ADVERTISING AND I – X3M Ideas’ Steve Babaeko
I want to quickly make one confession: I’m extremely in love with Mr. Steve Babaeko. And the reason is simple – The Chief Creative Officer of X3M Ideas is the fresh air that our advertising industry has been yearning for. Unapologetically unconventional, all the copies that have been emanating from the forward-looking agency, which set up shop a little over a year ago, have been fecundly creative and very colourful. At ease with stating things the way they are, YES INTERNATIONAL! Magazine Publisher/Editor-in-Chief, AZUH ARINZE, was at his office one very early in the morning. And just back from doing ‘school runs’, the dreadlocks-wearing ad. man who is well appreciated and applauded in his sector obliged us with this wondrous interview. Hope you enjoy it?
What makes a good advert man?
I think it’s more of the cerebral content. He has to be cerebrally sound. Because you are going to be dealing with all kinds of brands. Today, you are working on diapers; maybe wipes. Tomorrow, you are working on a part in a space engine, that you have to sell to the consumers. So, as an ad. man, you have to know a bit about everything and it’s an education that will be on-going for the rest of your life. You don’t have closing time, because when everybody else has closed and gone, you are still thinking of what is that big idea that I can use to sell this product. The passion for the job; the energy – because if it’s all about money, nobody will be doing this business. Trust me, because it’s a very tough business. The competition is tough. But all those things – passion, energy and most importantly, brain power.
Why do most people find it difficult to excel in advertising?
It’s just like you find some quack doctors and quack pharmacists and all that. You also find fake journalists, people who pretend to be journalists. You find the same thing in advertising. You find people who think it’s glamorous; they see some of us and they say oh, this is a very glamorous profession or they think there’s money to be made in this profession, let’s go into it. But they are not trained for it, they are not prepared for it and so they won’t succeed. And even if you try to – Bob Marley said something – you can fool the people sometimes, but you can’t fool the people all the time. So, even if you manage to fool people for a while, the secret is still gonna come out that you are warp and so, you just don’t go as far as you should go.
To think you know it all! And that is gonna destroy you because, see, advertising is a business where teamwork is at the heart of the business. What the client thinks, what your colleagues think. Only you; you can’t be the man that knows everything. And don’t go into a meeting with oh, we’ve come to show you something. No! Be very open minded and be ready to take feedback. Because I keep telling people, advertising practitioners are not magicians. A client has a marketing challenge, they want to say something about their brand; the job of a good advertising man is to take that thing that the client wants to say and say it in the most beautiful way possible. That’s our job. But some people, they don’t even know the client’s intention, what they want to say about the brand, because that’s when you can be able to say it eloquently.
What don’t you like about being an advertising practitioner?
Ah, this is difficult, because apart from the music business that I have always had by the side, believe me, advertising is the only thing I have done the bulk of my life. I mean, since 1995. I can’t point out one thing that I don’t like. There are so many things that get on your nerves – the deadline, the speed at which some clients want you to work and all those stuff. But they come with the territory. You learn to master those things over time. So, there’s not one single thing I can point to and say I don’t like. I love this business!
What singular thing do you like most about being into advertising?
Creating! Just creating. We create everyday. I tell you what, every creative person in this business, you are at war with one element for the rest of your life – and that’s empty paper. Blank sheet of paper. That’s what you fight against. I think it’s just like journalism. Every time you get a brief, you take a blank sheet of paper, you are looking at it, what is the idea that you are gonna use to sell this brand and that’s your enemy for the rest of your life. You are fighting against it. How do you put content in this blank sheet that the client and the customer will see it and say whaaooh! I must get this product or I must get this service. It is that process of creating something out of nothing. For me, that is the soul of this business.
What I will say in not many words is – X3M Ideas, new and fresh. The rest of the agencies are old. That’s just me (Laughing). I know so many people are gonna be upset about this, but I don’t care. To be honest with you, I think we are just the new kids on the block; people know that we are the kids to beat right now. And when we started, they didn’t give us a chance; they were saying, yeah, they are not gonna to succeed. I know so many people who said we were not gonna succeed. We are not there yet, but we still have to give credit to some of the old guys. For agencies like Insight Communications, I have nothing but respect for them. I mean, they’ve been kicking this game for over 30 years, so you have to respect that. For agencies like Prima Garnet, they’ve been doing this for over 20 years; you have to respect that. That’s it. But I know there’s none of those guys I’m gonna meet at a pitch and I will be worried, because I know it’s a battle of ideas. They have to bring their ideas to the table and we bring ours.
