We Set Up To Be Number One – Steve Babaeko

Leading the team at X3M Ideas Limited the young but fast growing marketing communications company as its Chief Executive Officer/Chief Creativity Officer is Steve Babaeko, a well-rounded, well grounded and vastly experienced professional in the industry.

Before founding his own agency in 2012, Steve as he is popularly known and called had started his advertising career at MC&A Saatchi & Saatchi in 1995. He later joined Prima Garnet Ogilvy and, subsequently, 141 Worldwide where he worked till early 2012, thus bringing his experience in the industry to a cumulative 20 years. And it was from there (141 Worldwide) he took the bold step to establish X3M Ideas in August of the same year.

Thus, Steve brings to the agency his vast and significant experience in building brands across industries. His passion for creativity matches his love for challenges. He is a writer, consumer behaviour analyst, brand development expert and motivational speaker. Steve nurtures youths to be self-reliant which is why individuals and groups always invite him to speak to young Nigerians at many seminars and workshops.

Steve holds a bachelor’s degree in Theatre Arts from the prestigious Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, Kaduna State, Nigeria. He is an Associate member of the Advertising Practitioners Council of Nigeria (APCON) and has attended several international Leadership trainings.

Steve is also the founder of X3M Music, a music record label company that is focused primarily on developing young talents. In an interview with MARKETING EDGE, he speaks at length about his agency and reflects on the industry. Excerpts:


Steve-BabaekoYou came to the LAIF Awards and won gold in three categories, what was your expectation going to the award?

It is the same expectation that I have had from day one; to be the number one agency in this country and I will not stop trying until we get there. And even when we become number one, we’ll not stop trying to remain number one. We didn’t set up to be anybody’s number two or number three; those things are not good for us. Just in the quality of work. The fact that we may not have come tops at LAIF, does not mean we are not doing more quality works than other people. So, I see us as top contender when you talk about quality works that come out from the shelf at a consistent level.

You talk about the exploits of the young agencies at LAIF but majority of the awards still went to the big agencies?

If you have a deep pocket, just drive a bullion van into AAAN office and enter in 250 award categories. Of course, the more you enter the more you are likely going to win. But the agency that came top this year is not one of the established agencies; it’s a new generation agency. The agency won the grand prix which for me is part of the dynamics that is happening. So it’s not much about the quantity of awards but the quality of the awards you won. For example, you can win forty bronze, it will not be up to one of my own gold. So you have to compare apples with apples.

Are there any works at LAIF that inspired you as a creative person and challenged you to raise your creative deliveries?

To be honest, I never look at any other agencies because in my mind there is only one agency in this country, and that is X3M Ideas. We are running a race against ourselves. I don’t look at you, I don’t know you, I don’t care who you are. We care about the quality of work we generate, we care about the value we give our clients, and we care about taking extra care to nurture the businesses the clients have given us the responsibility to take care off so, I am sorry to disappoint you; I just don’t look at other people I look only at us. I don’t set my benchmark against agencies around here, because I have always loved bunching above my weight level. I have always wanted to play at the global level, and if you want to play at the global level you have to start benchmarking yourself against the major players at the global level, this is the vision I set for myself from day one.

Recently, there has been a lot of talk about generational shift in the advertising industry, what is your take on it?

There has been a slow but steady progress towards a generational shift. For many years it used to be the same old generation controlling things, they were the gatekeepers of the industry. If you can look at it technically, how many new agencies have emerged in the past ten to fifteen years? You can count them on your fingertips. Really, it is not for want of trying. Don’t count the numbers of people who try to set up agencies, count the number of people who setup a successful practice. You see that it’s been a little slow, but it is also steady, because till today, I don’t think there has been any time in the past two decades that a young crop of advertising entrepreneurs are holding their own in the industry like we are seeing at the moment. You can count a couple of them and I am very excited about that. The work is getting more interesting, competition is getting tougher. And even among the younger agencies, there is a healthy rivalry going on among them as to who is going to make the greatest show at the international scene and continental scene. This year, quite a number of Nigerian agencies were short-listed at the Crystal Awards in Maracas, Morocco. And quite a couple of them won. So you can see that the competition is getting stiffer and I really like that.

