You can’t be in the same room with Mr. Steve Babaeko and not touch or even grab his confidence. And one of the reasons may be because he knows exactly where he’s headed. Another possible reason may also be that right now in Nigeria, his company, X3M Ideas, is one of the biggest players in the advertising sector.
Widely known for his brilliance, creativity and trademark dreadlocks, the Kabba, Kogi-born Theatre Arts graduate of the Ahmadu Bello University, in Zaria, Kaduna State, has indeed been doing wonders since he berthed on the scene. Perching comfortably at the top as one of those currently dictating the advertising tune, he sure learnt and mastered all the ropes and rhythms at MC&A Saatchi & Saatchi, Prima Garnet and then 141 Worldwide, before setting up shop.
A multiple award winner, with a multiple award winning agency, he is married to the ever delectable Yetunde and they are blessed with three wonderful boys – Louis, Lamar and Austin. Admittedly in love with the game of golf, ceaseless education and knowledge acquisition, YES INTERNATIONAL! Magazine Publisher/Editor-in-Chief, AZUH ARINZE, had the 48-year-old, all to himself, for nearly an hour, in his beautiful office, on Omodara Street, Opebi, Ikeja, Lagos, on Wednesday, September 18, 2019. Where, joyfully, he shared X3M Ideas’ success secrets, where they are headed next, his eventful life as an ad man and more. Much more…
How does it feel to be on the cover of Forbes?
Just like being on the cover of ThisDay Style, being on the cover of all the magazines that I’ve been privileged to be on their covers. I mean, it’s just another step in your journey of life. So, for me, I don’t think that there’s anything extraordinary about it. It’s also a testament to say maybe you are doing certain things right, which is why the cover was necessary.
What is going to change about Mr. Steve Babaeko now that he has made the cover of Forbes?
Well, I’m getting more invitations from across the continent; people wanting me to talk and be a part of their events. I think that’s about the only thing.
Now, let’s come back home. What makes a good advert man?
This is a very tricky question. I mean, to really succeed in this advertising business, I think the key thing is passion for the business itself. Sometimes this job can be one of the most difficult jobs in the world, because, see, when it comes to creativity, everybody has an opinion. And for you to be able to get a client to agree with you that this is the creative direction to follow, it takes a lot of passion, it takes a lot of convincing; you are like a lawyer trying to close a case before a very difficult judge and that’s how it is all the time. So, if you don’t have the passion, you can never be a good ad man.
We all know and agree that success is not served a la carte. Other than passion, what are the other ingredients needed to excel in your line of business?
Two, you must be good with people. You must be a cool person. There’s this guy in Mad Men, called Don Draper; he was a creative director in the TV series and he’s like one of my favourite advertising characters even though he’s a fictional character. He said, and let me paraphrase what he said: I just don’t like the guy on this other side of the table; that’s how businesses are won or lost. Just the guy sitting here saying I don’t like this other guy there. So, as an ad man, to be successful, you must be a people’s person, you must have that charm quality where people see you and almost like you at first sight. There are some people who are not so lucky, they are not so blessed, people just see them and then they just dislike them. So, your people’s skill has to be high and then your creativity skill; that creativity that you bring from the team’s point of view must also be very significant.
Having been in the advertising industry for long, what is your own personal definition of advertising? Not the one you picked up from a book…
Advertising, for me, is being able to help a client move a message about their brand to the public in a compelling way that you will see results; in a compelling and creative way that must bring results. I think those are the key elements.
In writing ‘copies’ or to write a copy, what is the best way to come up with ideas? How does it work, especially for you?
For me as a person, and unlike what most people think; they think writing copy is about words. No! I actually think in pictures; I’m looking for the visual metaphor to use. If I find that visual metaphor, the words will come. You know, like musicians; some musicians say they write the words first, then they find the melody. Me, if I have to write a copy about something, I’m looking for the visual metaphor to explain that thing. Once I find that right visual metaphor, then I can write the story.
Plunging into advertising, what prompted it, what triggered it?
