Debola Williams Profile featured on Diary of a Naija Girl
Diary of a Naija Girl recently met with media guru and all-round gentle man, Adebola Williams who is more known by his nickname Debola Lagos and it is quite an interesting chat.
My name is Adebola Williams. I’m CEO of the group, RED. And under RED Group, we own several brands; project the future awards, stage craft, RED media, ynaija amongst others.
DANG: Why do people call you Debola Lagos?
You know memory seems to be failing me on that name. I think I gave myself Debola Lagos. I think I wanted to open all of these handles on social media and I felt what name do I use? Adebola Williams or a name that gives me a kind of identity that I like. Adebola Lagos is a bit long so I removed the A. I like Lagos. I’m a Lagosian. You know, people always say things like “nobody from Lagos” and we from Lagos sometimes, find that quite unfair. Because we are from here. If you are not from here, we love you, we appreciate you, and we welcome you but do not tell us that we are not from here because you moved here.
DANG: You dabbled into acting a while ago; do you ever want to go back?
D.L: Well, I’ve done a bit of acting in the last two years. I had a big filming in 2015, ’93 days”. The EBOLA film. I was the Protocol Officer who got the disease first in the film. And it was interesting you know, 10 years after trying to be an actor and it didn’t work. I mean, it worked on stage but I just couldn’t cross over to television.
You know, nepotism was more rampant at the time. But then of course, you can sit and make your own judgment and say what you want to say but if it wasn’t your time, it just wasn’t your time. But then, I love acting. I love stage particularly.
So since 2013 or thereabouts, I’ve been back on stage doing a few plays here and there for a few of my friends – Scripts that I love and I take it. I did the ‘whys’ with Kate Henshaw and Joke Silva. I did ‘Lagos life, London living’ with Funke Akindele. And then did the film in 2015.
DANG: How do you think you’ll have time to do more of that?
D.L: I think every leader must be able to find time to express their passions. That’s what it is. So it is my passion, I like it. And I had said that I would do at least one production a year. In 2017, I don’t think I did it. I had films but I didn’t do the films.
We were born here. You know, from Olobowo in Lagos Island. So for me, it was identity. And identity is important to me. It’s always in my branding tool to look a certain way but I go out of my way to ensure that I’m being branded as a Nigerian with the Nigerian identity. Well, I tell people all the time, I say “listen, I travel around the world, anywhere you see me, I’m wearing my Buba and Sokoto and I’m carrying the cross of Naija with the scars and blessings of being a Nigerian.
I ensure that I put myself out to behave in the best way I can – the best of any human being. So when they think about that man who came in Buba and Sokoto and the cap from Nigeria, they will only have good things to say and that begins to change their perception. If I came in as a man in a suit, and I behave appropriately, I will just be one of the men. “Oh yeah, some guy…” but from looking at me, you know any memory I leave for them is accrued to Nigeria.
When I’m in hotels, I get very finicky and when I leave the hotel, I ensure that I leave the hotel in a decent state. So they won’t say “those illiterates came in from Africa and scattered the bed or the room”. I’m that extra because I believe that I am an Ambassador for the country.
DANG: Do you think that right now in the governing system of Nigeria, we are ready for young leaders?
D.L: I think we are ready for human beings who are capable, who have the capacity and who are competent. It’s not about the age because we have had young leaders in Nigeria. The guy who was there before President Muhammad Buhari was a young person, the guy who was in Ghana before President Akufo-Addo was a young person, Dimeji Bankole was a young person. We’ve had young people in leadership. For me, it is who is capable, who understands the economy, who understands the economics of a Nation, who understands how to envision and creates a strategy and road map to deliver that vision. You know, that for me, is most important. But there is some plus with having young people.
First of all, if you have a young system, then you know that the tools for that system will be young and vibrant. The visions and the idea will be young and vibrant. The things that they will aspire to will be globally recognized. They are those types of things that come with the young people. But then, there are also the things that come with the older guys and foresight. But what I find is that you can then merge the two; where you put the young people to do the work and you as the elder statesmen support them.
