Steve Babaeko is the Chief Executive Officer of X3M Ideas, an advertising agency that has led a revolution in the creative industry. He transited to entrepreneurship after 20 years in the industry.
Entrepreneurship has been strongly advocated as an answer to unemployment challenges in the country. At what point did you decide to explore that option and what factors motivated you?
I love 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 is event 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 decide I had to do something about my life. That is on the personal level.
On the business level, I was with 141 Worldwide for seven years and 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 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 will 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.
Having started out late, how would you describe your relationship with your mentor who is presently a competitor?
There is a saying out there that you should work so hard till you become a 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 Yoruba 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.
Considering the economic downturn and low per capita income, do you think there are still opportunities in the industry?
There are still need for 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 of accessing the industry?
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 and that is even more true for advertising. We’ve just broken a campaign for Etisalat using Francis Odega and the whole country is talking about it. The client has given us another brief; 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 beating yourself with every brief you get.
20 years in this business and cruising at a fast tempo, what structures are you putting in place to ensure business sustainability?
I am just in my 40s, I suspect I might take a back seat at 50. To be honest, this job is a tough one. 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 is no clear succession plan. We are working on that.
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.
The only roadmap we should have is the quality of our work – we need to train our people. You check out track record, we have invested heavily on our developing our people. You have to expose people to quality training at a global level that will sharpen their minds and make them more empowered. That is the way to win. A company or 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.