Matt Baker describes himself as an “odd-shaped” strategist. Unusually, he entered the industry via client services - an experience that, in Matt’s opinion, allowed him to learn about the entire advertising industry and its various moving parts.
Nowadays he’s the chief strategy officer at Deutsch New York, working closely with the agency’s creative chief Dan Kelleher. He’s also the father of seven children and somehow finds time to go climbing twice a week (he’s had to kick the skydiving habit though).
LBB’s Addison Capper picked his brains.
LBB> You describe yourself as an “odd-shaped” strategist - please explain!
Matt> I’m not classically trained, I didn’t come up through the ranks of a traditional ad agency - and I believe it served me well. It’s actually something I look for in new hires because it’s a more surefire way to find interesting, curious people who have a naturally contrarian view because they never had to drink the Kool-Aid.
LBB> You were at JWT until joining Deutsch earlier this year - what was it about the setup at Deutsch that appealed to you?
Matt> The incredibly rare balance of a very stable leadership team that still has an intense ambition and desire to try new things. Val [Difebo, NY CEO], in her incredible 25-plus years at Deutsch, has built a culture that is uniquely open, honest and yet still provocative. In addition, I immediately knew Dan Kelleher was the kind of creative leader and partner I wanted to work with - we both share the belief that strategy and creative need to be much more closely connected and we immediately brought the two departments physically together in one space in the office.
LBB> How did you become a strategist in the first place? Was it always a plan to work in advertising or was it more a happy accident?
Matt> I stumbled into the industry, like a lot of people, but the leader of my graduate program guided me into client services rather than strategy as a starting position. The idea being that, as a ‘suit’, you get to learn the entire business, interact with all disciplines and appreciate client needs and commercial pressures. It was the best advice I ever got. But yes, I always knew I’d eventually end up in strategy - I just had a 12-year training in client services first which, being in direct marketing at the time, meant a lot of strategy, data and production tasks, too, which was magic.
LBB> What were you like as a kid? Would you say you had any childhood traits that suggested you might make a good strategist in the future?
Matt> I was insanely competitive in sports and wanted to know and do every possible sport out there. Maybe that need to win and be competitive helps.
LBB> How do you feel the role of a strategist is evolving and has evolved recently?
Matt> We have to embrace the application of strategy at a channel and experience level. The rubber has to hit the road quicker. That said, the fundamentals are still the same - be curious, be rigorous and bring a strong logical and emotional argument to the decision-making process for clients and creative.
LBB> In the age of big data, quantitative data has never been sexier. So where does that leave qualitative?
Matt> I love the saying, ‘If you torture the data enough, it will confess to anything’ - you have to bring real people into the equation. It’s a core tenet of strategy at Deutsch. We have quantitative strategy, but we always get in front of real people, no matter what the client budget.
LBB> A big part of being a strategist is staying on top current of trends in both the industry and everyday life - how do you manage that?
Matt> This is a huge source of stress and it’s overrated. You can’t keep up with every media, adtech, cultural [insert others] trends, there are simply too many. Rather, be broadly well-read, know the fundamentals and cultivate a strong network of resources to learn quickly when the new topic/client/category demands it.
LBB> Which pieces of work that you’ve worked on recently have you particularly enjoyed and why?
Matt> I’m loving two new client challenges - Newman’s Own is a fabulous brand and needs to connect its one-of-a-kind giving model and Paul Newman founder story with a new generation of food lovers. A great ‘product meets purpose’ brief from a company that walks the walk. We’ve also begun working with Endurance Brands and the Constant Contact, Blue Host, Host Gator B2B, and Marketing Saas products which are a fascinating space. Small businesses fuel the U.S. economy, and helping design and activate new offerings for them is incredibly fulfilling.
LBB> You have six children! Five boys and one girl, which sounds like no small feat, especially when you’re the CSO at a big agency… how is it?!
Matt> Bonkers, I love it. Oh, and we just had another little girl, so it’s even crazier. It forces you to focus and it also keeps things in perspective - with seven packed lunches to make every morning and seven lots of bed/bath time I can’t procrastinate too much!
LBB> You used to do skydiving, rock climbing, snowboarding and skiing - what first drew you to extreme sports? What is it about them that you always enjoyed?
Matt> The high stakes are what make them so addictive. And each of them has a highly technical side that I’ve always loved, but above all they’re all outdoors and that’s where my wife and I get our energy - aside from the kids, that is!
LBB> How come you don’t practice them anymore? I imagine a lot of that is due to, you know, being a dad to seven children and jobs and stuff… but are there any other reasons?
Matt> Nope, that’s it! Although I actually still climb twice a week, and have started getting the kids into it, and my wife and I will snowboard whenever we can escape for a day or two. But the skydiving, that’s just a bit too much!
LBB> What do you get up to when you’re not working these days?
Matt> Work + Family + Climbing + Learning - that’s pretty much my life and I love it.