Office Lives: The Ad (Wo)Men of Lagos – Steve Babaeko, CEO, X3M Ideas Group
Steve Babaeko is the Chief Executive Officer of X3M Ideas Group and President of the Association of Advertising Agencies of Nigeria (AAAN). His illustrious career was kicked off in 1995 with MC&A Saatchi & Saatchi, where he worked for half a decade. He proceeded to Prima Garnet Ogilvy where he worked for another five years.
In 2005, he moved to 141 Worldwide for seven years before resigning from his position as Business/Creative Director in 2012 to set up X3M Ideas. Throughout his career, he has worked with several brands including Tom Tom, Multichoice, Peak Milk, Etisalat, First Bank and many others. He is also the founder of X3M Music, a record label that has been home to prominent stars such as Simi and Praiz. Babaeko’s achievements in the industry have earned him acclaim on the global stage.
He was a judge at the 2017 Loerie Awards in Durban, South Africa. He was a keynote speaker at the 2018 International Advertising Association Conference. For three years running, he has served on the Grand Jury of the New York Advertising Festival. In 2019, he was named one of Adweek’s 13 Global Creative Leaders, the only Nigerian to make the exclusive list. He is set to return to the Jury panel of the Lisbon International Advertising Festival this year.
These days I delegate most of my work. I am not just the CEO, I am a Group CEO of a company with operations in three African countries. X3M Ideas is a multinational company now. We have presence in Lagos [Nigeria], Johannesburg [South Africa] and Lusaka [Zambia].
When did you get into advertising?
Advertising is the only job I have done in my life. I got my first job with an advertising agency called MC&A Saatchi & Saatchi in September 1995. I have not looked back since.
How would you describe what you do to my 70-year-old aunt?
To be honest, I do not envy your aunt because, till tomorrow, I am still trying to describe what we do to my mum and I am not sure I am making sense to her yet. She just wants to be sure that I am not stealing and I am not doing anything bad. But if I really want to break it down, I think it is about thinking: how do you make people prefer Brand A to Brand B? Usually, there will be hundreds of brands within any category. If you look at detergents for instance, there is Omo, there is Ariel, and there is So Klin. So, how do you make one of those brands become the customers’ favorite over the others? It is about the strategies you put behind the final campaign seen on TV, billboards, newspapers, magazines, and social media. There is a method to that madness, a method that makes one brand dominant over other brands within the same category.
What is your daily schedule like?
My schedule is frenetic and that is me being alarmist. I always have back-to-back meetings. This is probably my sixth meeting this day. I have several meetings that I have to go through in a day. If I am not meeting with my team, I am meeting with clients, media or suppliers. Now, as the President of the Association of Advertising Agencies of Nigeria (AAAN)), it has gotten worse. The only time that my schedule is fixed is on Mondays from 9 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. when we have our status meetings at work during which we review what happened the previous week. That is the only thing that is planned. The rest is just me being called to solve one problem or another.
What do you typically do at 1pm during the day?
1 p.m. is supposed to be our lunch time but I hardly ever have lunch at that time except when I am having lunch with a client or a new member of my team.
What was your schedule like when you started out?
It has always been this way. Advertising is probably the profession with the highest number of people with high blood pressure. There is so much inputs to coordinate, all within very tight deadlines. Even if you are a creative, you do not have all the time in the world to be creative. You probably have between six to ten clients. All of those clients want attention. You are always under pressure and that makes your schedule really, really mad. It is an interesting job but you also have to accept the negative side: the pressure is part of the game.
What do you delegate and what do you insist on doing yourself?
I always tell young people who are coming into this business that when you start your career, 80% of what you need to do to succeed comes from your own efforts and 20% comes from your bosses’ input. But once you get above mid-management and you go into senior management, that balance flips; 80% of what you need to succeed comes from what other people do and 20% comes from you. That means you have to be able to delegate and supervise the people you are delegating to and make sure they do the job well. These days I delegate most of my work. I am not just the CEO, I am a Group CEO of a company with operations in three African countries. X3M Ideas is a multinational company now. We have presence in Lagos [Nigeria], Johannesburg [South Africa] and Lusaka [Zambia]. Between Lusaka and Johannesburg, they control the rest of South-Central Africa. We could be working in Mozambique, Malawi or Botswana. If I now decide to do everything by myself, God forbid, you could be reading an obituary next week. You have to learn when to delegate and give the right people the bulk of the work. It is like a coach on the sidelines. No matter how good Jose Mourinho is, he cannot join the eleven players to play. A leader has to stay on the sidelines and give the right instructions that will make his team play well. At this level, that is what I am doing.
Do you work weekends? How often?
I work weekends most of the time. In this business, there are no fixed hours. My people know me. If they send an email at 1:00 a.m., I will most likely respond by 1:05 a.m. I am always switched on. I am working across a bit of small differences in time zones. The guys in Lusaka and Johannesburg are slightly ahead of us. You never know when an email will come in. And I will really hate that they send me an email and the only reason a job has not been done is because Steve has not responded. I have to be on my game always. Even if I am in America, I have to be switched on enough to be able to respond and not delay the job. So, I work most weekends. Thanks to my wife and kids for understanding.
What is your favorite part of this job?
That is just being able to create something out of nothing. You see a brand that is having issues before you come onboard and then you take that brand from point A to point D. It is not about the money. I can even pay to experience the joy I feel when we work with brands to overcome issues or realise their potential. It is about being able to contribute. Creating itself is such a blissful and joyful experience. There is something that never existed and then, like a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat, the whole world is suddenly talking about a brand nobody cared about two days ago. And now that we hire people, being able to share experiences garnered over the years is fantastic.
