As Steve Babaeko; exceptional media guru and brand colossus, CEO/Chief Creative Officer of full service and digital advertising agency, X3M Media, and President of Association of Advertising Agencies of Nigeria, AAAN adds another yearly feather to his cap, all Executives and members of Online Reporters Association of Nigeria, ORAN, to which he is a Patron, rejoice with him and congratulate him for a very successful year of breaking barriers and upping the ante in the advertising world.
Respected for his uncanny ability to stretch the limits of creative possibilities beyond impossible frontiers, his brand new concept of the way the advertising world now works is a master-stroke of brilliance which has greatly improved the industry as reflected in more informed consumer choices and uncommon methodology of digital illumination. His overflowing chest of both local and international awards also speak volumes about the content of the Digital Advertising gurus character.
As is synonymous with all epics, Steve Babaekos life bears testimony to the power of valour and bravery in the face of daunting challenges. According to a story he once told ORAN Excos during a visit to his Ikeja X3M Media Lagos Office 3 years ago, the highly revered and well decorated Advertising genius had gone against all the odds to come down to Lagos without any ties to the city except that the land of his destiny had beckoned and he had, like a dog that had gone against all rhyme and reason to ignore the hunters whistle, cloaked himself with his sheer talent and creative brilliance, and within a short period of introducing his special gift to the Lagos advertising world, a legend was born.
Culling from a special feature done on Steve Babaeko by Michael Orodare for Neusroom in 2021 when the Advertising Mogul turned 50, before building a name that has now become synonymous with Nigerias advertising industry, Steve Babaeko, born on June 1, 1971, had spent his childhood with his family in Kabba, Kogi State, Owerri in Imo state and Kaduna state.
Babaeko (Lagos man or the man from Lagos) was not his family name; it was the first name given to his grandfather by his great grandfather to honour a Lagos lawyer who won him a significant court case against the monarch of his village. The generation after, including Steves father, who served in the Nigerian Army, adopted the name as their last name.
His parents had almost nothing. While his late father served in the Nigerian Army, his mother was a trader who turned their small room into a beer depot. Steve had tough times growing up as the eldest among his parents six children.
We all lived in a room, he recalled in an interview with The Sun newspaper. There was this little curtain dividing the room. So, there was a frontal part where we had chairs, my dads 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 sleep. It was tough. If you ate once a day, you were lucky. It was tough growing up.
It was in 1981 that he got the first real glimpse of his family’s poverty status.
I was only 10 years old when I realized, for the first time in my life, that my family was acutely poor, he told Forbes in 2019.
This reality helped him through the many rough patches he walked through and fueled his ambition, driving him to make the most of any opportunity. It also fueled his determination to go to school amidst the adversity he faced from an uncle who believed his education at a government college was too expensive for the family. He asked Steve to drop out and register as an apprentice at a fridge repairer workshop.
He was confident about proving his uncle wrong. For Steve, confidence and strong will have never been an issue. Despite the adversity, He bagged a degree in Theatre Arts from Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, in Kaduna. After the mandatory national youth service, Steve recognized that for him to bring any of his dreams to fruition, he would have to move far away from home. In 1995, he packed his bag and moved to Lagos, where he would have to squat with a chef at Durban hotel, now Golden Tulip, for two years.
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, he recalled. Of course, the biggest fear was, would I even find a job? Lagos is notorious for breaking you if you are unlucky. 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. For those two years, Steve would stand before a mirror daily motivating himself. For me not to be successful in this town, then the beach must dry up.
He saw in Lagos, the city where his dream would thrive, and the city enhanced his growth, fame and fortune.
The Advertising Journey
After settling in Lagos, he hunted for a job for two months before eventually landing his first Advertising job with MC&A as a copywriter/radio-TV executive. He spent five years on the first job and moved to Prima Garnet Ogilvy, where he spent another five years before he was seconded to 141 Worldwide (now Nitro 121) as Creative Director for seven years.
At Prima Garnet Ogilvy he met Yetunde Ayeni, one of Nigeria’s leading photographers, who became Mrs Babaeko in 2006 and mother of his three boys.
What strikes me in him was his energy and friendliness, Yetunde Ayeni-Babaeko. Photo: Instagam/Steve Babaeko.
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 with Prima Garnet. 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, Steve said as he recalled how he met Yetunde.
When he decided to ask Yetunde to marry him, his creative skills came to play again in his romantic life as if he was handling an advertising campaign.
Yetunde grew up in Germany, where her mother came from, and Steve decided to take her to a place in Germany where she had lost a shoe years before they met.
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, Steve said.
What strikes me in him was his energy and friendliness, Yetunde told Neusroom.
For more than two decades, Steve has been actively involved in creating some of Africa’s most iconic advertising and marketing campaigns. Still fresh in memory is the Proudly Nigerian campaign for British American Tobacco, the Now You are Talking campaign for Etisalat, You Need A New Bank campaign for Diamond Bank, among many others.
Jenkins Alumona, a marketing communications expert and CEO of Strategic Outcomes Limited (SOL), told Neusroom that what sells Steve easily is his understanding of all the pillars of advertising work.
I had no doubt he was going to do very well. He comes across to me as a leader, a natural-born leader,
From the client service part to the strategy part to the creative part. When one person understands the three, the person stands out, Alumona said.
His outstanding personality and works made him a reference point in Advertising classes in tertiary institutions across Nigeria. In one of those classes, this writer first heard about Babaeko and got acquainted with the name.
Steve may not know how popular he is among mass communication students in tertiary institutions across Nigeria. Some graduates of mass communication told Neusroom they admire his consistency, hard work and perseverance.
