GLOBAL consumer brands are changing their view of sub-Saharan Africa as a mixture of have-and have-not economies and considering it as an important economic bloc, says Josh Dovey, CEO Africa for the Omnicom Media Group.

Some foreign firms still relegate Africa to super-junior status within their networks. They will probably have a South African office, but the rest of Africa may be run out of Dubai, as a subsidiary of Middle East activities. North African markets can be managed that way, but there is growing recognition that sub-Saharan Africa needs different knowledge and expertise.

Where once European, Asian, and American brands would use several marketing service providers, either regional or country-specific — today most demand a single media agency to handle their activities across the region.

"When the big advertisers come in, they want a plan for the whole of sub-Saharan Africa," says Dovey.

"If you can’t oblige, you aren’t invited to pitch for their business."

Dovey was named last month to head US-based Omnicom’s media activities across the sub-Saharan region. Within SA, Omnicom includes the OMD and Phd media agencies, and digital and out-of-home specialists.

OMD SA, which Dovey co-founded in 1996 with business partner Gary Westwater, is SA’s biggest media agency, with annual billings of nearly R8bn and a client list that includes Standard Bank, Massmart, Distell, Spar, McDonald’s, Nissan, Renault and Beiersdorf.

Typically, media agencies are responsible for their clients’ media strategy, which includes campaign-planning and the purchase of advertising and marketing space. Outlets include radio, TV, print, and out-of-home (which includes shopping malls and billboards).

Omnicom’s emphasis on Africa is typical of global media and communications groups, which have extended their interests across many countries in recent years.

Omnicom SA has established a presence in several major markets, and these will now be integrated into the global network. Among them is a significant share in a market-leading Nigerian media agency.

It is understood that Omnicom may also be eyeing a South African acquisition.

It is not hard to see why global brands are taking more interest in sub-Saharan Africa. Several of the world’s fastest-growing economies are in the region, and although many are coming off a low base, together they make a formidable market, even if it will be years before the full potential is realised.

Africa’s reputation for political and social instability, even terrorism, is not a turn-off. "Life goes on," Dovey says. "That’s what drives Africa. Economies are working, even if it’s not always apparent from outside. People get up and go to work and buy stuff.

"That will never change."

He says there is a "push-pull" effect between clients and agencies as they move into Africa. Some companies, such as Standard Bank, are already active in several countries, so they expect their agency to accompany them. In other cases, it is Omnicom and other agencies taking the initiative and leading clients.

Dovey says it is necessary for the global Omnicom group to be seen as part of the process.

"It is important to our clients that they see an equivalent level of commitment to the continent as they do, and that we have support from the highest level to make this happen."

There are dangers, of course. Anyone who thinks South African advertising and marketing is a microcosm of what happens in the rest of Africa is wrong.

"To say that Africa is a single, homogenous market is like saying all the countries of Europe are the same," says Dovey. "A lot of marketers in London and New York don’t even begin to understand Africa," he says.

"Then again, I don’t think a lot of people in SA understand what goes on to the north of us, either."

Although there is some overlap between countries, each has its own characteristics and customs. Some may be cultural, others religious.

Where South African advertising has traditionally been dominated by radio, TV and print, they do not have the same reach in most other African countries, where consumers must be attracted in other ways.

Where SA definitely has the edge is in market research. Advertisers want to know whether their campaigns are effective. That requires detailed interaction with consumers.

There have been arguments about the accuracy of some South African research but, compared to what is available in other parts of Africa, where it is little more than guesswork, it really can be seen as rocket science.

"Where research isn’t available or is unreliable, we have to go in and do our own," says Dovey.

"It’s an additional service we are expected to offer.

"Although clients want a single media agency to handle their sub-Saharan strategic needs, they shouldn’t expect a single campaign to cover all markets," he says.

"I don’t think it’s possible to do a single pan-African campaign," Dovey says.

"My view is that it’s extremely difficult to have a compelling proposition that works across multiple markets. It’s possible to work with one idea, but you have to realign it within individual markets. It must be local."