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Clients thinking of approaching the growing Raleigh, North Carolina, agency known as Baldwin& should take note:

1. The agency doesn’t believe in doing spec pitches. If you’re thinking of inviting the team to pitch your business so that you can get a look at their unconventional ideas and insights, you might want to consider actually paying them for their work (and while you’re at it, Baldwin& respectfully suggests that you consider paying any other agencies competing for the pitch, as well).

2. If you tend to judge your agency’s creatives by keeping track of how many weekends they’re chained to the desk—regardless of how good their actual output is—you may want to look elsewhere. Sorry, these folks believe in having a life.

3. If you’re looking for an “ad agency” per se, keep in mind that Baldwin& categorizes itself as “a hybrid branding/digital/advertising/mobile/social media thingy.” (With emphasis on the words “hybrid” and “thingy.”)

4. Should you proceed to offer to hire Baldwin&, be prepared for the possibility that it might do something almost unthinkable for a young, eager, ambitious agency: the agency’s founders might actually turn you away, if they believe they won’t be able to do their best work for you.

None of this should be taken to mean that Baldwin&, the spunky start-up launched five years ago by former McKinney executive creative director David Baldwin, does not welcome new business and pursue growth. In fact, the agency has doubled in size each of its first five years, and was recognized as Advertising Age’s “Small Agency of the Year” in 2012.

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But from day one, Baldwin has made it clear that his top priority for his new agency is developing and preserving the kind of culture that fosters the creation of thoughtful, inventive and effective work. The agency has been producing that on behalf of a growing roster of clients that includes Burt’s Bees and its new brand called güd, BMW Golf and the LED lighting company Cree. Those are national brands, but they’re relatively modest ones. While the agency wants to attract larger accounts, Baldwin and his partners aren’t interested in just any client. In fact, Baldwin& turned down an offer to do work for a large telecom company because the agency leaders felt it wasn’t a good fit. “What we don’t want to do,” Baldwin says, “is take on a big client and then find that it’s awful. And then we have to leave or get fired, and let people go.” Baldwin says he learned this lesson in his years working at other agencies of varying sizes throughout the country.

Though a youthful-looking 51 years old (with a full head of still-shaggy hair that’s not quite as long as he used to wear it), Baldwin is well-traveled in advertising, having worked at renowned agencies from coast to coast: Deutsch, Hal Riney & Partners, Cole & Weber, Leonard Monahan, McKinney. At each stop, he made a mark—first as an acclaimed copywriter (he won the prestigious Kelly Award with a memorable long-form print campaign on behalf of Doc Martens boots) and then, gradually, as a well-regarded creative director. A lifelong musician, he also was known through the years for playing lead guitar in Pants!, a rock band that starred at corporate “battle-of-the-bands” competitions. He was a familiar face at award shows (he headed the One Club board for a time), and he produced an Emmy-winning film about advertising, Art & Copy. In the words of his current partner at Baldwin&, Jerry Bodrie, “In the advertising world, David is a bit of a rock star.” Though, as Bodrie adds, he doesn’t act the part: he’s soft-spoken, approachable, a real human being who cares deeply about the people around him.

Baldwin settled in for a good, long ten-year run at his last agency job, helping usher Durham, North Carolina-based McKinney (formerly known mainly for its lush print work) into the digital age. Baldwin took a shine to living in North Carolina, though by late 2007, he was ready for a new professional challenge. He left McKinney and looked around for his next opportunity. He checked into offers to serve as creative chief at several existing agencies, but ultimately passed on them. “I knew where I wanted to work,” he says, “it just didn’t exist yet.”

I knew where I wanted to work. it just didn’t exist yet.”—David Baldwin

He picked an awful time to start an agency: in January of 2009, the economy was in the pits. (“In a way,” Baldwin reflects, “that took some pressure off because expectations were so low.”) One of the first people he approached to join him was Bob Ranew, a longtime creative director at McKinney who had recently left that job. Baldwin also pursued Bodrie, an ex-McKinney account director, who was interested but reluctant to leave a stable job at GSD&M in Austin. Erin Bredemann, a digital specialist, was in the mix early, though she couldn’t stay long because a baby was on the way (she would return later). And so, “For a good amount of time, it was me and Bob looking across the table at each other,” Baldwin says.

Fortunately, they had landed a project from Nortel—a company that was heading into bankruptcy, but nevertheless provided about six months of work for the fledgling agency (“enough to keep the lights on,” says Ranew). Bodrie arrived midway through year one; things were still pretty quiet. But that was good, Bodrie says, because “it gave us a chance to really figure out who we were and what our story was.”

