Leading Ladies Africa speaks to Alima Atta, MD Sesema PR

by ‘Jola Sotubo

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Running a successful PR Consultancy for over 12 years, takes a lot more than luck or serendipity. Alima Atta, Managing Director of Sesema Public Relations, shares how she has successfully run a thriving business in a male-dominated industry.

You’ve successfully run a PR Consultancy for 12 years; describe the journey?

Sometimes even I can’t believe it has been that long. It has been hard work. At times it has been extremely difficult, other times exhilarating. There have been periods when I have felt despondent and other times, elated.

I guess any business owner would feel this way if their goal is to build something lasting as opposed to just making money. I am more driven by my desire to have a good reputation and recognition.

Over the years I have met all kinds of people and had to deal with the best and worst of situations. High points include getting the Edelman affiliation and receiving appreciation notes from clients.

Low points include dealing with people who do not understand PR and who decide you are no good as a result; and, staffing issues. Now, I am quick to spot people who do not understand PR and if I am unable to educate them, I walk away.

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Over the years, you’ve deliberately maintained a low profile, who exactly is Alima Atta?

I am not a loud person by nature even though I have my moments amongst friends. I am actually quite shy which may seem strange for someone in PR. I also do not believe that a PR professional should promote themselves to the extent that they become like a celebrity – see what has happened to the PR Guru Max Clifford. That is of course an extreme case but look where he is today, and everyone knows who he unfortunately because he made sure they did.

Our job is to ensure that our clients are presented in a positive light and through our good work, we in turn get recognition. Of course there is nothing wrong with lending your thoughts to a good interview or article about your sector to demonstrate your knowledge but there should be a limit.

So to answer your question about who I am; I come from a solid background, born to two awesome parents who taught us from an early age that a good name, strong morals and decency are more important than anything.

This is something that definitely runs through my life. I am also driven; tough and focused. I can be impatient because I want things done yesterday, but I am also sensitive and kind.

 You started off running your business in a predominantly male-dominated industry. How have you fared and how have things changed in recent times?

I get asked this a lot. When I first came along, yes it was a male dominated industry, and guess what – it still is! There are more women running agencies now but still not many compared to the number of men.

Being a woman sometimes works in my favour and other times it doesn’t. I have gone to pitches where I see men in suits looking like ‘men’ and then I turn up looking like … a ‘girl’ and I know instantly that I may not get the job. Other times people are looking for the woman’s touch or just fancy you (let’s be honest here) and it helps! Have things changed in recent times? Not much to be honest.

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Why did you choose to be an entrepreneur and why did you choose the field of PR?

I think the main reasons why I became an entrepreneur are because I have always known I don’t enjoy the 9 to 5 environment; I wanted to work for myself and I had very clear cut ideas of HOW I wanted to run my business.

I had spoken to one or two agencies when I moved home but they were not doing what I wanted to do, or doing it how I wanted to. Oh did I mention that I have OCD and want things a particular way? People that have worked for me can attest to that!

Also money wasn’t my main objective because as you know at the beginning as an entrepreneur you don’t make much money until you have that break through. Well.. let me say some entrepreneurs!

I stumbled into PR actually. I studied French and had this dream that I would be an interpreter working in Geneva. Then I studied Marketing and wanted to be this Marketing Guru.

I had several jobs then ended up creating and managing telecoms events after a stint at AT&T in the USA, and finally a recruitment consultant sat with me, pointed out all my skills to me and told me I should consider a career in PR. So I did and got a job at a small tech agency in London, and as they say the rest is history!

What are some of the challenges you’ve faced running a PR Consultancy?

Staffing, staffing, staffing. Did I say staffing? This is probably the biggest challenge. It is actually easier to get clients – if you do a good job. But getting good staff and when you do, getting them to stay; that is hard. Churn in the industry is high.

Young people want to fly before they can walk and want expensive clothes, phones and gadgets, so it’s all about money. No one wants to work steadily and build up; they want to become big yesterday. It is quite sad because this way they don’t learn enough. They will leave and take that job that pays them more – being ‘liquid’ seems more important that knowing the job.

As someone who runs an agency where communication is important, over the years I have seen some very worrying things. The education level in the country has dropped and people don’t speak or write properly.

Social media doesn’t help because everything is done in shorthand or with icons, so it doesn’t really help writing skills. Having said all this, I have had some great staff that have helped build the agency to what it is today.

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Some are of the opinion that PR is a dying branch of Marketing; what’s your take on that?

Is that why every year there are more companies making requests for PR? I don’t believe that for a second. The only issue I see is that companies don’t pay agencies well for enough for the service. The whole issue of intangibility still exists.

You run a PR Consultancy, have a show – Talk Business on Smooth FM, and at some point used to have a column in a magazine. Do you have any plans to own and maybe run a full-fledged media outfit in future?

No, I am trying to retire! I am just someone who has a lot of ideas, likes to try different things and who enjoys creativity. The show Talk Business was one such idea. I felt that we needed something on radio for our industry where we could announce our news and our clients’ news – like a magazine.

I took the idea to my client Visa and they decided to sponsor it if I made some changes, so, it became a general business programme instead. Visa sponsored the show for a year and a half with me as the host. I really enjoyed my time at Smooth. I had done a couple of radio interviews before but never done anything as a host. I learnt a lot.

In 2007, you hosted the first ever Annual PR Conference in Nigeria, any plans to bring that back?

It actually ran in 2007 and 2008, and then the following year we ran a training course for Enterprise Creative’s career fair. We try to do something each year where we help educate a certain number of people so it doesn’t have to be in the PR Conference format.

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It’s been said that most entrepreneurs drive themselves really hard, and those around them? Does this hold true for you?

I am afraid it does and I do. I believe this is the reason why I have been successful. I am never satisfied and I believe there is always room for improvement. The other day I had a eureka moment when I realised that I must have done something good with the number of staff I have had who have gone on to be head of communications in companies – after just two years with me.

This is unheard of and typically a head of comms would have worked for probably closer to 8 years or so. So clearly something is being instilled in some of them that makes them want to strive improve and succeed.

Where do you see Sesema PR in the next 5 years?

I see Sesema PR maintaining its position in the market as one of the most respected agencies in Nigeria. We already have an international affiliation with Edelman, the largest agency in the world; we already have a solid client base. If we get staffing right then we are on to good thing.

How do you know when it’s time to take a break and how do you relax?

No one has to tell me when to relax and take a break. I am very good at recognising this. I also believe it’s important for the brain and the body. I relax by going on holiday; reading on my couch and watching TV!

Is there truly anything like Work-Life-Balance, and how does it translate to the modern-day working woman?

It really depends on the individual. The modern day working woman is typically a wife and mother who has to balance working, looking after her kids and spending time with her husband. It can’t be an easy thing to do. I don’t have those issues so I am able to live as I like.

Name 5 women you admire and why?

Anyone who knows me well knows that I have always admired Steffi Graff for her calm, strategic way of playing tennis and her ability to stay in control even when she was down.

I admire Michelle Obama because she matches and at times surpasses her husband’s capabilities. I admire Oprah, my mother and my sister Sefi Atta for ditching her career in accountancy and becoming a well-known writer.

If you weren’t in PR, what would you be doing?

Running a bar in the Caribbean feeling irie!

What advice would you give younger women in PR/media, or those just starting out?

It depends – are they starting their own business or working for someone else? In any case, listen and learn; keep your ears and eyes open. Emulate someone you look up to for the right reasons; ask for feedback and be prepared to receive it too.

What is your philosophy or personal mantra?

Live your life and not someone else’s

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