David Baldwin has an ad agency in Raleigh. But, Baldwin& is not a Raleigh ad agency. They compete for business on a national scale. And they win.
It’s not a boast. It’s a fact. They have the awards, the acclaim, and the accounts to back it up. In 2012, only three years after the agency’s founding, Baldwin& was named Ad Age’s Small Agency of the Year. They’ve done work for BMW, Cree, Krispy Kreme, and Kingsford Charcoal.
Before he appears at the next edition of the Vert & Vogue Happy Hour series, Baldwin& founder and author of The Belief Economy: How to Give a Damn, Stop Selling and Create Buy-In, David Baldwin chatted about his career in the advertising industry, building an agency in Raleigh that can stand up against any in the country, and how he got himself into the beer business as a partner in Ponysaurus Brewing.
Your mother was in advertising. Do you think that helped demystify the industry to you, since it can certainly have a ‘man behind the curtain’ feel to it?
It did help me to see that there were actual human beings behind this work. When you consume it as a civilian, you really don’t always see where it’s coming from. Advertising is very much an anonymous art form.
Around ten years ago, I was involved in the making of a documentary called ‘Art and Copy’ where we told the stories of some of the legends in the advertising industry, people who made some revolutionary work, but remained pretty much unknown to the general population.
What was your early career in the industry like?
When I got into the business, you had to be in New York, so I was there for around six years. Then I moved to San Francisco briefly before going on to Portland, Oregon. That time in Portland had a tremendous impact on my career. There were a small group of agencies, all doing amazing work that was just dominating the advertising awards. It really was a little like being in a rock band in Seattle in the ‘90s. We were all so excited to see what everyone else would do next. There was a true, codified scene for advertising, which was kind of mind blowing.
When I came back to the East Coast, I worked in Providence, before coming to McKinney where I worked for around 10 years.
When you decided to start Baldwin& you did so in Raleigh. Why stay here when you could have gone lots of other places?
I love New York, but for a long time, the industry there felt like an ivory tower. In Raleigh, your neighbors really are your customers.
I want to be a part of what makes Raleigh cool. When I moved here, it was a lawyer’s town, it was a politics town. But, now I think there is a growing respect for the creative class and what they can do for your city. It seems like both Raleigh and Durham are finally stepping up to accept their place as really cool places to live. Our agency is full of a lot of people not from Raleigh, and a lot that are. I think that helps in our work, and also helps grow our city.
Are there certain qualities you are looking for in the people you bring on at the agency?
Advertising is incredibly nomadic. You’ll always have people coming and going. I never freak out when people leave. Someone leaving is a chance for someone else great to come in. In the midst of that constant change you have to have a central ethos. Ours is: ‘Just give a damn.’ Give a damn about who you are talking to, who you are working with, give a damn about the success of the agency and the success of your clients.
How does that ethos manifest in the work you’ve done?
It’s all about being authentic in who you are and being aligned around your values. Where you see brands get in trouble is when they don’t align around what they say. Some people think you have to make up a whole new story. But you don’t make up anything. Just be who you are. We work to help brands find that.
We are really good in big transitional moments. We like to say that we are personal trainers for brands whose pants don’t fit anymore.
Finally, you are a co-owner of Ponysaurus, which, in addition to making a great product, stands out for its design and even the creative copy on its cans. How did that come about?
What we (Ponysaurus co-owners Baldwin, Keil Janson, and Nick H-Johnson) talked about from the beginning was using beer to build and support community. We’re always in the conversation and trying to be positive which led to projects like the Don’t Be Mean to People: A Golden Rule Saison. It was brewed in collaboration with more than 40 other participants, to raise money and awareness around HB2 – the bathroom bill.
Just like what I was talking about earlier, at Ponysaurus we have a set of values and a belief system and we execute around that. The rest is just a lot of fun.
As it is Happy Hour, we have to ask, what is your favorite beer at Ponysaurus?
I'm team Scottish Ale all the way.