20-year creative writing for print, magazines, radio, television, and film industries

Breaking The Black Ceiling
February 19, 2018
They had much to prove especially as young indigenous Kenyans attempting to claim a significant stake in an industry that was stereotypical fronted by white Art directors.
Section: Culture


In the art of war, the underdog wins by employing unconventional tactics. Courage may get one to the battle ground but to win takes something extra.

On 1st October, 2002, 15 years ago, a small ad agency with an peculiar name, opened its door to business, in a global industry that munched local upstarts for lunch and spat them out before dinner. Saracen Media came into existence as the audacious dream of  4 young ad agency men daring to create Kenya’s first independent media agency.

The 4 Saracens were Sammy Thuo, Lenny Nganga, Frank Maina and George Wanjohi. Frank left in the early years to pursue his own ventures.

I attempt to deduce that something extra that turned Sarcen into a billion shilling company as I sit across from Sammy Thuo, one of the co founders of Saracen OMD, now the second largest media agency in Kenya.

The spacious Saracen OMD head offices are located off Kabarisan Drive in the Lavington area of Nairobi. The location is homely. For all its success, Saracen OMD retains an air of understated-ness. I witness none of the buzz and flash, stereotypical of media agencies.

Sammy Thuo’s office does not look like a billion bucks. On the wall is a framed black and white newspaper article from the Business Daily in 2003. A young Sammy, Lenny and George resemble a geek boy band than the new face of advertising that they were poised to be then. The office is a re-purposed single storey family home and Sammy occupies one of the  upstairs ensuite bedrooms with wardrobes intact. The only trophy of success is a picture to the right of his desk of Sammy with former Cabinet Secretary Anne Waiguru presenting him a prize at Top100 SME contest flanked by Josphat Mwaura, the CEO of KPMG.

Their decision to lose sight of the shore and sail into the bloody ocean of business upstarts was triggered by a turning point moment. After almost a decade of experience in the agency business, they encountered a black ceiling.

We have a scheduled lunch meeting planned, where I get to interview the two other co founders, Lenny and George. Sammy looks at his watch and ushers me out of his office. Time is flying. George who runs the Uganda office is in for a few days and this is the only opportunity I have to get all three in one sitting. We pile into George’s Mercedes to a Chinese restaurant about a kilometre from their offices. The restaurant is housed in an expansive old Lavington bungalow with a uninspiring design that sits on a half acre plot. We are the only the customers at lunch and they clearly chose the location out of convenience and curiosity.

George justifies the choice “The sign says, Chinese restaurant for African dishes,”. It is the kind of sign that would attract an ad man. The conversation between them is spontaneous and it is evident there were friends first before they became business partners.

Lenny and George have known each other since they were 5 years old in Madaraka estate in Nairobi. Sammy and Lenny met at their first day of work at the Ogilvy and Mather offices in Nairobi in 1994. They later regrouped in McCann and Erickson where they worked together until they took the leap of faith.

The menu is almost cryptic, written partly in Chinese with English translations that might as well be Greek. The eager waiter explains that the cook is Chinese and does not speak English.

George reckons, “ At least we know it is a legit Chinese restaurant”.

I find their personalities distinct.  Lenny, has a gentle nature. He is contemplative and talks about his grounding principles with unflinching ease. George is sociable, gracious and prone to witty and poetic quips. Sammy leans towards a geeky persona, cerebral, forward and proper in speech.

Their decision to lose sight of the shore and sail into the bloody ocean of business upstarts was triggered by a turning point moment. After almost a decade of experience in the agency business, they encountered a black ceiling.

“What is a black ceiling”, I ask out of curiosity.

George smiles and Lenny who is a gifted story teller volunteers to give me some context.

“In 2000, in McCann, we decided we wanted to launch a new media agency called Universal McCann with a different P and L. It was quite successful”.

By the time they left in 2003, Universal McCann was the biggest lead agency in Kenya. But the year 2000 was watershed for the trio. They had been mulling over starting a business but remained hesitant to take the leap of faith. That year, the CEO of McCann Global made a promise to Wall Street that they were certain to deliver on a profit. In third quarter, the profit prospects turned bleak and a moment of panic ensued. All McCann offices were ordered to cut head count, irrespective of whether individual agencies had made a profit.

The directive left Lenny conflicted.

“We had just consolidated all of EABL’s media. Why was I going to fire guys just because someone in New York says so and we are making money?”