One thing that people talk about when it concerns advertising is pitching. What exactly does pitching entail?
I don’t know how to put it, but pitching is war (General laughter). It’s war! This guy wants to sell this water, and then he says I’m not just gonna take all my eggs and put them in one basket; I’m gonna call three, four, five agencies. Show me the ideas you have that can best sell this. And about 98 percent of the clients we have on our roaster today, we pitched for them. So, each time you are going with the other agencies, you are competing. It’s like a very cut-throat competition where no throat is cut. Because at the end of the day, it’s a battle of ideas. The client is not a fool; they just want the best ideas and that’s what they want to go with. So, they call different agencies to pitch. Most creative directors that I know, by virtue of the fact that I was a creative director for many years, hate pitching. But I love pitching, because you see, that is the only time in this business that my blood starts to pump and I’m really excited. I just wanna go there and win them. And to succeed at pitching, you must have that winning mentality; that attitude to say I can beat anybody; which is why today, if you call us for a pitch against any agency, we are just going there to kick somebody’s behind, because we are not feeling we are gonna lose. We always go there with that winning spirit to go and take the business.
When you go for a pitch and you don’t win, how do you feel?
Well, I won’t lie to you. Nobody feels good about not winning a business. I mean, it’s like playing for Arsenal – I’m a big Arsenal fan. We’ve not won any trophy in the past six, seven seasons or so and everybody is going all insane over the place. People love to win. I’m a winner. I don’t see the other side. And that is why I don’t dwell on my victories for too long. I win now, I celebrate for one second and I move on because I’m thinking of the next competition. But at the same time, I don’t dwell on the loss as well. We’ve lost one or two pitches, but our winning track record since we started over 12 months ago is almost unprecedented in this market. So, I really don’t know how it feels not to win all the time, because we’ve been getting it.
Cornering is an interesting thing, because again, you have your pedigree. I will consider myself as one of the best creative directors to have done this business in the past 15 – 18 years in this country. So, your reputation helps a bit. I mean, people come. The moment people realized that we’ve set up shop, all they did was just give us an opportunity just like anybody else. We didn’t get any kind of preferential treatment; nobody held our hand, we had to go there, step up against the so-called big boys and fight for our share of the market. It’s what we’ve done. So, if you look at all these accounts you mentioned, we pitched for all of them and we beat some big names. It’s just that we are not the type that will go to the newspapers to say X3M beat so, so and so.
Which company or brief would you like to work for but hasn’t been able to corner?
I tell you what – straight up. This one, I know. I need an alcoholic beverage. So, it’s a tussle now between Guinness and Nigerian Breweries. Anyone that comes first, I would love to work on that. All my life, I’ve always wanted to work on alcoholic beverage accounts. I had done a couple of that in my creative director days, but now, I see the market and I see what can be done differently. I see it in my head and that’s the account for me; in my head, space. I would really like to work on one of those.
What is the greatest thing that advertising has done for you?
I think advertising has actually given me the whole world, because at the end of the day, if you google my name today, you will come up with interesting stuff. I’ve been all around the world – going for meetings, going for conferences, interacting with the best people in the world. We go to Cannes every year to see what the rest of the world is doing in this business. So, I think – just opening the doors for the world, telling me I can be anybody. I mean, this poor boy from Kabba in Kogi State, that came to this town in 1995, with nothing in his pocket. Now, I can interact with the whole world and keep my head high. People call me from all over the world now. Oh, we want to collaborate with you, we want to be part of what you are doing and I think that’s the biggest thing. It’s just that open frontier to the world.
There are few agencies you work in, in Nigeria now that you can say I really have a job. If I count all the top agencies that pay well, remuneration for staff; staff welfare and all of that. Training and all those things. There are few agencies that you can count that do that. So, I won’t say what advertising hasn’t done for me; I will say what advertising has done for the industry. I like to talk more about those high profile agencies that take training, welfare of their staff, remuneration very seriously. I like to talk more about them because there are so many creative talents coming into the game that need the opportunity, that need the platform. I like to see more agencies open up that will give those people the opportunity.
Why do you think that most people attain success, but find it difficult to sustain it?
