Ideally, if you were to cut to the chase, Chris Bitti is just a very well reformed geek. And he will concur.
He started out doing math and computer science. At some point, he studied artificial intelligence in university in South Africa before quitting to do design and motion graphics. The person he was to later become quickly unspooled as he delved into brand strategy.
Born in Cameroon and educated in South Africa, Chris, who was running a business in South Africa, was enticed to dip his toes in the Kenyan market by Gil Kemami and Koome Mwambia – then of Ogilvy and Mather. He started DB Agency with Coca Cola as his first client soon after.
But he isn’t just a businessman, he insists when I meet him in his office at International House in Nairobi. There is a musician in Chris, crying to be let out. That’s his first love. That’s who he is at the core. And he wants to make music for the big screen eventually.
So you were roped in from South Africa by Koome and Gil?
Yes. They said, “Come, there are lots of opportunities for a man with your skills and talent back in Kenya.” I was doing well in SA, running my company. I thought, Kenya? No, man.
“What is in Kenya that isn’t here in SA?” I asked them. But I came and did some work for Capital FM as a consultant and when I got the Coke deal, I decided that indeed this was the place.
What’s the story with music, where does it stem from?
People think this is me. This business is just 30 per cent of who I am. The rest is a musician and martial artist. You know, all my brothers and cousins are black belts. I got my black belt back in Cameroon when I was younger. I just got back from Cameroon to visit my mom and I brought back my belt.
Music and martial arts?
Yes. See that room? That’s my studio, that’s where I am most comfortable in. I want the makers of Transformers to call me one day and ask me to make music for that movie. Of course, that will be Transformers 17 or something. (Laughs).
But I have time to learn what Hollywood has learnt in the last 60 years or so. I always tell my colleagues, you can’t have one career in life. I just can’t do one thing until I’m 60, come on!
You ran a business in South Africa, how do these two countries compare?
Kenya is the hardest and most difficult market I have ever experienced in my life! You know when I land at JKIA, I start feeling the pressure. In Kenya, the market changes so quickly and Kenyans are so fast; you bring something fresh, three months down the line guys have caught on! (Laughs).
Also in Kenya there is the issue of trust. I hate to say that but that’s just the nature of the market; you hire a guy today, you empower him and give him exposure and tomorrow he takes off with your clients.
But isn’t that the nature of business universally?
In SA it’s a bit different, I had employees who were with me for years and when they left, it was always very amicable. Doing business in SA was also easier because I was a black man benefitting from affirmative action and the South Africans preferred to deal with me because we didn’t have a history. See what I mean?
If the big boys of advertising in Kenya, you know who they are, knocked on your door and offered to buy you out, would you sell?
If they offered Sh120 million?
(Laughs) Look, one of the things that motivates me the most is to fight the big boys. I’m an underdog, and I like it. This is not about money, it’s a statement. We need to have some competition, and it gives me joy when the big boys get mad when I get their work. I’m not selling.
You live in the famed penthouse suite of this building….
Unfortunately yes. (Weary chuckle) I love it because it’s private and I can play my music loudly at 3am and nobody will be bothered. The view is also stunning.
Are you dating?
No. (Laughs). I don’t like where you are you going with this, Biko.
So a single, successful Cameroonian chap who can sing, living in a penthouse in the middle of the borough. How many women want to check out your place, Chris?
(Laughs and stares at me hard) I don’t know man. (Pause) It depends on what women we are talking about. (Pause) Look, we have women doing big stuff for themselves who don’t need you. This is the kind of woman who would want to see it out of curiosity.
Then there are the 23/24-year olds who would jump at that opportunity quickly. But come on, I live in media. I know what it is.
Why are you not dating again? I’m sure women reading this would want to know. Anything wrong?
(The photographer laughs) I think I’m fine. (Laughs). You see, Biko, and let’s just talk as men here, you know this city, and you know how it is out there. It’s crazy. Come on man, I’m 39. I’m more careful now. I dated a lawyer though, if you want to know, great girl but it didn’t work out.
So what kind of girl are you looking for?
Simple girl; simple and honest. Come on, most aren’t honest, they don’t tell you what they want from the beginning and so they get in with ideas and expectations which when you don’t meet, it becomes messy. I mean people just don’t say, I want a casual thing or a marriage, come on.
Write this if you want, but I met a girl, beautiful, started seeing each other but I told myself to stop it because I realised she wanted what I didn’t want. So now I will wait, I’ve got some people in mind but I can’t give you their names. (Laughs).
Who is your greatest inspiration?
My mother. She always pushed me not to be second in anything but to be the best. She is a smart woman, always given me useful perspective in business and in life generally.
Word is you don’t drink. How do you exhale?
Everybody asks me the same question! (Chuckles) I don’t have to drink to exhale, do I? Why do we look at drinking as an activity that uses a lot of energy? People sleep. People read! Do you see what I mean?
What are you reading?
Haven’t finished David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell. I told you I believe in the underdog.
The whole of this week I haven’t met anyone – and I meet many people – with a kerchief stuck in their breast pocket. Dapper. What informs your style?
Funnily enough, it’s women’s clothing. I read a lot [of] InStyle magazine. You know, when I don’t have ideas; I usually open a woman’s magazine. I like how they put colours together. The most beautiful stuff are ladies’ stuff, it works for me.
Generally, 95 per cent of the time I have All Stars sneakers, jeans and a T-shirt unless I’m meeting clients.
What’s the soundtrack of your life?
Good question. (Thinks). The Man, by Aloe Blacc.