One of my former bosses granted an interview way back and that just triggered something in me. Because I was in the middle of not knowing what to do then. First, I wanted to be in broadcasting and then I had the opportunity to do my youth service with NTA Kano and I realized that, you know what, people just dress and look fine on TV, but they are struggling to get home after casting the news and I’m like, no, this thing is not for me; let me look for something else to do and then I stumbled on that interview and I remember then, it was around 1995, and I used to trek from my house in Kaduna to the Kaduna library. I did that for like 2 weeks, everyday, just to go there to learn. There were these dusty books on the shelves that talked about advertising and broke it down into different departments. I can’t even remember the title of the book, but I know I just kept on combing that section and I was taking notes and jotting. So, after I did that research for two weeks, then I discovered that there’s something called brief. Then, all of those ads I had been seeing in papers now started making sense to me; that there’s a process to generating those ads. So, I will give myself an imaginary brief and then I will write copy for it and that’s how it started.
In not-too-long a time, X3M Ideas has made humongous impact. What would you attribute the success recorded so far by your company to?
Well, we are really, really Godly people around here, so I will start with the No. 1 – the God factor, which I think is one of the major reasons we’ve done some of the things we are credited to have done and secondly is the energy of the team. We came out wanting to fight. This was us that when we wanted to start in 2012, there was a very senior person in the advertising space who was the President of the Association of Advertising Practitioners in Nigeria, who swore that over her dead body would X3M be registered as an agency. So, we came from that fighting background to say, okay, look, you are not God, we would be registered and we fought the case to a logical conclusion. Thanks to veterans like Mr. Biodun Shobanjo and so many other great people who intervened and made sure that at the end of the day common sense prevailed. So, we came from that fighting background of wanting to fight to accomplish everything we’ve had to accomplish. And the fighting never really ends; you just exchange adversaries and then somebody else comes and tries to throw a spanner in the wheel. But because we just really, really were hungry enough, every challenge that got thrown into our way was just another ladder for us to climb to the next step.
Other than these, what are the other things that have been keeping you and your team going?
It’s just fresh ideas! Like I tell people, it’s about different ideas. Sometimes it’s not even like the best ideas, but it fits differently and sufficiently to get the job done. So, even if I show you my work and you say you don’t like it, I have no problem with you. But if you can’t tell me that that work is different, that’s when I begin to challenge you because, see, differentiation is important. This is a market where if you see a hundred banks, all of the hundred banks are doing the same thing. Once bank A does it, bank Z starts to do it. But I tell people, the only place where you are going to find sufficient traction made in your communication is when you find a different angle to say the same thing. So, I think because X3M, from day one, we’ve always fought to have a different perspective to this business, that has helped us. Of course, the creative energy as well is really, really important and why it’s even more important to be different is that if you want to do what Insight has been doing for over 35 years or more, why should a client trust a new agency with their brief, if you just want to do what the old guys had been doing? So, what are you bringing to the table that is different? That is one area where X3M has been able to excel and like I said, what is significant about what we’ve even achieved now is that we are not affiliated to anybody. This is a 100 percent local business that we’ve grown and then we’ve now grown it to South Africa, we’ve grown it to Zambia, we are operating out of Zimbabwe and we are moving into Central Africa in a very powerful way. I mean, it’s never really been done in the history of this business in Nigeria. So, it’s that boldness to go and conquer new grounds; you must look fear in the eyes and say, Mr. Fear, I see you, but I’m still going to do it, I’m still going to go ahead and do this thing that looks scary. I think it’s a combination of all those things that has helped us.
What do you like most about being into advertising?
I like it because it’s a pseudo-entertainment kind of business; there’s a point of success you get to and then you are like a mini-celebrity. It’s interesting. I mean, if I’m coming in or going out of the airport, you see people, Immigration officers coming and saying oh, Mr. Babaeko, welcome back. Somehow, they just recognize you and they know you. That’s cool. But the most exciting thing for me is being able to just see a brand; whether it’s brand new or a brand going through a journey, and we come into the picture and we nurture this brand and we help and support the client to the point where we move that brand from point A to point D or point E. There’s nothing more gratifying than that. I think that’s what excites me the most.
What don’t you like about playing in the advertising sector?
It’s very hard not to like my business because this business, I probably would do it for free if I wasn’t getting paid for it. I just would like to see more agency people run better businesses. We are not necessarily the best business people. We so enjoy what we do that sometimes we get carried away by forgetting that this is a business as well. So, I think we need to be tougher in being able to take tough business decisions, which sometimes we’ve had to take here to keep the business going.
If you had a brief and you were told not to give it to X3M Ideas. Which other agency would you be comfortable with handing over the brief?
Are there other agencies? (Laughter). I mean, I’m just asking. I’m not sure there are other agencies around, so I will say X3M still remains my choice.
