In 1921, Harvard Business School produced its first one-page mimeographed case study for students (see here and below), about the practical dilemmas faced by managers at the General Shoe Company. Intended to spark discussion in the classroom, the case method has since been adopted by schools around the world as an integral part of teaching.
Today, Harvard, Ivey Business School in Canada and the Case Center are leaders among 50 producers and distributors of thousands of cases, of which millions are sold annually. They are written by a growing number of institutions, in formats including video, describing challenges across an ever-widening range of issues, geographies and protagonists.
Below is a summary of one of Harvard’s most recent cases, on African media company EbonyLife.
On an unusually calm morning in Lagos, Nigeria, in December 2020, Mosunmola “Mo” Abudu, Founder and Managing Director of EbonyLife Media and one of the biggest African names in the industry, brought her laptop to work on the terrace on the roof of EbonyLife Place, the company’s headquarters. flagship resort for the art of living and entertainment.
Founded by Abudu in 2012 with a mission to bring high quality African stories to the world, EbonyLife was the company behind many of Nigeria’s biggest movies and TV shows. It all started with a linear TV channel on the Africa-wide DStv direct-to-air satellite service. As of 2020, it had produced over 5,000 hours of television content and Nigeria’s three highest-grossing films.
Wanting more control over production and following the end of its relationship with DStv, EbonyLife launched EbonyLife ON (EL ON), an on-demand streaming service. However, he struggled to increase the number of EL ON subscribers.
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Abudu started wondering if she should keep fighting to make EL ON grow. Should EbonyLife instead focus on co-production deals with international media distributors such as Netflix, Sony and AMC? Abudu, who had worked in the media industry for almost 20 years, had to make this important decision for EbonyLife.
His interest in the media and entertainment industry grew out of a desire to correct harmful stereotypes about Africa. Born in London to Nigerian parents, she grew up in the UK and Nigeria. Drawn to African stories, she wanted to address the fact that there was so much the world didn’t know about Africa. “I think somewhere deep in my subconscious there was a need to tell the story of Africa,” she says.
Growing up in the UK, she regularly encountered misconceptions about Africa and was surprised at how much they persisted into her adulthood. “The same questions I was asked in England [40 years ago], she says, “are the same questions my children were asked when they went to school in England.” Questions like, “Do you live in trees?”
In July 2020, following its exit from DStv, EbonyLife publicly announced EL ON, intending to make the platform its main distribution channel. While EbonyLife had already created extensive programming, “much of this content was consumed daily and had a very minimal shelf life,” says Abudu.
She began to explore the new opportunity of co-productions with global partners that would eventually be distributed through Nigerian television channels. She has signed a multi-title co-production deal with Netflix to direct several movies and TV series. Partnering with such companies has reduced the initial financial risks of production. But it was difficult to gauge the size of the global audience that “Nollywood” (Nigerian Hollywood) films have gained due to the reluctance of international platforms to share audience data. Moreover, Nollywood producers could not directly interact with these viewers. As a result, it was difficult for them to track who viewed the content and what aspects of the stories audiences enjoyed, and then use that information to plan their future productions.
Beyond content production, EbonyLife has sought to create its own media and entertainment ecosystem. He helped develop the local talent pool through a creative academy that allowed students to take classes for free, funded by the Lagos State government. Abudu also believed that EbonyLife could grow further by investing more in the experiences of its audience. In December 2019 in Lagos, she opened the multi-purpose complex EbonyLife Place, which included two restaurants, a boutique hotel, five cinemas, meeting rooms and a larger multi-purpose hall.
A year later, Abudu was at EbonyLife Place planning his relaunch after the pandemic restrictions were lifted. However, she faced other pressing concerns. She considered her options regarding how EbonyLife would distribute her content. Was it too early to pass judgment on EL ON? What changes should EbonyLife make to EL ON? Likewise, she considered the alternative: could she realistically build a sustainable media business solely on international partnerships with streaming services? Was there a scenario in which it could keep EL ON operational while pursuing these international partnerships? After two decades in the industry, pivots were no longer quick or painless. Abudu wondered which option she should pursue.
The above is an adapted summary of the Harvard Business School EbonyLife Media Teaching Case Study, written by Andy Wu, Feng Zhu, Wale Lawal and Pippa Tubman Armerding