Managing Director, X3M Ideas, Steve Babaeko through unwavering diligence, and providence has worked his way up the ladder in a highly competitive industry in the last 20years. In far away northern Nigeria, Kaduna, he was so sure in his my mind that he could be a good copywriter, and so when he came to Lagos looking for a job, he wasn’t asking anyone to give him a job, but rather “give me a test”, and he proved his mettle first at MC&A. Five years later, he joined Prima Garnet and at 40, life began to interpret itself to him in a new meaning. Steve wanted the opportunity to write his own stories. At 41, he decided to plunge into the unknown waters of entrepreneurship with a radical approach to change the tides. Going down memory lane, he shares with Adedayo Adejobi , a mixed grill of his experiences, the opportunities and the challenges, how his agency, X3M Ideas, has been able to stretch the boundaries of imagination
What has it been like in the last two decades in the advertising industry?
I started in the industry when I was just 24 years old. Sometimes, it feels like yesterday and sometimes, it feels like it’s been 50 years. It is a mixed grill of challenges, excitements one has been able to manage. I remember the first day that Mr. Victor Johnson, my former Managing Director at MC&A, gave me that letter that I was supposed to start work as trainee copy writer/radio/TV executive, that day would probably go down as one of the happiest moments of my life because I really wanted to do advertising. But having come through all these ways in 20 years, it is time to ruminate over all the transitions that have happened to both myself and to the industry; the metamorphosis that has taken place in the industry, across both sides have been monumental changes.
Talking about changes, what are some of those landmarks witnessed in the industry?
20 years ago, there were just sprinkles of agencies. You could count the number of big or top agencies at the tip of your fingers. OBM was in their last lap, and may be Grant was a little active. But the big guns were the LTCs, the Insights, SO&Us of this world. Shortly after, Prima Garnet became very big as well. I came into the industry in the late days where agencies had everything under one roof: PR, media, events and all of that. Those were the days when artworks were done on bromides, you use paint brush for special effects. It was almost the beginning of the advent of computers in agency operations. At some point, agencies would say in their corporate ads “we are computerised…” If you say that now everybody is going to laugh at you, if you are not computerised, how can you get anything done? If you look at how digital is playing a significant role advertising now, it is incredible. Take a look at the eco-system of marketing communications in Nigeria and you will see that it has totally transformed in the last 20 years.
What really inspired you into advertising?
I was in the back water of Nigeria in Kaduna back then. We heard gists of what happened in Lagos three months later, not as it is now in the age of internet and social media where you could google anything and search for anything you wish to know about. We were really the last people to get to know about things that were happening. I wanted to go into broadcasting, but when I did my NYSC at the Nigerian Television Authority, NTA, in Kano, I realised that broadcasters looked really good on TV, but when it comes to remuneration it was nothing to write home about. Sometimes, it was so bad that some people after casting the news, found it difficult to go home. That simply opened my eyes that broadcasting might not be for me because everybody was waiting for me to finish service because we were very poor and they were just waiting for me to get a job so that I could support the family. Of course, I was already using my NYSC allowance to support the family, so time was not on my hands and I couldn’t imagine being entangled in the broadcasting pay that I saw with my own eyes.
At that time, I was really disillusioned. I didn’t know what to do until Mr. Lolu Akinwunmi granted an interview I read in the Vanguard newspaper, where he talked about advertising and how they treated their staff at Prima Garnet. I thought to myself ‘may be this is what I should be doing’. but again, it was not like the age of internet where I could google what advertising is about. I had to go to the Kaduna library to do a research on the subject and what departments there are in an agency. I stumbled on the creative department; I probed further on what sections there are under the creative department and got to know about copywriting.
How was your first day on the job?
I think it was a wonderland. I was just tumbling down that ‘rabbit hole. I wasn’t so sure. Of course there were several cliques in MC&A. I remember one guy who turned out to be my best friend. He was manning the radio/TV department then. I think he’s been having a bit of a challenge with management and they wanted to actually ease him off, if I looked back now I can understand why my employment letter read “Trainee Copywriter/Radio –TV Executive”. There was a copywriter who was a problem and there was a radio/TV person who was also a problem. So the management position was to ease them off so they brought me in. When I resumed the guy who was in charge of radio/TV had gone to do some work somewhere, no one knew where he was for two days. I had resumed for two days, I remember the third day he saw me along the corridor and said, ‘hey, you are the new guy?’ I said ‘Yes, I am’. Then he continued: ‘This job, did you apply for it, or they just gave you the job”. I answered, ‘I applied and they gave me the job’. He then said, ‘but don’t you know that it’s not all jobs they give you that you accept?’ We ended up being the best of friends and till now we are still good friends but it started a little shaky. Again, the politics of advertising agency. I had a creative director who didn’t like me that much for so many reasons though I don’t even know what they were then but I had a Victor Johnson, our CEO, who was very supportive and treated me like a son, so it was not all that bad, it was a mixture of all the opportunities and the challenges.