What is the greatest thing that playing in the advertising sector has done for you?
Just being able to help me and bring some of my craziest ideas to fruition. I love that! And you know, people underestimate the power of advertising. When advertising fully functions and delivers, it helps all the clients we work for to grow their businesses, they hire more people, when they hire more people, they grow more profit, when they grow more profit, the economy of the nation booms. So, look at the macro effect. We are operating out of this small room in Opebi (in Ikeja, Lagos), but look at the big, macro effect. It’s about national survival and the economics. So, it’s not a joke, it’s not moi-moi business. This goes to the heart of the enterprise of a nation.
What has advertising not done for you?
Very few, because I think I will ascribe most of the things that I have achieved in my adult life to advertising. Advertising has been so good to me.
No specific thing that you still want it to do for you, that it hasn’t yet done?
Honestly, I think that I’ve been blessed in this business. I feel very privileged and fortunate to have made some of the right choices and yeah! I think I’m really comfortable with where we are.
What necessitated the formation of X3M Ideas?
I had worked for other agencies, cumulatively, for about 17 years. I felt I had learnt the ropes, and you know that sometimes, as you get old, like age 40, you start to think of posterity. Yes, I’m working, yes, I’m getting my salary. But is that all? What else are we going to leave as a legacy, that when people are talking about this industry, your name will become a recurring decimal? That was another issue. Plus, in the last agency I worked, I was the Creative Director, I was like de facto No. 2 person. You had ideas that people didn’t want to accept, because those ideas seemed a little too radical. So, I just felt that look, you know what, instead of sitting down here and complaining and bemoaning my inability to make things happen; just like the man who set up that company that has hired you, get off your lazy butt and go and do the same thing. I mean, you have to go out there and seize the gauntlet and just do something and take a chance. So, it was just time to take that chance and take that plunge.
What would you say separates X3M Ideas from all the other agencies around?
A lot! Because, I mean, we are just X3M Ideas and the other agencies are just other agencies. So, it’s a lot. The way we think; I will give just a small example – recently we lost one of our colleagues here. She had an accident and fell into a canal on a rainy day and then of course the management will say how do we support the family in this very tragic situation? How do we also support our team here? So, we brought in two grief counselors, two psychologists, they were here for like almost two, three days, anybody who was feeling down and grieving had the opportunity to talk to a professional that will help you get out of the grief. One of our colleagues later came to tell me that when he got home and told his uncle that they brought grief counselors to our office, he said are you sure that this your company is a Nigerian company? So, it’s the way we think. If you go to the back you will see a fully equipped clinic there where we have a professional nurse on standby. In medical emergencies, somebody to stabilize you before we get to the hospital and all of that. The gaming arcade is there, the bar, the restaurant…We think differently. It’s just that and you won’t find this in most of the other agencies, I can assure you.
What would you describe as the costliest mistake that most people in your sector make?
To think, oh, if I just go and set up, the business will run. Big mistake! I’ve seen people lose their pants or lose their briefs, no pun intended, just trying to do that. Oh, if I just go and set up; let me just set up and I put up an Instagram page to say I now run an agency, the business will start coming, big mistake! Second big mistake is, oh, I have one person who works on the inside of a client’s business and they have given me that business. Things change. Six months down the line, your guy can get fired. If you don’t have a reputation and you don’t have a pedigree and you are not hungry, you will still not succeed.
In your sector also, some people attain success, but they are not able to sustain it. Where do they lose it?
Once it starts to get into your head; pride, arrogance…It’s not just in our sector alone. If you look at football, the way I see it, you’ll see a young Nigerian footballer that just finally broke into the national team, he scores one or two goals, for him, he’s an igwe (a king). If he has his way, when he’s going to play the next match, they should put a medal around his neck and give him a walking stick, let him walk majestically into the field. Meanwhile, you find a Lionel Messi who has been playing top-fight football for maybe the past 18 to 20 years. Every weekend, he gets on to that field, he’s playing like he’s begging, looking for scouts to come and discover his talent and give him a contract. And these are the richest footballers in the world and you are just starting. It’s the same thing. Once you allow the pride of success get into your head, you are finished! Because I always tell my colleagues, in this business, you never arrive. You never arrive! We are still hungry here. There are some agencies where you go, if you are not the Managing Director, you cannot call our Managing Director. Am I stupid? Anybody can call me. What we run here is the equivalent of a restaurant. When you are running a restaurant, you don’t pick your customers. They walk in, whether they are short, tall, fat, ugly, poor, rich, and you give them a good service. That’s what I believe in. So, the moment you start to feel like you’ve arrived, you will lose it.
