Yes, I just wrote the title of this post in the third person. It felt awkward. But as you’ll see in the following transcript, awkward is sort of my schtick. I was recently contacted by a local North Carolina undergraduate student about an interview on account planning, the culture at Baldwin& and some questions surrounding media. And while I probably utterly confused this bright young student with my incoherent ramblings, I figured I would share our conversation in its entirety.
Q: What is your job title and what do you do?
At Baldwin&, we don’t really have official titles (backstory: every employee gets to choose their own title once they get hired, within reason of course). My business card reads “Recon Op”… which probably deserves some explanation. Right before I joined Baldwin& a few years ago, I went through this short period of reading war novels. Books like Matterhorn and In Pharoah’s Army and The Things They Carried. Stuff like that. I don’t know why, to be honest. But there was one brief passage that really stood out to me. It was describing the reconnaissance operators in Vietnam – how they were this stealthy, special unit force that would sneak into unfamiliar territory, survey the landscape and gather intelligence so that the army could then plan their next mission. There seemed to be, to me at least, some interesting parallels to the function of strategic planning in ad agencies. It’s the mentality to always be observing the stuff around you and piecing all that information together in a way that leads toward a successful path forward. Granted, it’s much less glamorous within the context of advertising. But it’s a very important role. It keeps great ideas from getting ambushed.
That’s a really roundabout way of saying that I am a strategist. Or account planner, communications planner, brand planner. Any will do. A lot of people in the industry are set on drawing distinctions among these but I’ve had to force fit myself into all of them, in some capacity, at some point in the past few years.
Q: How did you get involved with Baldwin&?
I had made some connections with one of Baldwin&’s founders and creative directors, David Baldwin, years ago. If I remember correctly, it all started with me sending him a tweet. Imagine that. I didn’t immediately inquire about job openings or ask for an interview right off the bat. It was mostly just small talk and it sort of just evolved from there. We corresponded over email and had a few phone calls and, eventually, I made the trip to Raleigh to meet the rest of the team. I remember there were only a few people in a half-occupied office space at the time, but there was a spirit to the place that I wanted to be a part of. They offered me a job and ten days later I was living in North Carolina.
Q: I notice that your company doesn’t out right want to be labeled as any one thing. What do you see the company as?
That’s probably by design. Personally, I sometimes think that the need to constantly define something is the best way to destroy it. I can only speak on behalf of myself but I see Baldwin& as a shop full of creative chameleons. We make films, we produce ads, we launch events, we invent products, we create digital media / social media / new media / any type of media. We never claim to be a full-service agency (hence the “&” at the end of our name) so we sometimes partner with other vendors or agencies to help plan or execute certain ideas. At the end of the day, we’re an ideas shop and we’re focused on finding the most powerful, most effective, most intriguing ways of bringing these ideas to life.
Q: What motivated your decision to work with Baldwin&?
Prior to joining Baldwin&, most of my experience was within large advertising agencies. I was ready for a new experience within the setting of a smaller shop. At that time, I was really struggling to find a small-sized agency that was consistently churning out great creative work, matched my values and felt like a good overall fit. Then one day I was reading an advertising book and I stumbled on this spotlight of an agency in North Carolina that I had never heard of before. I started looking in to the agency and I was impressed with what I saw. I loved the work but, really, it was the philosophy that had sold me. There used to be this manifesto-type-thingy on the Baldwin& website with the agency’s POV on brands, creativity and life in general. Other agencies simply weren’t saying this type of stuff. And it made an impact on me. We have this saying at Baldwin& that has sort of become our unofficial mantra: “Give A Damn.” So, the way I see it, Baldwin& is a place that gives a damn about the work it produces, the clients they work with, the employees they hire and the overall cultural impact that comes along with having a multimillion dollar media bullhorn broadcasting messages to the world.
Q: What is a day in the life for you at your job?
