O2 Academy: Restoring Hope Through Selfless Service

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By Jeremiah Agada

It has been roughly estimated that seven out of 10 millenials working in advertising agencies in Nigeria are alumni of this Academy. This staggering statistic is verifiable if you take a tour of agencies with a concentration of millenials in their ranks. X3M Ideas, SO&U, 7even Interactive, Insight Publicis, Noah’s Ark, Creativexone among others are agencies that boast persons from the academy in their workforce.
In its eleven years of operations, the academy has graduated over 3000 professionals with around top 50 agencies benefitting in one way or the other. Conversely, it will take a stranger to the integrated marketing industry in West Africa, specifically in Nigeria to be at loss as to the academy being referred to here. The academy is none other than Oxygen (O2) Academy.
O2 Academy like Miami Ad School and its likes across the world is a hands-on creative training school designed to bring the real everyday workplace experience of an advertising agency to every fresh graduate and talented individuals with a passion for advertising. It is certified by Advertising Practitioners Council of Nigeria (APCON), the industry’s government regulatory body, as well as the Association of Advertising Agencies of Nigeria (AAAN), the creative advertising subsector’s umbrella for the purpose of offering training and human capital development for the industry.
Coming at a time the creative advertising industry was finding it hard to get ‘ready’ professionals into their ranks, O2 came up as an initiative by a team of seasoned Advertising professionals to revolutionize the ad world and to write the name of the country on the world map of advertising. “Taking a peep into the future, we discovered that the present scarcity of creatives would definitely jeopardize the Nigerian ad industry in the near future. Hence, we decided to come together with one simple goal, “to grow new creative ad men and duplicate ourselves in them” Ozoemena Mbanefo, Ozone for short, the brain initiate, O2 Academy, had said a few years ago in an interview.
O2 Academy is structured in a way that goes beyond growing ad men, it shows them why they need that growth. The academy is a 8-week hands-on creative training hub that has the School of advertising, marketing and media. At the school of advertising, students learn Art Direction, Copy-writing, Content marketing, Strategic Planning and Concept Origination, while at the school of marketing, their skills in Sales training, Marketing Strategy and Digital Marketing is fine-tuned. For the School of Media, students get hands-on practical sessions learning cinematography, video production and photography.

