Babaeko: Cannes Lion victory highlights Nigeria’s potential for excellence
Recently, a historic achievement unfolded at the 2023 Cannes International Festival for Creativity as the Managing Director and Chief Creative Officer (CEO) of X3M Ideas Group, Steve Babaeko, secured Nigeria’s first Cannes Lions Award. This remarkable feat took place during the festival’s 70-year history and aligned perfectly with X3M Ideas’ 10th anniversary. The agency’s victory was recorded in the health category, attributed to their impactful public health advocacy project titled “Soot Life Expectancy.” This initiative was conceived to combat the soot menace stemming from environmental degradation in Port Harcourt, Rivers State.
In this interview with CHUKS NWANNE, Babaeko, a distinguished personality in the advertising industry and also the president of the Association of Advertising Agencies of Nigeria (AAAN), delves into his personal journey within the industry. He elaborates on the profound significance of the Cannes Award for Nigeria and sheds light on the inspiration behind the Soot Life Expectancy campaign — a campaign that not only garnered global recognition but also addressed a critical environmental concern.
Ten years after establishing X3M Ideas, you became the first agency in Nigeria and the entire West African sub-region to win the Cannes Lions Awards. How has your journey been in the industry so far?
It has been a long journey, with my career’s inception dating back to 1995. However, it was when I ventured into the business of advertising that I became more aware of the prestigious Cannes Lions — an award that no Nigerian agency has ever won. This realisation made me even more determined to challenge the status quo and shatter that longstanding barrier. Since 1995, and over the past 30 years, this aspiration has remained tantalizingly just out of reach, an almost elusive goal.
It’s at times quite embarrassing, particularly when journalists approach us, seeking insights into the possibility of a Nigerian agency clinching a Cannes Lions. The assumption that our creative works are subpar is far from the truth. I’ve steadfastly believed in the potential of our industry and in our capacity to achieve remarkable feats. This conviction has endured year after year, especially after we established X3M. It evolved into an unwavering mission: securing the Cannes Lion victory is a must for us.
How significant is the Cannes Lion Award to Nigeria?
For those unfamiliar, the Cannes Lions Award holds monumental global significance; it’s akin to the World Cup of the advertising realm. Adding an intriguing layer is that, in Cannes, the recognition isn’t bestowed directly upon the agency; rather, it’s attributed to the country the agency represents.
Nigeria’s absence from the list of winners has been a constant motif in our journey. Year after year, we’ve participated with steadfast dedication, facing defeats yet refusing to waver in our commitment to persevere and try again.
Our path to triumph at Cannes echoes the quintessential Nigerian spirit – a narrative of unyielding perseverance and unwavering commitment to rise from setbacks and forge ahead. This spirit continues to guide us, compelling us to press onward annually, relentlessly seeking fresh opportunities that might lead us to victory.
Ultimately, on the momentous 70th anniversary of the Cannes Festival, Nigeria’s name was called. This marked a milestone of immense proportions. This year in Cannes, the mere mention of our Nigerian origin prompted congratulations from all corners – a heartfelt celebration of our country’s inaugural victory. The journey was undoubtedly lengthy, but we’ve finally reached this remarkable destination.
So, it’s like the story of Nigeria and the Grammy Awards?
Absolutely, it parallels Nigeria’s journey with the Grammy Awards. For years, the belief was that a Nigerian artiste couldn’t win a Grammy. Burna Boy’s victory shattered that belief. It’s a tale of persistence and refusing to settle for less.
The Grammy win seems to reflect resilience and not settling for less…
Precisely! What’s significant is that we didn’t seek special treatment for Nigeria. We competed on a global scale and emerged victorious. This resilience is an invaluable lesson. Breaking through that barrier showcases our capabilities and signifies a door opening, revealing our potential.
For X3M Ideas as a company and for you in particular, what does this award mean for your future endeavours?
The implications of the award are far-reaching for both X3M Ideas and me. In Nigeria, our advertising stands shoulder to shoulder with global quality, and our victory showcases Africa’s prowess, especially in West Africa. Notably, West Africa had never been nominated before. This award dispels doubts about the quality of creativity in West Africa, underscoring our ability to compete globally and secure wins. It’s a declaration of our capabilities and our representation of a great nation.
One interesting aspect of X3M Ideas is that from the outset, you were clear about building a Nigerian brand. What drove that decision?
My personal experiences influenced the decision to create a Nigerian brand. While I’ve travelled and worked worldwide, I feel a unique sense of belonging in Nigeria. The streets here are where I truly assert that right. Misconceptions arise when people assume we have partnered with foreign brands or studied abroad. Yet, I emphasise that X3M Ideas is 100 per cent Nigerian. From education to establishments, everything is deeply rooted in Nigeria. I proudly reiterate this fact and showcase the excellence we can achieve.
You often recount your early days in Lagos and the city’s impact on your career. Reflecting on those times, how do you feel today?
Several Nigerian states hold significance in my life. Foremost is Kogi State, my birthplace; I often consider myself a Kogi State citizen. Imo State, particularly Owerri, is another crucial part of my story, where I spent my formative years. My early childhood was spent in the barracks in Kaduna due to my father’s service in the Nigerian Army’s 4th Battalion, making it a partial home. Kaduna, where I was born and raised, remains ingrained in my life. However, the most significant of all is Lagos.
My arrival in Lagos on June 8, 1995, at the age of 24, marked the start of opportunities that allowed me to pursue my passions and achieve remarkable success. The city’s infrastructure and resources provided the platform for my growth. I’m committed to giving back to Lagos State. Our annual school renovation projects, initiated since our business’s inception, symbolise this commitment. Lagos holds immense significance, and it’s crucial to honour and celebrate the city that contributed significantly to our journey. As they say, a river that forgets its source will run dry; we mustn’t disregard the contributions of this city and the country. Lagos will always hold a special place in my heart.
