The name, Steve Babaeko surely rings a bell in the field of advertising in Nigeria and beyond. With several years of experience; breaking barriers and boundaries, Babaeko has established himself as one of the leading lights of advertising. The first time I met Babaeko was in 2004. I still can’t recount what brought us together but I can recall that the dreadlocks-wearing CEO of X3M Music was involved in a project with a musician, Ade Bantu who was at the meeting with a slim, fair-complexioned girl, clutching a guitar which size almost dwarfed her. That girl today is Nigeria’s Nubian Queen, Nneka who has inspired millions across the world with her songs. For Babaeko, whose career has spanned almost two decades, it has been one milestone after another. The award-winning advert guru happened to be the only Nigerian on the jury of the New York Advertising Festival last year. In this chat with Effects, Babaeko shares his grass to grace story; his success tips and how he won his wife’s heart
You are celebrating five years of X3M Ideas. What has the journey been like?
It has been an incredible journey; one huge adventure. You begin a journey and you don’t know how it is going to end or what tomorrow will bring or what the next step will be. If you operate in a highly volatile business environment like Nigeria, anything can happen. However, it has been satisfying and rewarding that after five years we are still waxing stronger because people would always remind you that the first five years determine the success or failure of a business. The fact that we’re standing means that we’re probably among the few that survived.
What have been the high points of the last five years?
It has been an organic process; seeing the thing blowing and the dream growing bigger. This is a journey we started with just eight people but today, we have created jobs for over a hundred and that is a major high point. Another high point is our corporate social responsibility. I always tell people that if all a company can boast of is money, then the company is poor. So, we always give back to the society. This year, we went to Chibok. For the first time, I was outside Lagos. We were able to provide over 300 seats for a school that was burnt down by Boko Haram. For me and my team, that is gratifying. It means that you can be in one corner of the world and make impact in another.
Looking back, was there any time you felt like quitting the business?
(Laughter) If that doesn’t happen, then you’re not in the game. There are days you would wake up and you would ask yourself, ‘would this business survive? How would you pay salary and all that stuff.’ But however tough things become, you get going and that is the life of an entrepreneur; he never quits.
You worked at several advertising platforms before venturing out. What were your fears?
The fear will always be there. The problem is not the fear but how you react to it. For some people, the fear propels them to their dreams. There is a popular expression, ‘butterflies in your stomach.’ But in my case, it was ‘real wild animals in my stomach (laughter).’ There was the fear of failure, basically because no one wants to fail. Now, everybody keeps saying ‘oh creative people cannot run a company. Don’t worry, he will soon run back cap in hand.’ When we started I’m sure some people had already bought aso ebi material that they would use to celebrate, once we failed (laughter). However, you do it regardless of the fear. The most successful people are those who are able to look fear in the eyes and say ‘I feel you but I am still going to do me.’
How did you family take it?
I actually called a family meeting. Then, my kids were very young; the oldest was six years and I told them papa is going to do something and if it works out we are going to be fine but if it doesn’t, we might experience a bit of hard time. It wasn’t a decision I took unilaterally. My wife was very supportive. She would tell me, ‘honey you know I believe in you. I trust you can do this, and you know what, if you don’t do this I am going to kick your ass and we laughed over it.
What did you raise the take-off capital?
I saved some money but I wanted to use it to buy a car; a Range Rover Sports. When I got to Coscharis and they told me the price, I fled because the price was double what I had. But my wife just kept telling me ‘Steve, there is nothing wrong with the car that you have now.’ But I had just turned 40 and felt I needed to spoil myself with a little present. But the more I thought about the car, the more my wife discouraged me.
The guys at Coscharis later called back that there was an opportunity for a 2010 model because a chief who lived in Chevron Estate, Lagos wanted to sell his and buy the 2012 edition for his wife. So, I went to see the car and it was fantastic. So, I told my wife; ‘I know you are not happy with this decision but I am going to pay tomorrow’ and my wife told me something she had never said before. She said ‘Steve, do you know you are being stupid?’ I was like ‘what do you mean?’ She said people who buy N8m worth of car usually have N80million in their accounts. How much do you have? I guess I was a little upset at what she said but I came to my senses and realised that she meant well. I decided against buying the car and that money became the seed money for X3M Ideas.
