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‘Absence of APCON Council puts the entire advertising industry at risk’

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Steve Babaeko

Steve Babaeko is the CEO/Chief Creative Officer X3M Ideas, a Lagos-based digital advertising agency that was listed in 2017 as one of Nigeria’s fastest-growing communication agencies.

A member of the 2018 jury of the New York Advertising Festival, he recently emerged as the 21st president of the Association of Advertising Agencies of Nigeria (AAAN), at the association’s 47th Annual General Meeting (AGM).

In this interview with CHUKS NWANNE, Babaeko, who is also the founder/CEO of X3M Music, spoke on his vision for the association, as well as numerous challenges facing the advertising industry, especially the absence of APCON Governing Council for years.

Congratulations on your emergence as the 21st President of AAAN. How do you feel about the level of support you got from industry stakeholders and practitioners?
Honestly, I feel humbled. I have so many people to thank; I don’t even know where to start. When that campaign started, you would think I was running for the presidency of one small West African country. For me, I just put it out on my social media and all of the people – including the outdoor we had – were just supporters. They were like, ‘we know you are going to do a good job, so, we are going to help you spread the word.’ I say a big thank you to all those that supported me; it was incredible. Again, I feel so pressured right now because I know that after all the support, you have no choice but to deliver. For that reason, I’m sleeping even less now; I just want to see that we succeed as a team.

At what point did you begin to get involved in industry associations?
I think even before I set up Xtreme Ideas, I have been privileged to have the opportunity to serve the association in different capacities. At some point, I was Vice Chairman of The LAIF (Lagos Advertising and Ideas Festival) Management Board; the Board has a two-year span. I think I was Vice Chairman when I was still in my former place of employment, so, I used to support the association to do creatives and everything else that they wanted.

Since then, I’ve always been fascinated to see how the different Presidents ran the association; I saw a lot that went very well. I also had the opportunity, because I was looking from the inside, to see some of the things that we could improve on. So, I was Vice-Chairman, then I became Chairman, then I became President of the Association; I have had to work my way from the ground up. But I’ve always been interested in the association.

What actually spurred you to go for the top office this time?
Having invested close to about 25 years in this industry, this is about the industry that I know that has given me almost everything that God has blessed me with. Beyond the idea that I want to feed myself and my family, you are looking at posterity; how can you live a legacy that ensures that the industry can keep surviving even after you are gone? This is why it’s very important to me. It is no longer about Xtreme Ideas and what you can do for the orgaisation, what can we do to make our industry stronger and more formidable? You see all the challenges we are getting from left, right and centre; the industry is under attack from those guys that are outside trying to breach protocol. There are so many things that put the industry under siege. My biggest responsibility would be how I bring this industry together so that collectively, we can fight and survive into the future.

Where are we on the issue of APCON Governing Council?
I had the privilege of meeting with the Minister for Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohamed before the lockdown; he did promise that the government was looking at it and he was following up as much as he could. So, I’m looking up and highly expectant to see the minister help us resolve that impasse we found ourselves in. For four years going to five years now, the APCON Council has not been constituted. We had people like Sir Steve Omojafor, who is the BoT Chairman for AAAN doing a lot of follow-up with the minister. I’m quite optimistic that the government would expedite action and help us put the APCON back into shape.

As a practitioner, what’s the impact of the absence of APCON Council for this long?
Advertising without APCON Governing Council is like a flying an aircraft without the control tower; you are putting the entire industry at risk. We need to do the needful. This is the era where, with COVID-19 pandemic having to devastate the economy worldwide, we cannot afford to put the livelihood of our people in danger; the government needs to act now.

Are there specific challenges the industry face as a result of not having APCON Council in place?
Of course, there are challenges. You find that people now make all kinds of claims, especially in that digital space where people sell all kinds of liquid that they say is good for your libido and all that. They say all of those things, but nobody is checking to validate the claims; those are the things that APCON would fight statutorily. They would say, ‘Look, can you come and give us proof so that we know you are right?’ But APCON Council is not in place, so, they can’t check them.