I want to believe we are seeing a generational shift, this business naturally is not for old people. Globally the business of advertising is for young people, and I think we’ve come to a point where a younger set of entrepreneurs are beginning to emerge. You can see that now it doesn’t really matter that you are affiliated to such and such foreign agency. Obviously, the clients are not interested in who is affiliated to what now, what they are concerned about is who can give me a fantastic idea that can build my brand. I see all of that happening now, whereas if it was fifteen years ago we wouldn’t have a striking chance as X3M Ideas. Just seeing young agencies, playing their art in the ring, challenging the old established agencies is a major part of the changes. You know, it has taken clients just becoming more futuristic in their thinking, and they realizing that they don’t necessarily need an agency that has a big name, but an agency who can deliver big ideas. It is obviously an interesting time to be an advertising practitioner in Nigeria and I feel so excited to be part of the change going on.

Can you take a look at each of the epochs in Nigeria’s advertising history and tell us the events that defined them?

I will classify them into a couple of generations. If you look at the first generation of advertising entrepreneurs they mostly came from broadcasting, they were doing their broadcasting and excelled in it. You must give the credit to those visionaries. They saw a fallow land and they now turned it into a multi-billion naira enterprise in Nigeria today. Prior to the emergence of the first generation, the advertising industry was dominated by expatriates and foreigners. The next generations were people who started with those first generation people and just felt like they can do a lot better by setting up their own companies. So they all pulled out of those various companies, set up their own agencies and they also played their own part. Now if you look at it, down to what we call the fourth or fifth generation of advertising practitioners it’s still the same thing, but I think it is more interesting today. Now, we have a crop of a new generation people who are much more focused on global standards.

Would you say the present generation of practitioners is doing better than the first?

It depends, for those who were part of the first generation, they even needed to build an industry to start with.They were building. So give credit to them. I give them a whole lot of shout-out; I give them a whole lot of credit for setting the frame work. They opened the door for some of us, so you can’t even say they are not doing enough. Change is the only thing that is constant in life. In a couple of years maybe in another decade or two or so there will be a generation that will come after me and say they are taking over. There will always be the handing over of the mantle of leadership whether you like it or not. And it happens in every industry, even in the country at the national level. So the advertising industry cannot be an exception. So I give shout-out to the old generation guys but the new generation guys are here to take it from here, that is just the truth.

Which of the generations would you say contributed the most to the industry?

The early generation practitioners did a lot, they earned more respect, they had more clout, and they had a lot of influence. If you see these days, it looks like what is still missing in the new generation, is that clout, and influence. But even now, if you still know what you are doing, trust me clients will respect you. Across the board you could say the early generation did well in terms of being able to guide the clients. And don’t forget that as at that time it was a learning curve for everybody including the clients, too.

What will you say are the major changes between then and now?

Back in the days, even as at the time I started my advertising career in 1995, advertising agencies still did everything for the clients, including PR, what they call activation now, including Media Buying everything was domiciled under one roof. With time came changes and the dislodgement of all the functions of Ad agencies. So you now have Media Independents separate, we have PR Companies separate, we also have advertising agencies. There is a dichotomy between traditional media and digital media, so all of those stratifications have happened. Clients, back in the days, wanted you to deliver everything, ‘I don’t want to give myself headache, just give me everything.’ These days clients are looking for more specialist agencies that can do this or that.

How do you manage a difficult client?

