Steve Babaeko: How One Of Africa’s Biggest Advertising Executives Is Charting A New Path In Nigeria’
Updated: Aug 25, 2021
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He had only established his advertising company four years earlier, in August of 2012. Still, he had been a legend long before that, working as the creative director at 141 Worldwide. At the time, I didn’t know him as anything other than an advertising genius. I knew his label X3M Music and some of his acts – Praiz and Simi. I was a serious fan of Simi, who he signed back in 2014, but it never quite hit me that X3M Music and X3M Ideas were in any way connected. I reckon a few people were and probably are still as clueless as I was. Eventually, I realised that this ad man I idolised was more than just a business executive. He was also a man with his finger on the pulse of Nigerian entertainment. What little adoration I felt before multiplied.
Soon, this man who many in the media and business look up to would be turning 50, and I want all eyes to be on him. To see him in the entirety of who he is – not only as the chairman of X3M Group, home to X3M Ideas, X3M Music, Zero Degrees Productions, and Media 100 Limited; but as Steve Babaeko the music lover. The man whose first foray into music began as a young 14-year-old in the small town of Kabba as part of a group named The Music Army. The man who helped produce some of the finest talents in the country right now and who continues to make things happen with sheer guts and determination.
At only ten years old, he realised how poor his family that lived in a room somewhere in Kaduna were. He told Forbes in a 2019 interview that, “I was only 10 years old when I realised, for the first time in my life, that my family was acutely poor.”
Yet, he never let that realisation stop him from dreaming big and working hard. His determination to make it led him to Ahmadu Bello University after getting his A-Levels from the Federal School of Arts and Science, Suleja. There, he studied Theatre Arts and came out top of his class. Then he worked at the Nigerian Television Authority (NTA) in Kano state during his compulsory NYSC year. While he was a corp member, Babaeko decided that he had to move to Lagos to have a fighting chance to achieve his dreams.
This is the story of a man who built one of Nigeria’s finest music labels while simultaneously creating one of Africa’s most prestigious advertising firms. This is the story of Steve Babaeko, the man, the legend at 50.
When Babaeko first came to Lagos, he had no idea where he’d live. He had only N500 to his name. He squatted in a small room at Durban hotel, now Golden Tulip, with a chef, for two years while trying to find his way. He finally secured his first job two months after he arrived in Lagos as a copywriter. With barely any formal advertising training and experience, Babaeko took on his career at MC&A with such diligence he quickly became one of the agency’s best hands.
His boss at the time, Victor O. Johnson, revealed in 2012 that even though he only gave Babaeko a job on impulse, he was never disappointed. He said, “Mercifully, my nose did not disappoint me, neither did Steve fall. He gave a good account of himself, demonstrating a surprising knowledge level way above his station. I patted myself on the back but with a sneaky feeling that this Babaeko is a strange one. He took the job like a fish to water, not like the greenhorn or a wet-behind-the ear rookie he was and never looked back. He was always coming up with fresh and brilliant ideas. One of which, together with a senior writer, Paul Ugoagwu, gave us the Texaco business in a fiercely contested pitch that featured three largest-billing Agencies.”
Babaeko moved to Prima Garnet Ogilvy after MC&A, where he met Yetunde Ayeni-Babaeko, his wife and one of Nigeria’s leading photographers, in 2004. Recalling how he met Yetunde, Babaeko said, “She worked 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.’ 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.”
They soon got married in 2006 after the most romantic proposal in Germany, where Yetunde Babaeko grew up. They now have three boys – Louis, Lamar, and Austin. When Babaeko turned 40 in 2011, Yetunde shared, “It is his first-round birthday that I am celebrating with him since I met him when he was just 33 years old. Then, also about 33 pounds lighter and stunningly handsome, he conquered me. His focused mind, his ambition, his humour and disarming charm attracted me immediately”.
He moved to 141 Worldwide in 2005 as Creative Director. While he was leading the team in 2008, he got the opportunity to pitch his ideas to Premier Records, but things didn’t turn out the way he hoped. However, his romance with music didn’t just start that year.
As a 14-year-old, he tried to set up a band with his friends, something he calls a misadventure, but his mom stopped his musical journey in its tracks. He told Netng, “my mum was not having it because there was one day she called me and said, ‘sit down’. She wants to ask me a question, and she wants me to think carefully. She said, ‘look at your father’s side, everybody on your father’s side’; I said yeah. She said, ‘how many musicians do you know there?’ I said none. She said, ‘look at my own family, how many musicians do you know?’ I said none. She said, ‘so you are not going to be a musician’. But I think she did us a national service. She deserves a national honour for that because I’m sure I can’t sing to save my life, so I don’t even know what I was doing at the time”.
He didn’t do much with music again until he met Dede Mabiaku in 1997. This was around the time iconic Afrobeat legend Fela Kuti died. Mabiaku gave Babaeko his first taste of music management in 1998 when he asked him to be his manager. Babaeko knew nothing about the job, but he opted to learn, and he did that quickly.
Babaeko says that the opportunity showed him all of the gaps that existed in Nigerian music management, structure, distribution, and all of those things.” One day, he (Mabiaku) just drove to the office, and he was in a foul mood, and I asked, ‘bros wetin happen?’ And he said that he had parted ways with his manager. I was like, ‘wow! That’s serious. So what are you going to do now?’ He just looked at me and said, you’ll start managing me”. “I was like, I don’t know two flying monkeys about music. He just told me you’ll learn, and that’s it. And I think in managing Dede Mabiaku from around ’98 to 2000, I really really learned a lot. I think that really threw me in the deep waters of where music happens in Lagos, and I met almost all the players”.