This is where a concerned government would say, ‘let me put APCON Council in place to check all these things.’ The things that young people are drinking today, we don’t know whether it would cause their liver to fail in a couple of years; we don’t know what it is. That’s the dangerous situation we have found ourselves in. APCON tries its best with the Acting Registrar, but the power of APCON is in the Council. So, unless that Governing Council is in place, we won’t achieve anything in this regard.

Even beyond that, in the advertising industry, a lot of work was done in the APCON reform that would protect the whole industry from onslaught coming from outside and within the country. If the Council is not in place, how do we begin to implement those reforms? Whichever way you slice and dice on this matter, the end result is that the government, without knowing it, is jeopardising the livelihoods of thousands of people, who work within the advertising industry and in the marketing sector.

How much is the industry losing as a result of this?
If APCON is not able to do their job and so many agencies fold up, and the health implications of people selling products that are not verified… you don’t have to be a prophet to know how much negative impact it would have on the country as a whole. So, if people begin to lose their jobs because APCON is not there to protect them as an agency, then you are throwing more people into the labour market, as if we don’t have enough unemployment as it is! It is a big challenge for the country.

Looking at the entire creative industry and the impact of COCID-19 pandemic, what’s the way forward?
The way out is just, hopefully, the economy would require gradually and agencies would find a way to pick up now; so many agencies are finding it very difficult to survive. Don’t forget that as an agency, you are just an agent; you are as good as the economic health of your principal. We are just praying for a quick turnaround for the economy; this year is already gone.

A lot of people are talking about palliatives, what kind of support do you think this industry needs from government?
A lot. The thing is, before the end of the last AAAN administration led by Ikechi Odibo, we actually did write to the Vice President; we did a memorandum, just trying to justify that the industry needs the government’s intervention. So, we sent it and recently, I just received a letter saying that the advertising industry has been included in an N50b stimulus package that the government has put together. To the extent that advert agencies are able to draw up to N25m within a one-year frame. I think we have written to our members immediately to say they can avail themselves of the opportunity, but it’s still like a splash in the ocean. We are talking about an industry where we had people’s salary cut down because sales are not coming as they used to. How much would N25m naira do within the superstructures that agencies run? Not wanting to sound like Oliver Twist, but I think the agencies need to do a lot better, beyond even the money. Let us have credit grades; let us have tax breaks. If somebody can refer to the letter we sent to the Vice President’s office, there are so many things there. Beyond the money, all of those things that affect the economic wellbeing of an agency that we are trying to address are there.

To someone who doesn’t understand this industry, how much of employees do you have in the chain?
I can’t give it to you off the top of my head, but we have close to 100 registered agencies. Each agency has maybe an average of 50 to 100 people, depending on the size; these are registered agencies. If you add the ones that are not registered, we are talking about thousands. What we are trying to do is to bring everybody together and structure it more to get more people from the informal sector so that we can have a better overview of the numbers.

Can you estimate how much the industry has lost during this pandemic?
It is definitely in billions of naira; people can’t work or go out. Ideally, there should be more campaigns right now. Like I tell the brand owners, COVID-19 is not going to last forever and while people are waiting for this to blow over, they still need information about your brand and services. Actually, we need to be advertising more now. But you know how it is; the industry has lost lots of revenue this period.

This pandemic has shown how much we need to do more around technology, what’s your take?
It was already in play before anyway; clients and the agencies had already started going in that direction. You would only be living in the past if you were not already thinking about it. Those things we used to describe as the future, COVID-19 just brought them back by like five years. If you were not on your way there, you were caught pants down. Just look at the distribution chain of clients, if you handle a product and you always sell in the open market and in-store and maybe bars and restaurants. All of those distribution outlets have been shut down. So, what were you doing? Therefore, technology became the next go-to tool; all those e-commerce sites became the next available distribution point. I’m proud that most clients did that turn-around really quickly; even agencies had to follow suit. By helping you clients to survive, you found a way around rechanneling your communication route into the market. By and large, we have gotten through that with minimal collateral damage; I think we responded well.

