Steve Babaeko stands at the center of the Nigerian creative industry. As the founder and CEO of X3M Ideas (pronounced extreme) and also the president of the Association of Advertising Agencies of Nigeria (AAAN), he is shaping the future of creative arts in Nigeria and beyond.
Steve was born and raised in the northern Nigerian city of Kaduna in Kaduna State. His family struggled to make ends meet. “I think I was about ten years old when I became conscious of the fact that we were very poor. It was an interesting period because I suddenly realised that I couldn’t afford most of the things that my mates had in school”, he says, recalling his childhood.
As a child, Steve’s dream was to become a news presenter, attracted by the prospect of making appearances on TV. In pursuit of his dream, he got an internship at the largest broadcaster in Nigeria, which revealed a different side to the job. He experienced first-hand the modest salaries that news presenters earned and he decided to pursue another dream – making it in the burgeoning creative industry.
“If you call yourself extreme, you shouldn’t be caught doing the safest work in the country. Your ideas must be seen to represent the name you bear. So the ideas have to be on the edge and they have to be extreme.”
To pursue this new dream, Steve realised that he had to leave Kaduna for the bustling city of Lagos, which he did at the age of 24. His success in Lagos was a result of luck and grit in equal measure. Upon arrival in Lagos, without a place to stay, he “squatted” in a hotel with a chef for two years as he found his feet in the big city. This tenacity would later serve him well as an entrepreneur in a competitive field.
During this tumultuous time, he spent his days in search of work, armed with his writing ability. Eventually, he landed a job as a trainee copywriter at a well-known agency in Lagos. This first job was the start of a life-long journey to change the face of advertising in Nigeria.
Advertising agencies are the engine of creativity, working with marketing departments to craft exciting creative elements that connect with the hearts and minds of consumers. These agencies comprise the best and brightest people, ranging from; designers, writers, photographers and strategists. This combination of talent is then outsourced to a client to deliver on marketing objectives.
X3M Ideas was launched on 1st August 2012 with the mission to redefine advertising in Nigeria. In the nine years since it was founded, the agency has grown exponentially and is now positioned as the top marketing firm in Nigeria, counting the biggest companies globally as clients. What differentiates X3M starts with the name itself, which sets the tone for everything the agency does.
As Steve puts it, “If you call yourself extreme, you shouldn’t be caught doing the safest work in the country. Your ideas must be seen to represent the name you bear. So the ideas have to be on the edge and they have to be extreme.”
To ensure that the work at X3M meets Steve’s high standards, he challenges his team with the extreme test – where he asks the question; “Do you think this idea is extreme enough?” That keeps X3M ahead of the competition in Nigeria.
After successfully conquering the Nigerian market, Steve is casting his vision to the rest of Africa. X3M now has a physical presence in five other African countries – South Africa, Mozambique, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Botswana – with plans to expand to more countries by the end of 2022.
Commenting on the expansion, Steve says, “Africa has the least intra-continental trade in the world, that is to say, Africans are not doing business with other Africans. Unless we create opportunities for other Africans, we will continue to be victims of the narrative that says that there is only poverty, war and hunger in Africa ”
However, opportunities are often accompanied by challenges, and the advertising industry in Africa is not immune. Digital is taking over at a rapid rate and creatives are opting to work as freelancers – going directly to the client with their portfolios in hand.
Steve believes, the more things change, the more they stay the same. He expects the tide will turn again and equilibrium will be restored in the advertising industry. “When television came, everyone thought that was the death of radio, but today both radio and television are thriving. What will happen is that the new media of today, will be the old media of the next three years” he says confidently.
It is a mammoth task to summarise Steve Babaeko in one article. He is a highly accomplished entrepreneur that has built a strong business in a very competitive field. At the age of 50, he has more energy than many of his peers and he is still committed to making his mark in Africa.
Steve’s own words perhaps provide clarity on his view of the world – “Entrepreneurship, I just realised, includes two major things. The first is, how do you take all of the chances that come your way and calculate the risk of all the opportunities surrounding you? The second is, how are you willing to add value to your community and your customer. In the nine years we have been operating as an agency, we undertake a project to rehabilitate a government school every year and hand it over to the government. That is our contribution.”