Small Agency Awards 2012

Small Agency of the Year, Gold: Baldwin&

North Carolina-Based Shop Doesn't Follow the Money, Carefully Considering Each Project to Ensure It's a Right Fit

By Published on .

It's a common refrain in adland: "We're different from other agencies."

While so many shops declare it, most would struggle to produce evidence to support the claim. But peek under the hood at Raleigh, N.C., indie Baldwin& -- which opened its doors in January 2009 with zero clients -- and you'll see that it truly stands out.

Here's an example: Not long ago, a client rang up the agency, offering a chance to take over a piece of a large telecom account without a pitch. What would have been a no-brainer for most shops gave Baldwin& pause. As the shop's founder, longtime copywriter and former One Club Chairman David Baldwin, said: "We had a quick founders' meeting and asked, "Does this sound fun at all?' And when nobody said they felt like it would be a great fit, we just walked away."

Sticking to its guns is a big deal for Baldwin&. Upon being approached to participate in a pitch recently, it battled a client that was at first unwilling to compensate shops to be in the review. Baldwin& persuaded the client to pay not only its agency, but also to pay three other shops to get compensated for the work they presented during the pitch. And while Baldwin& wound up not winning the business, it not only got paid, but won a battle for the agency world at large.

That strong sense of self wasn't the only thing that impressed this year's judges. The pace of growth at Baldwin& is remarkable, too.

From the beginning, Baldwin& set an unusual and highly aggressive goal of doubling in size every year for the first five years. On its third anniversary, the shop reached 16 full-timers and is now ahead of schedule with 22 employees on staff. With freelancers and part-time folks, it has a team of over 40.

Revenue climbed 28% between 2009 and 2010 and doubled between 2010 and 2011. The agency is growing by handling a range of marketing projects, including movies, books, events and, every so often, a bit of traditional advertising for clients such as BMW Golf and Burt's Bees. For the latter, it pioneered an irreverent project for an offshoot brand, Gud. Baldwin& created a scratch-and-sniff Facebook experience, whereby magazine inserts and QR codes on the product's packaging drove people to experience a deliciously scented video on Facebook and get a free sample. In the first week it attracted 200,000 fans.

As happens when an agency begins growing and winning awards (it took home Campaign of the Year honors at last year's Small Agency Awards), Baldwin& has begun getting calls from suitors. But for now, the answer is typically a polite "No, thanks."

"We're not saying never, but we're saying the way to build a world-class agency in North Carolina is do it ourselves, and do it carefully," said Mr. Baldwin. "We turned down things that we thought would be great financial opportunities, and we have been approached for acquisitions that would" dramatically change the way the agency operates, he said."We don't want to be chasing profit for someone else. ... Doing the best work we possibly can do is what will lead to success for us."

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