You are ingrained in the creative industry (music, advertising), what’s the future of the creative industry with no concerts and social distancing still in place?
Technology is still going to be part of the saviour for the entire industry as a whole because we have changed habits. Don’t forget humans are products of our own habits; some of the habits we have formed about hundreds of years old – shaking of hands, hugging and touching each other – have had to change. Even the way we go to the shop, all those habits are rapidly changing. And as they are changing, the brick and mortar way of doing stuff – cinema distribution and all that – we have had to find other ways; there’s DSTV that you can always watch and all of the other stuff. Even with DSTV now, you can just take it on your phone and watch it on the go; it’s changing our habits and gradually, the creative industry is adapting and changing. Within this pandemic period, I have seen people host concerts on YouTube and Instagram Live simultaneously, with over 30,000 people attending. How many Eko Hotel would you have? Imagine how many Eko Hotels people have been able to fill up, just because of technology. Even if you do it in Eko Hotel, it is restricted to the people in Lagos. Now, you are reaching worldwide. So, technology is going to give the industry an extra pair of wings to fly above the situation we’ve found ourselves in.

Because we are used to selling tickets, there’s still the issue of how to monetise contents online?
There are a few ways to do that; it happened suddenly. But, I mean, there’s a way you can build your site and put some kind of payment structure that would allow people pay to get certain benefits; all of that is also rapidly changing. Payment platforms are getting more efficient and it is helping people to realise. Now, you see that a lot of artists playing on Instagram Live and YouTube for awareness. Eventually, I am sure it would become better. If you really love your artistes, this is the time you have to support them.

But this is more like awareness for the artistes?
What choice do they have really anyway? Artistes are built to play music and you don’t play music for your own personal enjoyment. Yes, you might enjoy the kind of music you play, but you play music primarily to entertain other people. If you can’t earn, in the interim, it would be a double tragedy and people call your name after six months and people say ‘who is that?’ I mean, if the younger artistes are playing, six months later you would find out that you have no career. There’s no vacuum in the creative industry; everybody needs to do what he or she needs to do to survive, even if it means taking a discount on immediate gratification.

Talking about AAAN, where are you taking the association? What’s your plan?
For me, I think the biggest thing that weighs heavily on my chest is just the unity of the association; if we stand together, we can achieve a lot more. For the past couple of years, without meaning to, we have just always been focusing on ‘okay o, this is my agency, that’s our agency.’ Between the younger agency and the established agencies, there must be a synergy of purpose. We must be able to come together and stand together as an industry against any opposition that comes our way. Without that, I’m sure we are going to fail. For me, I just want to see how much I can do, to get people to understand that as the President, I’m just first among equals. I have no point to prove other than to unite this industry and leave my mark for the next administration that is going to come after me.

Are there changes that people should expect?
I want to see a reality where if I’m done, people would say, ‘oh when Steve was there, there was togetherness in the association.’ But I know I have to earn the trust of our members for them to see that I genuinely mean that. Also, I would like to see more women participation in the industry. Again, if you say we support our women too, you are inadvertently trying to paint a picture that the women are not strong enough. But no, they are already strong as they are, but can they be stronger? We have to create more platforms for them to participate; I believe there are brilliant ideas that we have not availed ourselves on in the past that we should tackle head-on. If we should involve them at the executive level, even at individual agencies level, I think the association would be better for it. I will also like to see younger agencies participate. Before, younger agencies tend to feel that, ‘oh, I don’t even have a voice here.’ We want to hear the voices of everybody; it’s in the energy of the youths and in the wisdom of the old that you build a truly progressive society. So, I would like to see that happen. I really want to put the industry more in the face of the public; let them understand that this is a big industry that has produced likes of Mr. Biodun Shobanjo, Sir Steve Omojafor, Mrs. Bola Thomas… I can go on forever on all the eminent people that this industry has produced. We need to be taken more seriously and I think it is our responsibility to make that happen.

