Story: Eric Elezuo Photos: Solomon Ekhaiyeme
He is young, energetic and foresighted. His name is Steve Bakaeko, the ebullient Chief Executive Officer as well Chief Creative Officer of X3M Group; a group comprising many independent companies, among which is his X3M Ideas Advertising company. In his cozy office at Awuse Estate, Ikeja, the grass to grace entrepreneur spoke of his growing up, businesses, advertising and state of the Nigerian nation.
Can we meet you briefly
My name is Steve Babaeko. I am the CEO of X3M Group. It is made of a couple of marketing communication companies, starting with X3M Ideas; an advertising agency. We also have Zero Degrees, which is a production and content company. We also have X3M Music, which is a record label that has Praise, Simi and a few other artiste.
How do you manage to run all these companies, and still manage to stay afloat
You are as strong as your team. As a result, you have to built a strong team. Unlike what obtains in this part of the world, people say one tree does not make a forest, so if you want to really be strong on yourself, you have to build a strong team. Every day, X3M Group improves, and it is managed by different people; I just oversee the affairs. This is because I have already built a team.
You can’t really do all these without a solid academic background. So, could you take us through your academic development
Sure. I had part of my secondary education in Kaduna, before relocating to my home town in Kabba, Kogi State to complete it. That was at Barnabas Secondary School, Kabba, Kogi State. And I must let you know that my parents were so poor then, and so it was not so easy. At a time, I felt it was going to be the end of my academic pursuit, but I realized early in life that it is only education that can extricate me from poverty, so I had to working, and sent myself to Federal School of Arts and Science, Suleja, Niger State for my A-levels, and I did very well. I went on to Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, where I Studied Drama, which was under the Department of English Language back then. I graduated as the best student in department.
So today, how do your parents see you, having changed their fortune
My father, unfortunately, is no more alive, but my mother is definitely very proud. I try as much as possible to make them proud in everything I do, and not disgrace them. In my family, we didn’t have money, but thankfully, we built a good name. And I feel it is my job not to tarnish that name, but make them proud.
How long has your father been dead
About six years ago
Was it before you made your first million
(Laughs) I don’t even know if I have made my first million. To be honest, when it comes to money, I am not so cowed. I don’t count wealth in terms of naira and kobo, but in the number of lives one has been able to affect; how many people one has been able to point to the right direction. If you look at my team; they are mostly young people; it is therefore a matter of how am I able to affect them towards making a change. You know we want this country to turn bright.
Based on the situation of things at the moment, how do you see advertising
It’s really tough, very tough. If not that it is a pseudo entertainment business, which captures the flashy living of people; it is really tough. For obvious reasons, based on today’s economy, everybody is struggling, even as the budget hasn’t been passed almost one year after assumption of office of this administration. And government is still the biggest spender in the economy, and if government is not spending, it means trouble, and that the wheel of the economy is really is slow. So those at the top (government) is not spending, we, at the bottom of the chain will surely fell the impact.
Now, how have you been able to surmount the obstacles and problems associated with doing business since by every intent and purpose, you are still in business
It’s been creativity. In advertising, you are not selling pepper or groundnut oil; what you are selling is your creativity. So it is just being creative, innovative, planning a lot, being discipline in the management of your resources. These we have done, and gained the little edge we have today.
In Advertising, who are your biggest competitors
Honestly, I have none. People ask me this all the time. In 2012 when we started this business, less than four years ago, and this is where are today. Who am I competing with? Every day, every morning, I look at the mirror, I see my biggest competition; it’s me! I really don’t any other agency, I am sorry. All I know is that I have to outdo whatever I had done before, as in double my effort. I compete with myself, no arrogance intended.
One of your goals as an entrepreneur is to change the perception of advertising in Nigeria. What perception, and how have you been able to achieve that
One of the perceptions we have changed is really in image making, and if that is the one, I will forever remain grateful. Before I came on board, there had been this erroneous belief that creative people are not good business (I started my career as a script writer). So usually, in the advertising industry, you see the guys in the Client’s service, better known as the suits, as better successors, and nobody gives a damn about those in the creative cadre, the number of years he has spent notwithstanding. So you see them bringing a young client service guy to be your boss even when it should be you. People like us re-enforced the message that you can be creative and also be an entrepreneur. That alone we have change; it’s a major milestone.