You started with eight staff, how did you get them buy into the dream?
Those guys are actually the superheroes of this story. I had already made up my mind to travel this road. With or without them, I would have gone ahead; but for them to have resigned from their secured jobs which were well paying and join me on this journey into uncertainty was heroic. I think I was able to sell the dream to them.
What does X3M ideas do differently that has made it a leading advertising agency in Nigeria?
It is all about team work. We have a young and dynamic team and it is about passion. For all the brands we have worked on, you can see the difference. Once X3M Ideas touches your business, you would see the difference and that is because we are passionate about the brands we work on. We don’t take briefs because we want money; we take briefs because we are passionate about what we do.
Has it always been your dream to be an entrepreneur?
As a matter of fact, I never taught I was going to run a company. But if you work in a company and you start growing old there, some ideas will start popping up and this was one of the ideas that came along. Personally, I had always felt that advertising business could be run differently. As I used to tell my team, this business is not about flying my flag but that of my team and the next generation. If you have the opportunity to play at the level we’re playing and you mess things up, you would discourage the generation coming aster you. There is this belief that creative people can’t be successful businessmen because that is the stereotype in the advertising industry but we have debunked that belief.
Let us reflect on the young guy who left Zaria for Lagos in 1995 as a young graduate of 24 years, what were your fears when you came to Lagos with just N500 in your pocket?
I had just graduated from Ahmadu Bello University (ABU), Zaria and did my youth service at NTA Kano and I returned to Kaduna where I grew up. I had seen everything along that axis and the moment I made up my mind that I wanted to be an advertising practitioner, I knew I had to come to Lagos because all the major advertising platforms are in Lagos. Of course, the biggest fear was, would I even find a job? Lagos is notorious for breaking you if you are unlucky. Lagos can make you and unmake you. I was apprehensive because I didn’t want to fall on the side, I didn’t want to be one of those people that Lagos ends up breaking. I was just looking for anyway to survive and I stayed two months without job before I picked up my first job.
You became an entrepreneur at 41, and there is the impression that once you are above 40 you can’t make it again, what advice do you have for late bloomers?
Anytime a man wakes up is his morning. You wake up at 7pm, that is your morning. There are people outside this country and in this country who have made it in their 50s. So, we should not be afraid to try something new. If you are passionate about it go ahead and give it a shot because your time is your time.
Can you share with us the five tips to success as copywriter?
Number one is passion. I see a lot of young people who just want to do it for the money. People who do stuff for money eventually may not end up making money. Money is nothing but paper. Money is the consequence of something which implies that money should come last. Money is the result of hard work and passion and at the end of the day. But if you put money first, it will distract you from other processes. I think passion comes first. So, locate your passion and to be a good copywriter, you have to study, you need to love reading.
For a copywriter, you can get a brief today to market a cognac. Tomorrow you get another brief to write for pampers and before the end of the week, you get another brief saying there is a little part in a space shuttle that somebody else is producing, can you just write something to sell this little part to NASA? So you must have a broad knowledge base. I tell people, you cannot offer people what you don’t have. So passion, a lot of reading and you must endure. If you are RR Martins and you write Game of thrones, if you like kill all your characters in one episode, nobody can question you, that is your story. If you are a copywriter however, it doesn’t work that way.
You know what is interesting about copywriting? Every client believes he is a good copywriter too (laughter) so you must endure and drop your ego at the doorstep, throw it into the lagoon because it is useless to you; it will cause you more harm than good. Then, you have to be adventurous. If you do something the previous month, you can’t repeat it or else your clients will walk away. So how do you keep your ideas fresh? You have to constantly be in the search of ideas. Where is the new idea? And overall, you must be determined. Stones will be thrown at you, challenges will come along, and your copies will be rejected but that staying power is what you need.