Technically, you only worked in two agencies before you decided to set up your own shop. Why?
For me it was both an accident and planned. The planned part was I just realised that in my first year in my first agency, my CEO was like my father, I couldn’t event fathom going to Mr. Victor Johnson that I was resigning, that kept me there for a long time. I did five years in MC&A. Again, why it was planned on the premise that from day one I always knew that if I left MC&A, I was going to Prima Garnet that was how I wanted my career to plot out. I wasn’t even willing to stop- bye along the way. May be it was because my initial motivation came from Mr. Akinwunmi’s interview where he spoke glowingly about Prima Garnet and their staff welfare policy. Prima Garnet became my dream agency. I am the kind of person that if I make up my mind that this is what I want to do, I always end up pursuing it. So every year since I joined MC&A, I usually applied to Prima Garnet and I won’t get called until the fifth year, 2001, when they finally called me and I jumped at it. At that point, I felt I had paid my dues at MC&A, so I moved on.
Again, getting to Prima Garnet, it was fantastic and great time working with Paschal Ayanso, my creative director. I think that was one of the high points of my advertising experience. That was where I was when they set up 141 and asked me to go and become the creative director there. I saw it as opportunity to truly write my own stories. I grabbed that opportunity with both hands, went to 141 and worked as if I was going to kill myself and we built a solid agency brand. I ended up spending another seven years in 141 and then I decided I had done enough and set up X3M Ideas. So technically, this is the third agency I am working in.
What were the challenges when you worked as an employee in the industry and how did you surmount them?
When you work for people there will be the internal politics of the environment you work in. Where two or three are gathered there is politics in their midst, that is given. You have to surmount the politics of the environment you work.
Secondly, some of the things I know now about business I didn’t know then, you’ll always feel there is some money somewhere they are not giving you. You are being short-changed, oh, you are holding the shorter end of the stick, oh, these guys are bloody capitalists. May be sometimes it’s not like that. The way I surmounted working for people was actually based on my own personal principle-if you are working for people, pretend as if you are working for yourself, that may be your saving grace. This is so because if you are working for yourself, it won’t matter whether there is politics going on, you are not going to quit and run because there is politics. I run this company today, nothing can make me quit because people are playing politics.
Having risen from the bottom to the success you have attained, within the space of 20 years, what is your advise to others on how to get to the top?
What I love about these saying especially if you are a good student of the Yoruba language which I am, there are sayings for and sayings against. A saying against the ‘big cock’ thing is that one that says ‘the erosion does not mind pulling down the building, it is the landlord that has to fortify his property’. If you juxtapose these sayings, of course, the big guns will not want anyone to play in their territories, especially a new kid on the block, but as a new kid on the block you have to be prepared for it. Marketing itself is warfare. Luckily, it’s not the war you fight with bullets and guns; it’s a war you fight with brains. You just need to get armed with your brain-power and do something different if not you are going to be swallowed. From day one, honestly the state of mind I brought into the industry is not about who is big or who is small? I do not see any big or small agency. In fact, the smaller agencies should be the ones you should be wary of today. The big agencies have been there forever, you know what they can possibly do. The guys you don’t know are the ‘small’ agencies that are just coming and one may not know the tricks they are hiding behind their backs. To be honest, to me there are no big agencies or small agencies. If there are any agencies out there coming up with good ideas then I know I need to watch them closely and try to bring up my A-game anytime I encounter them. And luckily for the client, which is also very good for the industry, I don’t think the clients are deceived by big names anymore, this has been my experience in the past three years.
What about this story of coming to Lagos with only N500 in your purse?
It’s actually true. After all the back and forth with friends in Benin and I paid for my bus fare to Lagos, I had left with me only N500 when I arrived Lagos June 8, 1995. That is the true story. For me, it just reminds me how far I have come and that is why I still can remain very humble, knowing that I did not get here by power but a whole lot of help from God almighty. For that reason I will always remain grounded and grateful.
At what point did you decide to launch out as an entrepreneur and what motivated you?
