Life lessons from Steve Babaeko at 50, by Ayeni Adekunle
I was driving on the third mainland bridge in Lagos when his call came in.
‘Ayeni, I’m not happy with how the work for X3M Music is going, and I’m beginning to think you guys are not giving us the kind of attention we need…’
Steve Babaeko, the advertising executive and music entrepreneur who was one of the first to believe in my little PR agency, was upset. But he was calm. He picked his words carefully, almost as if he had rehearsed the call many times over. He wanted to pass his message across as strongly as possible without being unprofessional.
And I got the message.
Not one to give excuses, I apologised, took responsibility, and assured him he’d never have cause to complain again.
The year was 2009.
Our relationship has since grown in many ways, from the first time I met him at Prima Garnet, having gone to seek his help on the advice of my friend Jubal Dati. Story for another day.
As he clocks 50 today, I thought I’d share some of the most important lessons I’ve picked from him, that you may want to consider, if you’re not already applying them.
1. Take no prisoners: The story of how he supported himself through school, found his way to Lagos, walked the entire city looking for help, knocked and tore down doors until he got one foot in, needs to be told more. And no Nigerian copywriter living or dead has accomplished what he has, in rising through the ranks of a major agency, setting up on his own, climbing to top three in less than a decade; and then internationalising as if it was a walk in the park. Steve does not stop, does not settle; and will give all it takes to do what must be done. Something tells me he believes he’s fighting a war. And if you read his story carefully, you’ll understand why.
2. Dream big: When he was setting up X3M, I remember telling him to not go all out with the office, since it was a new business and they were renting the place. We joke about it now; about how he didnt even argue, because he knew he was going to do the exact opposite of what I’d advised. Whether he’s planning events or setting up a new company; or even creating ideas, he sets out hoping to accomplish what’s hitherto been thought impossible. And I think it’s paid off really well.
3. Diversify: I learnt a long time ago that it’s dangerous to count other people’s money for them. You know, looking at their perceived success, based on the parts they expose to us, and thinking ‘oh, this must be how they’re making it; I’m going to try it too. Afterall, what makes them more qualified to do it than I am?’.
Many imagine creating and designing some of the best creative concepts in the market is solely what turned X3M into a commercial success therefore making its owner rich.
The formula, as far as I know, is understanding the entire value chain and diversifying enough to play strongly. There are core fields, there are allied fields, and there are related fields. Those who succeed the most are those who, after getting a foot (or their entire bodies in), understand what parts of that ecosystem they can add value to, and what kinds of value they can extract. In the case of Steve, he’s sold you on X3M Ideas, but he’s built Media 101 which no one ever hears of or talks about despite it doing excellently well; he’s built Zero Degrees, and he’s now planning to play big in sectors not even related to advertising.
4. Be young: I don’t know if or when he’ll eventually cut his locs, but his hair, his wardrobe, and generally pop persona continue to refresh his brand in such a way that makes people think he’s much younger than he is. He even sags. Now this will not work for everyone. But I think in an industry that requires that you’re trendy and cool and on top of everything urbane and avant-garde, it’s important to be able to not just look and act young, but to be able to connect with youth. Advertising needs it. But life itself will compensate you if you find a way to keep fit, stylish, and in form even as you age.
5. Be Humble: You don’t have to diminish yourself to make others feel better about themselves, or suffer fools gladly with the hope of being thought nice. But there’s something about respect for others irrespective of class or status that demonstrates a deep understanding of how life works. I learnt from Steve that you can live your best life; be yourself, and exist on your own terms without being arrogant, full of pride or disrespectful – especially to those one might consider of less means.
6. Family is everything: First your parents and siblings; then your spouse and your kids. Nothing is more important. And Steve uses every opportunity – a pitch session, an Instagram post, a newspaper interview; anything within his means to show you he puts family first. And it was he (and my other friend Chris Ihidero) who first showed me many years ago that husbands can be intentional about parenting and about domestic role sorting with their wives.
7. Draw boundaries: In relationships, business or personal, people often fail to define the rules of engagement; of what’s acceptable or not, that more often than not, things end up in chaos and an otherwise promising friendship is destroyed. The beauty of Steve’s personality is not just having so many ‘friends’, knowing so many people, or interacting with plenty professionally; it is that he’s able to articulate deal breakers in a way that everyone’s clear about where the lines are.
8. Make money: Oh well, I wish I’d learned this on time. Steve believes in working hard, but he also unapologetically believes in getting paid in full. It’s actually possible to follow your passion and still focus on extracting the kind of value that can make sure your unborn generations never have to go through what you went through. In an industry where too many creatives bury their heads in the work, only realising when it’s too late that money matters, Steve provides a good case study in prioritising income as well as passion. Don’t let anyone tell you it’s a zero-sum game.
9. Be disciplined: The older you get, and the more successful you become, the easier it will be for you to think you can get away with anything. It’s what’s led so many important people into trouble. Because, actually, the older you get, and the more successful you become, the more disciplined you will have to be. And it’s not just always the big stuff. It’s the basic things like being punctual. Keeping required routines, or even staying fit. Steve started an alcohol fast many years ago, staying off liquor From December 31st to May 31 every year. And this year, he’s determined not to taste a drop of alcohol. Why? He’s trying to keep fit and healthy. For someone who loves his spirits, you must realise what that kind of fast means.
Steve clocks 50 today, June 1, 2021. His life has been a miracle, but it only looks like that because he’s been intentional about so many things. He’ll be the first to tell you about where he’s coming from, and why he’s never going back there. And I think that’s perhaps the most important lesson of all: understanding your circumstance and determining, all other things being equal, to not let it stop you.
That’s where greatness comes from, and Steve is well on his way to achieving that greatness we all dream of. Can’t imagine anything stopping him.