One of the things determined early on was that they wanted to be a national agency, not a local one. Baldwin learned from his days working with the super-confident ad man Donny Deutsch that a young agency must “walk around as if”—meaning, you act as if you’re already the kind of agency you aspire to be. So Baldwin& targeted a list of fifteen national companies that had marketing operations based in the Raleigh-Durham/Chapel Hill Triangle.

The agency’s big break came toward the end of its first year, when it landed a promotion assignment celebrating Earth Day, for national personal-care products company Burt’s Bees. It was a welcome opportunity—though as Ranew admits, in a Carolinian drawl, “That project about killed us.” Baldwin& devised an elaborate social media campaign called Find Your Burt, celebrating the values of the iconic, bushy-bearded company founder, Burt Shavitz, who lives a sustainable life in a converted turkey coop in Maine. Shavitz long ago sold his stake in Burt’s Bees, which is now owned by Clorox, but Baldwin& used the campaign to remind consumers of the authentic ideals that forged the brand.

At live Earth Day events, the agency sent out an army of bearded Burt look-alikes and served all-natural smoothies made from ingredients found in Burt’s Bees products. The digital component of the campaign was particularly strong: an online Find Your Burt contest invited people to take a test and find out how sustainable their lives were. Everyone who participated uploaded a photo of themselves, and they ended up seeing their faces enhanced with a digital beard. Those bearded images began to fly around the web. When it was over, the contest had drawn massive media coverage—-63 million impressions—on a paid media budget of zero dollars. All of which resulted in Find Your Burt being named “Small Agency Campaign of the Year” by Ad Age. And that, in turn, led to the agency winning the entire Burt’s Bees account—including the creation of a whole new personal-care brand, güd, aimed at a younger demographic.

We’d rather take projects than do pitches. The idea is, give us a project and we’ll prove to you what we can do.”—Jerry Bodrie

The success of the Burt’s work led to other opportunities and consistent growth—such that the agency recently found itself having to move into its third new office space, to accommodate a staff that has grown to 32. Though the core group was comprised of McKinney vets, Baldwin& now has a mix of people from far-flung agencies like Wieden+Kennedy, Mother and The Richards Group. Their presence in Raleigh is part of a wave that is helping to turn the Raleigh-Durham/Chapel Hill Triangle into a creative advertising hub.

The agency’s new digs are in an old warehouse building, with a second-floor mezzanine overlooking a spacious open floor plan. The atmosphere is casual and highly collaborative. The informality at Baldwin& is expressed in the job titles; new employees, upon arriving, must devise self-descriptive labels from their own imagination. Ranew’s job title is “Day Dreamer.” Bodrie’s is “Super Conductor.” And Baldwin, not surprisingly, is “Lead Guitar.”

Comfortable as it may be, Baldwin doesn’t want people to live at the office. “Early on,” he says, “Bob and I talked about wanting to have a balance—to have a place where you could do work but also have time for a good life.” Creative start-up shops are often known for ridiculous hours and high burnout rates, but as Baldwin puts it, “We think it’s important for people to finish their work, leave and get recharged.” Or as Ranew says: “The idea is, if possible, to get it done in five—let’s not needlessly be here on weekends.”

And, as previously noted, the agency does not favor spec pitches. “We’ve done a few,” Baldwin admits, “but we try to discourage it because it’s a weird, predatory industry practice. Plus when you’re small, you don’t get taken seriously.” Bodrie adds: “We’d rather take projects than do pitches. The idea is, give us a project and we’ll prove to you what we can do.”

In assessing where the agency is today, Bodrie says: “We’ve matured, but we’re still being shaped; I don’t think we’ve hit our potential.” Ranew agrees, but adds a cautionary note about future growth: “I would like us to get bigger, but there’s a culture we’re trying to maintain as we grow,” he says. “I think we can keep it if we stay at around 50 to 70 people.”

Baldwin, meanwhile, feels that the key is to know when to say no, and to always keep the focus on what really matters. “It’s about using our creativity to make a difference,” he says. “At the end of the day, we’re artisans who are trying to make something happen for a client. You need to figure out what’s the right thing, the best thing to do, in whatever form that may take. And then, once you’ve figured that out, you craft the hell out of it.” ca

Warren Berger (warrenberger.com) is a writer and speaker specializing in design, advertising and innovation. He is the author of several books, including the newly revised A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas (Bloomsbury, 2014). Berger lectures and conducts workshops on innovation and creativity in business, and he is a frequent contributor to the Wall Street Journal, Fast Company, the Harvard Business Review and CA.

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