Steve Babaeko: The creative genius gets set for the mantle

Writing on the theme “Strange Eccentricities of Creative Geniuses”, Michael Michalko, one of the most acclaimed creativity experts in the world gave the literary community some insights into the world of creative geniuses.

Michalko, the American author of bestselling books revealed that “there is much anecdotal evidence to indicate that creative people are more often eccentric or more often have odd personality features than the non-creative population. The creative guru went further to reveal that famous visionaries often develop a reputation for having a few eccentricities. He cited some instances such as:

  • Marcel Proust who wrote most of his novels lying in bed.
  • James Joyce who kept a tiny pair of doll’s knickers in his pockets
  • Composer Gioachino Rossini who was completely bald and wore two or three wigs simultaneously.
  • Beethoven who had no interest in personal cleanliness and his friends had to take his dirty clothes away and wash them while he slept.

Living up to the character traits of his creative folks, Steve Babaeko, the debonair Managing Director of X3m Ideas, wears dreads. He does not only wear dreads but carries it with grace and candour, yet exuding grace and confidence that draws largely from the depths of intellect and rigour.

He is an avuncular adman who bops up and down dominating his environment with a remarkable and legendary swagger. Don’t blame Steve for his volubility and eye-catching larger-than life size, as he was sired by a military man and had his own fair share of barracks training background while growing up under his military father. In those early days, he gathered not quite a few insights on street intelligence combining it with knowledge acquired in the formal learning environment.

Steve is an unusual type of businessman. In an industry that seemed to have run out of inspirational stories, he stepped in and wrote a new chapter. Now, his X3M Ideas Group, which he founded in 2012, has become the yardstick for a new generation of Nigerian creative entrepreneurs.

Unlike the creative men of old, Steve Babaeko’s eccentricities have style and fashion. He is of a special breed. Not only refined in his ways, he is divinely gentlemanly.

Besides, he is a quintessential organiser and a business man of no mean repute. Having been tested and trusted, Steve Babaeko, whom I enjoy calling a “Creative Whizkid” has rolled up his sleeves to assume the mantle of leadership at the Association of Advertising Agencies of Nigeria (AAAN) where he is presently the Vice President 1. Is the crown already made for the Prince? No doubt, your guess would be as good as mine if you take a cursory look at the career and historical trajectory of the AAAN man of the moment. Yes, the AAAN crown is already made for the guru!

His was the proverbial case of a stone earlier rejected that has become the cornerstone. He has grown and risen through the ranks and proved some pessimists wrong.

Information reaching MARKETING EDGE has revealed that prospective aspirants and contenders for the AAAN top job have beaten a quick retreat. In order words, the coast appears clear for the Kogi-born adman to coast home to victory unopposed!

Steve’s unyielding belief in looking challenges in the face and staring them down has attracted the best talents to his firm and pulled in clients from around the world. His next stop? South-Central Africa, via Lusaka and Johannesburg, where he recently opened independent offices for X3M Ideas.

Before starting X3M, which has now grown to include X3M Music and Zero Degrees Productions, Steve was the creative director at 141 Worldwide. While there, he sparked the fire of creativity that made that agency the trendiest for many years.

Steve began his advertising career at MC&A Saatchi & Saatchi and later moved to Prima Garnet Ogilvy. For more than 23 years, he has been helping to create some of the most iconic marketing works on the continent. You might remember the “Proudly Nigerian” campaign for British American Tobacco, the “Now You’re Talking” campaign for Etisalat, “You Need A New Bank” campaign for Diamond Bank and so many others.

Steve Babaeko’s story has been well narrated and captivatingly told by his first and former boss and employer, Mr. Victor Johnson, former Managing Director of MC & A, a third generation advertising company that first gave him the singular honour of plying his trade in the glamorous advertising profession.

Confessions of Mr. Victor Johnson (Former MD/CEO, MC&A Saatchi) read:

 “In those early days, having to contend with all kinds of chicanery, rascality and not knowing whom to trust, I used to walk round the agency many times a day as a pilot walks round his plane; just to get a feel of what’s going on, so as not to be surprised. I also banned visitors to the agency except those on business. This was how I spotted this timid, pleasant and honest-looking boy in a non-descript T-shirt always hanging around the Radio/TV room, which, by nature of its operation, always had a crowd of people – TV producers, Models, translators, Voice-Over artistes etc.

“That I could do nothing about. Then on April 12th 1995, the fellow, with a surprising boldness, committed a sacrilege of barging into my office. Instead of chewing him out as I would ordinarily have done, I did my first strange act where the boy was concerned by inviting him in against my own iron-clad rules and to the chagrin of my shocked secretary who could only stare dumbfounded. Inside, the chap timorously regaled me with pathetic stories of his plight and ended with applying for a job. This was when the second strange thing happened as I employed him literally, on the spot without seeing his papers and without a day’s experience, although he had done the homework of learning what the job was all about. I based my odd and impulsive decision on a gut feeling as you don’t get to my age and level without acquiring a sixth sense and a nose for things. I also took refuge in the belief that if my nose let me down and he fell on the job, our traineeship programme would flush him out if he did not disappear on his own without being shoved.

