Media.Monks Paris Founder on Replacing Himself and What Comes Next

'Self-awareness is key. You've got limits, you've hit your limits, and you need to step aside.'

In late-2011, Wale Gbadamosi-Oyekanmi—fresh out of Buzzman—founded Darewin, billed the first-ever entertainment agency. (Back then, Wale was really into "firsts.") It had a smattering of local-market clients—big names, like Canal+, that gave him small opportunities, which he converted into surprisingly impactful results: This was the era of social stunts, and that's a language Wale knows well.

A year later, I came to work for him. And over the next three years, Darewin grew from a scrappy upstart into an international force, serving clients like Netflix, France Télévisions, Red Bull, AMC and Liberty Global.

I left in 2015. Darewin kept shapeshifting. In 2020 and mid-Covid, it merged with Media Monks, crown jewel of the new ad empire Sir Martin Sorrell has vowed to build. Darewin became Media.Monks Paris. And a few months ago, the company appointed ex-Googler Pauline Butor as managing director.

This means that in 2024, Wale will be on his way out. So we sat him down to pick his brain and find out where he's headed next.

We started the conversation with a trip he planned to take—an ambitious walk from the Ivory Coast to Nigeria (Wale is of Nigerian origin). I proposed putting him together with an ex, who spends time in Ghana, which Wale would have to traverse. This led to the topic of transitions, and my current pregnancy. It was Wale who led us to the matter at hand.

Muse: It's definitely a transitional time for me. But it's also one for you!

Wale Gbadamosi-Oyekanmi: The weird thing is, I've never transitioned in the sense that … I've never onboarded someone into my role.

Did you do what you used to make us do—make a bible of tasks and duties?

I did! But it's a 12-year-long bible, so it's dense. Since I never had a proper business partner—someone to share everything with—it's interesting to be in a situation where you have to actually tell someone everything. This is the first time I feel like I can do that blindly and fully transparently.

What made you feel you could do that with Pauline?

I was looking for a very specific profile—someone who knew content, data and media. I know content well, but I don't know media and I don't know data that much. That's what the minimum offering is about. Since I'm not a master in those fields, the company's better with me stepping down than keeping the reins.

That was my first point of view. Then I wanted to find someone concerned with inequality and social justice—someone who understands what it's like to be part of a minority group. That was my second criteria. 

Third, I wanted someone who could help the company grow further in terms of culture, people and clients. Fourth, someone with an understanding of the corporate world. We're no longer an independent agency. We're now part of a 9,000-person holding company. She had to be able to navigate the complexity and realities of a stock-listed company.

What's the word I’m looking for? Diplomacy! For internal and external situations. If you don't have that, you can't grow much or navigate the complexity of an international company.

That's a demanding profile.

And it was a huge filter in France. I started looking at profiles, then a lot of people pointed in Pauline's direction. I've had an executive coach for three years. He's known me for awhile, and intimately, in terms of what I share about work that keeps me up at night. He ran a company successfully, has done an integration, and has dealt with acquisitions. Having worked for five or seven years at Google, he knew her. He was her coach. 

Oh, wow. 

Small world. He told me, "I understand what you're looking for. I know your company, I know what you built. I don't know if the timing is right for her, but if it is, she'll be an amazing candidate." He was the third person to point in her direction. When one person says something, you kind of listen. When it's two, you pick up your phone or send an email. But when so many people you know, from different walks of life, say the same thing, you definitely want to meet that person.

What was the vibe when you met her?

I started with this very positive picture people painted, but I needed to understand her mentality and background. She doesn't come from the agency world; that could have been a big challenge. 

And she wasn't just my hire. She had to jump through hoops—eight or 10 other people, all the way up to Sir Martin Sorrell. I'm not going to say she had to interview with the whole company, but definitely the whole EMEA leadership. When everybody agreed on her, we felt confident she was the right person for the job.

It was thorough. She came to Amsterdam, we met in Cannes ... we snuck out to do interviews with the team during the Stratégies dinner. It was funny; she was client side, pretending she just met me, but we had been talking for months. And when the news came out, she quit her job and signed with us. She didn't tell anyone where she was going. Then the PR came out and everybody was like, "What?!"

No one expected it. It was a surprise campaign with a strong message. I think her nomination is really good for people in the business.

This was like your Beyoncé "Lemonade" drop.

Yeah! A drop no one was expecting. I'm happy about it because I like to communicate in that sense—surprise people in a positive way. That's how I like to create ideas that transcend how you communicate and also how you hire.

Do you remember who you were when you first launched Darewin?

Do I remember that guy? The man that used to take a train to Cannes and not a jet? Just kidding, I'm still that guy. Well, he was slimmer, younger, unmarried, with no kids and no experience.

I don't think you were slimmer.

I was slimmer. Carefree. Focused on creatives, ambitious, risk-taking. I had less grey hair.

What were you naive about back then?