When did you come to the realization of the fact that X3M Ideas will succeed?
To be honest, if you have a beautiful wife like I do and you have the three children God has blessed me with, you have no choice than to succeed. Because you know they have to eat, you will pay school fees, etc. So, it’s success or death. There’s no other way to go. I had no choice…But sincerely, you never know whether something is going to succeed or not. But then if you never try, you will never find out. So, we could have just said, oh, there’s this idea; X3M Ideas, we will just do the advertising agency like this and maybe they even increased my salary with N20,000 from the last place that I worked and I said, okay, you know what, yeah, the devil you know is better than the angel you don’t know and then you sit down there and you don’t move. See, God has designed that we are going to get here. But how do you know? There’s no assurance, there’s no guarantee anywhere. So, you just do what a generation of entrepreneurs and businessmen have done since the dawn of creation. Go there and take a chance.
Since setting up shop, what will you describe as the wisest business decision that you have taken?
This might sound crazy, and maybe even controversial, but the wisest business decision I took was not to go into partnership. In Nigeria I just don’t think that we have the culture. Because what I have seen with partnership businesses is that when we are still hustling, we are all on the same team. But the moment money starts to come; you can imagine if I had a partner here, it will be like, oh, Steve just bought a new car. We meet somewhere, the other person’s wife is saying ah-ah! Shebi dem say you guys own dis business together? How come Steve has a new car and you don’t have? That’s the beginning of problems. So, I’m really, really glad I went it alone; shout out to all our investors and all our board members. But I mean, setting up this company, I’m glad I did this solo.
Since setting up shop also, what would you describe as the toughest business challenge that you have faced?
Of course, the obvious one, which is mostly finance. I mean, sometimes it gets really, really tough. Which is why I’m really, really grateful for the set of finance people we have on our team. They keep us on a straight and narrow…Me, I’m a very impulsive guy. Oh, this thing, it’s going to cost X amount, let’s do it. But you need somebody who is checking the books constantly to say we cannot do this, we can’t do that. I mean, it now tempers my own enthusiasm with cold, hard numbers and some reality checks too. So, I think finance would still be one of those headaches you have.
Currently, and collectively, what is your staff strength?
I think, across the group, we are over a hundred people.
There shouldn’t be any debate about this – God has been very nice to you…
I’m grateful (smiling). No doubt about that…
So, what more do you want from God?
Well, in the same token, for seven years, since we started, we’ve been renovating schools and giving schools back to Lagos State Government. There was even one time we went as far as Chibok in Borno State to donate school furniture and desks. What I want God to do is to continue to bless us so that we can continue to be a source of blessing to other people as well. I think it’s important – you must always give back. I tell my colleagues, you can’t just sit down here, make all the profit and walk away as if nothing happened. No, you must give back to the same community that God has given you the privilege to situate your business and work and earn a living.
Away from work, and when you are not thinking advertising, what are the other things that keep you busy?
My boys! They are growing up now. I have a 15-year-old, a 12-year-old and an 11-year-old…
What are their names?
Louis, Austin and Lamar. And they have diverse interests. So, I think I’m just beginning to realize that if I don’t spend more time with them, they are gonna grow and then I realize that we didn’t share memories. So, I’m getting a little bit greedy, wanting to do more activities with them now and share memories. We just came back from holidays. So, I spend time with my family now, and a lot more than I used to. And then secondly, I pretend to play golf (laughter). I mean, I’ve been pretending to play golf for the past three years. Now, I’m really beginning to take it seriously, and I have seen that with golf, you need to spend more time. And because I’ve been playing more than usual now, my game is beginning to get slightly better.
Where would you like X3M Ideas to be, say in the next 10 years?
In the next three, four, five years, I don’t want to still be on this desk performing the same function that I am preforming now. I will still wanna be within the business, but in another capacity. Let a younger person, with fresher legs come and be running the business. That’s my dream. I want to see this business outlive me, and all of us that started it. This is no longer the yester years when running an agency business is about you and your family; no! I want to be able to open up the business, maybe even sell a part of it, dilute our equity and bring in newer investors so that we can do all of the expansion we want to do across the continent. We want to be a force to be reckoned with on this continent and we’ve started, we just need to increase the momentum.