“Till date, I can’t fully explain my impetuous act other than his face exuded honesty and that no negative vibes emanated from him. Welcome Steve Babaeko to the start of his communications career.

“Mercifully, my nose did not disappoint me, neither did Steve fail. He gave a good account of himself, demonstrated a surprising knowledge level, way above his station such that I gave myself a pat on the back but with a sneaky feeling that this Babaeko is a strange one. He took to the job like a fish to water, not like a green horn or a wet-behind- the ear rookie that he was and never looked back.

“He was always coming up with fresh and brilliant ideas with a senior writer, Paul Ugoagwu, gave us the Texaco business in a fiercely contested pitch that featured three largest billing agencies. A pitch where nobody gave us a chance, where a respected practitioner took a look at our materials and sneered with “No wonder you people don’t win new business, if this crap is the best you can do for a big pitch like this”. But we won the business hands down and serviced it so well that the account stayed with us till closure of the agency.” Mr Johnson, a veteran adman of the third generation and former employer of Steve Babaeko, MC&A recounted with nostalgia.

The testimony by Mr Johnson, now an octogenarian vividly captures the brand essence and brand personae of Steve Babaeko whose meteoric rise and ever- rising brand equity in his chosen career has always been enhanced and activated by grit, guts and sheer audacity.

During our recent encounter with him in his expansive, high- octane villa in the back street corner of Maryland area of Lagos State, the X3m Ideas founder demonstrated all these sterling attributes. His apartment, tucked almost in the middle of the houses in the neighbourhood of the high-profile estate, gives no clue as to the creative genius resident within. Aside the fact that the fence and the entire building are adorned in colour white with designer security lights and a giant gate reminiscent of the biblical walls of Jericho, the Steve Babaeko house maintains an anonymous posture whereas the interior design speaks so eloquently to an architectural masterpiece with creativity at its optimal best in the design and structures that will wow the uninitiated, especially a first time visitor. Ask Babaeko who were his consultant architect and the building engineer, he will be quick to attribute the creative designs and beautiful lay-outs of the magnificent edifice to his equally creative and versatile wife, a professional to the core in her own rights. Though a story for yet another day, Babaeko’s humility and humanity resonates poignantly in his personal disposition to life and you can see through his heart not necessarily by holding up a mirror before him but through his honesty and unpretentious innocence of a sailor. Brilliant, bold and blunt, Babaeko says it as it is without blabbing or jabbering.

During our two-hour interview session with the Kogi State born indigene, Babaeko was a reporter’s delight as he demonstrated knowledge of the industry in his choice of answers to questions. He is like a pugilist who surely knows his onions.

He talks with authority, candour and grace which only the power of knowledge and intellect can confer. At the end of the interview, the MARKETING EDGE seven- man team, led by Publisher/CEO Mr. John Ajayi was, not only fulfilled for getting a very rich and robust editorial content, they were, however, excited for a Saturday evening well spent with one of the industry intellectuals who has, by setting up his own creative shop a few years ago, helped in demystifying the age-long myth that creative people are not always good in entrepreneurship, or in becoming good business managers and leaders.

Today, X3M Ideas has not only broken the myth by giving birth to second line agencies, the pace setter creative shop has shattered the glass ceiling by winning a variety of local and global awards and laurels. The most recently won creative awards of excellence by the agency was the Grand Prix of Lagos Advertising Ideas Awards and Festivals (LAIF) as well as others too numerous to mention.

Like a Trojan, Steve Babaeko continues to soldier on in the Nigerian creative and business firmament with a mission and vision to win. And he has been winning given the profile and pedigrees of the agency’s clientele and rich portfolio of blue-chip accounts. Today, Steve has gone full circle as an accomplished entrepreneur and renowned creative whiz-kid. He continues to represent Africa on the global stage, having been a member of the jury at the New York Advertising Week, the Lories, and Cristal Awards. He has also been a speaker at the Cannes Festival of Creativity and also one of Adweek’s Top 100 Creative in the world 2019.

With a Bachelor’s degree in Theatre Arts from the esteemed Ahmadu Bello University, Steve Babaeko has honed his horn in leadership and professional training both locally and internationally. He has in the course of his career exploits and sojourn attended several international leadership trainings, including some in Harvard business School and Columbia University, New York.

He is currently the Vice- President of the Association of Advertising Agencies of Nigeria (AAAN), Chairman of the Board of Lagos Advertising and Ideas Festival (LAIF), and Member of the Board of International Advertising Association (IAA), Nigeria outside Advertising; he is the serving chairman, Public Relations Committee of the Nigerian-American Chamber of Commerce.


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