Again, you see, with this business, it’s totally because sometimes being successful is one thing, being able to manage the success is a different kettle of fish. People get big, they become selfish, they forget that advertising is not about yourself as the CEO or founder of the company. It’s about a team. So, if you have people who have worked for you and built the dream for you, give them something. That’s what I see in the American entrepreneurship display that I find very interesting. Somebody is working for you over the years to build the company, give them shares. If they are key stakeholders, give them shares, give them access, so that at the end of the day, people are not working for you, they are working for themselves. I mean, share this thing. I think our people have not learnt that spirit yet; they think oh, I’m gonna hoard all the shares and take it to my grave. You need to build an institution, you need to open up. Let other people be part of that dream, because again, you had the vision, but you didn’t execute the vision all by yourself. So, I think those are the areas we could still do a lot more work on.
How big is X3M Ideas at the moment? Your staff strength, etc…
We are over 35 people, and you see, that’s what I’m saying. For the people who will still be upset, oh, why did Steve leave the place he was working before? My question to them is how are we gonna make this country prosper if people don’t leave somewhere and go somewhere else? My question is, there’s a statistic that says every year, 2 million new graduates are added into this economy, looking for jobs. They have no jobs. So, we had to leave somewhere and set up this company and we’ve employed 35 Nigerians. Then, someday, hopefully, somebody leaves here and sets up too. A round of applause. We will support them. So, the whole bad blood about people leaving somewhere and everything should just stop. Because you see, this is the small scale/medium scale enterprise. If you go to America, if you go to Europe, those are the heartbeat of the economy and Nigeria cannot be any different. We need to create jobs. You see all the kidnapping going, you see all the armed robbery going on; ASUU has been on strike for how many months. People need jobs. How are you gonna do this if you don’t set up all these kind of small businesses that will now create employment?
Specifically, why did you leave 141 Worldwide?
It was just time. Again, big shout out to my former boss, Mr. Akinwunmi. Fantastic human being! I started working for him at 29; I left at 41. I mean, I’ve done my time, I’ve paid my dues. It was just time. I had no issue with him. Till tomorrow, I believe he’s supporting me, he will do anything to support me. That’s what I believe. It’s just time! I’ve paid my dues. In my head, every step of it was like a learning curve for me. I learnt the trade, he supported me, he gave me all the opportunities, he sent me across the world. I will forever be grateful for that. But at some point, you need to stand up like a man and say okay, look, this is the direction I want to go with my life now.
I think there’s something that happens to a man when you turn 40. I don’t know about anybody else (Laughs). I think it’s just that moment when the alarm bell in your head goes off to say look, it’s time. I mean, anything I don’t do between now and when I clock 50, is gone. In your 20s, you don’t even realize you are a human being yet, because you just feel you are this superman, you can take on the whole world. But by the time you get to your 30s, mid 30s, maybe if the economy allows you, you get married and you begin to have children, you start to think differently. But by the time you clock 40, my brother, you start to think; this is the rest of my life ahead of me, what am I gonna do with it? Am I gonna sit here or am I just, with the last burst of energy I have left in me, do my thing before I become old? Take on the whole world and see if I will win. And I think that’s what happened.
How comfortable are you going for a pitch with the company where you used to work?
Let me tell you; if my mother has an agency in this country today, she had better be afraid. When I go into that pitch, I don’t care whose agency I’m up against. I don’t care! I take on anybody. Whether you are a local agency or you are a foreign agency, it doesn’t matter to me. If it’s my mother’s agency, she’s gonna lose that pitch because I’m gonna go there with all the arsenals we have, all the ideas we have; we are gonna take it. It’s just that mindset that keeps me going. I mean, this is not a joke. This is serious business and if you wanna be serious, you need to go with the mindset of a winner and that’s what we do here every day.
What makes a good advert copy? When can an advert copy be said to be brilliant? Excellent. Exceptional…
To me, two things – it must stop you. I take YES International! Let’s say somebody, a client, puts an advert in YES International! magazine. There’s nobody, including Azuh Arinze, who is the publisher, who wakes up in the morning and says I’m gonna go to the streets, buy YES! magazine to look out for so, so advert in the paper. Nobody does it. They buy it to get informed, to get entertained. Your advert is actually disturbing them, because you see, your advert is not part of the reason they go out to buy this paper. So, if a client spends like N300,000, N400,000 for an advert in the paper and people take the magazine or newspaper and they open it and it doesn’t stop them to say, ah, what are they saying here; just put that money in the toilet and flush it. So, it must stop people. It must be compelling enough for people to even want to read it, because they didn’t buy your paper to read adverts. Secondly, it must make them take an action. These two elements. If one of them is missing, then it’s not a good copy, because it can’t be an interesting advert and people are not acting on it. Yeah!
