If you’re in marketing or advertising, you may know David Baldwin as:
- co-founder of Baldwin&, AdAge‘s Small Agency of the Year,
- a long-time McKinney veteran, or
- producer of the Emmy-winning movie Art & Copy.
Earlier this month, I interviewed David at Baldwin&’s office in Raleigh, NC. As someone who loves studying how marketing agencies work, I especially enjoyed hearing David’s perspective on:
- why creative firms need great offices to do great work
- why his approach is “we need it great; we don’t need it ‘by Tuesday‘”
- how it’s easy to say “No” to clients that don’t fit the agency
- why entrepreneurs should be “walking around as if“
My questions and David’s answers follow, in what also happens to be my 18th interview and 150th blog post at KarlSakas.com.
KARL SAKAS: Every advertising and marketing agency is different in its own way, but to prospective clients, agencies are often indistinguishable. How can agencies distinguish themselves in a meaningful way?
DAVID BALDWIN: You’re getting to one of the fundamental points in this industry. Everyone says they’re different and no one is. At the end of the day, we all produce ideas that produce some kind of result. Some agencies have a trademarked process and some agencies have their philosophy for what they do. But honestly, I don’t think there’s a difference between many of them, other than the output of their work. The way we look at it is the output of their work.
Agencies have a set of values, good or not. The worst agency in the world talks about their creativity, and so does the best agency. But the reality is, you either have a creative environment or you don’t. That means having an environment that’s open to creativity, celebrating creativity in a way that’s not fear-based. Many environments are actually based around fear.
Look at an agency’s work. That’s how you know. We’ve been moving our goalpost ever since we started, but we’ve never changed our values.
KS: During the latest AIGA Raleigh studio tour, people kept talking about Baldwin&’s unique office. For creative agencies, what about a great space makes it worth the cost premium over sticking the team in suburban office park cubicles?
DB: [For creative agency offices,] I think everything’s about energy. A great space gives energy back. It becomes an echo chamber of energy. (Tweet this!)
I want people to look forward to coming into the office. People work hard. There’s a lot of stress. They’re told their ideas are shitty by everyone all day. Create a safe haven, where people really enjoy working.
You’ve been to McKinney’s space? I was part of the group that designed that. It was important to create an environment that’s exceptional, beyond just doing the job. Create an identity around energy and fun.
KS: You helped produce the Emmy-winning documentary Art & Copy on the history of advertising, from Bill Bernbach to today. What’s something most people may not realize about producing a movie?
DB: That was the first movie I ever worked on. I worked on another this year as well. It was way more collaborative than I ever would have thought. It was a group of people coming together.
Documentaries are a labor of love. They just are. You’ve usually got some lofty goal to change something, to change how people see the world. Because of that, you’re trying to make a difference. The group of people involved, it was a group of amazing people. Mary Warlick, Doug Pray, Greg Beauchamp, Jimmy Greenway, Kirk Souder.
Director Doug Pray had unbelievable credentials, yet no ego. He’s a Sundance darling, yet he’s the most genuine, nice guy. Doug showed how to collaborate without the need to be right. He’s astounding at it. We protected him to make the movie he wanted to make. He’s so open to feedback, amazingly collaborative feedback, that we trusted him. The film became his vision.
[As executive producers], our job was to let Doug make the film he wanted to make. Kirk and Greg came up with the idea, and brought in Doug. It’s really Doug’s film.
KS: In the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, world-renowned sushi chef Jiro Ono says a true “shokunin” (craftsman or artisan) doesn’t worry about how much money he’s making; rather, it’s about about mastering his craft. In our industry, there’s often a tension between an account manager’s view of budget and a creative’s view of what’s “good enough” for client review. As agency head, how do you reconcile that tension between business and creative?
DB: We don’t. We don’t worry about it. I think fundamentally, our belief is that great work is more efficient and solves problems quicker than bad work.
We don’t approach it as “only spend 10 hours on it.” We need it great; we don’t need it “by Tuesday.” (Tweet this!) Our point of view is not to make these decisions based on money. From [Jiro Dreams of Sushi], I love the notion of doing the work for work’s sake. Fundamentally, that’s what we do.
