Verizon, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Johnson & Johnson and Nike. Those are just a few clients of hidden gem Baldwin & Obenauf — a Somerville-based, woman-owned marketing services agency that has grown in every possible way during its existence.
“What started in 1981 as a typography service company just transitioned and evolved over 40 years, over and over again,” BNO founder and namesake Joanne Obenauf said.
“As technology changed, and the industry changed, our clients asked for more capabilities.”
Obenauf was there at every turn. She established herself as a leader in the male-dominated world of marketing long before the development of a national standard for women-owned business certification.
BNO is now in the midst of the ultimate transformation: After four decades, Obenauf announced that she is passing the CEO torch — and handing it to another woman.
Earlier this month, Obenauf named her longtime employee and company president, Trista Walker, as the new head of the full-service creative company that offers everything from branding, creative video, social, digital and print and now public relations.
There are no statistics to show how often a woman-led company turns its leadership over to another woman. Obenauf, who will continue to serve as board chair, said such a scenario never was in doubt.
“We have been thoughtfully developing this succession plan for several years,” she said.
The announcement coincided with the beginning of Women’s History Month, which Walker said is just such a great time to celebrate the contributions women have made through the years.
An entrepreneur herself, Walker joined BNO in 2014 as chief marketing officer and quickly attained the title of president. Prior to BNO, she had founded her own multidimensional marketing agency and had experience in industries spanning life sciences and health care, financial services, consumer, government and media.
Obenauf and Walker met through a mutual contact in 2014, and, when they were first introduced, Walker said she had no intention of joining someone else’s agency. She was concentrating on her own, much smaller firm. She then had an opportunity to bid on a job with the U.S. Department of Agriculture — specifically the U.S. Dairy Export Council. Realizing she didn’t have the staff to tackle the project fully, she engaged Obenauf to partner on the large design project.
“Joanne has always been somebody who recognizes the potential in things and ideas,” Walker said. “She immediately said, ‘Yes.’ We received the RFP, competed against other agencies and, and through the combination of my strategy and the BNO team’s creativity, we won the pitch.”
Walker said it was a well-orchestrated plan.
After working on that project for approximately six months, the two ended up formally joining forces, as they both loved the energy and creativity that existed between them.
The chemistry was there right from the get-go, they both said.
Obenauf said they have so many similarities, not so much in the way they think, but in their ultimate goal of doing what’s going to bring about the best outcome.
“I’m more of a facilitator,” Obenauf said. “Trista is more of a leader. I think we complemented each other because we both have A-type personalities, which is necessary to be able to talk and come to a collaborative solution to things.”
Walker said she believes both women’s hearts always are pointed in the same direction.
“We both appreciate being challenged and appreciate diverse thinking on our teams,” she said. “While we don’t always agree on everything, we do have healthy discussions and debates. Half the time, Joanne will agree with me, and we will do things my way, and, the other times, I will agree with her and do things her way.”
It’s that openness and wanting to have diverse thinking as part of your decision-making that Walker believes makes a strong leader and a strong facilitator. So, while they may not agree on everything, as long as the long-term vision is aligned, and they have very similar personal values — that’s all Walker said was needed for success.
The value to having one dynamic woman passing her torch to another dynamic one is something they both said was priceless.
“As we met through a friend in the Women Presidents Organization, I really valued the mentoring that I received that way, and I valued more than anything what I learned from other women,” Obenauf said. “And, while it didn’t matter to me whether my successor was a man or a woman, I just needed the right chemistry.
“It was special that I found a woman that is like-minded and that relates to how we want to grow the agency in moral values and culture.”
And what’s the next phase for BNO?
Walker said that the company is projecting another year of double-digit growth, which the firm is really excited about, especially since it just completed three consecutive years of double-digit growth. Even with the pandemic in 2020.
“Actually,” Walker said, “the firm has survived and thrived through four recessions — which is pretty amazing. We’re good at battling adversity and finding opportunities in adversity.”
Obenauf said she believes the company’s success during those adverse times comes from the firm’s ability to be extremely flexible and understand its clients’ challenges.
“Prior to the pandemic, some of our clients had given us goals and budgets that we were forced to pivot from due to shutdowns,” she said.
“Some of our clients even had such great confidence in us that they gave us more work. Others recommended us, which brought new clients to us.”
And some did some amazing work around the pandemic.
“One of our clients was the first company to come out with the 45-minute rapid COVID test,” Walker said. “And they obviously needed a lot of assistance and help. And then, other clients shifted the original work that BNO was contracted for and asked the firm to work on other projects instead of reducing the contract amount.”
That’s the type of relationship examples Walker and Obenauf have countless examples of. The firm has the means to be able to shift and pivot and fulfil its legacy as a problem-solving agency.
“It is probably a little bit of good fortune — but a lot of flexibility and strong relationships,” Walker said.
Walker said she intends to have the firm move forward, building on its 40-year legacy of helping the world’s most important companies grow. Five of BNO’s clients are listed on the Fortune 100.
Walker said she prides BNO for being a great place to work for independent, creative thinkers — and believes that is an important role that the independent agencies play in the broader agency ecosystem.
“With a staff of 75 full-time employees across three offices, figuring out what some of the new and fastest-growing industries are, and how to leverage our experience to help some of those companies, is what will keep us growing and evolving,” Walker said. “We want to continue to grow and be a really fun place to work at the same time.”