The Birth of X3M Ideas
Alumona says when Steve left 141 Worldwide in 2012 to start X3M Ideas, some people wished him well, but many didn’t.
When you are leaving an agency, there would be those who do not wish for you to leave, both superiors and subordinates. Its not unusual.
Steve hadn’t set out to start his advertising agency. Although he had floated X3M Music in 2008 while he was with 141 Worldwide, and regularly promoted music artistes, X3M Ideas came when Steve clocked 40 in 2011. He started in August 2012 with eight staff, after 17 years of exposure to the ins and outs of advertising.
To be honest, it never crossed my mind that I was going to own an agency. It all happened circumstantially at best being unplanned or not dreamt about, Steve said.
The seed money that started X3M Ideas was the fund Steve had kept to buy himself the latest model of Range Rover Sport when he clocked 40 in 2011, but Yetunde, his wife, convinced him it was not the right decision at that time.
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 cars usually have N80m 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 realized that she meant well, he said.
Steve is the true professional who always goes the extra mile to deliver on client briefs, Martin Mabutho. Photo: Yetunde Ayeni-Babaeko.
Yetunde said buying the car would have given him the feeling that he was already there, although he wasn’t at the time.
The car would have been a setback, but it (X3M Ideas) would have still happened, maybe at a later time, she told Neusroom.
Between 2012 when he started X3M Ideas, and now, Steve has become one of Africa’s most admired advertising CEOs.
From the first take. It was obvious he would move from challenger to market leader, Adebisi Idowu, former Vice President, Marketing, Etisalat Nigeria (now 9Mobile), told Neusroom.
Idowu gave the nod that landed X3M Ideas one of its first most significant accounts (Etisalat Nigeria) when it started in 2012.
Steve approached me personally and told me he was setting up shop. Incidentally, some fifth columnist had told him that I was the only one between him and the brand transition to his agency, Idowu said. The discussion was for five minutes, and he had my full support. I also had the ears of the then CMO who asked for my opinion that same week before sealing the deal. I had the power of influence, and I’m happy with the decision I made that night. The next day was the beginning of history.
One of Nigeria’s leading creative photographers, Kelechi Amadi-Obi, said when Steve left 141, he had no doubt he was going to do very well.
He comes across to me as a leader, a natural-born leader. Once you attain that leadership tree starting on your own, there’s no brainer in terms of how successful you can become, Amadi-Obi told Neusroom.
Taiwo Agboola, the CEO of 7even Interactive, a Lagos-based Advertising agency, had worked with Steve for barely a year at 141 when Steve told him he was leaving to start X3M and asked if he would like to join the team.
I didn’t even think about it, Agboola told Neusroom. We were in the walkway, and he said this is what I’m planning to do. Do you want to join the team? He’s somebody I believe in, and I said if this is what you want to do, then lets do it. It was as simple as that.
Agboola admitted that it was tough at the beginning. I remember us going for like three pitches in one day. We didn’t start out like we were newbies. We were always on our feet working long hours, there were times we were working back to back, seven days a week. He always told us then, don’t call us a new agency, we are not a new agency. We are an agency that is in the mix and we want to punch above our weight, we want to be known in the industry.
Beyond overseeing the company and driving his supportive and talented team, Steve also spends time with his team and ensures each team member feels valued and important to the company. When he comes in the morning, he goes around, talks to the people. He takes everybody out on a Friday, we hang out, people pour out their minds, he listens, proffers solutions, even if you are having issues with a client, Agboola said.
Seven years after X3M Ideas started, a PwC report in 2019 says Nigeria’s Advertising industry had grown to become a $450 million industry. At that time, Steves X3M Ideas had cemented its place in the top league of agencies accounting for a large chunk of the revenue.
Expansion and Growth
X3M Ideas, with branches in Nigeria, South Africa and Zambia, holds a big part in Nigerias $450 billion advertising industry and in the global creative world.
When the company started in 2012, Etisalat was one of its first and biggest clients. Steve had led the campaign for the launch of the telecom company in 2008 when he was at 141 Worldwide. In 2017, X3M Ideas resigned from the Etisalat account and added Nigeria’s second-largest telecom company, Globacom to its portfolio.
Presently, X3M Ideas has Dangote, Multichoice, and FrieslandCampina WAMCO (Peak Milk) among many others in its portfolio.
To understand Steve fully and how he has been able to drive the growth of X3M, one needs to know how he does his work like someone who is going to get fired if he doesn’t do it, despite being the CEO
Ayeni Adekunle, Babaekos friend, and CEO of BHM says Steve used everything he could to change his life, and to build his dreams. But as you’ll find out, that’s often just the start. The most important part is sustaining what you have built, and not using the same hands you used to build, to ruin it all. Steve is focused on surpassing even his own goals; driven to make sure he never goes back to where he is coming from. We all have a lot to learn from him.
For Martin Mabutho, Chief Customer Officer of MultiChoice Nigeria, Steve is the true professional who always goes the extra mile to deliver on client briefs.
Always eager to jump into the trenches with his team and make it happen. Definitely, someone you would rather have on your team than on the competitors side, Mabutho told Neusroom.
Taiwo Agboola who left 141 with Steve in 2012 to start X3M Ideas says, if he (Steve) sets out to achieve something, he methodologically goes after such and makes sure its done. He doesn’t mind how its done, but methodologically, hell chart that path towards that goal and make sure it is done.
To the legion of his fans who are primarily undergraduates and young professionals in the creative industry, Steve Babaeko is the representation of the personality they dream of becoming in the creative world.