Inside Steve Babaeko’s plans to duplicate X3M Ideas’ success across the globe

STEVE BABAEKO is the founder and CEO of X3M Ideas, a pan-African creative advertising agency. To mark its 10th year in business, Babaeko spoke with BusinessDay’s BUNMI BAILEY, sharing insights on how the company, despite all odds, became one of Africa’s biggest with footprints across the continent. Excerpts:

Looking back at your journey, what was the inspiration when you started?

Honestly, I won’t say I ever had a dream to start a business or to become an entrepreneur. I started my career as a copywriter and still consider myself as one because you never retire from it. I am a creative person, even till now.

I was just excited about creating exciting communication for all the various brands that I’ve had the privilege to work for. But at some point, after I turned 40, I started to see life from a different lens. I said to myself, look, you have accomplished a lot in your career as a creative director, and you are known in Nigeria and maybe the rest of Africa. So, what’s next?

That question is what drives me daily. I always challenge myself on the kind of legacy I want to leave behind. Then it occurred to me that I can take on a new project, which is to set up another agency that will think differently and combine impactful creativity with a lot of business fundamentals that will help us drive value for brands and stakeholders.

I felt we could operate this advertising business through the adoption of unique models. For instance, how do we borrow into pop culture? How are we able to compellingly tell local stories?

When you had this vision in 2012, you likely had a set of goals that you set out to accomplish. Ten years down the line, have you been able to achieve or maybe surpass all of them?

At our first meeting, we had our first five-year plan. Our company plan is usually structured to project five years ahead. We do a holistic plan that identifies the milestones that we aim to accomplish.

Part of our first five-year plan was to be able to own a purpose-built facility that will include all of the ideas we had in our head; a gym, a bar, a restaurant, and a game arcade area. And in the first three years, we were able to accomplish them.

Quote: One of the most impressive changes I have seen is that agencies like X3M Ideas are doing the bulldozing task of putting the Nigerian flag all over the continent and even across the world

Likewise, we wanted to be able to make our mark not just in Nigeria, but in other places in Africa. And in the first five years, we were able to accomplish that. We also had a revenue projection tactic that we were able to smash in the first five years, which was to build super talents and develop super campaigns for our clients. Every year, we keep proving that we are one of the strongest agencies in the country and on the continent with all the quality campaigns we keep bringing forth.

Read also: Nigeria tilts towards fresh N7trn loan as Q1’ 22 revenue disappoints

From what you have said about your goals and objectives, what is your biggest accomplishment since 2012?

Well, there is a lot to mention, but two clearly stand out for me.

The first will be the quality of the team we have built. Any military is only as strong as the quality of its troops. So, it is very important to have a very strong team and over the years, we’ve built a powerful, dedicated force with our team.

The second achievement is the impact we’ve been able to make on our clients through our ability to build strong brands for them. There may be some agencies who are obsessed with all the fluff but we measure our success based on how much impact we have made on the brands we are privileged to work with. Seeing the needle being moved on every brand that we have the privilege to touch is a great accomplishment.

Tell us about one major challenge your company has faced in the course of operations?

One of the major challenges we faced are the infrastructural challenges such as power. Another issue faced was retaining talent because of the economic situation and volatile socio-political landscape of the country. Today, because of the lack of security that young people are facing in the country, a large portion of the workforce is migrating elsewhere across the world. You could wake up today and get a notice that two of your best talents are moving to Canada, and truly, you can’t blame them. That’s the kind of situation we find ourselves in now. You have talent issues to contend with, and then the trouble of raising capital that will help you scale raises its head.

Then there are the ever-changing and inconsistent government policies. It is one way today and another tomorrow. Sometimes, you are not even sure which it is.

How do you see the African creative industry moving forward Post-Covid?

Honestly, it’s going to move northwards. There is already some upsurge in the quality of content, especially in the music and movie industries.

The creative energy coming out of the continent has taken the whole world by storm. You can imagine Wizkid shutting down the O2 arena, with tickets selling out not once but thrice. See what Burna Boy, Davido and all other creative African stars are doing globally. It’s a powerful movement.

And that is only a strand of African creativity that you are witnessing. Now that the world is paying attention, the next great stories that will be told in the world such as music, cinematography, fashion etc. will probably come out of this continent.

What are the biggest changes you’ve seen over the last decade in the industry?

One of the most impressive changes I have seen is that agencies like X3M Ideas are doing the bulldozing task of putting the Nigerian flag all over the continent and even across the world.

That’s a major feat because before now, only global agencies would come to establish businesses in Africa and many of them failed as they couldn’t deal with the peculiarities of doing business here. Now, you find an agency like ours, throwing our hats in the ring and going out to do the dirty job. We are proud of the bravery that has taken us to the frontline to establish a name on the continent.

Also, in global awards now, we are witnessing a lot of participation from the continent with African agencies winning big. And you can see success stories of brilliant entrepreneurship coming out of the continent as well.

I am proud of the resurgence that we see today in the African creative space. These incredible wins are despite the challenges of doing business on the continent.

In 2018, you announced X3M Ideas’ expansion to Southern Africa. How has that operation thrived so far?

Any business-minded person in the creative space must know when to expand and look for opportunities in new markets, and this is what we have done.

For us, that meant entering South and Central African markets through Johannesburg and Lusaka. Zambia has been a fantastic experience. It was quite a challenge at first, but the Zambian operation is about three to four years old now and I am proud of the work that is going on there, it’s amazing.

The team over there is getting proper recognition for providing top-class services. I get to visit the office a couple of times a year, it’s always a good opportunity to escape Lagos traffic and play good golf in Lusaka.

Through the operation in Lusaka, we are able to serve other southern African markets including the Portuguese-speaking Mozambique market, as well as Zimbabwe and Malawi.

Are there plans to expand into new markets in Africa?

Yes, definitely. We are set to roll out in about three new markets but we will be making a formal announcement in the next couple of weeks. We will keep expanding.

We can see all the good that your company has done for schools. Why is education so important in terms of CSR for X3M Ideas?

The answer to this is simple. You cannot build a thriving economy or country without making education the bedrock. To develop a nation, you must be able to educate the teeming youth populace.

We’re blessed in Nigeria. Compared to Europe and America, the future of global labour is projected to anchor on Africa’s shoulders because of the growing youth population. For instance, a country like Nigeria boasts about 65 percent youth population, out of a population of about 200 million. That is super impressive.

Consistently for the past 10 years, we have renovated a government school or refurbished parts of it and handed it over to the state government. Lagos has been the biggest beneficiary because we’ve done about six or seven projects like that. We have also gone as far as Chibok in Borno State to donate furniture for the school where students were kidnapped which led to the #bringbackourgirls campaign. The donation was in our bid to restart the school and jumpstart learning.