- Steve Babaeko's journey as an advertising man began almost 25 years ago when he packed his bags after his National Youth Service Corps programme and moved to Lagos, not knowing anyone.
- He had a target list of advertising agencies and made cold calls until he landed his first break as a Trainee Copywriter/Radio-TV Executive.
- Between the time he got his first job and when he started his company, X3M Ideas, Babaeko gathered 17 years of experience.
When I walk into Steve Babaeko’s office in the grey and red building that hosts the X3M Ideas team on the quiet Omodara Street in Ikeja, the first thing I notice, besides the massive, dark brown desk to the right side of the room, is a low glass table to the left covered in awards and trophies.
Babaeko’s charisma fills the room and he is all smiles as we shake hands. I apologise for coming a little later than we’d agreed to meet. Babaeko waves off my apology and invites me to sit down. I oblige.
He’s just returned from the 2019 Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity where he joined the first ever African panel on the main stage at the event. For advertising aficionados like him, Cannes Lions is “like the World Cup of advertising.”
In the same month, June, AdWeek recognised him as one of the 100 Most Fascinating People in Marketing, Media, and Culture in the world, cementing his status as a cultural icon. His record label, X3M Music, has produced some of the most distinct musical talents in Nigeria in the past decade, including Simi and Praiz.
His advertising and creative agency, X3M Ideas, has been around for barely 7 years and already has an impact that stretches beyond advertising into the way people perceive creativity and branding in Nigeria. The company’s client list includes some of the heavyweight brands operating in Africa -- Glo, Dangote, DStv, Peak, Absolut, Conoil, and Martell, the list goes on. You cannot have a comprehensive conversation about advertising in Nigeria without Babaeko's name coming up.
His journey as an advertising man began almost 25 years ago in 1995 when he packed his bags after his National Youth Service Corps programme, left Kaduna for Lagos, not knowing anyone, not knowing the future, taking just his hopes and dreams with him.
One thing was sure for me at that time, Babaeko tells me, advertising was my passion. “I realised that if I wanted to be serious, the only place I could pursue this career effectively was Lagos. So, I basically packed a bag, came in through Benin, and landed in Lagos.”
I ask him if he knew anyone. “No,” he replies, “for me, it was just taking a chance. Just as with anyone coming to Lagos for the first time, it was a baptism of fire.”
Coming to Lagos for the first time, not knowing anyone or having any tangible leads is a risky game of chance, but Babaeko had a plan. He had a target list of advertising agencies and made cold calls until he landed his first break as a Trainee Copywriter/Radio-TV Executive.
“I got my first break with Mr Victor Johnson, the MD of MC&A Saatchi and Saatchi. His office was in Shonibare Estate. My pitch was ‘I had the best result in my department, I know I’m good at this job. I don’t want a job, just give me a test,” Babaeko says.
“They gave me a test that took two months. So, I stayed for three months without a job. I took the test in June and resumed work in September 1995.”
Between the time he got his first job and when he started his company, X3M Ideas, Babaeko gathered 17 years of experience. In that period, he established himself as a force in Marketing Communications, working on some of the biggest briefs and with some of the biggest brands in Nigeria, including introducing Etisalat to the Nigerian audience.
He spent 5 years at MC&A, his first employer, then another 5 years with Prima Garnet Ogilvy, and then he moved to 141 Worldwide as the pioneer creative director where he spent 7 years before making the leap to start his own agency in 2012.
“Most people, before they start a business would have their business plan drawn up. I had no such thing. The business plan was in my head, but I already had 17 years of tutelage in the business. I knew what the revenue streams were and what the major challenges would be,” Babaeko says.
“I saved some money, about N8 million, and used it as seed capital. Out of that money, I rented one interesting looking office that I loved. I put so much into renovating and designing the office that I forgot that there were other more important expenses that I should focus on. I wanted the intercom to work and I wanted the ambience to look really good.”
“Would you have done it differently?” I ask.
“I think so, I think so,” he replies, almost immediately. “If I wanted to do it differently, I would have gotten a co-sharing office or something smaller. I wanted to put money into the window dressing so much that I forgot I was going to pay salaries in a few months. But today, you could start in a co-working facility that has all of that equipment.”
