Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2016
Devin Baker went to New York in 2007 to advance a budding career in the entertainment industry. When he arrived, he found his housing arrangement had fallen through, leaving him without a place to live.
“Some things didn’t work out with family that I had in the area,” said Baker, 32, now an advertising student in the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture at Virginia Commonwealth University's College of Humanities and Sciences. “I ended up homeless for a little while until I found a room for rent in Brooklyn.”
It was an early experience in Baker’s long and circuitous path toward a career in advertising. He spent seven years in New York, mostly working at Universal Records, before moving to Richmond and going back to school at VCU. This past spring, he landed a summer creative internship with the advertising agency BBDO, and turned it into a full-time job as an art director by the end of July.
He views it all as a series of steps.
“I worked toward a specific goal — getting into VCU, getting the internship,” Baker said. “I would accomplish that step and keep going to the next thing.”
Baker attended Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, from 2003 to 2006. He started working for Universal while he was in college, doing promotional work for concerts and major events — including the 2006 NBA All-Star Game in Houston. Later, after he moved to New York, he was an artists and repertoire rep, working with some of the biggest names in the music industry.
“Akon, David Banner, Colbie Caillat, Wu Tang, Pharrell, a bunch of others,” Baker said.
His move to New York began with the hard stumble of seeing his housing setup disappear at the last minute. Baker was homeless for nearly three months. He slept in the office at Universal. He slept in Central Park. He stayed with friends when he could. Eventually he found that room in Brooklyn.
It taught me no matter how far you fall, there’s always a way to get back up.
“It changed me as a person,” Baker said. “It taught me no matter how far you fall, there’s always a way to get back up.”
Baker worked in marketing and brand management. Then he decided to move into art direction. His girlfriend (now wife) lived in Richmond and Baker moved to the West End and researched VCU’s advertising program. He met with employees at the Martin Agency. He met with Mike Hughes, the Martin Agency president and longtime chairman of the VCU Brandcenter board. Hughes, who died in December 2013, helped Baker weigh his options.
“I was trying to get an understanding of the industry,” Baker said. “Mike Hughes was a major person for me when it came to even getting into the VCU program. He thought it was a great program and I trusted him.”
‘I was nervous’
Baker was 28 when he arrived on the Monroe Park Campus in 2013 as a creative advertising student. He was surrounded by classmates nearly a decade his junior. And he was trying to break into an industry in which only 5.8 percent of working professionals are black.
“I was nervous,” Baker said. “I had this fear. Would I make it? You’re starting a new career completely from scratch and going back to school. It’s extremely scary.”
That is a common fear for nontraditional students, said Kim Hanneman, assistant director of career and industry advising in the VCU Career Services office. Among a wide range of services and professional development resources, her office helps students prepare for the transition to employment after graduation.
Nontraditional students sometimes don’t believe in their own talent, Hanneman said.
“They feel that they might not be as worthy,” Hanneman said. “What’s great about advertising is you don’t need a permission slip or degree; your talent matters. So I ask nontraditional students, especially in advertising, about their fears, because I want to know if they believe in their talent.”
Baker had plenty of talent. Hanneman noticed that when they first met in March 2016. By then, Baker’s nerves had settled. He had developed relationships with his instructors, especially Marcel Jennings, an assistant professor of advertising. And Baker’s age turned out to be an advantage in the classroom.
“The way [a professor] explains and teaches is based on their experience,” Baker said. “The problem for most kids is they don’t have any experience. A lot of things can go over their heads. For me, it was like they were speaking specifically to me.”
The road to BBDO
Baker approached VCU Career Services looking to speak with someone who could help him launch his career. Hanneman helped him better articulate his process, a critical step for someone looking to break into advertising.
“The challenge he had with his portfolio was showing how he can solve problems with creative storytelling,” Hanneman said. “Storytelling is the business we’re in, helping students link who they are with what they want to do.”
When Baker was offered a summer internship at BBDO, he knew it was an opportunity he had to take. He returned to New York. He slept on his wife’s cousin’s couch. He volunteered for assignments and met with as many people as possible, from his fellow interns to the chief creative officer.
Baker wanted to turn the internship into a full-time job.
“I wasn’t going to wait for someone to give me something — I wanted to take it,” he said. “As soon as I walked into the door, a job became a serious goal.”
About six weeks into the internship, BBDO offered Baker a full-time job as an art director. Though not unprecedented, it was a rare step for an employer to take.
“How do you keep your confidence low after that?” Baker said. “You bust your butt for everything — I changed my life to come into this industry. This wasn’t me finding a job; it was me finding my life, my career.”
‘Hard work means everything’
Baker unpacks the past 10 years of his life — Nashville, Universal, homeless, New York, VCU, BBDO — and believes it gave him valuable perspective.
“Those 10 years, there was so much that happened,” he said. “Being homeless in New York changed my life. Everything else after that was, ‘I know what I want to do, I know what I have to do to get it.’ It was all a series of steps.”
He wants to be a creative director, the guy people call to tackle complicated issues.
“As an art director, I’m not limited to one thing,” Baker said. “I can do anything I want to do — photography, film, digital, graphic design, build things, gaming. Anything you allow me to do I’m willing to try it.”
He has advice for current students.
“Don’t expect that someone is going to take you in and just teach you,” Baker said. “Sometimes people want to see that you are willing to learn and teach yourself. I never thought I would be coming out of school and getting a job with a top agency. Hard work means everything.”
Subscribe for free to the weekly VCU News email newsletter at http://newsletter.news.vcu.edu/ and receive a selection of stories, videos, photos, news clips and event listings in your inbox every Thursday.