How It Began
The journey of O2 Academy started with Ozone, its Provost and founder. The vision for the establishment of the academy came from a not-so-pleasant experience of Ozone when he entered the industry as a very young man, fresh from the Institute of Management and Technology, Enugu, and armed with a HND in Mass Communication, observing the mandatory one-year National Youth Service many years ago. “My decision to start O2 Academy was borne out of my experiences as a corps member serving in one of the creative agencies in Lagos. I joined this agency in 2001 believing that my future has been delivered to me on the platter of NYSC. I barely resumed before I realised I was wrong! I realised I was nothing but an errand boy, relegated to doing menial jobs within the agency like washing cars, buying food, running errands, etc,” Ozone said in a chat with Brand Communicator.
“Initially, I was doing that with so much joy. I found myself in an art studio in a creative department where I could not touch the computer system, where no one was ready to train or teach me to design on a computer. I was naturally proficient in drawing as well as the arts. I just wanted to learn how I could translate my proficiency to computer graphics. In a while, I came to the conclusion that I was not allowed to get close to the computer system because I couldn’t use it. I reasoned that people will stop sending me on such errands if I can get myself acquainted with the computer, I had thought.
“Guess what, these people were not willing to teach me. It was so bad that I remember crying one particular day in the convenience of this particular agency. I asked God why I couldn’t just get an opportunity to learn what I have the passion for. I made a solemn promise to Him then that if I could find help in learning what I needed to, I will teach people who want to learn for free for three years. What did I do? I decided to seek help from outside. It was around that time that Yahoo (internet fraud) was gaining grounds. What I did was to start all night browsing sessions to learn CorelDraw from ‘Yahoo boys’ because they use it to do a lot of forgeries. That was how I learnt CorelDraw.”
It is a known fact that a dream doesn’t become reality through magic. It takes sweat, determination and a lot of hard work. John Calvin Coolidge Jr. a former American politician and the 30th president of the United States from 1923 to 1929, famously known for his thoughts on perseverance and determination said that “Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not: nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not: the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.”
So, running errands by day and ‘classes’ by night with Yahoo boys as tutors, Ozone’s focus on the prize ahead was unwavering. “At a point, I could now touch the system when the guys have left the office. You know, when you consciously try to get something, God will send help your way. It wasn’t long the agency employed two young people, Fome Ozuwo and Nduka Kade. The two taught me how to use Photoshop. That was how my story changed because immediately, I grabbed the knowledge and did the first design for Limca billboard. The work was so good that the client even sent a commendation letter to the Agency then. I also designed an outdoor material for Eva table water and Calypso Coconut liquor brand that was out there then. I became a Wizkid of some sorts within the agency. I got a brand new desktop PC, a Dell Model from the same agency where I was not allowed to touch the computer.”
Ozone will go on from then to become an industry nomad moving from such agencies LTC/JWT, Insight Communication, DDB, TBWA, Bates Cosse and 141Worldwide; where he worked on local and multinational brands like: Fanta, Limca, Goldspot, Eva Table Water, Calypso Coconut Liquor, Shell, UBA, WEMA BANK, Knorr cubes, Close Up, Lux Lipton, NBL Corporate, Ecobank, Legend Extra Stout, Diamond Bank, LG electronics, Sony electronics, Conoil, Fidelity Bank, GLO, MTN, ETISALAT, FSDH, Indomie, DSTV Multichoice, British American Tobacco, Cadbury Corporate, TomTom, Cadbury, and Bournvita to mention a few.
It was while he was at Bates Cosse that he remembered his solemn promise while weeping in the convenience back in 2001. In 2007, he started classes in his two-bedroom apartment at Morgan Estate. Ever since, he has never looked back in being a ray of hope, creating a platform for young-to-be professionals as well as creating a ready pool of professionals for agencies in the industry. From his two bed room apartment, the academy moved to his duplex where training was done in the garage and eventually moved to 13 Jumat Olukoya Street, Ogudu where it is today.

Challenges
Like every endeavour or initiative at the teething stage, the academy faced many challenges. What made it even more difficult was the fact that the academy offered courses for free for four years, surpassing the solemn promise of three he had made. That ran from 2007 to 2011. “It wasn’t easy when we started, especially with our first batch. It was difficult getting people to come and learn for free even though sometimes when you do things for people for free, they tend to abuse it. I was almost begging people to come for classes. Sometimes I will have five persons in the class, other times, three. I would even buy snacks and drinks just to lure them to class, prove to people that I could do what I set out to accomplish.”
Fast forward to now, outside the challenge of funding for the school, the academy is not immune to the vagaries of running operations in the Nigerian clime, which among others, is the poor power supply. Ozone recalls a certain instance when he got to his tether end and almost gave up on a pitching assignment. “I can remember a particular day we were working on a pitch where we had four teams competing against each other working on a real-life brief from Ruff ‘n’ Tumble a Nigerian clothing brand that specialises in children’s apparel. The students were supposed to present their pitch document to the client in two weeks’ time. For about two weeks, there was no power supply at the academy. So we were running on the generator. Two days to the pitch, our big generator had a knocked engine. For the first time since I started the academy, I wept.
“That evening, I called my students and asked them to go home and forget about the assignment. They had tried. I was already thinking of how to call the client and reschedule. Surprisingly, my students did what I never expected that evening. They appreciated the fact that I had tried but were determined to prove to me that they understand all the principles I have tried to instil in them. They stayed up through the night outside as inside the academy was hot, with seats and continued working. The motivation was high! You enter this environment, you will feel the energy. They did their project work, fixing, designs, everything till morning!
“I remember we went to Ruff ‘n’ Tumble to present that pitch. That was one of the best pitches I can remember we have done. In fact, an invited panellist who was a Marketing Manager for Diamond Bank and had been a Brand Manager and Marketing Director for years with other multinationals said that she has not seen documents as beautiful as that. These were works designed by students under duress, no light. It is the country we live in. we cannot help but to just find a way around it.
Those kinds of challenges will always come. But guess what, it makes us better.”

