Steve

STEVE BABAEKO: I came to Lagos with 500 naira in my pocket

Sheer passion, audacity, resilience, enthusiasm for work and a disruptively creative energy and other sterling qualities aptly define the forty-three-year old Steve Babaeko, who, in three years, has built an impressively enviable advertising agency raking in accounts in the billion billing. The man who doesn't believe in limits tells the compelling story of his humble beginning to BnlPulse Team...

 

The brand Steve Babaeko and my 10-year-old dreadlocks...

My dreadlocks is one striking feature that stands me out in the crowd. I started doing this in 2004, then I just met my wife; we were dating at that time. I kept on saying I wanted to do dreadlocks and the people said, 'do it, let's see how it will look on you.' I was a copywriter then and wanted to earn a living way back and one day, she actually forced me, 'let's go to the salon,' and she paid for it, you know. So I did dreadlocks in 2004, about 10 years ago. That's how it started.

I think now that I'm older, at some point I may have to cut it. I'm actually afraid because I don't know what I'm going to look like, but then it will just mark a totally different phase in my life.

The journey and experience: Paying the price, the pains and gains...

At some point, I wanted to be a broadcaster. Then I just realised it was not the kind of job that would pay me the kind of money I was looking at. Then I discovered advertising. I started doing my research, way back in Kaduna where I realised that all the advertising agencies were in Lagos. So, June 1, 1995, I packed my bags. I said to myself, look that's enough! If I have to survive in this business and make the kind of impact in this business I have chosen, which is advertising, the place to go to is Lagos. So I went through Benin, stayed with a couple of friends, keeping up with some of the money I made post NYSC. By the time I finally got to Ojota, I had only 500 naira left. Nowhere to stay, as I alighted at Ojota. I wasn't even sure of where I was going to live. Believe me, true story. And, yeah, as I have said, I'm still here.That's why I will never forget people like Mr. Biodun Sobanjo, like Mr. Johnson, because I came on June 8 and I eventually went to a hotel where an uncle of mine had worked, told some long story to the General Manager who just allowed me to squat with the chef in one of the hotel rooms for a bit, and then the next day I hit the road looking for job. I mean I went to...where...Johnson was the Managing Director, and he gave me a shot. I told him my story and he gave me money after the chat and I got my first job in that agency, actually. I walked in, I didn't know him from Adam, he gave me a test, I passed the test, and I got my first job.

Life's changing focus for a bigger dream-X3M Ideas...

Well, in all, I've done 17 years working for different organisations. At the point I turned 40, three years ago, my focus in life changed. Because I just realised that, 'look, at 40, you've become a man now. You're not the young guy carrying your dreadlocks, running around the whole world trying to do advertising. Now, there has to be something.' I now start to worry about legacy, about what can I do? We've built 141 from the small agency to the super-big agency that it is today. We are very proud about the achievements today. I just felt that there should be something extra that one can do; a different model. That may have been achieving better results than what we had, and all of that plus the need to just leave a legacy and build something that will probably outlive me. I think all of those ambitions, I think it was crazier I don't even know what I was thinking when I decided to set up an agency. As I always say, if you look at it deeply, it is the same entrepreneurial drive that has made people like Mr. Sobanjo the power-house of this business across Africa; people like Mr. Lolu Akinwumi, the icon that he's become in this business. I think it's the same fire that drove them at the time they started. It's the same thing that drove me to say 'hey, you could do this as well.'

The controversies while transiting 141 and X3M ideas...

Were there controversies? I'm not sure. I don't know if there were controversies, because I was trying to build a business. The thing is, as the President of the Association, she had a job to do - to oversee the association. I am sure she took certain decisions that only her would be able to explain. Because I'm not the president, so asking me to comment on the decision she took would be unfair to her, because I think she'll be in a better position to explain why she took some of those decisions. But, thankfully, some people in the industry like Mr. Sobanjo, Mr. Funmi Onabolu, amongst others, interceded; even young guys like Lanre Adisa and Kayode Oluwa, Sam Osunsoko, Mr. Gabriel Aba. I mean a whole lot of people stepped in and we were able to iron out the situation.