There is a stereotype that creatives are not good at managing businesses and relationships. How have you been able to subvert it?
I think it is a horrible stereotype that I really hate to hear. I think it is very offensive. Being a creative does not mean you are dumb. That is not true. I know creative people who are as sharp as they come on the management side of things. For me, personally, part of the motive for setting up business is to shatter that myth. We are creative entrepreneurs. Some of the solutions that regular guys cannot come up with, we do so creatively. We have proven it with X3M Ideas that you can be a creative and a kick-ass businessman. We have done fantastic business and we have also done good creative work. If anybody tells you that stereotype tomorrow, tell them to go to X3M Ideas and see what they are doing there.
Could you take me through the process of getting a big business?
It is usually tough. That is like playing the UEFA Cup finals. It is a lot of pressure. A client comes to town and says they want to do some branding work and they contact many agencies. They send all the agencies the same brief and timeline to come and present. During the presentation, there is a panel scoring the ideas you brought. They are looking at your shoes and your clothes, whether they match and other irrelevant things that go into their decision. It is like the finals of America’s Got Talent. That is the normal sequence of events. It is not always like that. Nigerian factors come into play sometimes. For instance, somebody’s cousin works with somebody who works on the panel of the clients. For young guys who are coming into the game, if you do not win the pitch, do not kill yourself. Sometimes, there is more to it than meets the eye.
Is there a particular campaign that you worked on that you could say is your favorite?
I can name two or three campaigns. There is a campaign we are currently working on with DStv which I think will become my favorite when it finally airs. There is a campaign we did for Glo, which I really love. There is one I did for British American Tobacco before I started X3M. There is also one we did for Peak Milk that I really love.
What is the key to success in your industry?
I think it is a lot of humility. A couple of people have a little bit of success and they start feeling on top of the world. They go: the client cannot tell us what to do. How dare they question our creative integrity? But you see, there is something called co-creation where you work with the clients and people around you. It takes a lot of humility for a creative to work with others. The best ideas can come from anywhere and anybody. Humility is really cool. Tenacity is good as well. Sometimes, the client rejects your idea the first time. Then you take it back the second time, the third time, the fourth time and the fifth time. And then the best work gets to see the light of day because of your persistence and tenacity. Constant hunger is good as well. A few people make small money in this business and it gets to their heads. They are no longer hungry because they just feel they have arrived. But the truth of the matter is that you never truly arrive in this game, until you are six feet under. You have to keep being hungry. You have to treat every brief like it is going to be the only brief you are going to have that year.
Who would you most like to work with?
I do not know about clients. Most of the clients I wanted to work with, I think I have been privileged to work with them. I always wanted to work with Glo and now I am very proud of our partnership with them. I always wanted to work with Peak Milk as well and we are doing that now. I have always worked on DStv. I started working with DStv as a copywriter in 1997. And we are still working together now. I do not see any clients on my bucket list that I have not ticked over the 25 years that I have been in this business.
If it is about people, then I can speak about that. But not specific people. I just want to work with the best tech guys these days. There is a lot we can borrow from tech that can help us leapfrog some of our ideas to the next level. I am actually low-key looking out for the best tech people that I can partner with. My wish list today is to give me the best tech people, engineers, programmers and everything. Then I will be like a sixteen-year-old with the best birthday gift in the world. If you think you are the best tech guys out there, I am reaching out. Come, let’s talk.
What would you be doing on this day in 2026?
In 2026, I just want to be playing golf. I do not want to be totally retired. But I will not be the CEO of X3M. I am the Chairman of the Group. I am playing golf, trying to close a deal that will help X3M to make a bit more out of our resources.
When do you plan to quit the office life?
As soon as possible. It is a tough business. I have been in the business for 25 years. That is a lot of time. But the truth of the matter is that some of the people that I have the privilege of going to meet with everyday also inspire me to carry on. If you ever met with Dr. Mike Adenuga Jr., the Chairman of Globacom, this man has enough money to buy me and my generation but he is still putting in so much work. He remembers the last presentation before the last presentation. I see people like that still putting in work and I know that I am just getting started. It keeps me humble and on my grind. I know that as much as I find the idea of retirement a bit tempting, there are people ahead of me who have done this thing on a bigger scale. I do not think I will ever retire. Whenever the nomenclature to my job title changes, you could say I am no longer CEO but I am still going to be working for my team. I do not know when the retirement is going to happen.
What effects do you think the pandemic is going to have on our work culture?
Everything. It is going to change a lot. People now know that they do not need 200 people to get the job done. A whole lot of companies will right-size. We have also seen that the idea of having a big head office and having people there is a scam. Everybody can work from home. It is just like how we are having this interview and I am in the comfort of my living room. If we wanted to have this interview on a normal day, you would have had to sweat your way through Lagos traffic. And you would not be that sure I would still be there by the time you get to my office because you would probably be late due to traffic. The impact is huge. Even on the business front of meeting people, an old culture of a thousand years is gone. We meet each other, shake each other’s hands and look into each other’s eyes. You are even checking if the guy’s grip is firm enough. All of that is gone into the garbage can now. This is the reset of a lifetime. It is a seismic shift. The last time we saw anything close to this was in 1918 [the outbreak of the Spanish flu]. Nobody knows what is going to happen right now.