“I also got a loan from my wife of €15,000 which I paid back in 6 months and received help from a few of my friends. There’s a friend of mine, Segun Obagbemi, who cut me a cheque of N150,000 at a point when I’d almost run out of money and we needed to pay the workmen renovating the office. I can’t forget that money, I keep talking about it. Segun was one of the few people who actually came and put a cheque to support me.”
This, he says, shows the importance of having a support system made up of family and friends.
After spending the bulk of his capital on office aesthetics, Babaeko tells me that he had to approach a bank for a loan. It was this loan he used to pay the first salaries (for 7 people) and, he adds, “we’ve never really had any issues regarding payroll since then.” He admits that his inexperience in how to run a company or handle cash flow at the time contributed to his initial mistakes.
Towards the end of his 7 years at 141 Worldwide, Babaeko pitched to Mayora, makers of Kopiko candy, and they signed up as his first client at X3M Ideas. For his biggest client at the time, Etisalat, it was a case of the loyalty between a brand and the account handler they are already familiar with. He launched the brand into Nigeria and so, “there was 100% trust.”
“The Etisalat account was already domiciled with 2 agencies -- the company I used to work for had half of the account and another company had the other half. So, when I left, the brand took the portfolio that was with the other agency and gave it to me. That’s how we landed our first big account, and it put X3M’s name on the map because of the kind of work we did for them.”
When I ask Babaeko what the most important lessons he has learned in his years as a businessman, he begins by drawing a parallel between business and the line tracing on an EKG machine.
“Business is full of ups and downs,” he says, “and, even when the downs come, you don’t let them get to you. Just brace yourself and get ready because as long as you don’t stay down, the next up is just around the corner. That’s one of the vital lessons I’ve learned in this business -- even as you win some accounts, you’ll lose some accounts. Just make sure that for the accounts that you have, you give them everything you have at all times so that if they leave for some reasons beyond your control, you keep moving.”
From the initial team of seven, X3M Ideas has now grown into a company with tens of employees in Lagos, Johannesburg, and Lusaka. For Babaeko, the biggest investment you can make is in your team. “I just got recognised by AdWeek as one of the 100 most creative people in the world, but I didn’t do the work all by myself. I still need a strong team with everybody firing at 150% in their different positions.”
He adds, “Don’t feel too good when things are rosy, remember the structure that’s helping you achieve all the things you’re achieving.
“One other important thing is that even with the team, people are going to move on, so don’t take it personally. I know people who are more old school see someone moving on as some kind of betrayal, it is not. It’s just the natural order of things.
“The people you hired 4 years ago will outgrow their basic needs. What was heaven to them before has now become nothing because they’ve grown in your system, their desires have also grown, and you have to recognise that. Sometimes, it’s possible to accommodate that growth within your system, sometimes it’s not, and the only way for them to realise their ambition is by stepping out,” he says.
In a more reflective tone and after some time contemplating my question about what he wishes more business people paid more attention to, Babaeko says, “I’ll still bring it back to the team.
“A lot of people I’ve seen just pay lip service when they say things like ‘Our team is our biggest asset’. But I don’t think they pay quality attention to what they say is their biggest asset. Take this example: If the CBN is moving cash from one location to another, what do you think they do?”
“They guard it,” I reply.
“Exactly. I wish more people would put their money where their mouth is. If your people are your greatest assets, don’t tell us, show us. Guard them.”
True to his philosophy, X3M Ideas employs a full-time nurse on the premises who attends to the health matters of the staff. He tells me that the nurse has saved 2 lives since she’s been there. The company also has a fully-equipped gym which the staff use regularly along with a games room, a pool table, a bar and a cafeteria.
“We’ve built this place to allow people to thrive,” he says.
As our conversation comes to a close, I ask him what he wants his legacy to be. My question is followed by a deep sigh and another pause.
“I’ll draw it from my purpose,” he finally says. “For a while, I struggled with my purpose. Then it struck home one day when I was thinking about it that my purpose is definitely to use my God-given platform to help other people find their own purpose.
“If that is my legacy -- to be the guy who’s opened more doors for more people more than most people have -- I’ll sleep well.”