The relationship with the seniors deteriorated after that directive.  An intrepid French MD named Thierry Dubus resigned shortly afterwards and  his replacement, an East Asian male, hired as group account director for the Coke account from Jordan, was promoted to MD before he set foot in Kenya. When he arrived, his first order of business was to put out a staff memo saying no one should have more than two tea spoons of sugar.

Sammy reacts, “He brought in headmaster rules”.

They had much to prove especially as young indigenous Kenyans attempting to claim a significant stake in an industry that was stereotypical fronted by white Art directors.

The new MD’s leadership style was stifling. The situation became untenable and staff said, enough is enough and led a rebellion. They got a petition signed by all staff, faxed to London and then marched into the office and ordered the MD out!

George recollects, “I think we are the only agency that ever fired an MD under physical threat”.

However to replace the ousted MD, the company brought in the guy who was running McCann Uganda, a man who reported to Lenny to became his MD who just happened to be white. That was the black ceiling and they had to make a call.

The food arrives. It is one big bowl of mixed vegetables, potatoes and chicken in stew. George does the honours of serving and as he scoops through the goulash looking for bits of chicken he comments, “Clearly, these guys are like Africans. They know how to stuff you with starch”.

After that incident, the Saracens decided to build something of their own. They drew inspiration from two people who set sail and showed them that there was life outside secure employment.

“One was Ndirangu Wa Maina who had been passed over twice and denied a promotion. He left to start Consumer Insight”.

The person who replaced Ndirangu was Paul Kukubo. In less than three years, Paul quit to go and run 3Mice. “Everyone in a senior position who was black was leaving to go and start their own businesses”.

Sammy and George quit shortly afterwards but Lenny stayed in employment to finance the equipment for the new business. The first order of business when they started in 2002 was to employ an accountant. “We had seen start ups come and go. We did not want to be carried away in the event that we got marginally successful as we had seen it happen to other people”.

They had much to prove especially as young indigenous Kenyans attempting to claim a significant stake in an industry that was stereo-typically fronted by white Art directors.

Saracen Media was the first independent media agency, not owned by an agency. They were not affiliated to any mainstream agency which was actually a big risk because the  clients preferred a one stop agency, that handled everything from media to creative, client service to PR. Basically one bottom to kick.

By mid 2004 Saracen had gone through over 15 pitches and not one was selected. They would quickly learn that the industry had its owners.

Little Saracen was coming up against the big boys like O& M, McCann, Y& R and Century Advertising. Saracen was new and broke which meant they were disadvantaged.  They had to find something extra. Sammy recalls the moment with colour. “We had to sell dribbling skills that Messi would envy. Speed that Usain Bolt would be panting to catch up with”. They had to be so good at their craft to render their weakness invisible.

Saracen was small. They had to be to faster. Nimbler. Sharper and with something extra that Sammy calls,

“Unreasonable optimism”.

Unshakeable optimism and the fear of failure was driving force in the early years. For about 6 months, no one earned a salary. They carpooled, counted pennies and knocked countless doors.

We get interrupted by the hostess, speaking in a heavy Chinese laced accent. “This fresh noodle. Together go with the supu”. She is not bragging. There are the freshest noddles I have ever tasted.

The gentlemen nod politely and smile. As soon as she leaves Sammy remarks,

“These potatoes are not properly cooked”.

We have all wolfed down ours, so no one offers a comment. The lunch is not spectacular but it is an edible and wholesome broth.

The inaugural office was located at Muthiaga’s Mobil plaza in Nairobi donated to them by an old client known as Sharad Ghai who would make a name as head of the Cricket Association. Business was hard to come by. Most of the big clients they handled at McCann did not follow them. The first months of business were a case of baptism by fire and it appeared that they had overestimated their prospects. In the month of August 2003, the phones did not ring for the entire month. Not a single client or supplier even called to say, ‘Hey”.

By mid-2004 Saracen had gone through over 15 pitches and not one was selected. They would quickly learn that the industry had its owners. “There was a campaign we pitched won and even got an appointment letter and another agency was given the business”, says Lenny.

They had no credit facilities with most media owners and little cash to finance a campaign.  The first breaks would come from goodwill. Their solid past reputations brought on board Red Bull, Royal Media Services and Radio Africa with credit facilities.  At the end of 2004, the turn over was less than 15 million.

Nonetheless, the Saracens persisted. New clients started to come on board and leave impressed by the quality of personalized service. They found work with Coop Bank, Kenya Revenue Authority, Stanbic, DHL as the early adopters.

In 2005, with the future looking brighter for a change, they made a strategic decision to search for a global partner, they approached 4 major groups and only the Omnicon Group responded positively,  leading to an affiliation agreement to create Saracen OMD.