I had a goal of being at 32 people by next December. We could have already been there. But we’ve [declined] projects that [weren’t going to] get us where we want to be.
Do we want to get paid? Absolutely. We don’t like to do things for free. But we don’t make decisions [like that] based on money.
KS: For many agencies, their own website is often like the shoemaker’s shoeless child, neglected in favor of billable work. How can an agency sustainably tend to its own marketing?
DB: You’ve hit smack dab on the biggest issue–“physician, heal thyself.” Agencies often don’t know how to market themselves.
[At Baldwin&], we let our reputation market for us, and be as smart as possible on PR as we can. We have a person who does PR, and we have since almost day one. As much as we can, we try to get the message out. We let the work do that for us.
And [by having] quality people. The talent at this place is pretty much off the charts. And we’ve done the best we can in merchandising the work. Our first big campaign [“Find Your Burt” for Burt’s Bees] won Campaign of the Year. Our first campaign. It was a big deal.
As this is taking off, we need a more coherent [website] strategy. On day one, Bob [Ranew] and I were the two full-timers. Erin Bredemann was one of the original three. We had to quickly create the website out of nothing. We really need to change it.
KS: AdAge recently named Baldwin& the country’s top small agency. They note your goal to double the agency every year from 2009 to 2014. With such rapid growth, how do you ensure you’re hiring people who fit?
DB: That’s a very good question. We’re trying to make sure the chemistry is right. Make sure people believe the right things. When you’re 11-12 people and you hire six people in a six-week period, it’s a huge absorption of people. You’re in a bit of a careful hurry. (Tweet this!)
We haven’t recruited much. There are more people coming to us than we can process. This will be more of an issue next year, I think. If we double, it should be 32 people.
We’re trying to hit that goal. The reason is that I want to have the mass to go after bigger pieces of business. Because when this bizarre goal was written down on paper, it seemed naïve, even at the time. It was a case of “Why not; let’s try that.”
We have a lot of things written down. There’s a document I wrote in my attic, of what this company will be. And it is. I knew where I wanted to work; it didn’t exist yet. (Tweet this!)
There’s this idea I’ve stolen, the notion of “walking around as if.” Since day one, we’ve said we’re a national company. We want to do work that gets seen, that gets seen everywhere. We walked around as if.
Intentionality is a big deal. That’s how we’ve done this so far. Our intention is to be a great creative agency that operates at a national level. [When a prospective client approaches us and they’re not a national firm,] it makes the decision easy. Someone could come with $800,000 and if it’s wrong, we’d say “No.”
It’s not like we have this huge conversation where we roll the dice. We just have a conversation and decide “No.” No one’s ever wondered, “Do we take this bag of money?” Those decisions aren’t hard. There’s no existential moment. It’s the company we want to build.
KS: By now, I’m sure you’ve done many interviews in your career. What’s one question no one’s ever asked you that you wish they had? And what’s your answer?
DB: I don’t know; I’ve been asked a lot of really good questions. One of my favorite questions was on Dan Balser’s “Don’t Get Me Started” podcast. It threw me. [Note: You can download DGMS episode #90 via MP3 or from iTunes.]
The question was, “What would David Baldwin today tell David Baldwin on day 1?” I really had to think about that one.
My answer, the advice [to the 22-year old me]? “Shut up and listen.” Back then, I was young and full of piss and vinegar. I was an idiot. I needed to shut the hell up. But that’s what young people do.
It’s a question of priorities. Decide what you want to be, and be the shit out of it. (Tweet this!) That’s what I’ve done, to my detriment many times.
Question: What’s your favorite takeaway from my interview with David Baldwin? You can leave a comment by clicking here.
Karl Sakas is a marketing and business operations guy who loves finding ways to grow and optimize marketing agencies. He works at hesketh.com and lives in Raleigh, NC. This is the 18th in Karl’s regular series of interviews with marketing and business leaders.