazing 11-year stint working in London - which culminated with the Olympic Games and working with one of the leading agencies in the world. On the other hand, it finally made sense from a business perspective to return knowing that so much was happening in a part of the world which I really loved, and where my family was. 

I came back to Kenya in September 2013, and set up my base in Nairobi. I had my ear to the ground for a while as I thought about what I was going to do next, and I was hearing about so many game changing innovations and developments coming out of the region; seven out of the ten fastest-growing economies in the world were African, and there were many dynamic personalities emerging. I felt compelled to be a part of that growth story. 

You’ve set up AS+A, what’s the thinking behind the agency?

I sensed early on that in many ways Africa is en vogue. At the time there was this perfect storm brewing back home; new brands entering the market, new personalities emerging, new innovations happening, new event infrastructure, and just so many things that leant themselves to an agency like mine, namely a speaker bureau and talent booking agency. Whilst at Jack Morton, I found a lot of the thematic focus of global brand events and brand activity was shifting to Africa. It was prime time to set up an agency involved in the event industry, and conditions allowed African talent to be given a platform where global brands could find them, and tap into the perspectives that they can offer.   

Broadly speaking, my commitment to the continent is a long term one, so if I’m going to be in any part of the world for the next 30 years, it’s going to be Africa. 

How do you research the markets you want to be in?

We research quite heavily. I’ve always looked on with a lot of interest at what’s happening, and staying up-to-date with trends, policy and evolving markets. When I was setting up the agency, this interest became much more intensive; I escalated from just researching and staying informed, to being connected.

Over the years, I’ve been nurturing an ecosystem of people, media organisations and brands, who are engaged with thought leadership, innovation, and the creative economy, and now we are collaborating with each other and partnering on projects. This ecosystem is comprised of various individuals, and organisations like True Africa, Okay Africa, Ogojii, This Is Africa etc. These are all people who have the same mandate as me; to shine a light on talent, innovation and creativity coming out of Africa. So we support each other in that vision.

How do you research the clients you want to work with?

In terms of targeting, I’m able to tap into my little black book from my London days, but then like any business developer I also try and get insights into resources that are going to give us information we need as a company. We’ll find out what brands are exploring Africa, what brands and services are Africa related, and tap into big events that are Africa-themed, whether they are business, creativity or digitally focused.

One of the easiest places for us to start really is anyone with an Europe/Middle East/Africa (EMEA) job title or with an African remit in their role. Those people will most likely be based in London, Dubai or South Africa, and in terms of our targeting and the content we create, we focus on those geographies first and foremost.

The A in EMEA tends to be less of a strategic priority, but that’s changing.

Brands are fighting really hard to retain and grow their markets, and the next frontier for them to do that is Africa. There are a billion potential new consumers, an oft-quoted statistic, and everyone’s trying to reach them. 

If it’s not the billion new consumers it’s the mineral wealth, the natural wealth that the region has to offer. Not to mention the biggest, most significant trend is the burgeoning middle class, and increased wealth of that middle class which is allowing people to travel the world and experience things that they then want to experience back home. That means all of us; all event producers, venues and suppliers have to up our game to match new expectations from an increasingly well-travelled populace. 

 How do you see the event industry in Africa developing?

The event industry in the continent, and particularly in East Africa has made the leap from one of infinite potential, to one with substantial and significant developments, that are offering fantastic event spaces. We’ve also got some of the biggest shopping malls on the continent in this region – in fact the biggest one in sub-Saharan Africa, Two Rivers, will be launching at the end of this year bringing with it sophisticated new event space.

One of the most significant trends that is directly affecting the event industry is that event marketing budgets are increasing, and events are owning a large slice of the marketing mix. One of our speakers, Mark Kaigwa aka ‘the digital soothsayer’, recently gave a keynote speech at a tech event where the tickets were a thousand dollars per head, and the venue was full. Two or three years ago that would have been unheard of. That’s then allowing production values to increase accordingly, and the industry is changing dramatically as a result.

Is your market dominated by global or local brands?

We have massive local and homegrown companies that are now part of global operations like mobile giant Safaricom which is 40% owned by Vodafone, and East Africa Breweries (which owns our famous beer Tusker,) is majority owned by Diageo. On the other hand, independent homegrown brands are now thriving and they’re probably doing the most interesting work at the moment. A good example is Equity Bank or MKopa which receive a lot of love across Africa as bonafide homegrown success stories. In many ways, AS+A is an export business, and we tend to send talent to speak around the world, so we deal with global brands internationally. That said, we draw talent from regional brands like Equity Bank or Seven Seas Technology because so often they have these amazing blueprints for growth and innovation that many people want to tap into, and have perspectives that are globally relevant and have now become very sought-after across the world. 

With your understanding of the European event industry, where do you see the difference between Africa and Europe?

I think with events and experiences in Europe, the ‘event’ part is usually just a moment in time over a big overarching campaign which is often very sophisticated and comprised of many different elements, touchpoints and media. 

Whereas in Africa, events are certainly more project-focused than campaign-driven.

For example, there are brands like Samsung, whom I worked with in my previous life, and I remember the way they used to, and still, use immersive technology to dazzle and blow the minds of their audiences. That is not something that’s possible here; it’s simply too expensive to develop that immersive technology in Africa where the supply chain doesn’t exist. So events here are much more analogue, more human, with more of an emphasis in live performance/speaking/interaction rather than through tech.

Another major difference is that the creative agency or in-house brand teams also have very different experiences with event attendees; in Europe, organisers typically have to contend with event-fatigue and a saturated events market - meaning essentially that they have to do more to draw crowds and keep audiences engaged. Whereas the pan-African events scene is still in nascent stages, and you often find that although the events are fewer and far between, they often have more enthusiastic participants from the outset which can be very refreshing.

What advice would you give any brand that is thinking of establishing a presence in Africa?

Sounds obvious, but pick the right geographic base. You need one city to act as your springboard for the region you wish to work in. Sometimes I feel that South Africa is not always representative of what you find across sub-Saharan Africa, so the more practical bases often tend to be Nairobi, Lagos or Accra. It’s also important to consider what management you need to bring with you to set up your operation, if at all, and where they might want to live. There are some cities that can be particularly difficult to live in, let alone operate in, and (I might be biased) but I find that Nairobi is one of the more livable cities in Africa.

Following that, it is important to consider the nature of the business. For example, for technology and innovation I’d probably suggest Kenya because it’s such a great hub for programmer and developer talent. However, if your focus is fashion or music you might want to consider Lagos -- and I would give the same advice to a consumer product company because the population of Nigeria is enormous. It all really depends. It’s very hard to pinpoint exactly where to be, but these are the types of things to consider.      

Lastly, I think it is key to get perspectives from people on the ground. The work we do at AS+A is exactly to this end. Thought leaders and innovators can explain best, the environment and considerations to make in their respective countries, so that brands don’t take an ineffective approach when they go about establishing a presence and engaging at a local level. 

 Where do you see your business developing in the future?

Right now we are export-oriented, and people are trying to tap into the perspectives that our talent has to offer. What I’d like to do in the future is actually import really unique and niche speakers and performers that can offer perspectives and insights that can’t presently be found here.

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