At 141, I worked with the president for seven years and she was my boss. But again, it's business. I mean, even if I hate to speak on her behalf because she's a wonderful woman, I really don't have anything against her. Really, business is not personal, that's the way I see it. Whatever decision she took then was a business decision. I don't think it was personal to the extent that 'I hate Steve and I don't want to see him.' I would say she is in the best position to explain whatever decision she took, so I won't go further.

Etisalat, my most difficult creative brief...

Wow! Good question. As a creative director over the years, I think it will be Etisalat, to be honest with you. And again, it's interesting because I was the creative director that won and took up the creative direction of the brand since its inception in 2008. So, you could say I know the Etisalat brand as it operates in Nigeria. I was part of the team that created it, but working on the Etisalat brief in my former agency and working on the first set of Etisalat briefs we started working on were the most difficult to the extent that I didn't want it to look like the former ones we were doing before. I wanted to take it higher. Some of the things that I'd thought about that we were not able to do, I saw it as a huge opportunity to make that difference and so honestly, I had palpitation all through the process of breaking in the first couple of briefs we got from them. I think those would still be the most difficult briefs I've handled.

X3M and my creative freedom...

To a large extent, X3M has given me my creative freedom. If you look at it from the creative point of view, I think we've been able to do a lot more than where I was before. I mean on the general note, across board. And secondly, for just even hiring new talents. Now we are a 46-man strong agency today, contributing to the economy of this country. We're reducing unemployment. I mean where will those 46 people be if I was still working somewhere else? That spirit of entrepreneurship allows you to create prosperity for a large number of people, which is why the motto that drives me in that place is one thing President Obama said. He said, “Joint Responsibility, Joint Prosperity”. It has to be the responsibility you have as a company that has to be taken seriously. And the prosperity that comes from working so hard must also be jointly shared. We have the freedom to do all these new things and we experiment in terms of taking our people outside the country. For instance, we just came back from Texas; I and my head of management. We just feel that spirit of liberation to be able to do and conquer new grounds. We probably wouldn't have been able to conquer if we were not doing this.

How I met my wife...

I actually met her in Prima Garnet. She came to Nigeria to stay for like six months. She was born in Enugu, lived in Nigeria for five years and then moved back to Germany and she never came back until in 2003, when we met. She was supposed to stay for six months, it was an exchange programme. She was working at a photography studio owned by Alhaji Adegunwa. The outfit came to Prima Garnet to pitch for more photography works. And then the meeting with them was happening in one of the Executive Director's office; it wasn't in my office, not even my floor. So, I usually go down to that floor to cause trouble or whatever that we did in Prima Garnet, back in the days. So, I was passing by and I saw this beautiful woman with Mr. Akinwunmi and the Executive Director having a chat with the photographer. And so I was like 'who's this beautiful woman?' I stepped in there and tried listening to her, was wowed by her beauty and then, that was it. Two days later, I went to a place where I usually have lunch after work and there she was again with one other friend of hers. We got talking and the rest is history. Something that was supposed to be for six months turned to a permanent stay and we've been together since then.

My marriage, a solid partnership...

We got married in 2006, having been together since 2003. And it's being an amazing time.I think it's more like a solid partnership that must work. I'm the biggest fan of her work. She's a wonderful photographer; she's one of the best in Nigeria at the moment. I'm also her worst critic. The same thing goes the other way round. She's my biggest fan and also my biggest critic. She's going to tell me, 'I don't think this was cool, this is my opinion.' And I'll take it in good faith. We support each other. So, it's been wonderful. Even in raising the children, I think she taught me what most African fathers still struggle with.

Learning the curves as a new generation father...