The ‘Oxygen’ Operational Philosophy
It is an established fact that Oxygen (O2) is one of the most important elements required to sustain life. It is in fact, a life “giver.” Without diving much into biology, oxygen is required in the process of cellular respiration (aerobic), a process through which living things produce energy through the food they eat. Therefore, oxygen in the life-giving gas here. In addition, life demands heat and there cannot be heat without oxygen. Every faculty of the body must have oxygen, particularly the brain – the most active part of the body. With insufficient oxygen, we tend to have difficulty accomplishing tasks; we lack enthusiasm. Sociability requires a good oxygen supply, for when you’re oxygenated, you’re vivacious.
In the same vein, Ozone explains that the name Oxygen, was adopted by the academy to selflessly give to young people (by restoring hope) and to agencies, and this has been the guiding principle of its operations. “We believe that you can never be celebrated for what you consume but for what you bring to the table. Everyone who works here from the staff to the students, to everyone who relates with us, readily gets acquainted with the O2 principle of selflessness. That is why we chose the name Oxygen. Oxygen gives, it doesn’t take back. Oxygen is about giving life. If you are not ready to give life to others as a staff in 02, you are not ready to serve Oxygen. That is not to say our staff work for free, they get paid salaries, but they have reasons for what they are doing.”
Closely following selflessness is perseverance and hardwork. “We know that if you don’t push hard, you can’t get through. Excellence is another principle this academy is built on. You find out that no matter how you want to help if you are not good at what you are doing, no one will look your way. That was why we went ahead to win a Loeries. That is our bragging right. Excellence does not come except there is hardwork and of course, focus. O2 is about restoring hope. It is not about the numbers but the impact we are making.”
“We are strict with our training such that if a student misses classes for more than 10-15 times, we withhold their admission, reason being that our name is very important to us and we believe that if we continue to churn quality hands, that’s how we will get our referrals and ensure a brighter career path for our students and alumni. We take pride in our standards. This is not about making money for us. It is about our integrity,” he said.

O2 Academy Alumni
A few years ago, the story of ‘Saturday the gateman’ went viral on Social Media. In a nutshell, it is a real-life story of a square peg that found itself in a round hole. Saturday was a security man working for Halogen securities and stationed at Insight Communications. A talented illustrator, he was confined to opening gates and securing his post until he was discovered by the former Creative Director of Insight, Chima Okenimkpe.
Saturday later joined O2 academy on scholarship where his skills were honed to perfection. He ended up with excellent grades, won the Young Laifers’ Awards and was immediately employed by Insight Communications. O2 boasts a few more ‘grass to grace stories’ like these, but the focus is on its over 3000 alumni strength.
As earlier stated, a large percentage of the millennials working in creative agencies in this climes have their roots in the academy. “From the first set of students we had when we started eleven years ago, we were able to graduate about five people and two out of these persons got employment. Words got around about this and more people started coming on board.
For me, it was all about giving back to an industry that has made me. It was my way of appreciation. O2 Academy has in the course of 11 years graduated over three thousand persons.
Not all of our alumni work in core advertising agencies. We have some who work with brands. Some are in MTN, we have an alumnus who is a regional manager for Diageo in Atlanta, trained here nine years ago.