In 2007, they became a multinational with a branch office in Uganda. The Tanzania office opened 4 years later in Dar es Salaam. In 2009, Saracen formed a second media agency PHD ( Pattison, Hoswell and Durden).

In 2010, they placed 17th overall in the Small Medium Enterprise (SME) competition organized by KPMG and the Nation Media Group. 3 years later, Saracen graduated into the club 101, as an SME making a turnover of a billion and above.

Strategic partnership saw the Saracen OMD group incorporate a full-fledged digital agency Bean Interactive run by Martin Kairie and Allen Kambuni.  Seeing a gap in the creative side of the business, Saracen got into a working relationship with Thomas Omanga and Timla Tieng, founders of Fieldstone Helms to bolster their strategic creative division.

Presently, the Saracen group includes OMD media planning and buying, PHD, media planning and buying with the tech advantage, Bean Interactive, the Digital Agency and Fieldstone Helms covering the strategy creative division. Today they have partners and an agency network footprint throughout Africa, in Rwanda, Ethiopia, Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa, Botswana, Mozambique, Benin, and Togo.

Saracen is now the second biggest agency in the country, pushing volumes in excess of a billion Kenya shillings. They are second only to the Scan group in terms of turnover.


“Focus on your craft, get good at it, become the best. When you become the best let it be undisputed that there is no peer. Then everything else will follow”.

To get a grip of the Saracen way of doing business, you have to go back to the beginning.

The seed for Saracen was solidified in Lenny’s sitting room in Madaraka estate, with a couple of friends brainstorming over sardine sandwiches. Lenny was a history buff and he read a fair amount on the history of the crusades.

“One man I admired was Saladin the king of the Saracens.  When the Crusaders took on the Saracens, the guys had bigger horses, heavy armor and heavier weapons. Saracens realized that they were disadvantaged and initiated a new guerrilla warfare away from the conventional direct confrontation”.

It is this unconventional thinking that is behind Saracens’ philosophy of successful leadership, applicable to contemporary business as it is to war. One of the core values of the company is constant learning. Two books are highly recommended reading at Saracen. The Book of Five Rings by Miyamoto Musashi written in 1645 and the Art of War by Sun Tzu written 2500 years ago. They are both classic books about combat strategy and swordsmanship that are now compulsory reading for progressive strategists in the business world. In these two books, the founders sought to embody the Japanese discipline of kaizen, constant improvement.

Constant training is compulsory for everyone. Every year, even the directors have to do a course to improve. Lenny and Sammy are doing an online course in big data and social physics at MIT in Boston.

The digital disruption is rapidly changing the world of advertising. “The world has changed. The whole world is talking about data and content. We have over 300 TV channels so, in terms of capturing the audience and communicating to people, the world is no longer channel based or content based” Sammy notes.

Saracen is now in the phase of succession planning. “We are future proofing” is what Lenny calls it.

Data is the new oil and there are no borders online. A new peak beckons. Add in the inspired focus from the Book of Five Rings and the Saracens seem to have the arsenal needed to ride the next wave of success.

Miyamoto Misaschi advises, “The teacher is as a needle, the disciple is a thread. You must practice constantly”.

What are the fundamentals in the art of success that have brought you this far?

I start with Sammy, “Focus on your craft, get good at it, become the best. When you become the best let it be undisputed that there is no peer. Then everything else will follow”.

George: “ Stay sober, be humble. Know your truth. You can get swallowed up by what the industry is, but there is the end and you have to get back to yourself or you will be lost”.

Lenny: “ Treat everyone with fairness and compassion. You never know when you might need them again”.

There is confidence in their manner of speech, wisdom in their words and a sense of maturity grown from years on the battlefield of business and life.

The table is cleared and we are served with green Chinese tea poured into tiny beautifully decorated cups. The aroma and fresh taste of the tea are as refreshing as the conversation has been. I feel rich in knowledge.

As Sammy pays the bill through Mpesa he utters matter of fact “I don’t want to be here in 6 years”. He looks at his partners as though seeking their endorsement, “We have a succession plan and all three of us have a date in mind that would be the last day of work at Saracen OMD”.

The lunch meeting comes to an end and the trio thank the staff for the excellent service. Walking through the house to the parking spot George notes,

“Isn’t interesting, that a traditional Chinese restaurant would be playing hardcore rap music” and that triggers a new conversation about cultural stereotypes and perceptions.


Picture credit:

Breaking Glass

Photography by Mads Perch

Courtesy of plusyes… the online website of Roberto Rosolin.