So, I saw Obasanjo, for example, saying in an interview that young people need to get up and fight for power. My response to Obasanjo is that: “No sir, at this age sir, we’d expect that you will take the hand of a young person and help them secure power. That is the only legacy you can leave. We don’t want you to die and your legacy will be; before Obasanjo died, he used to say young people should fight for power, no.”
If he truly believes that young people need to be in power, he belongs to the boy’s club. Either convince the club to support a young person or step out and say “my own legacy would be that I took the hand of a young person, and I pushed it up, I fought, he didn’t win or he won,” Whichever… The outcome is, your legacy won’t be about talking but will be about doing.
DANG: How do you feel knowing that you were a major reason Buhari won the last election?
D.L: First of all, I don’t give myself too much credit. So, sometimes when you see people online saying all kinds of funny things, I just laugh. So you know, I don’t respond to those things because I don’t give myself too much credit. When President Nana Akufo-Addo came to Nigeria and said those things he said on stage, I was embarrassed. I bowed my head and almost wanted the ground to open. He said you helped me be President… God is the only kingmaker and if God doesn’t bless the King, he will not arise.
DANG: God used you.
D.L: God used human beings. A combination of elements; I am one of them. We are one of them. You know, campaigners are huge. But the beauty of our work is that the communication party is what people see. People talk, people feel. So that’s why people will then accrue us all of this credit because that is what they connect with. But there is so much; from training party agents to monitoring. You know, the people to deal with is a lot. It’s so many things. But communication work is a key rallying point. It’s a game changer because at the end of the day, you need that message to provoke action. And so, for me, you know, I am at a point where I think we can move faster. So, I’d be happy to work with whoever I believe has the vision to take us…
DANG: Did you make money from Buhari’s campaign?
D.L: Because they were oppositions, they didn’t have the money to pay us like the incumbent and we were approached by the both of them. In Nigeria, we were not approached by the incumbent first. We had started working for Buhari campaign when the incumbent came and realized that we were not joking. In Ghana, we were approached by both of them from the beginning. And we chose the opposition. So for us, at the heart of our work; how do we reengineer the society? What can we do? What are the platforms we can create? Who can we partner with? So these were the ones we partnered with to help fix the nation. And that was the intent we went with.
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DANG: How long did it take for Red Media to really pick up?
D.L: It was probably 5-6 years.
DANG: You’ve been friends and partner with Chude for a while, a lot of people say don’t mix friendship with business. How have you been able to balance that?
D.L: It has been the best decision we made. By the Grace of God, it has been the best decision we made. You must respect each other enough to have lines. But you must also love each other enough to forgive each other when you cross the lines. That’s the beauty of having a solid friendship before going into business.
DANG: What do you both have in common?
D.L: We had a solid friendship for about 2 years before going into business. And we had gotten a rhythm on how we could support each other before going into the business. So we already had an idea of each other’s strengths and weaknesses. Though we still went through the first five years teething.
DANG: Would you be running for office?
D.L: So like the trajectory I just told you, because I get that question more and more these days, I think for us, it’s always about cultural tension. If there comes a time where we think that me running for office will be the solution, once there is a need – there has to be a need, so once there is a need, of course we can run. But at the moment, we are happy working with other people. We are happy giving advice, showing people areas they may not be giving attention to. We are happy to support.
DANG: Are you saying the solution is for youths to be in power?
My solution is for Nigerians to begin to take more seriously, the responsibilities as citizens. You cannot hold people to standards you don’t practice. As a vendor or as a business person, are you offering me value, because when anybody goes into office, they will do the same things we do in our quiet corners.
On the other hand, when we put people into office, it’s a contract. You go to the contractor to supply you governance, you have given him your money, your resources, we should no longer sit down and wait. We need to put them on their toes. We keep focusing on the President. We are not even putting the governors on their toes. That’s the problem. The governors have more money and are to do more things than the president. We need to pay more attention to those.