Collaboration or Competition?
Ozone is quick to point out that like the oxygen that doesn’t take from but gives only, the academy will not go overboard by directly working for clients or seek businesses. “One of the things we are being careful about is that O2 academy will never, and will not want to be a competition to anyone, group or agency in the industry because we are riding under the wings of the industry that has given us the support and the opportunity to do what we are doing today.
“We don’t want to give any impression that we are better than our masters because they gave us the knowledge we are instilling to students today. We don’t want to attract any client to ourselves. What we are simply doing is showing what the students have been able to do so that they can enter the industry. We are very conscious and careful about this.”
For him, the collaboration they have been enjoying from the industry has been great but more can be done. “Be that as it may, we want more people, agencies to give us more opportunities to express ourselves. This is in the form of agency tours we have started now, where we go to agencies and get them to give us briefs which we work on and present to them to give our students practical hands-on experiences. A few agencies have done that with us and we are happy about that.
“Another thing we do is also to offer support to the industry. Being oxygen, we don’t just provide agencies with permanent staff. We also help them on a freelance basis. That is why we will never go to their clients. We come in and support them with professionals that will help them win that pitch because we are the oxygen to the industry. That is how we collaborate with ad agencies rather than compete with them. You can give us a brief from your client, we will do the job for you while you make the presentation to your client.
“We just want to impact the lives of people, giving them core experiences while impacting the industry positively. We already have agencies giving us briefs, but we don’t go to their clients as a matter of principle. In addition, if they want a pitch team to follow them to go and make a presentation, we send one. We will never say any of those jobs were done by us because they were not. They are done by the agency through us. We are like a supplier.
“We are looking forward to partnering with international organisations to join us in empowering young people too, based on the impact we have made, the ones we are making now and the ones we can make tomorrow. Collaboration is the most important goal we are looking out for in 2019. We are looking for people and organisations to work with because together we can do more.
We are currently in negotiations for a couple of collaborations we are working on. We will bring it to limelight once it is ready.”

CSR
Ozone is a motivator, a teacher and a mentor to hundreds of Nigerian youth. He believes in creating ample opportunity to every willing heart not out of charity but because it is the common good that holds us together. It is his dream that the lives of six million youths are changed in the country through the Oxygen platform, that is why he has, through the academy, created programmes aimed at impacting lives.
Asides the four years free programmes it ran, the academy is very alive to its social responsibilities. Currently, it runs a CSR programme it termed ‘Adopt-an-Adman’ initiative. With this initiative, the academy gave scholarships worth 4m naira last year and scholarships worth over 3m naira to talented persons with a passion for advertising but cannot afford their fees. To make this initiative what everyone gains from, the academy made it open to outsiders. “We are asking people-our patrons, etc, to adopt an adman. Just pay the school fees of a young person with a passion for advertising and watch the investment you have made in a life blossom. If we can get more people to sponsor young people to gain knowledge, what will happen is that there will be an explosion that will change the economy through capacity building and will affect every other industry,” he said.
Another way the academy intends to impact young people in the society is through tours it plans to embark on to higher institutions of learning around Nigeria this year. The aim, according to Ozone, is to deliver free lectures.
O2 Academy is also the organiser of the Young Creatives Awards, YouCrea, where a boot camp and training is organised for undergraduates. They get to work on briefs and make presentations. This gives many of them directions as to where they are headed as far as their career in life is concerned. We gather universities undergraduates and organise a boot camp for them free of charge.

Future of O2 Academy
Late last year, at a continental showcase in South Africa, the prestigious Loeries Awards precisely, O2 Academy was one of the only two creative outfits from Nigeria to win awards out of all that sent entries from this market. This feat according to Ozone, is what the academy is aiming to replicate at other international showcases like Cannes, coming up in 2019 and beyond.
More importantly, the academy is looking to make more positive impact through capacity building and expansion into other African markets. “For us, it is about how we can better the economy by bettering the knowledge base. Five years from now, we should be a force to be reckoned with in making impact through capacity building in this country. We see expansion into other markets in the coming years as parts of our aspirations. We have a collaboration with a school in Benin Republic. Most especially, we want to stand on our own and establish an institution there. We first want to perfect our plans from home here first, when we are done perfecting it, then we can export it. I can assure you that this is not going to take time.
“Our long term plan is to make O2 Academy an Academy of Arts University. The truth is, a lot of the things we do here revolve around art-from music, acting, brand communication, branding, etc. we are already doing that in bits. We have a studio where the students record the jingles they create. We also have a production department, cameras, lights, etc where students shoot their commercials and present to the client. Students also get to act, produce and present which is the entire process advertising goes through before it gets out there.”

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