Managing Director, X3m Ideas, Steve Babaeko, speaks to Adedayo Adejobi on the current advertising economy, effects of in-house agencies on the industry and other pertinent issues

How would you access the advertising industry and the economy in 2016?

Last year was perhaps the most challenging year that I have ever witnessed since almost the beginning of my career; it was a very challenging year. The reason is not farfetched, from an economy slow down, we went into a recession. The client was badly affected, then it invariably affected the market communications industry so it was a very challenging year. It was a year that most of our colleagues found it difficult to meet their obligations to their staff, companies even event outside the marketing communications industry had to cut salaries and some others deployed a number of practical measures to survive the year, so it was a very tough and rough year for the economy in general.

Despite these challenges what can you point to as a plus for the marketing communications industry in 2016?

The good side is that a number of good works came out last year despite the challenged economy. As far as awards are concerned, I think Nigeria has more showing at the global level than previous years. A number of agencies including our agency, X3M Ideas, had wonderful showings winning laurels at the convenient level. This gives the industry – advertising practitioners and clients brighter ray of hope for the future while it is also a confirmation that that the practice is moving in the right direction, at least our creative can hold their own at this level.

Now budget has shrunk drastically, it’s now marketing on shoestring budget, what must agencies do to survive?

I think for agencies to survive in this downturn, as practitioners, we have to be more creative. They always tell us about thinking “outside the box”, coming from 2016 and its economy recession, this year we have to rip the box apart; there should be no box for the big idea. Beyond this, I can see the agencies now looking for other ways to survive; it will no longer be the usual routine. Agencies must review their business models and tweak their operations to evolve some innovative products line. This is necessary because as the agencies we are not going to close shop because clients’ budgets are drying or have dried up. This does that really mean we should go out of the business. I can see serious agencies becoming more creative in terms of pushing out their own product line that will help them to survive even if the clients are not spending as before. The more they do this, the better for the industry.

Getting the agency product line up and running is just the obvious way forward; the vast opportunities in the digital space more than enhance this possible offering. This will ensure that the agency survive beyond the crushing recession. As practitioners, we travel a lot, we see what others people are doing in other markets, so Nigeria can’t afford to lag behind for so long.

In your interview with the New York Festival magazine, you decried the spate of in-house agencies by clients as a minus on the industry, why this position?

The way it will play out in the industry in Nigeria is that, it will favour the agencies at some points. In the interview you referred to, I maintained a position that agencies cannot become manufacturers of the consumable products that the client produces, also similarly, some clients have shown that they are not also good at marketing communications. Therefore, it is proper to give room for specialisation – let the agencies focus on marketing communications – creating branding and communication for clients’ products and services while the client focuses producing good quality products. It is better to keep these separate. For clients who fail to keep them separate, experience tells us that they are not any better than the clients who have the good sense to employ top-notch agencies.

Some agencies have excelled at it, especially as they are able pool resources from the established agencies?

I don’t think so, because advertising is a highly specialised profession, even when companies pool the resources, there is a corporate culture, which governs that field of specialisation if you are a client and decides to assemble “an all-star team” together, yes they are good but that environment may not allow them to “fly” the way they are wont to on the agency’s side. Those are the issues, unless you are able to create that enabling environment, you find out that the in-house agency idea is not going to fly or work effectively for the client.

For almost two years, the Advertising Practitioners Council of Nigeria (APCON), the governing body, which regulates advertising has been without a chairman. How has this affected the industry?

It has affected us in a very significant ways because this is like saying may be the board of Nigerian Medical Association (NMA) is scrapped, who regulates the practice? Yes, the Registrar/CEO, Alh. Garba Bello-Kankarofi, is doing a yeo-man’s job, great job, I mean to keep that place running. The current President of the AAAN, Kayode Oluwasona, as an APCON board member has unequivocally stated that council chairman has to be appointed by the government to help us manage all the issues we’ve been trying to manage. This current situation in the industry is like a plane flying without a good control tower. The APCON is a control tower that makes sure plane coming in and taking off are able to do so without any kind of mishap. This is an urgent situation, I am hoping the government will look in this early enough in the year because is very important.

Why do you think the Minister of Information, Lai Mohammed, will ignore the industry? Is it deliberate or it’s because the advertising industry is not pulling its weight?

I want to give the government the benefit of doubt, I won’t say it’s a deliberate attempt to sideline the industry. I think it may be in the light of the current realities they have to cope with. A lot of things are happening in the country at the same time, especially, the economy, I am sure is giving the government a sleepless night, the value of the naira versus major foreign currencies, among others burning issues. So among those burning issues is also APCON, it is not less important. If we say we say we are serious about the economy, we want to get the economy out of recession, every segment has to be up and running. As it is now, the market communications segment is running on one engine at the best, except you tackle the issue of the APCON board by appointing a chairman.