I love working in 141Worldwide, I have no problem with the company especially with the gentleman who owns it: Mr. Lolu Akinwunmi. He is my benefactor, my mentor, I respect him a lot. I started working for the Prima Garnet group at 29. I left at 41. That’s a lot of time. I wish people will work that long here. Something happens to a man when he turns 40, I don’t know about other people, but I can speak for myself. I turned that curve, I became 40 and I started to see the world in a totally different way. People like Mr. Akinwunmi is even luckier that I am, he started Prima Garnet at 33/34, I started this company at 41 meaning that I am even eight years late. At 40, I started to look at the world differently, started thinking about legacy, God forbid if something happened to me, what legacy do I bequeath to my family? Is there anything that I have beside my salary? Do I have stake in the business? Do I have stake in a business somewhere else? The answers kept coming in the negative. Then I decided I had to do something about my life. That is on the personal level.
On the business level, I have been with 141 for seven years. We grew the business but I wasn’t in charge. I had other ideas about how the business could have gone which was the crux of the friction I had with the person leading the team. I felt the company should go right all the time, she wanted it to go left, so we clashed a lot. It was seven years of serious clashing. Being 40, I thought about all the clashes I had to go through all in the name of steering the company in what I felt was the right direction that wasn’t happening. I felt why nobody would listen to me is that ‘you have all these radical ideas of what could be done to take the business to a totally different trajectory but where have you done it before.’ Why should anyone believe that those ideas even make sense? So I felt it was a good opportunity to come out and prove that some of those things are actually the way to go. If I wasn’t in charge, it’s like going to battle with your hands tied behind you. The only way to loosen that is to cut out and go and start something. In three years this is what we have done. God being behind us, this is what we are capable of doing, and I am glad we have been able to make that statement in a profound and loud manner.
In a case like yours, where your role models are somehow your competition, how do you handle this?
There is a saying out there that you should work so hard till you become competition to your role models. I think that is what we have done. The role models we looked up to when we started this business are the people we are competing against today. The Yorubas will say if a child comes of age and ‘needs to have a cutlass, give him one, if he needs to get a hole do not deny him one’. We have come of age, after 20 years in the industry, we have put in a bit of work. There are quite a number of people I really respect, I means the people that built this industry out of nothing. They are still the heroes of this industry frankly. Until some of these men came into the industry, this was like a barren wasteland dominated by expatriates and foreigners. They came and gave it a Nigerian face to the extent that we can now say in 2015 that we have a Nigerian advertising industry. Credit to those men.
Considering the economic downturn and low income, do you think there are still opportunities in the industry?
There is still need or opportunities for at least 20 solid agencies in this economy. The opportunities are enormous but the question is, are you willing to bring a different thinking to the game? If you can’t, if you are just going to be doing what X3M Ideas is doing then sit in your house, do not waste your time because X3M is already taking that space. If there is no new thinking, new strategies, new ideas and new creative ways of execution of the new thinking you’re bringing on board, then it’s a waste of everybody’s time. What made way for us is that we brought new thinking into this business that is why we gained traction. Yes, there are some businesses you start with some powerful people on board with loads of money, X3M Ideas’ case wasn’t like that, we started with nothing. So if you really want to come in and join the fray, there is already a path or zone now where all kinds of heavy hitters are already seated and entrenched. To come in and break through this clutter, better for that person to know something that all of us do not know. If not, how are you going to come in? So my advice to young entrepreneurs is, sit down, study the market which is exactly what we did, and discover what new angles you can approach the business.
What are the challenges?
Challenges are enormous. At the end of the day, people still ask how can I compare music and advertising and I tell you one single comparism between those two industries is that with music you are as good as your last hit that is even more true for advertising. We just broken a campaign for Etisalat using Francis Odega and the whole country is talking about it, the client has given us another brief today, the bar has been raised, they want you to do something that is even better than the last one they are talking about. If you can’t keep producing that result, nobody is going to cut you any slab to say ‘in fairness to them, they did a fantastic job two months ago.’ The biggest challenge we have in this industry is you have to keep besting yourself with every brief you get.
Now to your signature dreadlocks, 20 years ago you weren’t wearing this?
In this business of communication, differentiation is the key factor. So you ask at some point there are so many creative directors in this country, do I just want to carry my skin-low hair-cut like everyone else and go to clients? How are they going to remember you? To be honest before I started wearing my dreadlocks when I meet people, I had to introduce yourself two three times later before the face finally became familiar. Since I started wearing it, you meet me only once you remember me. It boils down to the fact that in this business creating differentiation should start with you as a practitioner.
What structures are you putting in place to ensure you have people who can run the business when you step aside?
I am just in my 40s. I suspect I might take a back seat at 50. To be honest this job is a tough job. It is like being a member of the US Marine. It is tasking to your body; it is tasking to your brains. After taking all the beatings for over 20 years, one feels tempted to retire early to call it a day. In view of that we are working on our succession plan already, we do not want to make some of the mistakes that bedevil businesses in Nigeria where there are no clear succession plan. We are working on that.