It is a challenge you have to deal with. It’s just like guys who work in a restaurant as waiters, if it is a very busy restaurant do you know how many customers walk in through the door everyday and among them are people who are troublemakers, people who will fight you at the drop of your hat; when you smile at them they will ask you why are you smiling so hard, but if you are a trained waitress you will still keep your smiles and keep your cool and deal with every customer the way they approach you. It is the same thing with advertising people, you find clients that are very difficult; it’s part of the job. You are trained to manage difficult clients, you find clients that are genuinely really nice, and you find clients that really want to push you hard because they believe if they push you hard they will get the best job. So it depends on how they come, but you are trained to handle all of them. For ideal clients, no matter what happens, all you need do is earn their respect. I think that that is the bottom line. What is paramount in the relationship between a client and an agency is respect and it should be mutual, client must respect the agency because you get the best out of the agency when you show respect.

What is your advice for young people coming into the advertising profession?

To be patient, most of them are not patient. You in an agency for two years, and then you hurriedly leave and go elsewhere. Anybody is free to set up, I have my theory about the success rate but it doesn’t really matter. To me, what is more important is for you to own your craft; I mean technically. All my career, I have only worked in two agencies, this is the third agency that I am working in, in twenty years! I started at MCBA in 1995, I worked there for five years, I went to Prima Garnet, worked there for five years and my former boss seconded me to 141; so technically I was still working for the same agency. I was Creative Director at 141 for seven years and then I set up my own company. But you see people who are barely 27 and they’ve worked in ten agencies. I am like if you are to do this business for another ten more years how many agencies are you going to work in? At the end of the day you just need to be patient. Own your craft, own your skills. I told you I worked in technically three agencies my entire career, trust me I don’t know of anybody who belongs to the class of 95 that we started together including the people that jumped ship and worked in ten agencies that is doing better than I am. I don’t know! So, patience is the best tool. You just need to sit and learn and then you do better when you finally decide to make your moves.

What is the difference between X3M Ideas and every other agency out there?

Everything we’ve done in three years, all the awards, all the peak campaigns we’ve rolled out, all the unique ideas we’ve generated, all the brands we’ve supported and nurtured and the consistence in our delivery. This thing is like music, in music you are as good as your last song. If you are not releasing a good song, nobody is listening to you, it is the same thing with advertising; nobody is going to say oh X3M Ideas did one campaign three years ago when they first started, let’s keep clapping for them. People are looking for what is the current campaign you are working on. So we have been consistent for three years. We have a point to prove and every day we wake up with determination to continue to prove that point. The only thing that stands us out is that I don’t even see competitors. It will sound like we are arrogant but it’s not. I don’t see other competitors; don’t forget in the beginning of this interview I told you where I stand. I see only one agency and that is X3M Ideas, but that is the truth.

From your own point of view, what is the future of advertising?

I think the future of advertising is bright, but that is for advertising agencies that know what they are doing, the advertising agencies that are willing to move with the time, for advertising agencies that are willing to recognize that at the end of the day there is no such thing as a big advertising agency. There is only one thing in this business – big ideas.

For X3M Ideas we are really very hopeful that we’ll continue to do what we are doing now, we see a situation where in the nearest future we are expanding into West Africa. That is part of our five-year plan. So three years down, two more years to go and we are already working on it. We look forward to being able to partner with institutional investors someday soon. We’ve been having a couple of talks. Look, I have nothing against affiliation, but it has to be for the right reasons and with right partners. If by the time we are in West Africa we find an institutional investor whose culture matches ours we’ll not mind selling some equity to them. In so doing, we’ll make our corporate governance even tighter. We’ll be able to ensure that this business lives beyond us.

X3M Ideas has been in existence for three years, can you tell us about the agency?

It is a group that’s made up of other companies. Some of them I may not be able to talk about right now, but we have X3M Music, then a production company – Zero Degrees. They produce audiovisual contents for clients. They’re out there shooting something as we speak. We have X3M Ideas of course, we have two companies in this building. We have Grader Marketing Research. We saw a gap in research and we are trying to block that gap, so our research company will be taking off next year. We have Plus234 Communications, our PR company which will be taking off next year. So it’s a group. In this business you need ancillary companies.


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