And when you see a government you do not like, get your PVC and give them a red card. Vote on who you really think deserves, not the best of the worst. Get your PVC and be ready. People will come.
DANG: Do you think that the new media right now changes people’s perspectives or is powerful enough to enforce their results?
D.L: I say media is the most powerful estate in the world. Media controls everything. These things you are wearing today, you were told by the media. This color combination you are wearing, you were told by the media. The designers you want to wear, the things that Toke Makinwa or Kim Kardarshian wears, the Beyonce wears and outfits that are sold out for three weeks, it is the media. And what nations that are smart are doing is to use the media to prime their people. That is why LOA in Nigeria has lost the opportunity they had to prime and direct this nation to show how human beings should behave; the value of life, the dignity of being a Nigerian.
Those are things you communicate at the national level. You have a national media strategy on how you want your people to behave and engage. The values are important to you as a nation; you use the media to communicate them. So the media controls everything, literally.
DANG: What is the difference between branding and originality?
D.L: It can be the same and it can be created. Branding can be created. Originality can just be you emphasizing your brand “This is who I am. And I want to make sure it comes through on my social media”, in what you do. Branding is “go forward, this is who we want you to be. Own this as your original self”. Branding is the expression of what you’ve chosen to be either by originality or just by choice.
Branding is engineered. But the foundation is either who you are originally or you amplify it. But there must be a foundation. Branding is what the world comes in contact with. But you must first be something. So that something can either be original or what you chose.
DANG: Which one sells more?
D.L: It’s not about which one sells more. It is about which one you choose to. If you choose a brand and you are able to sustain it and you think that’s what works for you, then it’s your choice. Of course, the first thing would always be to do an original so that you never get tired,. You are not acting but if you’ve taken up this persona and you believe that’s what you need, it’s a choice really – you can’t blame anybody.
You can’t be rigid. Tweak here, tweak there, to fit the times. The chameleon changing color doesn’t change its values, doesn’t change it capacity. It’s still a chameleon. It’s just adapting to the environment. So once your core essence is solid, it’s good.
DANG: What advice would you give someone who wants to use the media to impact people?
D.L: Find a purpose. Once you are in for a purpose, you know the impact you want. For us many times, all the things we’ve done and that have gotten the national attention they got is because our purpose is to solve problems. Our purpose is to solve cultural tensions for young people. So our passions lie with youths.
So what party does your passion lie with? Then, we wanted to use the media as a tool. So, we found our purpose, we found our target audience and our tool is the media. What’s your own purpose? What’s your own targeted audience? What’s your tool? Find the cultural tensions and see how you can make your tools align with your purpose to solve it. So we wanted to in the beginning, create an environment where young people who were like us and we were working , we empowered and we felt they could take on the world.
We wanted to create more people like that, so we created the future awards because we realized that young people needed a place where they were celebrated and validated. There was a cultural tension that made them feel like they were nobody, they couldn’t do anything, society told them they were useless. So we created the future awards to solve that problem.
We galvanized and told them “this is your future. You can’t be sitting back.” And that changed the game in youth advocacy in Nigeria since then. When we did Ynaija.com, there was no platform where young people owned and had a voice on a political level. Bella was fashion; Linda was gossip and things like that. We created the first platform focused on young people, by young people voiced politically, that also then merged with pop culture. The difference was that we merged pop culture with hard news and politics.
DANG: What guides your principles?
D.L: My value for me is for our society and for human beings. I am very much concerned about the betterment of the human race and so, if I see values that can better the human race, and I don’t have it, I learn it. Because I learnt mathematics, I didn’t understand it. I learnt Biology; I wasn’t born to understand Biology. But it was key for that purpose of education. And so for it is key to have a value, to have a character trait, it is key to advance humanity. And I learnt it. Humility, kindness, love, forgiveness, whatever it is, you learn it. Because you are human. Because you are perfect. You are like a pot, you can be molded. That is why even when moments you are squashed and on the floor at the most moments when you build.