Which of the advert copies that you wrote still excites you? Just one…
Honestly, there are quite a lot of them. I’ve worked on Etisalat since 2008. I was the creative director that launched that brand into this country and I’m so proud of everything we’ve done for Etisalat. But there’s one ad. that I’m gonna try and see if I can get now and show you (Wades through his Ipad). It’s for British American Tobacco Nigeria. A proudly Nigerian campaign. Incidentally, that campaign is 10 years old this year, because we worked on it in 2003. Honestly, for years, till now, I don’t have a portfolio. I can’t even show you – these are the things I’ve done. Because again, for me, it’s always about team, team, team. I don’t try and push myself to say this is my work. So, I don’t have a portfolio. I used to tell my junior colleagues – my only portfolio is my head. If I tell you my name is Steve Babaeko, if you are into marketing communications business and you don’t know my name, then you have a problem; not me. So, I don’t have to prove anything. My track record is there for you to see it (Laughs). So, the proudly Nigerian campaign for BAT is definitely the copy.
How much of a family are you?
For me, family first. You see, I love my family to the end of the world and back, just like every man. Family is important. We have a responsibility to take care of the kids, so you have to support your family. The family supports you too. I mean, if you don’t know that after all the hard work, after all the stress you go through doing this business, you go home and you meet your family and you feel happy, you are in trouble. Without that, one will go crazy on this job. So, for me, my family is very important. I mean, there are certain days of the week that you don’t bother calling me. On a Sunday, I’m not gonna pick up. It’s the only time I have time to spend with my family. I’m not even allowed to pick up my phone.
How did you meet your wife, Yetunde?
I was working in Prima Garnet and she came to Nigeria. She was just supposed to be here for 6 months to check out where her father was born, because her mom is German. I was just walking past and I saw this beautiful woman; she’s a photographer, making a presentation on photography in an office and I went there and we got talking. I ran into her at another place and the rest is history. I met her 10 years ago, but we’ve been married now for like 7 years. Our wedding anniversary was on the 23rd of this month (September)…
You have two kids, tell us about them…
Lovely guys! Louis and Lamar. Yeah! Wonderful boys. One is just trying to guide them towards wherever their destinies or their dreams lie. At the end of the day, they are your children, but you can’t force them to be something; you can just assist and help them navigate this difficult journey called life. And I think that’s what we are trying to do.
What’s your dream for X3M Ideas?
My dream for X3M Ideas is that in the next 5 years, we will have imprints all over West Africa. It’s a tough journey ahead. That’s why anybody who tells me oh, X3M Ideas is doing well; he’s like my No. 1 enemy, to be honest with you. Because to do well, you are benchmarking us against what? Against local agencies or foreign agencies? That’s my take, because if you look at the little achievements we’ve achieved now, compared to the capacity that any strong agency which knows its onions is able to achieve in this kind of economy, then nobody is doing well. So, you should also find that thing to challenge yourself and that challenge I suppose is going to take us across West Africa in the next 5 years.
There are two unique things about you – one is your dreadlocks. Why do you wear dreadlocks?
Again, I made a decision to be different. I’m sure, apart from the fact that Azuh is light-skinned, if I put you against all my colleagues, everybody is doing the same low-cut look. But if you meet me once, you will remember me. Because I look different. At that time, if you were in corporate Nigeria, it wasn’t just fashionable; people were gonna frown and look at you to say what’s wrong with this one? So, we had to break that glass ceiling to say look, we can look anyhow we want. At the end of the day, like Martin Luther King would say, judge me not by the colour of my skin or by my dreadlocks, but by the content of my character and what I have upstairs. And I think people get the message loud and clear now. I walk in, they know who I am, I open my mouth to speak and they see that good stuff is coming out.
The second unique thing is how you spell the name of your company – X3M – instead of extreme…
(Cuts in) – Yeah! And if anybody pronounces it X3M, I correct them immediately (General laughter). It’s extreme, but it’s written X3M. I don’t care. Even if it’s the Pope that pronounces it wrongly, I will say Your Holiness, this is the right pronunciation.
What do you do for relaxation?
I listen to music a lot, which is probably why we have X3M Music. It’s a record label. Advertising gets me on the high, music brings me down. It’s the one that cools my brain. And I love to play tennis. I play tennis with my wife a lot. She’s been trying to beat me, but she’s never been able to. It’s a major frustration for her (Laughs). Yeah! Those two things.
Since you love music, who is your favourite musician?
That one is not hard – it’s the guy on my label. His name is Praiz. Praiz is just an amazing vocalist. I’m his biggest fan in the whole wide world. Yeah! I’m proud of his achievements and the stuff that he’s doing.
NB: First published November 2013
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