•Tells CityPeople His Agenda
Steve Baba Eko is a big name in Advertising. He is the new Association of Advertising Agencies of Nigeria (AAAN) President. He is eminently qualified. He has paid his dues, from his days as a young copywriter at MC&A to his subsequent job at Prima Garnet & 141 Worldwide and his eventual decision to set up X3m Ideas.
He recently celebrated 25 years in the Advertising profession. The popular Advertising copywriter has become a big player in the industry. He is the CEO of X3M (pronounced Extreme) Ideas Group, which he founded in 2012. X3M Ideas Group remains the yardstick for a new generation of creative entrepreneurs.
Steve is an unusual type of person. He likes to run against the grain. He likes breaking new grounds. He was our guest recently on City People TV Instagram Live Chat and he told us his plans for the Advertising industry. “As our industry faces the uncertainties of working in the so-called New Normal, I have a few ideas on how we can improve our association like Make LAIF Better, Empower More Women, Make Agencies Unite, Make APCON work for us, Build a World-Class academy, & Make AAAN more visible. Below are excerpts of the Live Chat.
Congratulations on all fronts. And I also know that you’re also celebrating your twenty-five years in the Advertising industry…
Thank you sir, it’s so surreal. It all still looks like a dream to me because just yesterday I was just this skinny twenty-four-year-old boy running around the streets of Lagos and now we’ve been in this business for twenty-five years.
So, how has it been settling down as the new AAAN President?
Being the president of AAAN is like a dream come true for me really. In this business, that’s like the pinnacle of your advertising career really. It’s like being a Catholic and you become the Pope. I mean, this is the same seat that giants like Mr. Biodun Shobanjo, Mr. Steve Omojafor, Mrs. Bola Thomas, these are the great people who have sat on this seat before. And now, to just have the privilege to be mentioned in the same breath with these great icons is amazing.
So, what’s your agenda for the organization?
Well, for my agenda, in my campaign we actually did set up a website where we actually sort of crowdsource ideas from people, especially people within the marketing telecoms industry to go there and contribute ideas. Shout out to everybody that went to that website to contribute their ideas, we’re going through them now one by one so that we begin to implement. For me, I ran on five corner pieces for my campaign, I don’t want to use the word Agenda before I begin to sound like a politician. One is to foster unity in the industry. Advertising is a very competitive sport, a very competitive business. Its either you’re butting heads in terms of recruiting the same talents or butting heads in terms of fighting for the same clients. Somehow, you guys will cross paths and its usually not a pleasant experience. I think that most of the time, we’ve been so locked up in that competitive zone that we forget to even co-operate with each other. So, what I’m trying to do is to tell us, let us all back off a little bit and try to synergize all our efforts and see where we’re not competing, how can we co-operate with each other, that’s number one. Number two is the issue of APCON. As you may be aware, sir, the APCON council has been vacant for about five years now and I had the privilege of meeting with the honourable minister for Information, Alhaji Lai Mohammed shortly before the lockdown and he gave his word that they’re going to make sure that chairman of APCON is elected and the council is put in place. So, I’m using this medium to plead again for him to use his good office to make sure they expedite action on that. So, we’ll have to work closely with APCON to make sure that all of the other guys from the outside trying to come into this business without the proper certification are checked and stopped at the gate. Advertising is a profession, it’s just the same way you cannot wake up one morning and say you want to start operating on people, the same way you cannot just buy a wig in the market and say you want to go to court and represent people, it’s the same way you cannot open up shop one, morning and say I want to start practicing Advertising. According to the APCON Code, you can actually be arrested for practicing illegally. There are certain certificates you must-have, so we want the council to be put in place so we can begin to implement all of those issues. Thirdly, which is also very heavy on my heart is the issue of Women. I want to see, in my tenure, an increase in the number of women who own their agencies. I will be very happy. And I’ve noticed that throughout my career, what I’ve seen is that, in that formative stage of joining the business, there are lots of women, but as you begin to move up the ladder, women start to drop off. That gives me a lot of concern because that is one sector of our industry where we are not able to tap into all of the very brilliant ideas that women are able to bring to the table. So, I want to see that happen. Again, just to see more youth participation. So, all of these areas are the key things where we’re pushing hard to drive and make sure that it happens.