It's simple. When I was young, I remember, when my dad went out, we are all out playing. The moment we hear the sound of his motor bike, we all scatter, running into hiding. That distance between the father and their children in Africa. It was just about paying the school fees and feeding the children. In our case, she kept on pushing me, you have to create a bond, you have to spend time with the children. I didn't understand it at first, believe me. But today, my children wherever they are when I come, they come to welcome me. So I've already broken that cycle. I spend time with my children, we can talk like adults. They can confide in me, they can tell me about anything, you know. So, thanks to her for that. It's a concept that was alien to me. I felt my role was just to drop the money and then move on. So now, I play golf with my children, I spend time swimming, we play tennis, whatever activities we can engage in, you know. In driving home her point, she told me this, "Your time with children is like depositing money in the bank. There's a time they'll need to make withdrawals and it leaves some of those memories. If you didn't deposit anything, there'll be nothing to withdraw," and that was powerful.

That changed my perception and changed the way I relate. I'm a very busy guy, apparently. I just came back from Houston this morning, I'm off to Cape Town tomorrow morning, but between tonight and tomorrow, I'll sure spend some quality time with my family.

Fashion import... of fashion, style.

Two things, I've been subscribing to GQ now for over 15 years. I follow fashion trends a lot. That's one.

And secondly, in terms of choice of fashion, the moment I did my dreadlocks, I realised that one thing I couldn't do was dress shabbily anymore. Because you see, you can't carry this kind of hair and wear torn jeans, torn t-shirt. More because, I am in the corporate world, so people are going to look at me funny. When I started carrying the dreadlocks, it wasn't in vogue then, so one had to put much effort in appearance and then people would admire and say things like, oh! he looks really well dressed. So it wasn't the hair but I think it worked at that time.

Low key on labels...

I no doubt wear designer shirts, shoes and watches, but, honestly, I'm not big on names and labels. I want to start patronising Nigerian labels. I've spoken to Oyemayi. He's one of those young people doing amazing stuffs now. I've told him, he needs to come and start styling me. But these days, in the past couple of years, I've found Hugo Boss very interesting because it's on the status style and it's that classic European style. I patronise Hugo Boss, once a while.

Inspiration...

Not quite. But these two people I've mentioned. Especially the Chairman of Etisalat, if you follow his trend of business growth, all his achievements and, of course, Alhaji Dangote, this man is recorded to have most of his investments in Nigeria. Now he's going to other places to invest, but the bulk of his investments are in Nigeria. Those are the people you look at and know that there is still hope in Nigeria. So, those are the two people I actually look at and say they've inspired me.

My penchant for books...

I think the five critical books, if I'll recommend to anybody who's in advertising, you'll have to read Ogilvy's Handbook on Advertising; it's one of the important books. I also read Jack Welch, the Autobiography of Jack Welch. These days, I just read more auto biographies. TheVirgin Story as told by Richard Branson. All of those books. You know, and then you're able to gain insight into the mindsets of people. How they went through the struggle to become what they are today. Those are the kind of books I read. And every year these days, since I started X3M, I take a course on financial management. Last year, I was in Harold University in D.C, for like a crash MBA programme on financial management and leadership. This year, in September, I'll be in University of Columbia in New York. Again, on the same course, because that's my weakest point as a creative person, as it is that part of my body I haven't exercised a lot. And if I keep exercising it, I'll build muscle. One needs to keep learning and developing oneself to be able to cope with the business decision as well as financial decision we have to make whether I like it or not, on a daily basis.

Planning for retirement at 50...

I'm hoping I'll retire at 50; I have seven more years to go.

As for succession plan, we're working on it. It is part of the biggest challenge we have. I mean, if you ask most businessmen in Nigeria today, getting the right people that are going to be able to key into your vision is a big challenge. You'll just find out that people will always leave, and so how do you find that person that believes so much in that dream. Fortunately for us, we're young, we're just getting started. There's a huge opportunity to correct some of the wrongs of the past and be able to do it properly. So I'm hoping that by the time I'm 50, we'll have done our succession plan correctly so I can hopeful retire.

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2 comments

  1. Anthony Durowaiye 6 January, 2017 at 23:42 Reply

    I feel challenge and I’m impresse… I’m challenge in the sense that I’m nobody today does not mean I’ll not become somebody tomorrow, because when he started he start wth 500 naira. He did what he need to do and does it in the right way.He was FOCUS….I’m impresse for his success today, he is doing great,more grease to his elbow. God Almighty help me to be focus and determined.

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