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STEVE BABAEKO: As an entrepreneur, I believed I was going to succeed …..

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……

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Managing Director, X3M Ideas, Steve Babaeko, through share vision, unwavering diligence, hardwork and providence has worked his way up the ladder in a highly competitive industry in the last 20years. In far away northern Nigerian, Kaduna, where he researched on what the creative life of an advertising man could look like, he was so sure in his my mind that he could be a good copywriter, and so when he came to Lagos looking for job, he wasn’t telling anyone to give me a job, but rather “give me a test”, and he proved to his first employer, Mr. Victor Johnson. Six months after, his presence, creative energy and spirit saw the main copywriter fired. Drawn to their corporate culture, he transcended to an agency he had eyed through the CEO’s interview in the papers. Five years after his sting in Prima Garnet and equally nearing 40, life began to interpret itself to him in a new meaning, as he had always been part of other people’s enviable beautiful stories. An introspective Steve wanted the opportunity to “write my own stories.” At 41, he decided and plunged into the unknown waters of entrepreneurship with a radical approach to change the tides. Going down memory lane 20years in a once unknown industry and terrain, he shares with Bnlpulse Editor, a mixed grill of his experiences, the opportunities and the challenges, how his agency, X3m, stretches the boundaries of imagination….

You recently celebrated your 20th anniversary in the industry. Share the experience of how you put in this much of work
I started in the industry when I was 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 resume 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 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 – all the metamorphoses that have taken place in the industry – across both sides have been monumental changes.

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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 used 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 like don’t be computerised, how can you get anything done? If you look at how digital is playing a significant role in advertising now, it’s 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.

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What really inspired you into doing advertising, was it the popularity of the industry?
I was in the back water of Nigeria in Kaduna back then. We hear 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 Authorty (NTA) in Kano, I realised that broadcasters look 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 copy-writing. Immediately, I thought this is what I should be doing because I have always been a member of the creative writers club in ABU, Zaria. Then I felt if what I was reading was copywriting, then I can do this. So, I started giving myself imaginary briefs, and tried to write ads about them. Therefore, I came to Lagos prepared. I was so sure in my mind that I could be a good copywriter. I was very sure. And so when I came to Lagos looking for job, I wasn’t telling anyone to give me a job, but rather “give me a test” and let me prove that I can do it. Mr. Victor Johnson finally saw the potential and believed in me and gave me the opportunity.

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How was your first day in advertising?
I feel 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; they wanted to actually ease him off. If I look 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’s 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, 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 didn’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. On the job itself, heaven forbid that I run into one of those things that I wrote as a freshman, I will die of embarrassment. I really had to grow with the job and really build my confidence. By the time my year was over, I realised I didn’t make any mistake. I knew I was good at it, I knew I could do this job. I hadn’t even completed my first year when the main copywriter was fired or he resigned. I was the only copywriter in the agency for another six months before Supo Owodunni was brought in to be my group head. It was interesting, so to say.
Technically, you only worked in two agencies before you decided to set up your own operation, why? When the fashion was flurry of movement at the offer of N10,000 or N20,000 to top up your salary?
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, maybe 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 a great time working with Paschal Ayanso, my creative director. I think that was one of the highpoints of my 20 years’ experience. It was fantastic brainstorming ideas with him. We wrote our scripts, went to Dr. Bayo Adepetun’s Miditone Studios at Surulere to produce our radio commercials; we enjoyed and had all the fun. I ended up staying another five years there. Probably, if Lolu had not set up 141-Worldwide at this point, I possibly would have left Prima Garnet because at that five years’ mark, I was getting restless, I had proved all I think I needed to prove. But when the opportunity for 141 came, it was a fantastic one for me. Being in Prima Garnet, you need to sit with Lolu or Tunji Olugbodi or Sola Olabanji, those were the people that we hang around in the early days and they would tell all the beautiful stories about Prima Garnet; how they started, how Lolu brought his dining table when the agency did not have a boardroom table, how they made it. 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 an 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.

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The truth of the matter is, in case any young creative is reading this interview, I never believed that the solution in making headway in your career is jumping through 10 or so agencies in five years. I interviewed some young people and you are shocked at the share number of agencies they have worked in. At that point, I asked myself, “why do I need to hire you?” The truth of the matter is, if you checked the class of ’95 which was the year I started my career, I do not know anybody who started with us and is doing what God has given me the opportunity to do today and I am the one who moved the least. So the guys who jumped through 15 -20 agencies are still jumping or probably jumped out of relevance.
What are the challenges when you work for employers 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 us, we are being short-changed, oh, we 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. Nothing can make me not to do my job because some people are getting on my nerves or dropping the ball. So if you can just put yourself in the head space of “Oh I work for myself”, one day your life and the business may actually depend on the experience you have gathered while working for other people. Now, when you now start working for yourself, you need to flip that role. Imagine that you are working for other people. As an entrepreneur, believe me, if you can’t imagine that you’ll probably not succeed. That is my own personal philosophy. I tell you why; when I was working for 141, there was a reason why I was not allowed to stroll in at 10am, the resumption time was 8:30. There was a reason why I wasn’t allowed to go and meet the accountant and say “give me N10million there, I want to fly my friends to the Bahamas…”, there was a reason. If you now think you work for yourself and start doing all those things you were not allowed to do when working as an employee, you will destroy your own business. It is as simple as that. It is a bit of role switch that one has to do either you are working for people or you are working for yourself.