I think naiveté is a good thing when you start a company. You can make something great just by thinking differently, being a bit carefree. I was definitely not naive about the amount of work required to succeed. Maybe I was naive about the importance of culture and structure. I learned that on the way.

I still have a copy of the Darewin Code.

I hope you read it more than your Bible.

Do you still look at it?

Yeah. There's one in the agency and one at home. It's an interesting piece of memorabilia. You know how a museum has artifacts that are relevant for a period? That's what the Darewin Code is for me. It's an artifact from a specific moment in time, I would say 2014-18. It's a great piece of content and guidance.

What do you think you learned about strategy and culture?

Brand strategy is understanding the DNA of the brand, and how it connects to behavior. The DNA of a company is strongly linked to culture, and culture is strongly linked to leadership. 

I also believe that the identity, personality, and values of the leader or leadership are key to the culture. It has to express itself in the business strategy. They're all connected. Who is the leadership and what do they believe in? What they believe in is not necessarily what they say; it's what they do.

Let's talk about Media Monks. How did the merger change the agency creatively? 

There have been three or four phases of Darewin. The first phase was only social media and entertainment. That was creating thumb-stopping social media content for entertainment brands; that was number one. 

That opened doors to working with more FMCG and lifestyle brands, outside of entertainment. What's easy about working on entertainment brands is that the product and content are already loved. So you're just spreading more love. I don't even really think you're doing advertising or promoting, you're just adding more love to the fan base.

Whereas for FMCG, food brands, that kind of stuff, you don't have that same level of love from fans. You need to be stronger from a creative standpoint, because the product you're promoting doesn't have the same level of intensity for customers. Moving into that era required us to be more mature on social media. That was the era that started when we worked on stuff where we had to get people excited about something that wasn't always as exciting as entertainment. That was phase two. 

Phase three is when we started making 360 campaigns—with TV and all types of touchpoints, where we really needed to have a strategy. It wasn't just about stunts and one-offs anymore. It was about building a brand platform that's sustainable over time, and that's relevant to the business.

Things kept growing more complex, but also more interesting. Our channels got more mature. But we still needed to be creative, making content that would enter pop culture. It's easier to fall into cultural conversation when the product is already part of it. I think it's still easier to promote Netflix and France Télévisions than it is to promote BMW and Mini. Or Sanofi.

Mini has a fan base.

Yeah, but I would say it's easier to promote Netflix than Sanofi.

Sanofi has a captive fan base in the sense that diabetics need them to live.

That's not a fan base, that's a hostage situation.

I've always thought that being a leader is a different kind of creativity. How did the acquisition change you as a leader? 

I think the acquisition is a byproduct. The size of the company matters more. I've been listening to podcasts of David Droga since he became the CEO of Accenture Song. I don't think his involvement in creative work is the same as it was when he was the entrepreneur and creative mind behind Droga5. 

That's something you have to accept. We live in an evolving world and our roles as leaders change over time. I was discussing it with Pauline: I was a creative leader, then head of strategy, then head of PR. I was head of production, then head of client services. And at the end of the day, I was CEO of all these people. 

As a leader, your role evolves, depending on what you want to do and what the company needs. That applies to an independent agency growing at high speed. We had intense growth year on year, like 100 percent, 50 percent, 20 percent, and opened an international subsidiary in Germany.

When we got acquired by Media Monks and merged in 2020, my role had to be redefined. I was now the leader of "the integration." So, it's not leading a company; it's leading a company in transition, joining forces with another large company. I was going from an independent to a holding company, from French to international, from 80 to 140 people. On multiple levels, there were elements I needed to adjust in my job descriptions for the business to keep growing.

Not to mention that it was in the middle of Covid, which redefined everybody's role.

Did you feel intimidated by what you were doing, or the network you were joining?

No, because I picked them. It was a mutual agreement with consent ... which is key, I think. Kind of a wedding. 

I did a lot of research. I was interested in new-era international companies. I didn't want to join a company that was holding the fort, doing things the same way as in the '50s or '70s. I wasn't looking to merge with a company lagging in digital. I wanted to work with the digital leader, to learn more, rather than transfer knowledge to a company trying to be more digital.

When I made the decision, I set some criteria and tried to match it as well as I could. I wanted a company that didn't have offices in France, because I didn't want to be absorbed and dismembered. I wanted to remain the leader of the market. I wanted a company that was fully digital and had a track record of digital expertise. I wanted a company that was international and ambitious. 

The shortlist was pretty small.

What did you need to protect to make sure that Darewin wouldn't just disappear?

My job was to make sure that what made us special, and the people who made us unique, remained, and could grow within Media Monks.

Your question feels like I had to be defensive. My point of view was, I was offering opportunities for growth to more people: international growth, business growth, network growth, knowledge growth. All that is something you need to be open about, rather than defensive. 

My goal wasn't to preserve and keep things as they were. Because fucking hell, 2020 Covid ... there's no way anyone could think, "Oh, let's keep things as they were." Things were going to change. My role was, how do we adapt to this new reality? That was: working from home, having people who work everywhere in the world, working in English. Having brands be more and more digital, focusing on mental health.