Being a Jury at the New York (Advertising) Festival, what do you say about the Lagos Advertising & Ideas Festival in view of the last outing and what needs to be done to restore the growing advertising award brand?

For our local LAIF award, it is still clear with the last year’s award we still have a lot of work to do in terms of looking for a better ways to organise ourselves and bring more transparency into the award especially at the jury level. I am sure those are the issues the president is trying to address and I have confidence in the present leadership of the association to make sure that all the loose ends are tied up.

How do you mean?

Get people who are good creatives but are no longer active working for any agency so that partisanship can be reduced if not totally eliminated. This is necessary because when you select the jury from creative directors of agencies with entries as its currently being done, partisanship becomes inherent in their ad ratings and judgments. There are quite a number of solid creatives who no longer work for any agency, some may have even moved to the client side but they are solid creative regardless of the changing of garbs, so if you get them involved in this process, they are much more fair and independent minded, they are likely to make a good job of the process.

Secondly, most of the complaints against 2016 LAIF awards have to do with “self-promo” ads. Using one self-promo to win across several categories should be reviewed. These are just a few, when we take a more critical look at the issues, we will discover there are other areas we need to improve upon. Honestly, regardless of all the issues and protests, I still think the industry is better off with LAIF than without it. This is because we have something that inspires people to focus on creating good works.

Surprisingly, some insinuate that LAIF after its 11th edition has proved to be a failure and therefore should be scrapped. What’s your reaction to this?

That will be like throwing away the baby with the bath water. There are many things we’ve done in this country as a people; there are some that worked while we are still trying to perfect some. Our experience at democracy, for instance, there are still so many issues with the process, we won’t because of these let go of democracy and call in the military! As a people, we will continue to improve the process. All the advanced countries you see today, they become advanced by continuously improving their processes. This is what we should be doing as well. Yes, LAIF award has challenges, there are issues surrounding it, we should keep improving on what we have, I am sure in 20 years’ time hopefully some will sit down, look and say, “Yeah, we stumbled but we have finally made it”.

Technology is leading media and advertising. What’s happening in 2017?

Technology is the engine room for everything that we do, the era of internet of things, and it is going to get more intensified. There is always going to be a new dimensions to technology, the window is usually about six months so what you knew then will probably get stale if you do not update yourself. It is going to get even more rapid, changes will happen at incredible speed.

Technology is going to be at the centre of all we do either we like it or not. Take a look at the music industry, no one is talking about record sales, it’s now about streaming and downloads. The advertising sector too, is no exception. All the platforms and tools are becoming more digital. The print media too will have no option than to go digital. I am sure if you talk to some young people they will tell you that they have not held a newspaper in their hands in the last two years.

Now, every news is consumed on their mobile, so if nobody is buying it, one has no choice than to change. If you look at what played out between Linda Ikeji and the soft sell magazines, you can see clearly that Linda did not do anything different than to take the content to the digital platform. She came there, had an early comer advantage over others and that made the difference. More so for traditional print publications, we can have good titles in printed formats with people rushing over themselves to buy it, but when it comes to online, it is a strictly different ball game. The question of how to optimise for easy use both on desktop and mobile considering that the bulk of the traffic we have to the web in Nigeria is via mobile.

So if you have a news platform that is not mobile friendly, easily accessible and fun to navigate, you will be dong yourself a disservice. Publishers should take note of this because it is more of the consumer. Don’t assume that we are a popular title and we are well known and respected.

In view of the huge expectations from the client not minding the dwindling budget, what should the agency watch out for or do differently to be successful despite these challenges?

You have to think differently don’t assume that we did something that worked out last year, let continue with it this year, no! You have to find a new and more interesting way of executing the same brief. In Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart”, the Author wrote: “Since the hunter has learnt to shoot without missing, Eneke the bird has learnt to fly without perching”. The statement is more relevant today and so apt especially with this industry than when Achebe wrote the book.

As long as that technology is changing and the audience too is not static, you have to find new platforms because the one you used six months ago may no longer be relevant. Whatever it is you are doing, your big ideal should plug-in to the new platform, so it’s all about inventing and re-inventing of oneself and training and re-training of our people you know – is a difficult job, I dare say but it can be done. Fortunately, you don’t have to spend money, there are so many good free resources online you have to find them and key your people into it.