I can recall in the past when there was this issue of brands shooting their commercials abroad, how much have we closed that gap?
We have closed the gap. It could have been an issue four or five years ago; it’s not so much of an issue today. You see, for it not to be an issue today did not happen because of government threats; nobody wanted to listen to government anyway. It happened because the Nigerian people themselves stood up and said that we don’t like this. This country is beautiful and you can shoot your commercials here. What most people have done is maybe out of a crew of 15, we bring 3 or 4 technical foreign crew and they work with a local crew here. By this, you are doing two things; one, you are keeping the money in Nigeria. Secondly, you are doing knowledge transfer and you are still keeping the whole technical things you require if need be. Over 90 per cent of our commercials and music videos are shot here now. You rarely see Nigerian artistes shooting videos abroad because if you put that video online, the consumers are going to kill you; they will rip you apart. It is the pester power of the Nigerians that changed that tide, not anything to do with government.

How much has that contributed to our economy?
Even when we wanted to re-base the economy, don’t forget it was all of the money accruable from the creative industry that helped Nigeria become the economic powerhouse in Africa. Of course, it has helped; you are able to retain more money and create more wealth within the country.

Look at what is happening here and globally, would you say we are competing at that level?
Of course, we are competing. Let us be clear that it has been a long journey from the Lintas of this world, which is probably the first local advertising agency, to where it has gotten to; we are competing. If you see people like Lanre Adisa going to Cannes to be on the grand jury; young agencies like Up In The Sky going to organise all over the world, from New York Advertising festival to Lisbon Advertising Festival, African Crystal, name it. I think Mr Udeme Ufot was also at the Crystal; so many other people too. All over the world, we are a force to be reckoned with. Of course, there’s always room for improvement and we are working hard to make sure that we continue to improve. As far as Nigeria is concerned, we can hold our own.

You are involved in a couple of festivals, how do you manage that with running your organisation?
That’s the power of technology. I was on the Jury of the Lisbon Advertising Festival in 2019; I’m on the jury for the same festival this year too. I did not go to Lisbon last year only because the date was clashing with our own LAIF awards; charity begins at home. I just felt that I needed to attend to LAIF, so, I stayed back to attend; you do your judging online these days. The platform works very well; you just complete and submit online. Even for all of the Cannes that we did, we did the bulk of our judging online; we are just able to do more. For instance, we’ve not been to the office because of COVID-19; we keep on working.

You are also involved in talent development, how much have you done in that direction?
I have done a lot. From even when I used to finance the labour with the salary I was earning working in the advertising agency, I have worked with people like Ade Bantu, Etcetera and the rapper Overdose. I have been privileged to work with people like Praiz and Simi. We do all of these things because we need to give back to this country. It would have been a terrible failure on our part if we come through this journey as citizens of this world and grow old and we die without grooming talents. Don’t forget that for the Praizs and Simis of this world, every one of them that becomes successful is able to affect like 20 other young people, who feed off the industry. They become like a small industry of their own, employing labours from stylist to make-up artistes to PA, road managers, publicists etc. I feel fulfilled and privileged to be part of the development of some of these incredible people. For me, it has been a duty.

As the leader of AAAN, what are you saying to your members?
I will say that we have a lot of work to do; there’s so much work to do. I haven’t been one who just wants the position for the sake of putting it in my CV; if you are not going to deliver results, don’t go looking for that title. For me, I think about how many results we are able to deliver at the end of our tenure. It’s a lot of work and it is not going to happen overnight. Notwithstanding, we must be cautious to see that we are following the plans to achieve every milestone we have set for ourselves.


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