You also lead a new generation of creative entrepreneurs in the industry, how has that panned out and how effective has that been since you moved in?
Thank you, sir, that’s a pretty good question because when I started my career in 1995, I don’t know where that philosophy emerged from where people now started saying, you cannot trust a creative person to run an advertising agency because creative people are not business people. As a matter of fact, one of the reasons that made us set up X3MIdeas was to debunk that very wrong theory. So, with X3M, with Noah’s Ark and even with agencies like SO&U, because people may forget that Mr. Udeme Ufot was actually an Ad director at the beginning of his career. So, all of the agencies have shown clearly that you can be a creative person and run a fantastic business. I feel privileged to be one of the leading lights of creative entrepreneurship in this country and I will always encourage young people that if you have a business placed upon your heart, please go for it. Don’t let people fool you into thinking, oh, you’re a creative, you can’t be a good businessman, it’s a lie.
How do people react when they hear your name, what’s usually the reaction that you get from time to time?
Well, growing up, I really did not like that name. I mean, you’re in primary school and high school, your friends would tease you a lot with that name, but now I won’t give up that name for the whole gold in the world. I think it’s a conversation starter. Most people naturally assume that I’m from Lagos state and nothing is further from the truth than that because I’m actually from Kabba in Kogi state. So they ask, then how come, it must be a nickname. So, I have to now go and share the story of how my great grandfather gave the name to my grandfather and how it has become a family name and how my children are the first generation of Baba Ekos. I love the name, it makes me stand out from the crowd. I always crack a joke that Sanwo-Olu, the governor of Lagos state is probably the real Baba Eko for now. Maybe when I’m standing with the governor of Lagos state I will to let him bear that name for like a few seconds.
When you came up with the name of your agency, what did you also have in mind?
Really, if I look at my personality, I’ve always been a man of a little bit of extremities, but not in a negative way. Anything and everything I try to do, I give a hundred and fifty percent. For me, there are no middle grounds, its either I’m doing it and I’m doing it completely or I’m not doing it at all. Naturally, you want a name that every day you wake up, you have to live up to that name. So, it’s a name that I found very inspiring for myself and my team because if you call yourself X3M Ideas and you go to a presentation before a client and you’re giving the client some wishy-washy ideas, you will leave that place very embarrassed. So, every day before we go for any client presentation, we ask ourselves, are these ideas extreme enough? It’s a name that inspires us to continue to strive for excellence every day.
I have also noticed that even in your dressing, you’re always slightly different, what explains that?
Well, I think that basically, if you’ve carried the kind of dreadlocked that I’ve carried for God knows how long now…
How long have you carried it?
I think its fifteen, maybe going to twenty years now. And if you carry this hair, it’s incumbent upon you to make sure you really dress very nicely because you don’t know when Lagos state government will say they should go and pack people who are roaming the streets (laughs). So, if you carry this type of hair and you’re dressed shabbily as well, they might just mistakenly pick you up and throw you in the truck. I always want to create a contrast between my hairstyle and what I wear. I’m not usually over the top but I just want to look great. I want to step up. They say dress the way you want to be addressed, right? So, I always want to dress and look great, representing my profession and representing the office that I occupy as well.
Looking at the advertising industry, it’s gone through a lot of phases and all that, so at what point would you say the industry has gotten to right now?
I think the industry is at a crossroads. There are so many headwinds that are pushing against the industry right now and frankly, it’s not an isolated case. If you look at the global macroeconomy, as a matter of fact, you’ll see that, with Covid-19, almost every country is struggling. Almighty Germany is about to go into recession. The United States’ unemployment figures have shot up to millions. Let’s not even talk about Nigeria because you know that if gold is rusting then iron is finished. Now, as all of these things are happening, the advertising industry is situated within this macroeconomy, right? Now, the clients are cutting budgets, all of a sudden, because of this Covid-19, their entire supply team is totally disrupted. So, its not even a case of they don’t have money, if they have to import and distribute, all of that lockdown period, you couldn’t import anything. And even if you could import, the whole distribution chain is shut down, everybody had to sit in their houses. All of that has made clients to cut budget, so advertising is really in a place where we’re gonna witness the next revolution. I don’t think advertising is ever going to go under or die, but we’re pressed now to reinvent ourselves and be more cutting edge using technology and other new forms of techniques.