The thing I enjoy most about my job is that there isn’t a typical routine. I’ve been fortunate enough to work with a variety of clients — beauty brands, tech companies, apparel lines, beverages and spirits, among others — and the output of work changes drastically depending on the assignment at hand. I’ve really enjoyed getting to work on new business opportunities. It really forces you to approach a prospective client’s business holistically and to try to uncover opportunities that they may have been overlooking. On the other hand, there’s also more tactical work — analyzing digital metrics across social media pages, mobile platforms or brand websites, evaluating an advertisement’s effectiveness with brand tracker surveys, stuff like that. Here’s the truth though: most talented people in great ad agencies are naturally inclined to think very strategically — creative directors, media buyers, account managers. They are all strategists in some form. The difference is that I’m one of the few people at Baldwin& tasked solely with strategic work, meaning it’s my job to think about things that others may not have time to do — why are we running this ad on television as opposed to radio? Will this target even use coupons for this campaign? How can this piece of communications capitalize on a current cultural trend? It took me a little while to figure out that it’s up to you as a strategic planner to shape your assignments. You’ll always have to write a creative brief and you’ll always be required to report on media impact, for example, but the difference between a good planner and a great planner is being able to find unique opportunities beyond the fringes of the assignment at hand.
Q: Seeing that this is a very competitive industry, how is Baldwin& able to stay relevant?
This is a great question, probably one that I’m not entirely qualified to answer. I’d say the credit goes to our agency’s partners who have been around this industry for a really long time and know a hell of a lot more than I do about this topic. Personally, I think the notion of staying relevant in a creative industry requires you to be able to see what’s around the bend, without driving yourself straight off of a cliff. It’s so easy to get distracted by passing fads today that you forget what actually matters or what makes a difference. There’s a lot of hype out there. It seems like everyday there is a new article in some trade journal declaring the death of television or social media or some other advertising topic. So a big part of staying relevant is making sure your bullshit barometer is properly calibrated and not deviating from what it is you excel at. The other part, I’d say, is finding great talent and being able to retain them. There are so many bright people at Baldwin&. It amazes me. There’s a saying that you never want to be the smartest person in the room. And I never am.
Q: What has been the most rewarding project that you have worked on or that your company has worked on?
The project that has been most rewarding for me personally is one that’s still in the pipeline right now, which means I’m not able to disclose too much, unfortunately. But the reason that this project is particularly rewarding is because it’s one of those ideas that can truly change the world for the better. My personal involvement with the project required me to interview real people out in the world and spend time with them, talking about some truly personal life experiences. It was pretty powerful stuff, very moving. And that’s what makes this job worth it, to me. You know, advertising gets a bad rap for being coercive and deceitful and pushing people to spend money on things that they don’t need. And there’s probably a decent amount of that stuff out there. But I believe there’s more to it than that. For example, Honey Maid just launched a television campaign around ‘wholesome families’ and it featured a same-sex couple. Cadillac recently produced a spot celebrating American exceptionalism, scorning other countries for their leisurely lifestyles and lazy work ethics. I don’t think everyone necessarily needs to agree with the messages behind these advertisements, but you can’t deny that it at least starts a worthy conversation. Just look at the comments thread on YouTube or the reactions on Twitter. Debate is good. Advertising, when done right, can be a force. It reflects culture. It gets people talking about issues of the day. It makes us evaluate what is important and what is not. It makes us feel emotions. And people don’t feel enough these days. So while winning awards and seeing your work in publications is nice, it’s that other stuff that makes you feel like your work is contributing something to the world and making a positive impact.
Q: How would you describe marketing and advertising?
To me, some of the most interesting things in marketing and advertising right now are things that don’t actually feel like marketing and advertising. GoPro is producing an incredible online video vault of footage from their helmet cameras. IBM is devising new ways to improve and transform public city spaces. A few years ago, Carhartt worked with an online school to teach unemployed people in downtrodden Detroit with basic trade skills so they could find jobs during the recession. It’s incredible. And it doesn’t feel like ‘an ad campaign’. It’s important to recognize that people today have greater media literacy than ever before. And they can sniff out marketing ploys like drug dogs living in Charlie Sheen’s backyard. The solution isn’t to become more subversive. Well, I suppose some people may think so. But really it’s about being more entertaining, more useful and finding ways to relate to whatever it is people actually care about. One of my favorite radio hosts, Colin Cowherd, said on one of his shows, “kids don’t remember the firetruck… they remember the trip to the fire station.” I love that. Because at the end of the day, it’s less about the product or brand that you’re trying to sell, and more about why that product or brand matters in people’s lives. This is a business. Numbers need to be hit. Sales need to grow. But the real role of advertising and marketing is to drive one of the single-most difficult things there is to achieve: overcome ambivalence and make people care.
