Lenny’s season of purity

Saracen Media Group MD and CEO Lenny Ng'ang'a at the firm's Lavington offices on December 11, 2022. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA | NMG

What you need to know:

  • Twenty years ago this year, Lenny together with three other partners [one fell off], who had all worked for multinational advertising agencies, came together in a cubbyhole office at Mobil Plaza, Muthaiga to start Saracen Media.
  • On a personal front, his shirt might also represent the purity of the season he finds himself in now. He quit alcohol. He quit cigarettes.

Lenny Ng’ang’a is wearing a dress shirt so white it can only be a metaphor. It might represent the bright light at the end of the tunnel. Or a representation of the future in the offing, seeing as he’s settling into an interesting chapter of his life marked by sobriety - literally and figuratively- but also intentional introspection that was lacking before.

Twenty years ago this year, Lenny together with three other partners [one fell off], who had all worked for multinational advertising agencies, came together in a cubbyhole office at Mobil Plaza, Muthaiga to start Saracen Media.

The grand plan? Run a local media agency that would compete with multinationals in the area of media planning and buying.

The last two decades have been a mixed-bag, Lenny says. “But currently we are in a phase of reinvention, getting heavily into the tech space, market technologies.” On a personal front, his shirt might also represent the purity of the season he finds himself in now. He quit alcohol. He quit cigarettes.

And most visually telling, after 32 years of stumbling about in spectacles, he had corrective laser surgery and dropped them. His vision now, Jackson Biko learnt when he recently visited him over at his office, could be described as 20/20.

Have you had any stark revelations getting your sight back - quote-unquote?

I no longer wake up and the first thing I reach for are my spectacles. People should not take for granted the gift of good sight. I have had my spectacles since I was 10 years old and now without them, I’m constantly amazed at how well and how far I can see.

Has there been any revelation?

Well, when I was recovering from the surgery they put a gauze over my eyes so I could hardly see. As a result I spent a lot of time listening to the radio and discovered how poor radio in this country is. [Chuckle].

After running a company for as long as you have, do you get to a tipping point where you are no longer worried about starving?

I was at that point before Covid hit. [Laughter]. Oh Covid caused a whole recalibration. By 2019 I had gotten structures and systems in place, proper succession planning, we had even gotten to the point where it wasn’t necessary for me to come to the office.

Then Covid hit. Whoa. You quickly realise that you could lose everything in a blink of an eye. In March of 2020, we lost one of our biggest clients. Then clients cancelled a lot of advertising because of the lockdowns. It was a hardship period with tough leadership lessons.

There was a time I wasn’t sleeping worrying about the business. We had to borrow just to stay afloat. We used the downtime to start rethinking our business model. At a personal front? I’ve been deliberately spending a lot more time with my family and my kids as well.

We have two; my daughter is 16, and son 13. Covid time really helped me to get to know them a lot better, we got closer. I also added a lot of weight as a result of my daughter’s baking because it’s hard to resist the smell of cake while on a Zoom call. [Laughs].

Looking back 20 years in terms of leadership, what would you do differently?

I would definitely not take business for the sake of taking the business. There have been quite a number of businesses that we have taken which have very low margins and very high amounts of work put in. But you take the work because you believe that getting this client is gonna be good for you. Turnover is vanity, revenue is reality.

You are 52 years old now. What has surprised you about your 50s?

How “Zen” I am now. I’m unfazed. I’ve seen it all. I don’t take too many things personally anymore? I experienced the greatest transformation in my 40s. This is when the business was maturing. Also, it’s when I settled into my role as a family man and changed a number of habits.

I gave up drinking alcohol at 49. I was drinking too much and I had to really stop and have a reassessment of my relationship with alcohol. It’s in my 40s that I got laser surgery and also got high blood pressure. I stopped smoking in my 40s. I don’t think I started loving myself until my late 40s. Just taking time to do things that I love.

I started golfing, I might not play it well but I love playing it. [Laughs]. I started travelling on my own, four days of reflection and meditation.

Is there a particular event that catalysed you to just walk from alcohol and cigarettes?

Yes. It was late one night when I left the bar for home. Upon realising I couldn’t drive without endangering myself and others, I pulled over by the roadside for a nap. Little did I know that there were police officers at a roadblock 100 metres away.

[Laughs] A knock on my window woke me up, one officer asked, ‘umelala? I said, “eh”, he probed “umekunywa?” I said “ey?” So he said, “we will take you to a place where you can sleep well.” So they threw me in the police cell until morning.

My daughter had a recital in school and my son was supposed to go for some lessons for his first holy communion and I was late for both. My wife was out of the country. I felt really bad. Very bad. That’s when I knew I needed to stop.

I looked for places that would also help me to cope with this and everything. I found a wellness retreat in Thailand where I stayed in for three weeks. It’s there that I learnt things like coping skills and meditation and working with a psychologist to get to the root of why I was drinking so much.

What did you discover, why were you drinking so much?

The stress of running a company was obviously one of them. Also, my mother was murdered in 1996 - I was 27 years old - and I discovered that I had never really dealt with that grief. I was still grieving by drinking a lot.

How was your relationship with your dad?

Very good. He was a very jovial fellow, fun-loving. Sometimes he’d take me to the bar to do my homework while he had his drink. He’d sit me in the manager’s office, when done I’d take it to where he was seated at the barstool to mark my work. If I got everything right I’d be rewarded with chips, sausage and a Fanta.

What do you miss about drinking?

The camaraderie. I haven’t lost those friendships, I just don’t see them often because nowadays nobody is going to call you on a Friday if you don’t drink. So now I am actively seeking them out. A lot of times when I sit with people who are drinking I realise they don’t trust me. [Laughs].

There is a certain level when I sit with drinkers then I know I need to go home; when they start repeating themselves. Or when they tell me, “Lenny, you know you’re a nice guy!” [Laughter]. Something else I have discovered being sober; Saturday is a long day because normally I’d wake up at 11 am after a heavy Friday.

Have you had to forge new friendships now?

My son went through circumcision rites not long ago and it was a process of mentorship that involved other fathers who I became very close to. Outside of that, it’s very difficult to make new significant friendships at this age. It’s very tough.

But my wife and children are a lot happier that I stopped, especially my daughter, she was very disturbed by my drinking. To fill the time I’m back to the gym to take care of this one-pack because when you stop smoking you put on a lot of weight.

What do you want to fill your next eight years with by the time you get to 60?

Reinvent the company. I’ve started learning about big data and artificial intelligence, to drive the company into new spaces. I’m a partner in another programme that we called The Amalgam Leadership Programme - which is now in its fourth year of training great leaders. I’m also getting into the sustainability area. I intend to meditate more.

If you were to ask God just one question about your future what would it be?

[Chuckles] How would my kids cope when I’m gone?

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