Considering the way you choose to appear in casuals, has the perception of how one dresses changed in the industry
Whether they change it or not does not matter, but the thing is in reality, we have shown that there is a major shift in the way advertising is seen and perceived in this part of the world because of we have done. It does matter. You know, that a light is switched off does not mean there is no power in it. Therefore, if you don’t believe the perception, it does not mean the perception is not there. We have done our job.
Has your creative work ever suffer censorship from your regulatory agency
It is not more of censorship. Advertising is under APCON, which means Advertising Practitioners Council of Nigeria. It regulates the content of your advertising, and there is a reason for that, just like other professional bodies have regulatory bodies. They ensure that all kinds of quacks and charlatans don’t enter the advertising profession. As a result, the body goes through every work, thereby regulating the content, and determines the one worth using. We go out trying to create the best work we can because we know the rules.
A particular advert was already in the public domain when it was kicked against. It advertised an open roof vehicle using a topless lady. What do you think
It wasn’t actually the regulatory body that kicked. You sometimes when things like the topless lady thing comes up, it is the Women Rights group that kicks, saying it denigrates the personality of women, hence decides to write to APCON saying the advert is offensive to womanhood. APCON is therefore, duty-bound to address issues like that, and sometimes, advise the company to pull the ad.
And when they pull it down, does it not result in revenue loss to the company
Well, it happens all the time, not only in Nigeria, but all over the world. And the juicy part of it is when it is pulled, the ad becomes more popular. I know of some adverts like that.
How is your life in drama since it is your other area of specialization
Funny enough, I have never acted though I studied Drama. I am not comfortable in front of the camera, I prefer staying behind it
What do you major in from behind the camera
I major in directing, and have spent almost 21 years in the business. I directed all the commercials we have done at location except I am out of the country.
Do you only shoot commercials or you also do movies
Zero Degrees, our production company, will probably have a movie by 2017. We are working on it. Right now, we are on the script level. I am playing a supervisory role as usual.
Has Advertising, and your other chosen endeavours, been friendly to you
I think so though there are challenges. It all depends on how you manage your challenges. I started my advertising career in 1995, and I wasn’t the only one. We are able to get to where we are because we were able to take all the challenges the career threw at us, and improved on it. Yes, Advertising has been nice to me to the extent that I am also nice to Advertising. I continue to say it that I will still be doing this job even if I am not getting paid for it. I love my job, and thinks of a new ground to break every time.
What jobs have you done, and with what companies
We have done a lot; Etisalat from 2008, Diamond Bank in the last two years, British America Tobacco Company, DSTv and many others.
How do you combine family with your job as tasking as it is
I am married, with children, and it has been tough. You know I can’t take my family everywhere I go. In the couple of weeks I will be shuttling through five, six countries. It’s tough, but I always make out time, especially on Sundays. I must stay with my children on Sundays, and give them a treat.
How does your wife take your job
Well, fortunately for me, she is a creative person; a photographer, also busy. Generally, we work together.
What’s your take on the happenings in the country so far
I am a die-hard optimist for this country. I believe in this country, Nigeria. This is because a boy born in Kabba, Kogi State, without a chance of becoming anything could still use the opportunities in this country to become what I am today means that there is hope for the country. I think the biggest problem in the country is the crisis of leadership, even in Africa. Most prosperous European countries don’t have half of what we have in Africa. We have not been able to muster the kind of leadership we need to administer the resources we have. It’s a shame. I still believe there is hope though. To paraphrase an American President; there is nothing with this country that cannot be corrected with what is right with this country.
Between leadership and corruption, which is Nigeria’s bigger problem
It is a bit of both. It is the lack of leadership that makes the leaders to be corrupt. Once the moral compass of the country is lost, it tilts to corruption. It is a poverty of the soul when someone steals money meant for five generations. I mean what does he need it for Here, people steal money and use it to pervert justice, but we were not like this from the beginning. We need to retrace our steps.
