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Building sustainable careers in the creative economy

Lessons from ViacomCBS Africa session at AfricaNXT

In the past decade, Nigeria’s creative industry has made a sure and steady move towards the centre stage as a major driver of socio-economic and cultural development. But the peculiar nature of the creative economy has left many creatives with questions about how to remain relevant while maintaining a career that is both profitable and sustainable.

Over the years, our entertainment powerhouse, ViacomCBS Network Africa (VCNA) has helped African creatives build careers out of their craft, enabling them to compete favourably with their international counterparts. However, it is not enough to build careers, we must also build transgenerational legacies — but without real practical solutions to the challenges of sustainability and profitability in the Nigerian creative economy, this cannot be accomplished.

At a panel session recently hosted by ViacomCBS at AfricaNXT, a platform committed to creating space to celebrate African ingenuity, I highlighted the critical imperatives of purpose, structure, and resilience towards building a profitable and sustainable career in the Nigerian creative economy. Joined by Inya Lawal, the CEO of Ascend Studios, we explored extensively the challenges faced by upcoming talents and proffered actionable solutions to them.

These conversations are critical as the times have evolved. The realities of the entertainment industry have changed by a mile. Contrary to what was obtainable in previous years, an increasing number of millennials and Gen Zs are shifting their ambitions from more traditionally acceptable professions like law, engineering, medicine, and others, to a career in the arts. This is a testament to the potential that the Nigerian creative economy offers, but it also means that there is more work to be done in building platforms and creating pathways for upcoming talents to adequately and effectively monetise their craft.

With a constantly evolving creative ecosystem, more and more talents are finding expression in the community and ViacomCBS is at the vanguard of providing the structure and know-how that can be leveraged upon. A critical component of achieving this is by engaging creative professionals in various capacities — as executives, creative business leaders, marketers, and more in our offices across the world.

On the panel, we highlighted the importance of operational structures in the creative economy, acknowledging that behind every superstar seen hogging the limelight, there is a team of professionals with diverse talents and skills to ensure that the star stays relevant.

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Inya drilled down on the subject saying that without structure, creatives cannot effectively maximise the opportunities in the industry. According to her, creative entrepreneurs cannot continue to hide under the umbrella of “no structure” as an excuse for not building their careers. As a creative, it is important to think as a solution provider.

To make the desired impact, we must identify the major impediments to success in the system and offer long-lasting solutions to them. For example, one of the biggest problems of the Nigerian music business is finding a record label willing to sign upcoming talents. Rather than waiting endlessly for a music label to signify interest, alternative pathways should be explored to showcase their work and monetise their craft. Through the effectiveness of platforms like the MTV Africa Music Awards (MAMAs), much of Africa’s music talents have risen from a place of national relevance to a place of international prominence, with artists like Davido, Wizkid, Yemi Alade, and many others regularly sharing award stages and collaborating with their global counterparts – a feat many would have termed ‘ a dream’ back in 2005.

In regards to nurturing new talents, we have music blocks to support up and coming acts on MTV Base such as Freshmen. Through scheduled broadcasts like MVP, Official Naija Top 10, Word on the Street (WOTS), 100% Naija, Down South, East Side and newly launched ‘Dripcity’, the platform has carefully cultivated artists’ career opportunities and spotlight through live interviews, talk shows like Behind The Story, entertainment news, and more.

With impact led initiatives like MTV Shuga and MTV VJ Search, ViacomCBS Networks Africa has supported the discovery of new talents like Dadaboi Ehiz, Timini Egbuson, Jemima Osunde, Folu Storms (who moderated the panel session), Nenny B, and many others. Only recently, the Network unveiled the ‘Culture Squad’ – a team of visionaries, creatives and trendsetters who are purposefully driving the African cultural philosophy across its youth brands MTV, MTV Base and BET Africa. This platform will give African talents a bigger stage to showcase their distinct originality, highlighting how they are influencing cultural shifts, setting trends and leading the conversation through a VJ centred content portfolio.

Oftentimes, the challenge is a lack of planning and direction which deprives the talent of opportunities to set clear pathways to a profitable and sustainable career. “You have to figure it out. People have different trajectories of their careers that they need to align with” said Inya Lawal. “And rather than playing it by ear, it is good to have a plan. To have a plan, you need to do your research, get a mentor, and discover your ‘why’. It’s important to ask yourself as a creative, ‘Do I want to be just a creative, or do I want to make money doing what I love best?’”

In actual fact, embedded in the challenges of Nigeria’s creative economy are the solutions — and even avenues for expansion that will affect not just the now, but the future of the entertainment industry. Young creatives must recognise that the challenges do not cripple them; they are inherent solution providers.

Challenges will always come regardless of the industry that one operates. There will be a catalog of rejections and several closed doors, but what keeps a dreamer going is their ‘why’.

When MTV came to Africa in 2005, with a vision to reimagine Africa, we realised a challenge with the quality of music videos to air on the channel. Rather than ignore the situation and wait for someone else to fix it, we decided to partner with Shell to organize series of workshops aimed at improving the video production quality through skills enhancement of critical stakeholders. This move led to videographers acquiring requisite skills from seasoned professionals, which in turn contributed to solving the problem of low consumption of indigenous music. Today, African artistes have their music aired globally based on their exceptional quality.

We have also created a drama series that not only entertains the audience but also brings to light issues that are hardly spoken of, particularly in conservative African settings — issues like sex, reproductive health, gender-based violence, HIV, and more. These are just some of the ways we celebrate and support African talent. You never know where your next idea will get to or the significant impact it will make.

As a creative, the core idea is to figure out your ‘why’, give yourself time to grow, and stay the course; not far down the road you will find that a profitable and sustainable career is part of the bargain.

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