LinkUp Staff Writer
For any one close to the Ethiopian art and culture scene, Yasser Bagersh is not a name to miss. Since he started one of the most important entertainment magazines in Ethiopia, What’sOut Addis, around 20 years ago, Yasser has remained the leading figure in the entertainment business. His advertising firm, Cactus, is one of the leading agencies in the nation, but Yasser’s impact doesn’t end there. His other projects, including Way Marketing, Omnimedia and Lime Tree have been pioneers in the entertainment and marketing scenes. LinkUp Addis sat down with Yasser to find out what drives his impressive journey.
For all who wonder, who is Yasser?
That’s a tricky question. I do not know who I am, really. Every day, I am in search of finding myself. Every time I think I am close to finding myself and what makes me happy and peaceful, I wake up the next morning feeling that that is not really who I want to be. I will let you know when I know who I am.
Do you think that’s the source of your strength?
I don’t know if it is so. I admire people who are confident and strong, who know what they want in life, have deliberate plans about the future, are stable, have regularities and routine. I envy such people because there is great strength in being stable. I am not suggesting I am in turmoil or chaos, but I am in a constant state of an almost out-body-experience of seeing my life moving in a very, very fast speed in a million directions. Sometimes I let that go; sometimes I try to control it, and some other times, I just take a deep breath and watch the whole thing unfold. Maybe my strength is fear of boredom or being still.
What drives you as a businessman?
I am not a businessman. I am not driven by business. Next question.
How do you define what you do, then?
I am “passion” driven. I look for projects that make me happy. I see them as projects, as mini journeys. My mission is to be happy and to make those around me happy. Doing the things that I love to do and sharing them with others, and thus making this city an exciting place to live in. I create platforms for contemporary art; I create platforms for theater, music and cultural activities because I want to live in an exciting place, and in the process, Addis Ababa becomes a great city to live in.
Speaking of creating an exciting city, how do you see the changes in the city from back in the days when you started to now?
Oh, night and day! When I moved back here, home, around 20 years ago, I realized there weren’t many cultural and art events happening. When we published the first issue of What’s Out, it was a single sheet of paper, two-folded. There weren’t enough activities to fill that single sheet of paper. We to had to come up with activities just so the publication can look fuller.
We organized concerts, neighborhood tours, theatre productions and art exhibitions to fill the publication and make Addis a great place to live. Today, every single night, there is something exciting happening in Addis Ababa, and I love it. There are concerts, exhibitions, festivals going on every day. Actually, I have two or three events to go to every single evening. Of course, I can’t attend all, so I must pick, which is so different from how it was when I moved here 20 years ago.
What was the role What’s Out played in this transformation?
I want to believe that it had a great contribution to make in this transformation. What’s Out has never been a money maker for us, and still is not. If we make money, it is invested back to promoting arts and culture in Addis Ababa.
We use the money from the advertising to make the publication free. What’s Out has built an amazing network over the last 15 years or so and now is a major resource for people who would like to enjoy what the city has to offer.
Can one say What’s Out’s mission has not changed?
It’s the same. Our mission has always been about promoting and cultivating the cultural and art scene in Addis Ababa. It’s an important yet overlooked space in our city’s landscape.
As a person who has been to a lot of events both as a guest and organizer, what makes a good event production for you?
Well, it takes a lot to excite me. It should be an out-of-the-box experience for me to be excited about a place or an event. The year 2019, for instance, has brought Zoma. I am thrilled by Zoma. It is an iconic, cultural pillar within the Ethiopian cultural space.
The recent Sewawi concert organized by Yisakal was an unforgettable event. That was wonderful not only in terms of production but also its mission. Meaningful events that have charitable mission inspire me also.
How do your different projects run?
There is Cactus. Cactus is one of the leading, if not the leading advertising agency in Ethiopia. We are a boutique mid-size agency offering our services to a few hand-picked clients, not open for new clients unless the client is offering a journey that’s compelling for my team. Cactus is a strategy and creative agency. We are not a 360 agency which is an old, archaic concept from the 1940’s. It is a concept where companies attempt to give all services to their clients, under one roof, without specializing in any. Most ad agencies in Ethiopia today still use the old 360 format. Hopefully over time, the industry will change where an ad agency will be good in one thing and let other agencies handle other specializations.
The other company I oversee is called Prologue, which is affiliated to Burson-Marsteller, one of the top PR agencies in the world. Prologue, in addition to doing public relations, also manages events year round.
I am also involved in Way Marketing. It is a company invested in below-the-Line (BTL) activities. It focuses on door-to-door, research, road tours, merchandizing and samplings. We have 11 offices in the country with over 250 full-time staff. With a permanent team placed in these 11 offices, we have the agility that no other agency has. If we want a survey filled out by 100 people in Sidama, we can send the questionnaire to our Sidama office today and receive the raw data within 48 hours. That’s how networked and effective Way Marketing is.
The other company is Omnimedia, which is a content-creation agency. It creates radio shows and TV shows and also publishes the monthly What’s Out. Our work is broadcasted in multiple media houses.
I am also heavily involved in Our Father’s Kitchen, my feeding program supporting over 300 children. We feed the children and take care of them. This program is celebrating its 10th year anniversary this year.
I also enjoy cooking in the two branches of the Lime Tree. I cook two to three days a week. Lime Tree was really created for me. It is an unpretentious restaurant that serves good old home cooking using quality ingredients in the most hygienic way, no different from my own home kitchen. And it’s not just about food. It’s about celebrating life and staying healthy.
As a professional involved in several projects, what areas do you see as having the biggest potential in the coming years?
The obvious answer is manufacturing, farming and export. And that’s what our country currently needs. However, if I were to give advice to someone who wants to invest on starting a business in Ethiopia, or anywhere for that matter, I would recommend you should follow your passion and create something which is also meaningful to community.
Who are your biggest critics?
Any big upcoming project/s?
Yes, yes, yes. I am working on a few exciting projects right now. But I am not telling….