BY CHUKS NWANNE
THE news of his resignation from 141 Worldwide to set up his own advertising agency was greeted with mixed reactions by friends and colleagues. While some wondered why Steve Babaeko left his lucrative position as the Business/Creative Director of one of the leading agencies in the country, to toe the difficult path of setting up his own outfit, those who had followed the dreadlocks-wearing creative artiste through his career in advertising, saw his decision as a right move. Well, Babaeko is not the type that ventures without thinking; he’s indeed a thorough-bred professional.
He was inspecting work at his new Ikeja office, in company of some of his youthful team members when I arrived. Mere looking at the building, it was obvious that the duplex now has the magic touch of the dreadlocked one; he changed everything to his taste. From the painting to the doors, windows, railings, lights, tiles, flowers, furniture… the building was totally overhauled.
“Look, we had to do it right,” he said as he led a tour of the premises. “We are aware of the high expectations, so, we are not leaving any stone unturned.”
AT first glance, Babaeko appears more like a music artiste; his hairstyle and close link with top musicians, points to that direction.
“I wish I am,” he said jokingly. “I actually wanted to do music when I was 15, but my mum made me change my mind; she just didn’t think it was a viable career to pursue at that time. Then, music wasn’t what it is today,” he recalled.
After his desire of becoming a musician was discouraged by his parents, the Ahmadu Bello University Theatre Arts graduate took interest in broadcasting.
“I really wanted to be a broadcaster; apart from music, the only job that fascinated me as a child was broadcasting.”
Babaeko’s stint with broadcasting was in 1994, when he joined the NTA Kano, where he presented a TV programme, Corpers Forum. But along the line, discouragement set in, forcing him to change career line.
“At some point, I discovered that broadcasting was nice; people look glamourous on TV, but they are not really well paid. That sort of discouraged me.”
After reading a supplementary report on Nigerian advertising agencies published in one of the national dailies in 1995, Babaeko picked interest in the creative business.
“Lolu Akinwunmi was talking about Prima Garnet and I was like, ‘wow, I think this is what I should be doing.’ That’s how my love for advertising started. With Theatre Arts, you have all the raw materials to do whatever you want to do in the arts. Theatre Arts is much more broader; it prepares you for a whole lot of stuff.”
His advertising career, which spans nearly two decades, started off at MC&A Saatchi & Saatchi, from where he moved to Prima Garnet Ogilvy and later 141 Worldwide.
“I had always wanted to work with Prima Garnet after reading that supplement; I wrote him (Lolu) letters from Kaduna about my intention to work with them. As a matter of fact, it took me five years of applying every year to work for Prima Garnet. At that time, it was a big dream come true.”
After five years with the outfit, an opportunity came for Babaeko to explore a new terrain with 141 Worldwide and he grabbed it with both hands.
“At that time, I felt I had done all I needed to do with Prima Garnet and I needed new challenges. So, when the chance to work with 141 Worldwide came, I saw it as an opportunity to write my own history. I took the opportunity and became the pioneer Creative Director of the company. To be honest, I had the privilege of working with a great team in the company, and we performed well for almost seven years,” he enthused.
While at 141, Babaeko led a team of result-oriented professionals, who worked on several award-winning campaigns for brands such as Tom Tom, British American Tobacco, First Bank, Muitichoice and of recent, Etisalat.
“The jobs we did for British American Tobacco Company (BAT) and others, people don’t really get to see them; the one everybody easily remembers is Etisalat. We launched the brand in Nigeria in 2008; it was a keenly contested pitch then. We were just three years old then, and we won that pitch ahead of other companies, including foreign agencies.”
What really worked for you during the pitch?
“I think it was just the different thinking we had; from day one, we wanted to come out in a different way. We came to the table with different solution and I think that’s what gave us the edge over others.”
From the way he spoke about 141 and his boss, Lolu, it is obvious that the father of two had an interesting experience working for the company.
“It was beautiful working there, we were like one small family. It is on record that after I tendered my resignation letter, I worked till the very last day because we needed to do the handing over process properly so that client’s businesses would not suffer. Last year, I finished the last script I was working on at about 5pm and I left the company around 5.30, on a Friday. I knew if I didn’t leave, I would get emotional because seven years of my life was spent in that agency,” he said with emotions.
NOW 41, Babaeko has established his own business, X3M Ideas. A Lagos-based full service plus digital advertising agency, the outfit, according to him, will have a global presence and impact, through its barrier-breaking and record-setting campaigns.
“At X3M, we will combine our excellent understanding of traditional media habits and practices, with a clear knowledge — and appreciation — of new media, working with our clients to best deliver witty, creative and above all, honest and believable communications, using today's media ecosystem.”
To the creative director turned CEO, “the advertising industry is at a critical stage and the world is looking to places like Nigeria, where young, driven and promising professionals and agencies are emerging, for ideas and innovations that'll determine the future. I'm willing and ready to play my part and I'm happy to have a dedicated team ready to go with me on this marathon.”
Setting up any business in Nigeria, including advertising is very challenging. Apart from the huge infrastructure one has to put in place, getting the right people on board could be a herculean task.
