There are some personalities who don’t really need an introduction. Jimmy Gathu is one of them. With a career spanning more than 25 years, he’s graced our television screens, radio waves, billboards, functions and campaigns.
He has influenced change with iconic infomercials like ‘Mpango wa Kando’ that championed fidelity and safe sex. He has interviewed celebrities and presidents and become a household name.
“And then one day I was simply out of a job,” he says.
“I had never been unemployed, I had never even looked for work – people looked for me. But when my contract with Nation Media Group ended, my phone suddenly stopped ringing.”
Despite the unexpected changes that were taking place in his life, Jimmy, 49, didn’t call it quits. He reinvented himself, as he has always done.
He’s now working on building a TV station, and talks to Hustle candidly about the hurdles in this new journey.
Twenty-eight years of a successful career, how have you managed it?
I never sat down and said, ‘I’ll make this last 25 years or 30 years’. I wasn’t classically trained to be a media personality; I learned on the job and because I wanted to be good at it, I paid close attention to everything.
I remember, though, in the first four years of my career, my name was always mentioned in the column Letters to the Editor. Mostly it was people complaining about me. Some didn’t like my show, some didn’t like me as a person.
So, it shocked me when Coca-Cola called and asked me to be their youth ambassador in 1995.
I made my first million at the age of 25. Back then, that was a lot of money.
Was it your big break into stardom?
Not really, because in the media industry things change very quickly so you can’t ever sit back and relax.
When I became a radio presenter in 1998, it didn’t matter that I had been on TV because it’s a completely different discipline. In fact, my name meant nothing to radio stations, I had to prove myself afresh.
Fast forward to 2003, when a new crop of presenters came into the scene. These young people had watched and studied the old-school gang for years and unlike many of us who learned on the job, they went to university and got degrees in journalism.
Technically they were better trained, they were cheaper, had fewer responsibilities and distractions than we did. In essence, they were more marketable. Once again, I had to reinvent myself to stay relevant and afloat.
Which you managed to do?
Yes, until 2016 when I was let go from my job. I hadn’t planned for it, I had never considered a space where I wouldn’t be getting a full-time salary, though I had always wanted to run my TV station. I decided to use that set-up as a springboard to follow my dream.
What does it take to start a TV station?
The first step was deciding who my target audience would be and what content we would be running. I wanted targeted content, a promise to the viewer that when you tune into our channel, this is what you’ll get.
I spent a lot of time on the ground, asking people what they would want to watch and studying the topics and subject matter that trend in Kenya. The idea was every single show on the station needed to revolve around one theme.
Think of it as a radio station that promises people rock music. If I tune into a rock station and halfway through my drive, they play ballads, I’ll switch stations, and if I find something better, I’m never coming back to the channel that failed to fulfil its promise to me.
But most TV stations are not specialised.
No, which is why online streaming is rising – because people can watch exactly what they want, when they want. It’s targeted by the user.
How far along is your TV station project?
It’s hard to answer that because it’s been incredibly difficult to get it off the ground. The main challenge is getting partners on board.
I am adamant that I will only use professionals and quality equipment for the station and so the start-up capital needed is Sh20 million.
This poses a problem because I’ve learned the easiest way to turn investors off is to use the words, ‘start-up and media’ and I’m using both in one sentence.
I’ve been told point blank that the idea wouldn’t work, that we wouldn’t break even because many media houses, including established ones, are struggling.
What has been the toughest part of this journey?
Disappointments just before victory. The most painful one was coming within a few days of signing a contract of Sh30 million with a betting company and then the betting laws in the country were changed and the company had to pull out.
Another was having a friend and prominent businessman believe in my vision, he wanted to invest and then he died unexpectedly.
When things like that happen, you question everything, doubt everything.
Do you have regrets?
I try not to, but there are many things I’d have done differently. I look back over the last two years and I can say they have been some of the most trying times of my career.
I went from earning a substantial salary to relying on the support of my wife as I worked on the TV station, which wasn’t moving as quickly as I wanted.
I went from sitting in a place of influence, having presidents take my call, to knocking on doors, trying to get people who’d promised to help to come through. Many haven’t.
If you were to go back in time and change things, how far back would you go?
Ten years, to 2008. That’s when I got a management position with some very good perks. I’d save more and consciously build my brand from that position of power.
What’s your brand?
Weirdly, I never quite defined it until I left employment. My brand is being a household name that is trusted, believable, has integrity and longevity.
I have lived by it throughout my career, even before I sat down and defined it.
When I was approached to act in the film Rafiki, where I played the role of a father whose daughter was in a same-sex relationship, it was important for me to sit with my wife and kids and ask them what they thought about the film.
I made an informed choice about doing it based on my brand. It was a controversial film, yes, but the role I played spoke about a parent’s unconditional love, whether or not they support what their child is doing.
You’d be surprised at how many parents battle with this.
Branding helps you map out your course because once you know what it is, you’ll know who your audience is, what you can or cannot do to grow or survive in your chosen industry.
What’s next for Jimmy Gathu?
I’m currently the host of the reality show, Ms President, which aims to celebrate female leadership. I said yes to the project as a way of getting my feet back into the media space.
I have also signed a contract with a media house, so I’ll be on the airwaves soon, except this time, I’m doing it differently. When you’ve been knocked down to the ground, one of the things that happens is that you lose fear because nothing shakes you anymore.
Part of my conditions for coming back to employment was that I’d keep intellectual property rights for the shows I create. When a potential employer refused to sign off on that agreement, I walked away despite the huge salary they had offered.
I think everyone needs to come to that point if they want to build a solid, respectable brand. You have to be able to walk away from the negotiation table. Believe in what you stand for and in what you’re worth.