How do you get inspiration for copies?
You just have to keep working at it. I always say it jokingly that my inspiration is my family because they have to eat (laughter). There is nothing more motivating for a man than knowing he has a family to feed. Beyond that, keep your mind at it and when it seems it is not coming, let it go and that is why we have the pool table here. You know the brain works when you are no longer working. It is processing information so all you have to do is to shoot one thing and bingo! You get the inspiration.
How did you meet your wife?
That was at Prima Garnet. She was working for a photo studio at Opebi. She is a photographer, unarguably one of the best. They made a presentation on how they could partner Prima Garnet and I was like ‘this babe is incredibly beautiful’ but beyond the beauty, when I finally got to know her I was like ‘this woman is beautiful from the inside as well’ and that was it.
Two creative souls interacting, how do you manage the home because creative people are very opinionated…
I think we complement each other brilliantly because she is one of my greatest critics and I’m one of the best supporters of her work. If she has ideas, she bounces them off me and vice-versa, We feed off each other’s energy. If I am working on an idea, she is my first sounding board. If she says she likes it, good! I can be stubborn and say ‘that you don’t like it doesn’t mean it is not good. mine is even worse because even if my reaction is negative, it doesn’t change what she wants to do; the energy is good.
When you have issues, who apologises first?
It depends on who is quicker to apologise but I have learnt my lessons and never start to think you must always be macho. The woman also has her say, so, if you are wrong, swallow your pride and apologise.
How did you pop the question and for how long have you been married?
Hmmm… I took her to a place in Germany. She had told me a story about a bridge where she lost a shoe. I took her there and said something stupid like ‘this same place where you lost the shoe, I want it to be the same place where you would find a husband (laughter).
For how long have you been married?
Is she still as romantic as she used to be?
With my wife nothing has changed. We are really good and cool. She is an incredible mother, really supportive with the children. She tries to push me. I grew up like a normal Nigerian boy where my parents were very poor. So, I grew up with the mentality that a father’s role is just to provide food but there is a lot more to being a father. I think she taught me a lot like being there with my children and sharing special moments with them.
You mentioned something about poverty growing up. That means you were not born with a silver spoon….
I grew up in Kaduna. We were six kids and I was the first. Four boys two girls and with my dad and mum, we all lived in a room. There was this little curtain dividing the room. So, there was a frontal part where we had chairs, my dad’s table with his stereo system and records and a few things. Adjacent to the frontal part, we had the iron bed where my parents slept and under the iron bed, there were mats. So, whenever we wanted to sleep, we would bring out the mats and slept. It was tough. If you ate once in a day, you were lucky. It was tough growing up.
Your enterprising spirit, did it come from your dad or your mum?
It is hard to say because I saw my mum struggled a lot and a couple of times, she sold beer because my dad was also in the army, so we lived in a few places. There was a time we lived in Owerri in the bachas. And in one of those bachas was our house. My mum sold bear and in the evening, our home was like a mini bar. Until one day stacks of beer bottles in the room crashed and got broken and that was the end of the business.
Which of your parents had the greater influence on you?
I think my dad. My dad’s philosophy was different. He was a mind-your-own-business kind of person. If you did not involve him he didn’t get involved. There are so many things I learnt from him about fighting for everything you believe in. I think he influenced me a great deal even though we didn’t get along much when he was alive. I think he felt I was too close to my mum and I am sure that being the first son, he really wanted me to be tough but I think I was tough in my own way but not the way he wanted it.
How do you relax?
Sometimes, I pretend to play golf. I am a member of a couple of golf clubs.
Golf is a big man’s sport…
It is not and that is why I play it. I try to demistily all of those things.
But you are a big man…
I don’t think so (laughter).
You have conquered the world of advertising. What is the next frontier for you?
I think I have the ambition to move into tech and digital space. Right now, most of the investments I am making are in the tech space because tech is driving what we are doing and it is going to drive it more. But I don’t have to be the owner, manager of such businesses. I only have to invest in them and allow the next generation to take over.