The smart silent type: Evangelizing marketing without my voice

David Baker, co-founder and chief strategy officer, Cordial

Throughout my career, I’ve had the great privilege of evangelizing marketing for American Airlines, Targetbase, Agency.com, Razorfish, Acxiom, and now Cordial. As the role evolved, I was often asked to help marketers look ahead and I enjoyed the work.

What I couldn’t see was throat cancer would present a significant disability hurdle as it would eventually take my voice.

I first learned I had cancer in my 30s. It seemed wrong and unfair. I was approaching new career highs, happily married, a golfer, a runner, enjoyed wining and dining with my colleagues and counted on my daily customer and peer interactions and evangelist work to keep me happy and balanced. Most importantly, my wife and I were about to welcome our first daughter.

The love of my family, support of my peers and clients, ability to transform facets of my disability to be a better marketer and humor power me through the wreckage cancer delivered. They also provide me with creative new ways to marry my consumer behavior, love of data, technology and marketing to keep doing what I love.

My wife and two daughters are my rocks. In 2016, the DMA (then called the Direct Marketing Association) presented me with the Thought Leader of the Year Award. It was several years after cancer had stolen my ability to swallow, eat and drink in the same fashion as everyone else. I no longer had a voice or speech articulation. My oldest daughter was my ‘voice’ in accepting the honor, which was presented at the annual event by video. Listening to the person I had only seen on a sonogram the day I was diagnosed was profound. It was the first time another human or robot was my voice.

Jeremy Swift, the other founders of Cordial and many of our clients and partners go back many years. These are the people that first urged me to make sure my “voice” and guidance in the marketplace are still heard, compelling me to figure out how to talk again.

But, how?

Stephen Hawking and Muhammad Ali took the goods received and achieved greatness. Hawking said, “Life would be tragic if it weren't funny.” Thinking about their extreme examples and maintaining a sense of humor have helped.

On a recent episode of Fresh Air, Jonathan Eig, the author of a new book about Muhammad Ali said some doctors theorize Ali’s dyslexia may have made him “better at picking up visual clues than most people. He may have been able to see little signs in his opponent's body that suggested when and where the punch was going to come.” I strongly connected to the supposition.

The truth is that at the time of my diagnosis, marketing was already under intense change. The big days of radio, print and TV were being overtaken as the world went digital and data and technology changed media forever. Marketers began to imagine a world in which they would interact with people on the go and on an array of screens. Listening, timing, cadence, tone, look and feel would be the keys to engagement that would rule their day.

To me, it was if my experience was mimicking that of the industry. I would spend the next decade listening and watching and then ‘talking’ in a way that was impossible before my diagnosis. The very cancer that had taken so much had delivered back a huge gift, it slowed me down to observe and enjoy the nature of people vs. focusing on presentation style and influence..

From the first few years after my diagnosis into the present, my ‘day job’ now entails making sure both our clients, the audiences we speak to around the world and, yours truly, all have the best means to ‘listen’, ‘adapt our messages’ and repeatedly re-engage one another in the most intelligent and thoughtful ways.

This is hard when you look at the world as a consumer database vs. very unique people that are changing so rapidly with new social technologies. I find it ironic, that in the age of voice and Siri, my voice is gone. Ironic, metaphoric, I’m not sure, but the vastness of the world in the future may be through voice, yet it may be through artificial voice and artificial intelligence.

I find certain challenges humorous.

My biggest goal in my career is to drive transformation for the marketer. In some of the more traditional event environments, the most aggressive, loudest speaker steals the show. That’s not me anymore. My vocal chords can’t support certain 'c' and 'k' sounds, a bit tricky when a board member and former CEO of one organization you worked for is named Clark! Thank goodness for e-chat and emoticons.

Tools and new languages provide me with new ways of to achieve my interpersonal and public communication goals. Humor is the greatest challenge digitally. A smiley face isn’t the same as a human smile or type of smile. This simple fact forces you to rethink the medium, when to use video (without sound), just to look into someone’s eyes, and when to use your mobile phone to navigate a chat in person.

Text and chat make you different. Balancing communications with verbosity is the challenge. Text is great for dialogs and task-based things, but not as useful for emotional, personal bonding, outside your circle of trust. You can’t just ‘tune into’ a call with David and multi-task, or you’ll miss.

Taking the message on the road is a bit tricker. The last time I spoke publicly on a main stage was 2014 and it’s currently a goal of mine to do it again. Artificial voice and text to speech are beginning to help and I’m feeling very close to ready. Perhaps I’ll do it via voice box.

Still, my ego is not immune to the implications of losing my voice.

While I tend to find it amusing when people think I’m deaf, the assumption I’m not smart is a hard, hard pill to swallow for a guy who used to love this saying “those who think they know it all, annoy those of us that do”.

One of my long-time colleagues refers to me as the smart, silent type. While I appreciate her flattery, evangelizing marketing and having meaningful experiences with great people I care about are my missions.

So, I refuse to stay silent. I am just adapting to how to best come out. I like to think that when Hawking said, “Intelligence is the ability to adapt to change.” he was right. I consider myself a life student and practitioner.

I think of impact differently today.

I started a business vs. staying comfortable in a big company cocoon. I knew I’d shrink if I settled for what was happening. I needed people, I needed interactions, I needed something that drove me personally that wasn’t rooted in upward professional succession.

I think of impact as ways to help people I work with see the world and others differently. I work to help the industry recognize the world is changing and we just can’t sit by and wait for changes. I work to see the impact of technology on society and I work to continue to try to see around corners while staying present in “the today”.

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David Baker

David Baker is co-founder and chief strategy officer of Cordial in San Diego.

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