Zelalem Woldemariam - The Success Story Of The Storyteller
Chief Creative Director of Zeleman Communications, Advertising, and Production PLC. Zeleman has flourished as a market leader in Ethiopia and won multiple bids to partner with some of the biggest global companies coming to the country. The films he made were internationally recognized and awarded. Zeleman has been setting the bar for the industry for seventeen years now. The film-making and business legend has walked Loline Mag through his adventure. Here is the success story of the storyteller.
A little back-story
Mr. Zelalem was born and raised in Addis Ababa. He finished school and graduated in Marketing Management. He worked in various companies for about ten years before his venture. It was always about committing to and working hard at whatever job he had. Zelalem stood out for his top performance, which later paid off big-time when he moved on his own.
A step into film-making
“I took a closer look at films and found them powerful.”
Mr. Zelalem didn’t grow up dreaming of becoming a filmmaker. He just loved telling stories from his standpoint. He was always intrigued by having to share his view with family, friends, and teachers. Even when working in marketing and sales, the creative side of his work fascinated him.
The production legend understood movies' power in holding attention and getting messages across. He was hooked and decided to explore the field. He began by writing a script based on a moving story he knew. He then got his writing reviewed by those in the profession. The adventure began.
Back then, Mr. Zelalem had no formal training, so he looked for resources that could help him. His endeavor paid off as he found a program in Holland. It provided training in moviemaking that also covered some of the expenses. A little film crew came together, grinding away sixteen hours a day. 2005 became the year his passion materialized. He made a film, The 11th Hour, that rocked the Ethiopian cinematic ground. It was even internationally recognized.
As film-making is resource intensive, Mr. Zelalem had to leverage his savings and social circles. His reputation with his previous employers helped him get sponsorships. He advised working with diligence and developing good relations at one’s post. Backed by that first success, Mr. Zelalem established a production company.
The rough road to starting up
As for many high-achievers, Mr. Zelalem’s career wasn’t of an easy start. He hustled in different roles and labored long hours. He said challenges came from the lack of finance, miscommunication with people, natural causes, and everything in the process. But, he fixated his eyes on winning his way through. He claimed that if one has their sights set on the goal, challenges are just levels in the game.
Mr. Zelalem believes that if someone doesn’t push ahead of difficulties, progress won’t happen. He explained that the creative industry requires high commitment. He added that it is not for those who won’t do it with love.
Zeleman is an integrated creative agency of research, strategy, media planning and monitoring, public relations, digital marketing, BTL & special events, and production. It has partnered with some of the biggest domestic and international companies in Ethiopia, including Unilever, Safaricom, Diageo, Ethiopian Airlines, Coca-Cola, Canal+, GIZ, World Bank/IFC, and UNICEF. Zeleman had carried out some of the most successful ad campaigns, brandings, and social impact works. But Zeleman does not work on all projects that customers bring. The company will not get involved with products or services that conflict with its values; nor engage with clients who do not bring positive energy.
What began as a response to market demand has bloomed into what it is now. It has 140 employees and contracts hundreds of people all year round. Its staff consists of fresh graduates, experts, and international professionals. As a result of the continuous push for quality and staff empowerment, Zeleman has earned its name Zeleman Academy.
“Your work is a reflection of your environment.”
As a leader in the creative industry, Mr. Zelalem understands the significance of the work environment. The neatly organized contemporary office area is a depiction of that. He believes being surrounded by things of quality trains the brain to deliver high-quality work. He explained the eye needs to see order and appreciate details. That will produce work perfected to the tiniest details.
Failure is not final unless one makes it so. That thought seems to drive Mr. Zelalem to perfect his art by learning from mishaps. Even if not frequent, a few mistakes in quality control had cost the company multiple folds of the initial budget. Some of which have trembled Zeleman’s finances. Mr. Zelalem told us those were times to sit down, figure out the cause, and take a lesson. Continuously improving those hiccups, Zeleman has sprinted to its current leadership position.
Comments on policy
“I don’t have much to comment on that; 80% of the work is on oneself.”
Mr. Zelalem said success is multi-factored. He believes financial support, infrastructure, and business-conducive policies contribute. Nevertheless, he stressed the significance of one’s attitude.
In screening people for Zeleman, Mr. Zelalem observed a particular problem. He described how graduates tend to feel entitled to jobs. On his side, recruiting the right people was a real struggle. The “qualified” applicants come with certificates but don’t prove competent for the task. He wishes to see reformative actions in the sector. As for him, he is determined to make Zeleman a filler of that education-skill gap.
The grand future
“It is like an athlete trying to improve his own time.”
For Mr. Zelalem, it is always about staying ahead of the game. At Zeleman, transformative plans power it for the coming times. The company has won bids to work with global giants. Mr. Zelalem explained it is because of Zeleman’s preparation for that capacity. Mr. Zelalem told us the secret to their being a market leader is that they compete with themselves.
Their periodic findings showed them the trend is technology, so they are threading in that direction. Mr. Zelalem explained the criticality of watching where the world is going. Mr. Zelalem understands being a media company gives them unparalleled power to be a change agent in society. He is eying other African countries as well. He wants to surface as an opportunity creator across the continent.
How he leads
Mr. Zelalem described he tends toward adaptive leadership. As Zeleman is well structured, all departments run on their own. Having run the business for almost two decades, he has learned technology aids in making operations more efficient. Most of what he does is guide people and empower people on their potential. He said most of his time goes into strategizing for the years ahead.
How good is your idea?
Mr. Zelalem leveraged his years of experience to push forward people with innovative ideas. He told us impactful ideas with tech components that grabbed his attention. Zeleman has recently launched a smart filmmaking program in collaboration with American University. It is an endeavor to democratize filmmaking by training people to use their smartphones and anything that is accessible to them, for filmmaking.
A business leader on getting started
Mr. Zelalem says people who want to go entrepreneurial need to be humble to learn from their seniors. Speaking from experience, he said people need to focus and restrain from doing whatever they can do. Discipline drives success. He advises ambitions alone won’t make it happen, but rather commitment.
In Mr. Zelalem’s belief, knowledge alone won’t make people accomplish. People need to recognize opportunities and be there at the right time. He also said taking into account one’s context is a key to making dreams reality. As he did, looking around for resources nearby and utilizing those is crucial. In his words, integrity, honesty, and good communication add to consistent success.
Who has a shot at success?
"If you believe you can and put in the work required, you will succeed."
Mr. Zelalem believes it is not about trying to live other’s accomplished stories. He, of course, encourages learning from those people. But, according to him, everyone needs to do what works for their situation. Mr. Zelalem also said a few wise words on entrepreneurship. He explained that anyone could be an entrepreneur without venturing into a new business. He thinks practicing risk-taking and excelling at one’s post is another way to go about it.
A successful person’s definition of success
Mr. Zeleman is quite meticulous in his work and never compromises on quality. He sometimes revises projects even after clients’ approval. Success, for him, is seeing his work materialize in the excellence he foresaw. Witnessing the impact of his effort is a feeling he said is paralleled by none other.