So far, you’ve written too many advert ‘copies’. Of all of them, which one has excited you the most?
There are a lot. I mean, there are a lot …
Just one… We need just one…
One! I will say it will still be the British America Tobacco proudly Nigerian campaign. I think it should be around 2003 or 2004 I wrote those ones. I mean, if you see some of the headlines: What’s the name of that Chinese guy that invented Afrobeat? That was one of my headlines. Of course, I wanted to shock you. Then, we wanted to talk about Fela and Afrobeat, but we couldn’t say Fela. So, you had to find a creative way to say it. So, the headline was what’s the name of that Chinese guy that invented Afrobeat? Because I know everybody will say do these people think? And, that way, you will be forced to read the body copy. And then in the first line of the body copy, it says what Chinese guy? Only a Nigerian could have invented this kind of music bla, bla, bla… So, that series was quite powerful. It created so much debate, reporters writing about the campaign and stuff. So, I quite enjoyed it.
Currently, you work for some multi-nationals and biggest businesses in Nigeria. Is there any company you would like to work for but hasn’t been able to drag into the X3M Ideas family?
Right now, not too many big territories left to conquer, I must be honest with you, because we work for Glo, Globacom. Globacom is like one of the biggest brands on this continent. It’s a world class brand by any stretch of the imagination. So, for me, it’s a huge opportunity, it’s a huge privilege working on the business. The one that I’ve always wanted to work on, and I feel privileged to be working on is also Peak Milk. I’ve always wanted to work on Peak. The heritage in this country is legendary. So, now, we work on Peak. We’ve been working on Peak for three, four years now. I feel very privileged about that. I mean, there are not too many accounts out there left. Maybe in the beer category…
Yeah! You’ve not worked for any of the breweries?
Would you like to tell us which one you would like to work for or do you want to keep it to yourself?
No, I will keep it to yourself.
Of all the briefs you’ve worked on, which one gave you the toughest challenge? The one that tasked you the most…
The first few briefs we got from Globacom, I won’t lie to you, because, see, if you’ve never met the chairman, Dr. Mike Adenuga, Jnr., the man is just legendary! I mean, in terms of his passion for advertising; I’ve never met a client in my life who is so passionate about advertising. And that’s a good thing. But it’s also a challenge because the level for excellence is here (raises his hand). It’s like sky high. So, trying to meet that challenge, to say, okay, you did not make a mistake by giving us your business, was a huge challenge. But after the first couple of briefs, we settled in, we found the rhythm and understanding of the business. But it’s an ongoing process, always wanting to just learn more and deliver more value for the client.
Are there times that people look down on you because of your dreadlocks?
Ah! Those times are over (laughing). They look down on you when you’ve not proven yourself, if you are an unknown quantity. It’s like looking down on Michael Jackson because of his jerry curls (laughter). No, but seriously, now, we are the ones that make dreadlocks cool in the corporate setting. I mean, before, aside wearing my own, I can’t count one other person that had dreadlocks who worked in corporate 9 to 5 job. But our job is to make extreme things cool, which we have done (smiling).
This interview, of course, won’t be complete without us talking about your record company, X3M Music. What is currently happening to it? You build up artistes, you release them. Why?
Yeah! It’s the same principle. Young people these days don’t really want to spend a lot of time doing the same thing. So, it’s like let’s start to grow new entrepreneurs who want to go do other stuff. So, we are totally not averse to it. Right now, where we are is that even the whole record label business model, the phase we are now, I mean, why should I want to spend so much building one artiste, when I can do so many other stuff with that kind of money? So, I don’t think we are interested in signing new talents at the moment. We just want to do certain projects. I mean, we have a new business model we are working on, that we are almost done with. Once that time comes, we will announce something.
But some of the musicians who sprouted from X3M Music like Etcetera, Praiz, Simi and co. Did you really make money from that enterprise or you just did it to encourage them?
See, if you want to get into the music business for making money, you will die. Because you never truly make money. Some of those money you recoup over 20 years. But you see, we will take those kind of chance because, for me, it’s always been about how do we support talents? People accuse me of doing charity business with music. It’s not actually charity, you just delay your gratification. Eventually you will make your money back, but it will take time and you know how Nigerians are. We want it now, now , now…But some of us are willing to like take a long-range cheque and say okay, look, you know what, over the next 15, 20 years, we would continue to recoup.