Meeting Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu was an honour, and I greatly appreciate his engagement with us. This interaction followed our award win and provided a chance to share my journey with this remarkable city. As a proud Lagosian, I understand the importance of this city in my life and our accomplishments here.
When you conceived of this agency, you named it X3M Ideas. Was that an indication that you were prepared to go to extremes in business?
Names hold significance, particularly in Africa, where they encapsulate the spiritual and physical essence of individuals. So, when we chose the name X3M (extreme), it was intended to challenge us daily to deliver our best. You cannot bear the name X3M (extreme) Ideas and settle for mediocrity. This name compels us to ask, “Is this extreme enough?” Every day, it pushes us to strive for excellence, as long as we have the grace to pursue it.
Upon receiving the Cannes Lion Award on stage, what was going through your mind?
I wasn’t solely focused on our personal victory; I viewed it through the lens of our country. They weren’t merely saying “X3M”; they were announcing Nigeria’s first award. Flying our country’s flag and showcasing it in a positive light, especially during a time of criticism, filled me with immense pride and joy. We proudly waved our flags everywhere.
Furthermore, this award has implications for our industry. Just as Hilda Baci’s Cook-a-thon broke the Guinness Book of Records, inspiring others to follow, our win will challenge colleagues to step up. I’ve predicted that in the next few years, more Nigerians will win Cannes Lions. Our privilege was to open the door, enabling our colleagues to excel.
X3M Ideas recently released an album. What was the inspiration behind that initiative?
Our staff’s average age is around 24 or 25, with numerous young individuals brimming with creativity. About 90 per cent of those featured on the album had never entered a recording booth before, yet their creativity was boundless. Harnessing this creative energy and transforming it into something meaningful was our goal. In a densely populated country like Nigeria, failing to channel this energy for positive change is a missed opportunity.
Moreover, the album serves as a reminder of our youth’s potential. How can leaders in various communities gather these young people and direct their energy towards positive outcomes? This initiative encourages practical actions rather than empty words. The youth hold immense potential; tapping into their talents and molding them into greatness is where true value lies. We mustn’t overlook this wellspring of creativity.
When Chinua Achebe wrote Things Fall Apart, he was about 28 or 29 years old. That’s where you can tap into talent and mold it into greatness. Our responsibility is to make young people productive and channel their innate potential into remarkable achievements.
You’ve created an unconventional work environment at X3M Ideas. Was this a deliberate choice?
Certainly! This generation is often criticised, but beyond their challenges lies remarkable sophistication due to technology’s power. Their access to information surpasses any previous generation. As a leader, my role is to provide them with the tools they need and step aside. I’m both a player and coach, empathising with them due to my background in creativity. I’m not just a businessman; I aim to groom the next generation of creative entrepreneurs.
Creating an inspiring atmosphere is vital. Our office is not merely a workspace; it’s designed for enhanced productivity. We have a resident nurse who’s available seven days a week, providing health advice. We offer instruments for health checks, mental well-being and more. Playing snooker during the day or engaging in leisure activities fosters idea generation. We’re even constructing a bigger campus with additional facilities, including a napping room and a crèche, to support our young mothers.
It’s essential to provide all the tools for effective work. Our office space is a hub of creativity where staff feel at home, resulting in better thinking and output.
You have expanded X3M Ideas across Africa. How is the expansion project progressing?
The expansion has been incredible. Each country has its own regulations but following them is key. Most countries warmly welcome us. We’ve established a presence in Congo Brazzaville, Lusaka in Zambia, Johannesburg and Nairobi. We’re also working on opening more offices in the last quarter of this year.
Following rules and being law-abiding is essential for smooth expansion. Our warm reception across different countries affirms the potential of our industry and the value we bring.
Tell us about the Soot Life Expectancy campaign that won the Cannes Lions award. What drove this project?
Global advertising is shifting towards good advertising – using advertising to solve societal problems. We collaborated with the Little Steps initiative to address the soot menace in Port Harcourt. Illegal refineries led to carbon emissions and soot, affecting life expectancy. We collaborated with the German Environmental Protection Agency for data. Our sootcity.com website personalised life expectancy calculations based on data and created awareness. The AI even generated letters to lawmakers. This project combined social responsibility with creativity, earning us the Cannes Lions Award.
Advertising can do good for communities. Our campaign addressed a significant environmental issue while creatively engaging the public.
You are known for your commitment to Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). What drives this passion?
CSR is essential. If you generate wealth from a community, it’s responsible to give back. We have renovated schools, built libraries and supplied desks to enhance education. During COVID-19, we built washbasins for a school. Education is vital; we focus on projects that uplift young lives. It’s our responsibility to make a positive impact. CSR is not just about praying for blessings; it’s our responsibility to contribute to the betterment of our community.
What message do you have for young people who, like you, came from modest backgrounds and believe society has little to offer them?
Military life taught me discipline, punctuality and camaraderie. Embrace discipline, wake up early and work hard. Beyond challenges, look for positives. Recognise the uniqueness in each phase of your life and apply those lessons. Strive for excellence; greatness is attainable.
Discipline, hard work and recognising the value in every experience are key to overcoming challenges and achieving success.
What’s the future goal for X3M Ideas, having made history with the Cannes Lions Award?
Our ambition is to be the first global agency out of Africa. Africa deserves representation on the global stage, and we aim to pave the way. We will continue the legacy of great Nigerians who have placed our nation on the global map. Just as they have done in literature, sports and other fields, we will lead the way in advertising. We are not just an agency; we are torchbearers aiming to become the first global agency from Africa and Nigeria.
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