“It’s not like the easiest thing to do; setting up an advertising agency is difficult. But we have a solid team on ground now and I feel good. My feeling is that this is the right time to do this, and we are putting everything behind it to make sure that we are able to offer support to our clients. I feel good doing this,” he said confidently.
Aside from his advertising agency, the building is also housing Xtreme Music studio, Babaeko’s record label and home of artistes such as Overdose, Praise and Etcetera, who has since completed his deal with the outfit.
“This is actually a group; we want to make this place a one-stop solution for brands and clients. We’ve always had Xtreme Music, which is also part of the infrastructure we have here; this studio is perhaps the minimum standard you find in studios all over the world. So, if a client comes here and say they want a radio commercial done, it doesn’t take us days; it’s a matter of hours. Advertising will always need music, which is why we are putting all these together.”
A celebrated creative director, writer, business development enthusiast, consumer behaviour analyst, brand development expert and multi-platform media influencer, Babaeko has been able to strike a balance between his corporate life and his status as a showbiz promoter.
“It’s not really difficult; the kind of business we are in is cross functional. I’ve always felt, on a personal level that there’s a confluence where music and branding meets. We want to be at the cantre of that confluence to help brands exploit the effective use of music and help music artistes attract branding supports as much as we can. It’s a complementary kind of service and I think part of my passion over the years, is driving this. If you see the way we’ve managed the artistes we work with, we develop them as brands not just commodities.”
“I don’t believe in volume; as an independent record label, there’s limit of fund you have to push artistes. It’s like a football club buying all the strikers and putting them on the bench; they will leave one after the other because they don’t get enough playing time. I’ve seen labels that signed up to 15 artistes, but where are they today? It’s like having children, you get the number you can handle. We are interested in quality and not quantity.”
He continued: “We are working on Praise’s album; he’s going to be here any moment to continue with his production. He was nominated for the NEA Award as the most promising act and he just got back from Oxford where he played at a gig. Overdose too will start recording his second album as well,” he revealed.
Indeed, expectations are high for Xtreme Ideas and the Kogi State-native is fully aware of that.
“You are as prepared as the team you have; I have a solid team, that’s my confidence. We will be venturing into territories that people haven’t ventured into before such as digital advertising. Here, people mostly do the normal conventional advertising, but now we have digital advertising that will help us take brands to new frontiers. It’s going to be different; from the outlook, you will know that we are setting up a modern infrastructure and the creativity is going to reflect the environment.”
Few weeks after opening its doors to the public, Xtreme Ideal already has its first client.
“Interestingly, we’ve won the pitch for Inbisco, an Indonesian FMCG company. They just gave us their candy segment and we are expecting the brief. That’s our first client and you never forget your first client. We just want to do something powerful and different.”
He continued: “My dream is to build a solid local network of agencies. Why can’t people get affiliated to us? Why can’t we build a network in Togo, Benin and other African countries for them to pay for affiliation? It is possible. We are much more focus in building a strong local advertising brand that would become like the beacon across West Africa and maybe Africa,” he said.
IN the advertising industry, Babaeko is a brand. An associate registered member of Advertising Practitioners Council of Nigeria (APCON), he has carved a niche for himself.
“Well, I didn’t wake up one day and said I would turn myself into a brand, no. As advertising people, we are brand builders and if you are helping others build their brands, what do you do with yourself? It’s just being able to be myself and do all those things that make me happy. It wasn’t deliberate,” he said.
And your dreads?
“You know how it is in Lagos; everybody wears the same low cut, the same hairstyle. So, I wanted something else; I want to look different. We are in the business of building perception and branding for product, so, we are expected to create brands.”
You had the dread before joining advertising?
“I had it long after I joined advertising; I was like 10 years in the industry before I started growing dreads. As I started getting into the senior management cadre, I wanted to distinguish myself from all the many creative directors; I needed something to help me achieve that.”
What was the reaction of your colleagues?
“Well, my boss then would look at me and say, “Steve, are you sure you want to do this?’ I was like, ‘yea, it’s done already, not like I’m still thinking of doing it.’ I think three to four months after I did my dreadlocks, two other people in Prima Garnet did the same thing and my boss was like, ‘see what you’ve caused?”
Has your dreadlocks ever been a sort of hindrance in your line of duty?
“Well, it took a while before people started accepting me with dreads; I was among the first set of Nigerians, who dared to wear dreads. However, by the time they hear you talk and they knows this guy know his job, all the stereotypes would disappear.”
Obviously, Babaeko pays extra attention to his hair, which has become a sort of identity to him.
“If you carry this type of hair, you don’t need anybody to tell you to dress well. With this dreadlocks and you wear rags, people would think you are not normal. So, you need to create contrast so that people will look at you and say, ‘well, we don’t know why he’s wearing dreads, but he looks cool.’
MEANWHILE, the success story of Steve Babaeko will not be complete without mentioning the role of his photographer wife, who is like his solid rock.
“To be honest with you, I’ve always wanted to take this decision long time ago, but she kept telling me, ‘no, don’t.’ Finally this year, she said ‘yes, you can.’ She’s my partner, my friend and I love her with all my heart. We took the crucial decisions together because it’s a risk. At the end, I know my job and finally, people, who know my worth, would come looking for me; that’s why I’m doing this.”