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‘Cannes Lion presents great opportunity to tell authentic African story’

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Chief Executive Officer of X3M Ideas, Steve Babaeko


The need to tell authentic African stories is being reiterated world wide and advertising is one major sector of the creative, culture industry (CCI) that cannot be overlooked. Hence, the need for government to put the regulatory body, APCON, in order. In this interview, Chief Executive Officer of X3M Ideas, Steve Babaeko, who is making a debut presentation at Cannes Lion in June this year, told MARGARET MWANTOK that the platform would give him an opportunity to talk about the authentic African story that Western the world has often presented negatively.
There have been so many talks around Cannes Lion and Nigeria’s inability to win despite many years of entries. What is your take on this?
Cannes Lion is a very competitive creativity award, it is like the World Cup of Advertising and you have the whole world contesting. Apart from South Africa, I don’t think there is an African country that has won before. It took India many years to win their first Cannes Lion, and the same goes for Brazil. As an industry, we are not relenting; a lot of agencies are advancing to flying the flag of Nigeria at the competition. Aside from this, Cannes Lion is a very expensive award to enter from this part of the world because you pay in Euros, mind you, we earn in Naira. The purchasing power of the Naira is low, and this has already put Nigerian agencies in disadvantaged position. For agencies based in Europe, they probably would enter 50 works or more based on their currency as against most Nigerian agencies who could barely manage to enter just about five works and that is like spit in the ocean.

Also, I don’t think Africa is represented enough in the judging. It means that the cultural nuances behind the works we present for these awards are often lost on the mostly white European judges, though the packaging of our works could also be done better. For instance, you will find a situation where an agency has a brilliant idea but putting together the case film is not properly done. Remember that these juries are going to see thousands of works and if your case film does not come fully finished and well done, they don’t have the time for it. These are probably some of the reasons why we have not done so well at the Cannes Lions.

X3M Ideas has been making waves in its seven years of operation, you are probably the first Nigerian agency head in recent times to be speaking at Cannes, tell us about that.
I am very excited to be going to Cannes this year on the invitation of the organisers as a speaker. I am going to be on the panel that will be talking about the ‘Authentic African Story’. I don’t know how many Nigerian CEOs have had the opportunities to speak at that level. I will not be speaking about X3M Ideas but the opportunity is to fly the flag of Nigeria. The fact that we have an opportunity to speak for the continent is quite huge for us; it’s bigger than Nigeria. We need to give Africa a voice; the continent is doing so well. Our continent is very significant on the planet; the youth population is so huge and strong. While other continents have their youth population depleting, ours is waxing stronger with about 1.2billion people!

Over the years, the western media have told only three stories about Africa: poverty, disease and war. That is what they find exciting about us! Psychologically, I think they feel better about themselves when they say, ‘Africa is poor and needs to be helped’.

Africa has grown with our theatre, music, and fashion among others and we need to tell the story to the world. I will be on the panel with Omotola Jalade Ekeinde, Anan Singh and some other gentlemen. That is why we feel privileged to be where we can actually share these authentic African stories with the world.

As CEO, what do you think gives X3M Ideas this edge, to be invited to speak on such a global platform?
We have our track record in trying to bridge the gap across the continent. Earlier last year, we went to South Central Africa where we set up shops in both Johannesburg and Lusaka. We are actually looking to going forward. We are Africans and we need to do business with one another; we have been in the vanguard pushing for that African agenda. If a Nigerian and South Africans can put their acts together and sign the African Continental Free Trade Area (ACFTA) agreement, it will be a big lift for the continent going forward and doing business together.

How do you manage your business in South Africa considering the Xenophobic attacks and also the fact that its economy is on the decline?
When it comes to business, its a good time to operate in South Africa. It’s all about the rules, even in Nigeria, you abide by the rules. As a responsible corporate citizen, the most important thing is to follow the rules of engagement there. It is even in cooperating with ourselves by doing business that we can actually reduce all of the adverse effects of xenophobia. Once we remove all the hate and the outrage that we feel towards each other, it’s just two people talking and exchanging ideas and values.

One can feel your passion for doing business with other African countries, what is the motivation that fuels your continental drive?
The rate of intra-continental trade is lowest among Africans, and this continent is not going to grow unless as a people we decided to take our destiny in our hands and shatter all the barriers to communicate with each other, do business together, create values and erect platforms that will lift our people out of poverty. Nigeria, in the last two years, has suddenly become the poverty capital of the world, and how are we going to pull our people out of this? If we go to South Africa and Lusaka, how are we able to give our brothers and sisters the opportunities to earn a living and get more skills? We would do more of these if we have more money. If this continent occupies its true position in the committee of continents, you will find more people bringing their skills and values to the continent, but we have to be in the driver’s seat of our own destiny. It is not about making money; it’s about exchanging values.

What can the Nigerian agencies do differently to compete on global stage?
We are getting there. A lot of the new generation agencies are getting it right, the way we did things in the past cannot continue. So, we look at what kind of new ideas to bring to the table, and that is what is driving these new agencies to think out of the box and do things differently. There is no local agency anymore because anywhere you stay in the world and do business, you are global. Everybody is connected to you in real time in that digital space where you expose your ideas. That is why I can be here and the New York Advertising Festival (NYAF) would invite me to come and be a judge for the NYAF, which is one of the oldest advertising festivals in the world. All they need to do is to Google top agencies or advertising creatives in Nigeria and the names would pop up.I think Nigeria is at the centre of action; we are the next big thing to happen on the continent. The clients are beginning to see that we have to tell our real African stories; our stories as cultural narratives.

You have been on the NYAF jury three times, also featured in Cristal and Loeries awards as judges, what is your greatest take away from these annual events?
The quality of the organisation of the awards especially the NYAF tells me it does not have to be a huge set up to have a decent and credible award. It’s an opportunity to learn and see what the rest of the world is doing.

Is there a quality control mechanism that can ensure these Nigerian works (adverts) go out there as entries and win laurels?
Every agency must set up that quality control mechanism internally. And as an industry, the Advertising Practitioners Council of Nigeria (APCON) is there as a regulator. It must, however, be pointed out to the government the damage it is doing to this industry by not having an APCON council in place, constituted as stipulated in the Nigerian law. It is endangering the livelihood of the people. We need to treat this with the urgency it requires. People forget that the importance of advertising goes beyond an industry where people earn their livelihood; it is like the custodian of our values, culture and we cannot afford to have that place become rudderless. Take for example, because there is no APCON registrar, no council, people advertise whatever they like on digital media, making all sorts of ridiculous claims and endangering the lives of citizens. This has to stop forthwith.

What is the greatest challenge of advertising in Nigeria?
The economy is a major challenge. This year, for instance, we are only going to do business for six months. The elections period have disrupted the first quarter; so most agencies are still chasing the numbers for the first quarter. Until May 29, when the government is finally sworn in, not much of business is going to happen. That is a huge challenge. Another challenge is getting new talents for the job. Because the economy is not doing well; the right kind of investment has not been made on education, the graduates are unemployable. We cannot have the number of the youth population and let this situation continue unaddressed; it is a big risk we are taking as a country.


In this article:
Steve BabaekoX3M Ideas
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