Ideas & Debate

Turning KICC into a billboard is taking advertising too far


A Samsung advert on KICC on October 30, 2013. It behoves Kenyan architects to protect landmarks from commercial manipulation. Photo/JEFF ANGOTE

There are few, if any, personalities who draw the same amount of respect, admiration and influence as the Pope. Many advertising executives would give an arm and a leg to have an endorsement from a man with such positive public exposure. This would be product placement in its finest form.

This reminds me of an anecdote among the advertising fraternity. It depicts these three marketing executives from a high ranking PR firm representing a giant sugar miller who pays the Pope a visit at his Vatican residence.

After receiving the papal blessings, the lead executive of the delegation shares the agenda of the visit: “Your Eminence, we do have a deal for you. Easter is coming up and we shall have billions of people tuned in to listen to your sermon. On the same day, our company will be launching our newest line of our sugar products. Now this is our minor request. As you recite the Lord’s Prayer, if you don’t mind, alter just one word in it from ‘give us this day our daily bread...’ to ‘give us this day our daily sugar...’and we will donate $500 million dollars to the Church”.

The Pope responds saying, “That is impossible. The prayer is the Word of the Lord and it must not be changed”. “Well,” says the PR executive, “we are prepared to donate $1 billion to the Church if you oblige to alter that single word in the Lord’s Prayer.”

Again the Pope replies “That is impossible. The prayer is the Word of the Lord and it must not be changed.” Finally, the PR executive says, “This is our last offer. We will donate $5 billion to the church for that single alteration.”

The Pope remained adamant. Dejected, they board their private jet and go back to their home country. “How can the Pope be so stubborn,” the lead PR guy complains to his colleagues. “I wonder how much the bread guys are paying him!”

I shared this story for two reasons. One, it cracks me up and I sincerely hope it cracks you up too, albeit subtly. Secondly, and, more importantly, it illustrates the need for limits on advertising lest we end up commercialising every aspect of life.

We should be aware that some things should remain sacred in our eyes and no amount of money should make us alter them without feeling as if we are committing sacrilege. Like I did recently when I realised that what I had long considered our capital city’s main landmark was being obliterated into a billboard.

A little history will suffice.

The idea to construct Kenyatta International Conference Centre ( KICC) is said to have been the brain child of the then Kanu Secretary General Tom Mboya. He wanted for his party a building that would serve as the headquarters as well as being the meeting venue for the governing council. David Mutiso, who was by then the chief architect at the Ministry of Public Works, was mandated to work with Karl Henrik Nostvik to design such a structure.

The construction began in 1967 and was completed in 1973. It was a stunning 105-metre mega structure of 28 floors, which dwarfed Hilton Hotel to become the tallest building in Nairobi. Apparently, as I discovered in my research, this feat was not surpassed by the building of Times Tower as is commonly thought but, at 120 metres high, by Telposta Towers, some 26 years later.

KICC now ranks an unimpressive third and will soon be eclipsed if arrays of new skyscrapers are constructed as planned.

But it is not the height that marks the special status that the building enjoys among Kenyans. For 40 years since its completion, KICC has been the unmistaken landmark of our capital city. In a way, its iconic status means it has effectively served as the logo of ‘The City in the Sun’ and by extension our nationalism.

The structure boldly displays our culture and heritage as a Kenyan people. The building’s light teracotta façade reflects traditional African architecture, as does the use of simple solid shapes, for instance the cuboids making up the plenary hall.

The tower’s commanding presence is a reflection of the resilience of the Kenyan spirit. The amphitheatre cone brings to mind the images of our lovely Mount Kenya. As if to cement our patriotism, the statue of our founding father sits majestically in its courtyard displaying our sovereignty.

Kenyans sighed with relief when, in 2003, the building returned to the State. Ten years later, the management board has done a splendid job. The number of international conferences and exhibitions held at the venue are a reflection of the good work.

However, I don’t want them to interfere with the beautiful structure by turning the exterior of the top floors into a billboard. Not only is the resultant look repulsive, it is ugly and spoils the intended finishing effect that the original designers had in mind.

The money paid for the ad can never replace the lost beauty and prestige that the building accords. There are smarter ways of making money from the building than such brandish efforts.

The image of the building, for instance, should be copyrighted and its commercial use licensed. This will bring in more money than in the current set up. No brand would want to use the image of a building that has another brand plastered onto it.

I was shocked that the name of the building was also altered from ‘Conference Centre’ to ‘Convention Centre’ during its rebranding early this year. (By the way, Convention is a much narrower definition than Conference). Some things are brands simply because they should never change. It is what the Lord’s prayer means to Christians. It is what KICC means to Kenyans.

I hope the Architectural Association of Kenya can lead the way of protecting our architectural masterpieces from commercial manipulation. For now I will take my efforts to Twitter: #BringBackKICC.

Mr Sissey is a management and communications consultant. [email protected] [email protected]