Baldwin& ad agency turns on bright ideas for Cree

david.ranii@newsobserver.comApril 29, 2013 

— When LED lighting company Cree went looking for an advertising agency for its first national consumer ad campaign ever, it was hoping to find a local agency that it could work closely with – and that met its standards.

Upstart Raleigh ad agency Baldwin& fit the bill.

“It was obvious very early that this was the right agency,” said Mike Watson, Cree’s vice president of corporate marketing.

The resulting TV commercials for Cree’s breakthrough $10 LED light bulbs – a price that is half that of some competitors’ LED bulbs – debuted April 20 during broadcasts of the NBA playoffs on ABC and ESPN. The bulbs are sold exclusively at Home Depot stores.

The commercials feature actor Lance Reddick whose stentorian voice helps sell the humor of spots that proclaim the death of the incandescent light bulb and the dawn of a new day in lighting. Reddick is best-known for his roles in “Fringe,” “Lost” and “The Wire.”

In one ad, Reddick places a traditional bulb in a tiny wooden coffin as a solitary bagpiper plays a mournful dirge.

“Mr. Edison,” Reddick declares, “today we lay to rest your creation, the incandescent light bulb. I know you’re not shocked, sir. You knew that it needed an unreasonable amount of energy to do its job, and that it had the lifespan of a lucky bug.”

In another ad, Reddick directly addresses the viewer: “A normal incandescent bulb uses about $7 worth of energy per year. This Cree LED bulb uses about a buck. If you argue with math, you will lose.”

“What we have tried to do is take the image of what a light bulb is and grab it by the lapels and shake it,” said David Baldwin, co-founder and lead guitar – his official title – of Baldwin&

“I think it does a great job of getting people to think about LED lighting differently ... and make them question why they are still using their old bulbs,” said Cree CEO Chuck Swoboda.

Formed in 2009 by a group of ad agency veterans led by Baldwin, who previously was executive creative director at McKinney, the Triangle’s largest ad agency, Baldwin& has attracted a roster of clients that includes: Burt’s Bees and its güd line of shampoos, lotions and other products; charcoal company Kingsford; Peter Millar apparel; and golf accessories company BMW Golf. Last year, trade publication Ad Age named Baldwin& the “Small Agency of the Year.”

Before its new Cree campaign, Baldwin&’s highest-profile work was last year’s launch of the güd line. It originated the güd name – pronounced good, with an umlaut over the u designed to resemble a smiley face – and came up with fanciful names for the fragrances, such as Orange Petalooza and Floral Cherrynova.

Baldwin credits the agency’s “pretty relentless creativity” and its willingness to collaborate with clients for its growth from two full-time employees and four part-timers at the outset to 26 full-time and three part-time employees today. Revenue, meanwhile, rose 70 percent to $3.5 million last year, he said.

The agency is so devoted to creativity, Baldwin said, that it actually turned down work from a client once because it just wouldn’t be any fun. He just couldn’t bear to ask anyone at the agency to handle the assignment.

“We don’t want to grow for growth’s sake,” he said.

At the same time, Baldwin& usually turns down the opportunity to make a sales pitch for a new account or a new project where the prospective client expects the agency to devise a creative concept “on spec” – that is, without compensation.

Given that such a pitch can cost the agency tens of thousands of dollars, or even $100,000 or more, “it’s not a viable economic model,” Baldwin said.

Two years ago Baldwin even convinced one prospective client, a grocery store chain, to pay the $30,000 cost of the agency’s pitch – as well as fund the competing pitches from three other agencies.

Alas, that story didn’t have the happy ending that Baldwin was seeking.

“We ended up not winning that pitch,” he said.

Ranii: 919-829-4877

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service