Can this corruption ever end because the younger ones are clamouring to get there just perpetrate their own crime
I pray they don’t. However, I see a young generation that is desirous of setting up their own businesses, who knows what it means to hire people. In X3M, we have about a hundred people; that is a hundred people that will not join Boko Haram or Fulani Herdsmen; 100 people that will not be armed robbers or kidnappers. That’s the way it should be. Today, entrepreneurship is engine room of any economy anywhere in the world, forming close to 70% of the economy of some civilized countries like the United States. The more people become more enterprising, and start thinking of ideas that can change their own spaces, the better. The experience gained in running an enterprise is used in running a nation. We should be hopeful.
How do you encourage your team to set up something at the right time
Here, we are producing the next generation of entrepreneurs in Nigeria. If you can’t learn here, you may find it difficult to learn anywhere. We throw you in the middle of the challenge, and we lead by example, and when you want to start something, we encourage you because it is the same passion that got us here.
So far, is there anyone we can lay hand on to say that it is made by Babaeko
Here, we place premium on leadership, and everyone here is a potential leader in his own right. We have done great charity works; renovating schools, visiting boys’ correction homes, built new bathroom and toilet facilities. And every anniversary of the company, August 1, we partner the Lagos State Government on education and do new things. This year is not an exception. In another couple of weeks, we will know which schools will be benefitting from our largess this year.
Is it just about schools
You know education is the bedrock of everything, and that is why we have to start from there. That’s obviously where the future of this country is
What do you preach to boys and girls when you meet them in schools
I preach leadership, accountability, foresightedness, and of course the story of my life. I came to this town in 1995 with nowhere to live, no money, and knows nobody, but here I am today. If I can survive, and be a shining example in my industry, anybody can. I started on absolutely nothing, and built the company brick by brick to this level.
Please what is your advice for anyone venturing into advertising or creative art of any kind
Focus. This is because sometimes you get carried away. Creative people are not the most tolerant. I worked in three agencies before getting here in a space of 17 years. Some people within one year work in five agencies; that is not focus or patience. Your biggest card as creative person is your talent, so you need not jump around or you jump yourself out of reckoning
What advice do you have for young people who put money in front instead of acquiring education
Alex Akinyele, for Sports Minister, once said to athletes that no matter how fast you run, you must go back to school; a graduate runs like a graduate, an illiterate runs like an illiterate. It means a lot. Even in the music industry, what happens when the ovation dies down (no pun intended); education becomes your fall back.
Can you rate the entertainment industry
Without any help from government of corporate body, a group of people just took over the world. Check out Whizkids latest concert; he’s more like shut down everywhere. The same with Davido. Some people once protested against the playing of Nigerian music in their local stations; that’s how powerful Nigerian music has become. But we are not perfect yet, there is room for corrections.
The same with Nollywood
Yes, but it is going through a kind of curve; peak, fall and grow again. Someone like Kunle Afolayan has really up his game.
You were at an SME event recently, why did you attend
SME is the hub of the economy, and we need to support it. More so, I get invitation to speak at various for a on matters of entrepreneurship, and I am always glad to do so. I will be in New York soon on related event.
Any draw backs in your works so far
Well, the draw backs lie in the way the economy is at the moment, which every businessman is facing, especially as regards the exchange rate. Everywhere there is a challenge, but we can’t let challenges surmount us; that’s what make Nigeria unique today.
Can you say you have arrived
I don’t think so. The only time you arrive is when you are dead. Every day is work, constant thinking, and new innovation. Once you stop innovating, you are forgotten.
Compare this government with the many before it
I don’t think this government has done anything worth comparing; they just started. Based on the level of degradation they met with past administrations, it will take time. We just pray that they succeed.
Is Saraki’s trial based on witch hunting
It is difficult, but then someone needs to answer for what they are accusing him
Where do see X3M in another three years
In another three years, it is either we have become a continental force, or at the worse case scenario a regional force.
Which advert firm do you look up to
Anyone with the same culture as us as in being creatively fresh.