I am afraid of how I’ll look like if I cut my dreads —Steve Babaeko
Managing Director, X3M Ideas, Steve Babaeko through diligence, determination and providence has worked his way up the ladder in a very competitive advertising industry in more than 20 years. But the man who says he loves to play hard and work harder does not seem to be tired of success. He took SEGUN ADEBAYO down the memory lane in this interview.
You had lived in Benin, Owerri, Kaba before you finally settled down in Lagos, where you now run an advertising agency that is well known all over. What comes to your mind when you look back at the journey of your life?
Like a musician once said (that) we started from the bottom, now we are here. I think it is just that experience of going through hustle and grind, starting from the beginning that always comes to mind. I see myself like a rose that grew out of the concrete. I think all those experiences of not having money or a job for the first two months of being in Lagos and sometimes, going around without food made me the man that I am today. This is why no matter what I have today, I will always keep my two feet on the ground, and I will always be a normal human being.
Coming to Lagos with practically nothing but your creative mind and staying for months without a job must have been very challenging. What did you hold on to in those rough moments?
I held on to God. I believe strongly in God even though I hardly go to church. I believe that I came to Lagos for a purpose and I was bent on fulfilling that purpose. I knew I was not going to steal or get involved in any crime. I knew I was going to make money on the old fashion way. Apart from that, there was also determination, a very strong one for that matter. I always told myself each time I looked at myself in the mirror before I leave this town without being a successful man, the bar beach will run dry and I know that is not impossible. That’s how determined I was until the opportunities started trickling in. I had my creativity with me and I knew what I needed to do was to use it. So, I was looking for an opportunity to be able to add value.
Many people call you Babaeko probably because you have been in Lagos for a long time, but it is believed that there is a different meaning to that name. Could you tell us how you came about the name?
Babaeko is the name of my grandfather. It was not actually our family name, it was his first name. Many people think it is a nickname but, it is not. In my Kaba area of Kogi State where I am from, my great grandfather was named the Obanobi. According to history, he used to have a lot of issues with the king of the area. Cases they had, mostly about land disputes always ended up in court. My great grandfather was the king’s nightmare at that time, and there was a little Customary Court that everybody used to go. There was a lawyer who used to come at a particular time of the season to come and defend the people in court. So, there was a particular season when my grandfather and the king had another dispute, but it didn’t fall within the period the lawyer normally comes. So, this time, the king was so sure that, we will try this case and probably send this man to jail. But through divine intervention, the lawyer, who was in Lagos at that time felt, like it is holiday time, that place that I usually go at a particular season, let me just go and see what was happening there. So, he arrived today, the case was supposed to be heard the next day. On the next day, he represented my great grandfather and he won the case. All these times, when the lawyer used to come, nobody cared to ask him about his name, they just called him Babaeko. On that same day he won the case, my grandfather father was born, my great grandfather decided to honour the white man with the name of Babaeko. That was the name Babaeko came to be.
So, you brought the name Babaeko from Kogi to Lagos not that you found it in Lagos?
Yes, that’s very correct. My children are the third generation of the Babaeko clan.
You have been carrying your dreads for a long time and some people believe that there is some kind of spiritual connection between your dreads and the success you have achieved in advertising and other businesses over the years. Is there any truth in this?
People like to attach all kinds of myth and stories to whatever happens, but I have always wanted to look different. I ran into an old man in the flight on my way to Nigeria from New York sometime ago and said to me that the dreads I am carrying is spiritual. But, I told him that’s not true; that I just wanted to look different. I have always felt differentiation is the key. People can’t stay the same and that’s the power of creation. If you look at God, He could have made everybody look the same in shape and colour, but He chose to make us look different. I think since I have been carrying my dreads, it is almost next to impossible for you to see me once and not remember me the next day.
Will you do away with them one day?
Yes, one day, I will cut them off.
Maybe, when you mark your 50th birthday?
It might actually come before then. I think I am nearing that time when you will not see the dreads on me again. I am getting tired. It is just that I am afraid to see what I will look like when the dreads finally go away.
What does it cost you to keep them in shape?
Funny enough, I have not even gone to the saloon to relock them. I have not just had the time. I think the older I got, the more impatient I became. I just use shampoo to wash it. I take care of it myself.
Let’s talk about your agency, X3M IDEAS, what were you thinking when you wanted to come up with that coinage?
You know in the Yoruba culture, name is very important. How you want your child to become is the kind of name you give to them. I tell people that I taught myself how to speak and write Yoruba. So, when we were looking for a name, according to my sister, she said I came out of the rest room and I kept shouting the name of the company is going to be extreme. I must have been in so much thought because that name puts us under pressure all the time and we have to live up to that name. You can’t say your name is X3M IDEAS and you can’t live up to that name. So, we are forced to live up to our name in everything we do.
Talking about challenges, the country, in the last two years has been battling to come out of a severe economic hardship and we have seen a couple of companies go down as a result of paucity of funds to keep their brands afloat. In fact, I learnt that many advertising agencies in Nigeria are only surviving not thriving. How have you been able to keep your head above water?