So, what you’re saying is that the Covid-19 pandemic really affected the advertising industry?
It did. Let’s not look at advertising at the creative and the strategy side alone, let’s look at it holistically. Look at the out of home, the outdoor sector of the economy. In those three months of lockdown, if you put any message on outdoor who is going to see it? People will have to go out first to see your message, so anything out of home was really badly affected so we’re regrouping. For the guys who are into experiential and event marketing, of course, they were affected as well because Lagos state says not more than ten people can gather in a place, so what event are you having? So, if you look at it, it’s touched all of the facets of our industry but I know we will pass through this. We will regroup and we will be stronger.
While a lot of people call the industry advertising industry, some also call it Marketing Communications industry. How do the two fuse into one?
I think it’s like saying six and half a dozen to be honest. It’s just that as human beings we like to compartmentalize things and drop new nomenclature to describe some old phenomenon. There’s a school of thought that will argue that advertising is so old, so ancient it does not quickly capture what the industry does in the process of brand building. So marketing communications is more all-encompassing and broader which will include digital and the whole stuff that are emerging today. But for all intents and purposes, I think its one and the same. For people who want marketing communications, they really want to sound very hip and very academic about it.
At the time you started out in 1995, were you not scared of how challenging it would be to break into that sector and then carve your own niche?
Well, for me, all I wanted was to get in there and showcase what I had to offer. It’s like a boxer who has been training and preparing for a fight, you just want to get in there and show what you can bring to the table. I mean, coming all the way from Kaduna to Lagos when I relocated in 1995, I just couldn’t wait to get a job. I just wanted to go to an agency and prove to the whole world and to myself especially that I could really do this job. So, I wasn’t scared at all. And in my heart, I knew and felt it that all I needed was the opportunity to show what I can do and I knew I was going to hit it out of the pack. Today, I feel very privileged. Shout to Mr. Victor Johnson. He gave me my first job and I resumed September 1, 1995. I still owe him a lot.
At what point did you now leave to set up your own?
You know, there’s a process to this thing. Like I tell young people, garner all the experiences you can before you jump in and out of there. It’s a jungle out there. I spent five years with MC&A and then in 2000 I left MC&A and went to Prima Garnet with Mr. Akinwunmi and I joined them as a Deputy Manager which was the only vacant position in the company at the time, but I actually left MC&A as a Group Head but I took the position because I really wanted to go to Prima Garnet. And after spending five years in Prima Garnet, in 2005, Mr. Akinwunmi had this brilliant idea to set up One for One Worldwide, another smaller young but vibrant agency. They are now called Nitro 121, still a great agency. He moved me there as Creative Director and I spent seven years there. In 2012, I don’t know what my wife put in my tea and I just decided to go set up my own agency. So, on August 1st, 2012, we set up X3M Ideas. Its been a fantastic journey since then.
At the end of the day, what sort of person is Steve Baba Eko?
Sometimes, I should ask myself this question because honestly, I think it depends on what mode you catch me in. Some people will say this guy is so harsh. On the job, I’m like a Gestapo, I just want to work. Shout out to all my team. They know I push hard, I really push hard. I want Excellence. Ninety-Nine point nine percent is never good enough, I’m always pushing for the next level. But, on the other hand, if everything is just going well, the job is going well and the clients are happy, of course, I’m one of the most fun-loving guys in the world. I can really kick up a party and really relax and have fun. At the end of the day, I think I could swing both ways, depending on the situation. Shout out to Mosun!!
What happened to the music side of your business?
It’s still there. I think what we’re going to see going forward with music is, if you look at dynamics of music in Nigeria, you begin to see that, as it stands now, music too is going through its own peculiar evolution in the whole scheme of all of the things that’s been happening around us lately. It does not make any economic sense to sign an artiste and begin to push and put like N100m on an artiste just to break a talent. I don’t see any future in there because, don’t forget that, at the same time, these talents, once they become successful they feel they don’t need a label anymore. They will move on to go set up their own label. I think what we’re going to do is, we’ll still do business around music, we’ll do a lot more consulting for clients around music-related issues but I don’t look forward to signing a new talent soon because it’s just too much stress, believe me.
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