And so spirituality for me is basically understanding that there is someone higher above me who I can always turn to. When I’m doing this thing I’m doing with you now, by the time we are done, virtue will leave me. You need to find the ways to refresh and renew in spirit and those things spirituality helps you with; it guides you on how to live your life. It helps you understand some things that you hold yourself in bondage with. Spirituality gives you freedom.
For example, God doesn’t say love me or try to love me. He said “just stay in my love. I have loved you already. I’m giving you abundant love, so stay in it.” Your job is now to understand, so it helps you hustle less. It helps you stay focused. It helps you have peace. It helps you stick with your truth.
DANG: Do you mean that when you have God you do not need to hustle?
D.L: First of all, I’m not a big fan of the word “hustle”. I feel like it means you are just going all over the place and running around. So that’s why I said it helps you hustle less. When you have understanding, you focus. And you zero in. You concentrate your energies on what is important and what matters. And so when you have clarity, and based on your spirituality with God, you find your purpose with Him, then you are not chasing everything that comes your way. Not every opportunity will you take; you focus on what God has asked you to do. That way, you don’t ball out. That way, you are more effective, efficient and more productive.
DANG: How do you feel when people say awful things about you?
D.L: Posterity will tell. You don’t need to get into any squabble with anybody. If your intent is pure, time will tell. Did they not stone Jesus? Did they not spit on Jesus? Did Judas not betray Jesus? Dr. Obi Ezekwezile, one of the purest and most sincere Nigerians I know; did they not cast suspicions on her every day? One minute they say she is supporting Hausas, she is a bad person. Next minute, they say she is supporting Biafra, she is an Igbo person. Next minute, she is not supporting Biafra, she is not Igbo enough. But she maintains her truth so she sleeps well at night.
For everybody reading this interview, maintain your truth. The world will talk. The world will speak. If you try to be what the world wants you to be, you will lose your truth and it’s not worth it. So you have to find your truth and stick with your truth regardless of what the world says. Time will tell. When Steve Jobs was walking barefoot, he was a madman. When the world does not understand you, they will say you are mad and they are normal. You are strange. But only strange people have changed the world. Only those who have been mad have changed something. They were mad to chase electricity, to chase possibility to use the mobile phone, to create a computer. It was madness.
DANG: Have you ever been disturbed by any particular criticism?
D.L: Even Jesus wanted his cup to be taken away from him. So we all have our human wants. Of course. But these things I say to you are not just things that I say to you. They are the things that I live by, the things that I say to myself. Every leader must have his own trusted circle that will remind him of their essence, remind you, you are special.
For everyone, you must have your trusted circle. Listen, everything that you have done in your life, you didn’t do it by chance. You did it because you are special. You did it because God has given you the unique talent that you have pursued and expressed and you are now excelling at it. So for you to guard that talent and guard your space, you must have your trusted circle who will remind you when you are in your down times and you are burning out and they will fire you back up and tell you “ no, no no. you are not mad. You are on the right track, keep going”. But you must know your truth and when you have God and you know He is working with you and you know there is a journey, you have some level of peace.
DANG: Say something nice about yourself.
D.L: I don’t know how to do it. And I’m sincere. Maybe I can joke about it. But I don’t know how to be serious about it. I just want to give someone a reason to live. I think if that’s all I do in a day for one person, I think I have achieved something. You know, one of my team members will always say to me that he was suicidal the first time we met and how my conversation changed his life. And he will always remind me every year. I think those are the moments I live for. The more I can be able to help someone; I’m fine when people around me are fine. We all can be like that but it’s a good place to try to be.
I’m not perfect though, I have people who ask me for help and I can’t even figure out how to help. But the ones I can do, I do and I move on. But I say to people, if someone doesn’t help you today, doesn’t mean they can’t help you tomorrow and doesn’t mean they must help you. Nobody really owes you anything. So just do your best to succeed. People will throw shit at you, just take that shit and keep climbing on it. By the time you get to the top, you’ll have value. Just keep doing something. The rehearsals in the backstage will one day lead to a spot on the stage.”