Steve Babaeko: Still Going X3M @ 50
What goes through your mind when you hear the name X3M Ideas? A brand agency, a music talent company, or simply the soft-spoken man with the dreadlocks and a knack for sneakers?
X3M Ideas has earned its place in the minds of Nigerians and rightly so. From its stables, gems such as award-winning Simi, Praiz, and adverts, have entertained Nigerians for years.
On the wall of the office of the CEO of X3M and the president of the Association of Advertising Agencies of Nigeria (AAAN), Steve Babaeko, are art paintings and frames to live by. A part of the writings is his agency’s philosophy, “Shapeshift or die”, and leadership philosophy by D.G “Give the team what they need to create magic, and stay out of their way”.
These philosophies have contributed immensely to what X3M has become known for – tenacity and breaking boundaries.
His 9-year-old company, X3M has branches in Lusaka, Zambia, Accra, Ghana and Johannesburg, South Africa. This dream he earmarked 5 years ago became a reality in 2019, three years later.
“I wanted to go there to see if we could compete with some of the best people in the world. For me, going through the tested way and easier route to travel is not my idea of adventure. If you really want to have an adventure, take the difficult road and see how it feels. Sometimes, it can be very gratifying.”
No thanks to COVID-19, he is still optimistic about his expansions in Namibia and Cote d’Ivoire.
While many are aware of the fruits of X3M, Steve Babaeko’s journey to self-realisation started on a bus heading to Lagos on January 8, 1995.
After saving up from his National Youth Service Corps (NYSC), the theatre arts graduate squandered it at the flap of a bird’s wings “drinking and hanging out with his friends” until he realised he had just N500 besides his ticket fare to Lagos.
Luck or coincidence, we would never know but Ojota in Ikeja city of Lagos state became his breakthrough location. The 24-year-old thought to himself that if he needed to survive, he needed to work to become the best Lagos state would ever see.
As soon as he arrived in Lagos, he had another battle to face; his career path. Passionate about broadcasting, he had a cultural shift due after making some enquiries, opening him up to advertising.
“I used to tell myself, ‘Before I leave Lagos and not be successful, the bar beach has to run dry’ (laughs),” he told The Guardian Life.
It wasn’t until he watched a top shot in the industry get interviewed he knew that advertising was an actual job. Now fully aware that his love for jingles could be appreciated under a role called copywriting in advertising, he embraced it enthusiastically. But Babaeko switched jobs, he observed a constant.
He found that agencies offered one service and had to outsource to other companies, thereby limiting their control over their service or execution. Using these findings and the knowledge he had garnered, he opened his company in 2012
“and I didn’t want that to happen to us. Immediately, I knew for photography, we’d work with Camara studios; for production, we’d work with Zero Degrees; for music, we have X3M music, and for media, we had media 100. So I had already created these businesses that would allow us to effectively deliver the quality promise we made to every client.”
And X3M Ideas’s kept promises has earned him global recognition as one of the world’s best creatives. In 2017, X3M Ideas was listed as “one of Nigeria’s fastest-growing communication agencies” with hundreds of staff, and a wide reach. In 2019, he was recognised as one of the top 100 creatives in the world by Adweek and in Adweek’s list of the 13 global creative leaders.
“You know how it is, when I got the mail from Adweek, I thought maybe someone is trying to scam me and I had to double-check (laughs). I remember when I went to CANNES for the ceremony and I asked, ‘how did you find me?’ And someone said, ‘Steve, it is our job to find the right guys’ and that is definitely one of the prime points of my career.”
How extreme has this idea gone?
Despite the bullish behaviour, he remains humbled. “I have been very fortunate to create opportunities for Africans. If you look at some of the people I look up to, they inspire you to open the next door for other Africans to walk through. So it is not just about creating a small piece of cake for Nigerians but we are expanding that cake to other Africans to take part of the platform that we have erected.”
He knows well that in a country where hard work might not equate to success, one must be prepared for the opportunity.
“You have to be ready to know what you are doing, not just anywhere. From day one, we have had our plan for up to the year 2025. Every day, we tick off the boxes. We want to be that agency to beat by 2025, so how do we employ technology, and borrow talent? How do we aggregate them to ensure that we become that force on the continent?”
While asking these questions, it is paramount to build relationships- a success strategy that is often underestimated.
“You’d get into trouble when you try to fast track the process. You are going to need every good connection that you need along the line because you have to keep them. I always pray that God gives us the wisdom to know which bridge to burn and which to keep. Because bridges can threaten to cave you in and sink you but you need to know which bridges to reinforce. And then, your name. Let your name not be mentioned and all they say is negative.
“Also, you are as good as the team you build. Fortunately, I am the face of the team, but you can’t clap with one hand. You are as strong as the team backing you up. When you are young and creative and a fire head, you only think, ‘me, I did it myself.’ Once maturity sets it, you realise it is not about who wrote it or who did, but it is about the collective idea and cooperation with your clients. I always tell my team, ego will never add one naira. Also, be open-minded enough to accept feedback because the people who are good creatives are the ones who own the future of creativity.”
For every time someone thinks this is the end of the race, Babaeko has something up his sleeve, this time it is Babaeko Farms.
“I am always looking for value points,” he said. “I’d say is there any place I can add value and make a difference? Will I be able to erect a platform for others to benefit from? And if in the process of that, you make one naira profit then good.”
This value is also clear in his tenure as president of AAAN. Since his assumption, the body has seen an influx of advertisers becoming members.
He is also ensuring that glasses are shattered through the leadership of women.
“We strongly recommended that the ASP Chairmanship by APCON be filled by, for the first time in history, by a woman, Mrs Owodunni. The secretariat is undergoing changes. We have a new director of the association, and it is the first time that a woman would also occupy that position. I believe in gender balance and women bring an interesting perspective into an enterprise. You are going to lose the opportunity if you don’t give them that chance to show what they are capable of and I haven’t been disappointed.”
What is in a name? The name Babaeko is sure to turn heads. Although his name loosely translates to Father of Lagos in the Yoruba language, it is a coincidence- a coincidence he admits is an icebreaker and eases his conversations.
A Kogi native, he does not hide his allegiance to his community. In fact, Babaeko is looking to make Kabba, his hometown, one of the best communities out of Kogi.
“What we tend to do in Nigeria is we go to the village and build one monstrosity of a building that you visit once a year but if you set up Babaeko farms and you hire directly and indirectly close to 500 people monthly, you are supporting the community and that gives you the opportunity to do your corporate social responsibility (CSR).”
All the while, I wonder what and if he has any plans to practise what he studied at Ahmadu Bello University. Not paying attention to societal limits, he is looking forward to really exploring this at age 50 (June 1) and has started via his documentary, Awon Boys, a documentary showcasing on Netflix about the everyday Nigerian hustler.