Having gone from the bottom of the ladder to the pinnacle of the industry within the space of 20 years, how would you consider the saying that the big cocks will not allow the young ones to crow in business. Is this real or a mere fallacy?
What I love about this 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 was 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, who 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. Clients are looking for solutions and so he’s asking, ‘do you have an idea that can change the game for my brand in this highly competitive business landscape?’ Once you have that as an agency, you’re winning. So I think to that extent the issue the big cock not allowing the small cook to crow is more of a fallacy than fact. The client will only be interested in the cock that will bring solid ideas, innovation and new thinking and deliver on briefs. Do not forget the client wants to win against competition. So unless you are doing that, you are wasting the client’s time and resources. I do not even see it, it’s a myth now, and agencies like X3M have demystified such. Three years on, we have met all kinds of agencies at pitches; we have done only one thing, kicked their behind. For me I don’t care who we meet at a pitch; I don’t care how long you have been operating. If you started yesterday, it’s none of my business, what I know is that in presenting the ideas, I want to best the competition.

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What about this story of coming to Lagos with only N500 in your purse?
It’s actually a true story. 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 loved working in 141-Worldwide, 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 are even luckier than 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. It is the law of nature, if you bring your A- game. 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 mean 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.

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Considering the economic downturn and low per capital income, do you think there are still opportunities in the industry or is it economically wise to invest in setting up agencies now?
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. We dismantled the entire advertising business model in Nigeria and we reassembled it again, we gave it a totally different spin and perspective. I think that’s what has worked for us.
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 comparison 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 broke 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”, nobody. The biggest challenge we have in this industry is you have to keep besting yourself with every brief you get.

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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 to three times later before the face finally becomes 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. There is something called self-branding, you should deploy it effectively to stand out from the crowd so that when you talk, people will know you know what you are talking about. However, this does not mean I can’t get rid of the dread and start wearing low-cut. Life must keep evolving.
20 years in this business and cruising at a fast tempo, what structures are you putting in place to ensure you have people who can run the business when tomorrow comes?
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’s 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.

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Where do you want to see the Nigerian advertising industry in the next 10 years?
I want to see it compete at the global stage. When it comes to the sub-region in West Africa, of course we are the one-eyed man who is king in the land of the blinds. However, on the continental level, we have the South Africans to contend with when it comes to output and creativity. The North Africans, Egypt, Tunisia and Algeria are also there to contend with. I want us to be like the continental king – undisputed leader and by extension the king of the world. I am hoping we become the face of the new Africa, when it comes to communication, meaning that we have to go side by side with the Brazilians and Indians to Cannes and hold our own. I am hoping that will happen.
Do you have a roadmap for Nigeria to attain this status?
The only roadmap we should have is the quality of our work - we need to train our people. You check our track record; we have invested heavily on developing our people. You have to expose people to quality training at global level that will sharpen their minds and make them more empowered. That is the way to win. A company or an industry is as good as the quality of its people. If you do not send your people to the gym where they can stretch the muscle of imagination, they will be weak and not be able to perform.
The fact that we are still able to keep the bulk of our talents in X3M shows the kind of environment we have been able to breed. In this business once you come out and you are doing well, you become a sitting duck for other agencies that are looking for people. When they need good people, they’ll want to poach from you. It is a given. The fact that they’ve not been able to take much from us says much about the quality of the environment and culture here. Hopefully, our people are happy. Of course, they have been able to take one or two. Of course, not to other agencies mostly to the clients’ side – we lost somebody to the Nigerian Stock Exchange (NSE), people relocated abroad and so on. From day one, the kind of materials we have here are young, energetic and resourceful people who want to be treated fairly and be winning always. Of course, we are winning and we are able to keep the bulk of our people.

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You have a different breed here, how do you find them?
We tapped into the repatriation of talents that happened since the economic meltdown – 2008 thereabout. There is never a time in my life when I have witnessed people – Nigerians living abroad coming back home. There are a whole lot of talents with the repatriation, we tapped into that and we also looked around for indigenous talents that are really young, the average here is around 23 years. I am probably the oldest here. This business is for young people. It is only in Nigeria that you have to grow grey hair in your armpit before you become a creative director, it is an aberration. In other places, creative directors are usually in their late 20s or early 30s, drive a Ferari, well remunerated for their work, have a good life, are rock stars, but here the story is the other way round. Here, we are making effort to keep the talents young, as young people, they don’t want to work like in a ministry; they want a vibrant environment where you have the music arm, the studios and so on, there is so much creative enterprise going on here. This is where the young people really want to work, frankly.

 

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