It has been rough for everyone. We are not operating outside the macro-economy, whatever is happening in Nigeria affects every entrepreneur. If it is affecting your clients that bring the job to you, it will affect you too. Again, sometimes, you pray for the wisdom to be able to think ahead of others, which is why we have been able to weather the storm. The truth is that, the storm will go away because it is in times of challenges that the best moments come to play. Amidst this entire storm, there is good news around. I was reading in a newspaper recently that traders in Aba have made over N1.5 billion this year. That’s fantastic. If we didn’t go through the economic trial that we have faced as a country, most people will still be importing those Gucci shoes but because of the situation we are in, we are forced to patronise our local products. If we can make that a perpetual habit when we come out the woods economically, it will make the country a good place.
You must have had fears when you were starting out, how did you conquer it?
Yes, I had fears, but for me, fear is not a bad thing because it can serve as a fuel that will propel you to greatness. I was so afraid because I didn’t want to fail. The fear of failure was the thing that kept me going. I didn’t even want to think about impossibilities. I didn’t want to hear you say something is not possible. It was so bad that by 2012 when we started, it was the end of 2013 that I realised that we have done over a year. We had a couple of opportunities, as a few accounts came in because if you didn’t get those initial breaks, the job could have collapsed but I had a solid and committed team that understood the vision.
When did the idea of floating a music label come into the picture?
I think the idea is in two folds. The first fold was in 1985, I met some young men, who just came down to Kaba in Kogi State. I had just finished my secondary school then, so they wanted us to form this musical group called the Music Army. They sold the idea to me and I felt like, this is brilliant. So, we started rehearsing and we spent time listening to music. So, one day my mum called me and said she would give me two minutes to think about something. She asked me to look at anybody at my father and mother’s side that is into music. I said there was no one. She said if there is no one, she forbade me as from that day to make any attempt at music. At that time, I felt bad but if you look at it now, I think she did this country a favour. I can’t sing and I would have forced myself to be a musician. The second fold was when I finally came to Lagos; I met Dede Mabiaku, who at that time, was Fela Anikulapo’s manager. At that time, Fela had just passed; Dede now had to move out of Kalakuta. So, one day, he came to our office where I was working and said he had just fallen out with his manager, he looked to me and said, ‘you will be my manager’. I told him I knew nothing about management, then he said don’t worry, you will like it. That was how I became his manager for two years. That exposed me to the music industry, where I discovered that the need to discover talents and help them maximise their potentials, which was what led me into X3M Music. It is either you get there before the world or you meet the world there and do something different to take it further. It is always about identifying gaps, opportunities and adding value. Always do the value analysis of any enterprise and identify the gap, you will be successful. The experience has been fantastic for me over the years, because I love advertising but it is a high pressure job. So, when I do the advertising job and I am really pressured and I want to calm down, I listen to what my talents are cooking. So, it is very complementing. And, let me tell you, when you are talking about communication, you need music. If I am able to bring good music proposition to my clients all the time because of the inroad that I have in the music industry, I am adding value to my clients’ business. So, if you look at it, whichever way you throw the coin, we still win.
Your dad served in the Army; why were you not enlisted in the Nigerian Army?
I never fancied the army. Till tomorrow, I like the army from afar but I didn’t want to join the army because my dad served the Nigerian Army all his life. I wanted to carve a different niche for myself. But, I borrowed a lot of discipline from the army; keeping to time is one of them. That discipline of the army stays with me.
With the success of your brand in advertising, will it be right to say you are still struggling?
In life, you never truly arrive. The day you arrive, you are six feet under the ground. The richest man in Africa wants to become the richest in two continents. The richest man in two continents wants to be the richest in the world. The richest in the world will still want to become something else. Yes, we are successful as a brand. I tell my people, I live a life of permanent discontent, not in a negative sense though. The fact is that there is nothing you do now that has not been achieved before. Somebody said, when I meet God, I want to meet him empty. Every potential He had put in me, I have emptied before I return to my Creator. To say you are content or happy with anything is neither here nor there. As long as you have life, you still have the potential to do more. The talent we have in X3M means the world to us in this place, but that doesn’t mean we are slowing down.
People say you love to play and party hard, but you have managed to stay afloat for years. What have you been getting right?
Yes, I play hard but I work harder. If you work here, you will know that everybody calls me Steve. I am like the oldest in this place but then they all call me Steve. We tell them to check their ego at the door before they come here. Secondly, we want to play without losing focus. One day, we celebrated our anniversary, which we do every year. We had a party on the Island and we were still dancing till about 5:00 a.m. and work resumes 8:30 a.m. I got to my room at around 5:00 a.m. and I didn’t even bother to sleep, I just waited till 7:00 a.m., hit the shower, get dressed and by 8:10 in the morning, I was already on my seat. Anybody that came in 8:32 a.m. got a memo. If you can’t stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen. We can’t play to the extent that we now lose our focus. I like to party hard and I like to work hard.
You are a successful businessman and you seem to be very close to your people back at home. Will you go back home one day to test your weight in politics?
I won’t rule it out and I won’t rule it in either. Quite frankly, if you look at what’s happening in my state now, it is quite disturbing. We have one of the top politicians in the Senate and the governor are at logger heads; salaries have not been paid to workers in 15 months. My heart bleeds anytime I go home and I see our people in that poor condition of living. I mean, we are Kogi and we deserve to have the best. Well, for me, politics is not something on the card for me. I believe that I will do fine as an entrepreneur. I don’t know what can happen later but for now, I don’t see myself going into politics.
What would you regard as your greatest asset?
I will say my family. My wife and the three boys have been my backbone. I don’t think I would have achieved anything meaningful without them. I thank my wife for being there. She has been very wonderful.