That's what defines that era. The same way that the Darewin Code is an artifact of its era, the merger is an artifact of its era.

In what sense?

When we merged, we had to reinvent ourselves. People ask, "Did the merger change the company that you were running?" I reply, "Covid changed my company more than the merger." People's relationship to work was affected everywhere, across industries, because of Covid. 

Did Covid change you?

It did. There was the amount of time I spent away from my teams. I had to work with my family in the house. I had my second daughter the day after I signed the deal. She was born on Aug. 29, and I signed on Aug. 28. 


It was crazy times. It also changed my relationship to life and death. For the first time, the whole of humanity was facing the threat of death at the same time. So we reprioritized what's critical to us. How much time do we want to spend at work, how much time do we want to spend on bullshit? It's a moment that historians are going to look back on in 100 years, and they'll say, "The world changed right there."

I spent six or nine months in the house, with very little contact with outside people. I merged with a company in the middle of Covid, with people I never met. It took us a year to meet in person. So how do you integrate? How do you work together while never meeting? I'm never going to be able to know how the merger would have been in a non-Covid world, where we would have met on the first day, and I would have brought the teams to Amsterdam to celebrate, pfff ... None of that could happen.

When you signed the merger, were you already contemplating leaving agency life?

Not at that time. What I was looking for when we merged was growth.

I felt we had reached an agency threshold. We had been around for 10 years, more or less. From my experience, and my analysis of agencies, it's difficult to be a cutting-edge agency for more than 10 years. Look at the AKQAs or the RGAs. You can't go more than 10 years while being cutting-edge. Wieden+Kennedy's amazing, but I wouldn't call them cutting-edge. They're really good at traditional craft. 

My question was, how do I make that happen for the next 10? What is the recipe to be relevant and cutting-edge in the next decade? Being smart and creative on social media is not gonna cut it. What will is the combination of creativity, content, data and media—then, you're in the right direction.

Was I capable of doing that on my own in 2020 with the resources I had? No way. That's more tech, more investments, more development, more skills that are expensive. Was I capable of doing that by myself? No way. Was that critical to the survival of the company for the next decade? I was convinced. 

Were there people on the markets looking to merge with an agency like ours that had these capabilities? Yes, there were. Was it the right time to do it? I thought it was. Were they interested in us? Yes, they were. 

Would it be fair to say the ambitions and needs of the agency outgrew you, and not the other way around?

You said it perfectly. I felt like, am I the right person for this project I made? I was to a certain point. Now this company deserves a leadership that aligns more with the project, and that can execute it better than I can. If I could execute it as well as the company needed, I would stay, but I just don't think I am that person. 

Pauline is better than I am at this. I'm happy she's taken over from me, I'm happy for the company, I'm happy for myself, and happy for my clients and the talent. 

Self-awareness is key: Being aware that you've got limits, that you've hit your limits, and you need to step aside. To let your kid, or a company, grow, it's a difficult thing to acknowledge. But it is necessary.

It's easier if you don't feel like you're hurtling toward your own death, right? 


I'm best at doing something when I focus. For now, my focus remains on Media Monks, for the next few months and the next quarter. But by early 2024, I'm gonna transition into more of a chairman role, so consulting and advising. 

I was also transformed by the murder of George Floyd. That woke something in me: The world is a really unfair place on a huge scale. You can affect and be part of the change and improvement of the world if you want. I felt I could be part of that change, and that I wasn't part of it enough. I mean, I was through people I mentor, and the fact that I'm a Black leader in a predominantly white world in France. But I could do better and greater. That could be an area of focus, because it's a topic that is dear to my heart.

I also think that being a father and having two daughters changed my perspective on what my priorities should be. Working more in that direction is something I want. 

Lastly, my wife works in the social justice world. She decided to leave this environment and work in that field. 

(Editor: Wale’s wife is Myriam Nouicer, who spent 14 years at agencies like Publicis and Ogilvy Paris before joining Singa, a company that facilitates cultural integration for migrant communities. Her Reinvention is a must-read.) 

She inspired me, too. The world is burning, but people are fighting for a new vision. I can try and help make the world a better, safer, more sustainable and inclusive place.

What I've always done career-wise is combine what I know and learn something more. What I've learned is, how do you navigate a message? How do you generate impact in a digital world? And what I learned previously was, how do you entertain people? Those have been my last 20 years. Now I want to use everything I've learned for good. I don't know what form it will take.

What do you imagine when you close your eyes and see future-you?

I'm gonna put it in a simple way. I think I have time to be a better me. That's it. I'll do ambitious things, I've always been that way and I'm sure I'll get more ambitious. But I want to be healthier, spend more time with family, and make the world a better place. So just be a better version of me.

Angela Natividad
Angela Natividad is the European markets editor at Muse by Clio. She also writes about gaming and fashion, and whatever else she's interested in, really. She's based in Paris and North Italy, so if you're local, say hi. She might eat all your food.

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