Baker Just Cant Slow Down

October 26, 2005
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GRAND RAPIDS — The day after the ADDYs, Alexander Marketing Services Senior Consultant Buzz Baker was packing his bags for a Florida vacation.

As he makes it sound, Baker’s move to Grand Rapids two years ago has in itself been a vacation.

“We actually came here to semi-retire,” he said.

When his wife, Terry, was growing up, she had spent summers on a lake near Saugatuck, and because of that he became familiar with Michigan’s west coast. The couple had decided they would one day retire to West Michigan.

When Baker’s Cedar Rapids, Iowa-based firm was bought out by a holding company, they opted to make the move a little sooner than expected.

“I wasn’t quite ready to retire,” Baker said, “but we decided to make the move anyway.”

A graduate of Harvard University and Harvard Business School, Baker first became exposed to the advertising industry as an intern with Frito-Lay in Dallas.

He broke into the field with an agriculture-focused business-to-business agency in his hometown of St. Joseph, Mo. — Fletcher/Mayo/Associates.

Five years later, he moved to another agriculture B2B agency, the $90 million Iowa-based affiliate of Young & Rubicam. He would spend more than 20 years there, 12 as president and CEO.

His firm boasted some of the largest clients in the ag sector, companies like Pioneer Seed, John Deere and Dow Chemical Co., and it was through Dow that Baker became acquainted with his current employer.

Alexander Marketing and Young & Rubicam had competed over a segment of Dow’s business. The firm was highly regarded at Dow, and they had a location in his chosen retirement destination.

After the upheaval in Iowa, he contacted Alexander with his interest and soon “retired” to West Michigan.

“I would say I’m semi-retired because I’m working half the hours that I used to,” Baker said. “But it’s pretty much a regular work week. No Saturdays and Sundays. I might drop in on a weekend every once in a while, as opposed to having to be there.

“It is the semi-retirement before semi-retirement.”

Baker has been called to drive Alexander Marketing’s business development through branding, planning, marketing and occasional creative work, splitting his time between the Grand Rapids and Chicago offices.

Unlike his former employers, Alexander is a B2B agency focused on technology, much of that industrial.

“Most of my experience was ag,” Baker said. “It wasn’t something I knew going in, but once you get into it, you learn quickly.

“There is no better customer to sit down with and talk to than a farmer,” Baker said. “Such decent people. You get the straight scoop and you try to match up what you’re trying to sell with what they want to buy.”

Baker has found that same attitude applies to his new firm’s market.

“People who work here know so much more than I do about industrial chemicals, technology, software and all those other things,” he said. “I’m on the low end of the technical curve, but ultimately, it’s still what do you have to sell and what does the customer want to buy.”

The challenge of B2B in all categories is not found in the creative work, Baker said.

“It’s not glamorous,” Baker said. “People who work in an industry like ours don’t lust after television.”

The creativity is inherent though, he said, and B2B firms can flourish in the consumer market. He points to his former company as an example: It launched Sony Ericsson mobile phones in the United States.

“You can try to go outside of your niche, but at some point you have to admit that an eight-piece set of literature might be the most important thing you’ll do all year,” he said. “Shame on you if it’s not important enough for you to do it.”

Baker said that B2B staples like tech sheets, literature and Web site optimization — all “under the radar for 99 percent of the people” — are more valuable to many clients than commercials and glitzy campaigns.

“Do you let less creative juices flow? Do you put forth less effort, put lesser people in your company on it?” he said. “When you start doing those things, you start losing clients. Where I come from the objective is to do great work. The client will define what great work is going to be.”

While Baker has been a member of various Ad Clubs for 30 years, until coming to West Michigan he had not done so in an active capacity. Now he finds himself a public industry figure.

“For the market, the Ad Club here is very large,” Baker said. “We’re larger than Milwaukee. We’re an unlikely Ad Club in an unlikely place.”

Baker adds that the creative work in West Michigan is on par with that of any of the largest markets.

“Maybe 20 years ago it wasn’t,” he said. “If people look at the quality of life they want, it doesn’t surprise me that some very good creative people want to live on Michigan’s west coast.”

A creative professional might make half or two-thirds as much in West Michigan as on Madison Avenue, he said, but the quality of life is much better here.

A football, baseball and rugby player at Harvard, Baker became an avid softball player in Iowa. In 1989, his agency began sending teams to the Ad Week Advertising World Series, now known as the Sports Illustrated Advertising World Series. His team won a pair of coed national championships and a pair of men’s national championships. Cedar Rapids was the smallest market represented. He was inducted into its Hall of Fame in 2001.

Through the Ad Club, he is working to put together a West Michigan team to bring to the series.

More than 700 marketing and communications professionals from over 20 cities and three countries will compete in the 22nd annual event, Oct. 15-19 in Fort Myers, Fla. Each team is guaranteed a minimum of 10 games over three days and a minimum of “four parties over four nights.” An informative meeting will be held on April 7 at Taps Sports Bar, and it is open to all communications professions.

In Iowa, Baker became a fan of University of Iowa sports teams, particularly Dan Gable’s championship wrestling squad. In West Michigan, he has developed a similar interest in Rockford High School’s championship teams.    

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