Q: What is the best way for an individual to market themselves or their ideas?
Great question. But I’m probably the last person you would want to ask for this (just take a quick look at how I constantly embarrass myself on social media). There are some super talented people in this industry who have mastered the art of creating a personal brand. I’m not one of them. Not sure I ever will be, to be honest. But a few things I’ve noticed in some of the people I respect: (1) enthusiasm… no matter how great your ideas may be, it doesn’t mean a damn thing if you don’t get excited by them. A lot of the people I look up to get fired up over ideas! Not just their own, either. That type of stuff is contagious. And it makes people want to go into battle with you (2) have an opinion… there’s a difference between being opinionated (everyone tries to avoid you) and having an opinion (you’re an interesting person that people actually want to be around). This isn’t the journalism industry. We don’t approach work unbiased. But that also means knowing when to abandon preconceived notions. Challenge your opinions. Seek truth. The title of my blog is called “All Things Reconsidered.” I’m a pretty opinionated person and this is just one way I try to pressure test my impulses and to see beyond obvious explanations (3) speaking of that, write a blog. Or make a website. Start a photography project. Record an album. Write poetry. It’s important to be creative outside of work. It’s also hugely important to simply… make something. I always say, show me something other than an ad. Personally, I like to see how people think and sometimes that can extend beyond a traditional portfolio of work and (4) don’t assume there’s a simple checklist to follow for getting noticed and landing a job. If it was easy to do, everyone would do it.
Q: What has been your greatest success / failure?
A few weeks ago, I sent out an anonymous survey to the creative teams at Baldwin& to gauge some of their honest feedback on, among other things, the creative briefs I had written, the assignments they had worked on and their opinion on how our strategic approach could improve moving forward. It certainly stung a bit. And I became very away of my many failures. But it may have been the best piece of research I’ve done so far at Baldwin&. It gave me a better idea as to how my colleagues work, how they think, and it will certainly improve the way we collaborate moving forward. In creative industries, you definitely need to stick your head out the car window from time to time. You may get smacked in the face with some slimy bugs every once in a while, but it is that breath of fresh air that keeps you energized and excited. Enjoy the ride.
My greatest success to date is not getting fired.
Q: What innovative tools have you used over the last couple of years?
I’ve had the opportunity to tinker around with some tools that were very helpful, especially from a research standpoint. We recently finished up a project for a beverage company and used mobile ethnographies as a way to capture people’s immediate attitudes throughout the day, and how that beverage brand fit into different parts of their daily routines. It was all done through a user-friendly mobile app which allowed our participants to upload quick photos, record audio or send texts messages directly to our research team whenever we prompted them. There are also a ton of social media aggregation tools today that are great for uncovering attitudes or themes around what people are talking about online. Some of these are very expensive packages that come with a steep learning curve but there are a handful of free tools available online, too. Then again, there are also ways of using really simple tools in interesting ways. A few months ago I held an impromptu focus group with people online through Google Hangouts. Admittedly, it was very scrappy, but having a face-to-face, roundtable discussion with some of these people in our target proved to be very beneficial piece of last-minute research.
Q: What is your favorite source of advertising: radio, magazine, outdoor, television, or newspaper?
I don’t have a favorite channel per se. Each of them has advantages and disadvantages. All of them are capable of breakthrough work. I think the great campaigns find a way to work across a handful of these channels and integrate really beautifully with each other. For instance, there are efficiencies that a YouTube channel can offer that a traditional print ad in a magazine cannot, and vice versa. But it’s really powerful when these channels work together and make the message feel seamless.