The Ad industry has good questions, does Steve Babaeko have great answers?
Advertising agencies in Nigeria have a club. Less of a social club; more of a business collective. They call it the Advertising Agencies Association of Nigeria, AAAN. It’s pronounced Triple A-N. Right now, the president of AAAN is Steve Babaeko.
You might have heard of Steve. Popular dude, intriguing last name, dreadlocks, dark. Anyone who’s familiar with Steve knows how far he’s come and they know that, to sit at the head of the ad industry’s long table, he’s living one of his biggest dreams. The question, though, is: now that he has it, what will Steve do with this momentous influence?
Steve grew up between Kabbah, his hometown, and Kaduna; went to university in Zaria — all in northern Nigeria. After his youth service, he moved to Lagos to be an ad man. The day he arrived, all he had in his pocket was N500 — an ominously meagre sum — and no confirmed place to spend the night.
That was 25 years ago.
Today, in 2021, Steve owns two ad agencies (X3M Ideas and Se7en Interactive), a huge farm in his hometown, a media independent (Media 100), a music company, and a film production studio. That film studio, Zero Degrees, recently sold a documentary to Netflix— it was their first film.
All of this, of course, would make you pause for a minute. The question you’re looking for is not about how one man has made all of this happen in a country where millions of creative businesses routinely implode; the question is: what’s Steve’s method?
If you look through the hundreds of interviews he’s given in the press, you can pin his success on these two things: fear and stubbornness.
Steve is afraid to fail, to ever be without independence again, and, to get to the next milestone on his journey, Steve would claw walk, jog, run or claw through the distance, even if his nails are bloody and look like they’d fall off.
Before he came to Lagos, the city believed by many to be the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, Steve had read some giddy quotes about advertising in the papers. These quotes were attributed to a hotshot agency owner. Instinctively, Steve thought, “I’ll go to this man and ask him for a job.”
Later, sitting across from the man, in tired shoes and a spent shirt, Steve proudly announced: “My name is Steve Babaeko, I finished top of my class at Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria. Theatre Arts. I have a talent for poetry. I read your interview and I believe my talent and hard work will be useful to your clients, Sir.”
Sorry, but we’re not recruiting at this time, the man said.
Work for free, at least to prove myself?
But Steve wasn’t done.
He made a plan to show up at any agency that might have an opening. Then one day, he talked his way into MC&A Saatchi & Saatchi, owned by the towering Biodun Shobanjo. Steve pretended to have an appointment with MC&A’s MD, Victor Johnson.
Luckily for Steve, a magazine was on the waiting room’s coffee table with Mr Johnson’s face on its cover. Steve read it and quickly learnt Mr Johnson’s back-story. Fantastic, he thought.
When the secretary finally let him in to see the boss, Steve referenced a made-up name from Sona Dairies, one of the places the man had worked before.
“Really?” Mr Johnson wandered, according to a retelling by Steve. “I don’t remember this person to whom you refer.”
“Oh, he remembers you, Sir,” Steve replied. “He sent me to you.”
Steve then spent the next hour pitching himself to Mr Johnson.
“My name is Steve Babaeko, I finished top of my class at Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria. Theatre Arts. I have a talent for poetry. I believe my talent and hard work will be useful to your clients, Sir.”
In 2020, Mr Johnson was still shocked that he gave Steve Babaeko a job that day.
“Till date,” Said Johnson, “I can’t fully explain my impetuous act other than his face exuded honesty and that no negative vibes emanated from him. [So,] welcome Steve Babaeko to the start of his communications career.”
Five years later, Steve moved on to Prima Garnet, the first agency he’d tried. He worked there till they spun his unit into a separate firm. They called this new firm 141 Worldwide and Steve was its creative director.
“In those early days, one of the key things driving me was fear,” Steve has said. “If this was to succeed, it would be because of the quality of my work.”
Well, the firm did thrive. It was said that, in its prime, 141 Worldwide was the hottest ad agency in Nigeria— with sexy clients such as Virgin Atlantic Airways, British American Tobacco, Chicken Republic, and Etisalat, the telecom network that 141 Worldwide helped make sweetheart of young Nigerians.
“The fear made me push hard,” Steve said. “I wanted to win every pitch and I would be up all night, weekdays, weekends and holidays to find an edge over every other agency, including our sister company, Prima garnet.”
When he left 141 Worldwide, he did so because of a new kind of fear. “I had started to think of my legacy,” he said. “It was time to think of my children’s future and, if I wanted to paint the kind of picture I’d imagined for them, I would have to stretch my own canvas.
These days, his masterpiece is on display, for his family (three boys and his wife, the photographer Yetunde Ayeni Babaeko), and everyone else.
Steve, who turns 50 on June 1, now has an assortment of local start-ups and has opened X3M Ideas in Johannesburg and Lusaka. Just like the one in Lagos, he said, the new offices will integrate tech and current media shifts.
“In this business, you have to find new ways to unlock value. And that value is there when people are not too lazy to try new things,” he said.
It’s interesting he would say that because, as AAAN chief, it’s now his job to try new things that might help grow his country’s ad sector.
For instance, what’s his idea for Nigerian ad agencies after a calamitous global pandemic that, according to Zenith Media study, was expected to shrink global advertising spend by 9.1 per cent in 2020?
How should local agencies behave after two back-to-back national recessions that have now drastically jaundiced business forecasts? Does he still agree, as PwC had predicted, that Nigeria’s media and entertainment sector would continue the great expansion it started seeing in 2017?
Can Steve inspire other creative agencies to plug more digital tools – AI, social media — into their own business models as he’s done?
He concedes that, although it’s hard to give a clairvoyant view around this current bend, he’ll try to do the natural Steve thing — hit and hit again till the walls collapse.
“I believe doggedness works,” he says. That’s why, “when people asked why campaign theme was ‘Advancing together’, if any progress could be made collectively, I said I was willing to try.”
It indeed looks like he’s been doing just that. Within the first six months in office, he and the other AAAN executives have pushed camaraderie to new levels. Every month, AAAN now “celebrates” member agency anniversaries and milestones.
In February, the 48-year-old body, partnering with Henley Business School, started a virtual training hub for “the next generation of creatives.” They called the programme the Ad Academy.
There’s only so much that one man, no matter how adventurous, can do within a two-year tenure, right? But Steve still has about 15 months to go.
In the meantime, Here’s Steve: “It’s an honour to step into the shoes of great professionals who’ve led AAAN in the past — Sir Steve Omojafor, Mr Biodun Shobanjo, Mr Udeme Ufot, Mr Kola Ayanwale, Mr Funmi Onabolu, and Mr Enyi Odigbo. The privilege to carry the torch after them is a monumental gift.”