OFF THE BEATEN PATH

 

 
A look beyond Madison Avenue to the rest of America's creative community.

By Warren Berger

Move over, Minneapolis. Make some room, Richmond. Step back, Portland. There's a new wave of regional creative shops coming to prominence these days, in cities that have never before been associated with strong creative ads: Indianapolis, Madison, Orlando, New Orleans, and a dozen other small-to-midsized markets.

What's driving this "second regional revolution?" Part of it seems to be the fact that clients, in an age of new media explosion and wide-open marketing possibilities, are looking for fresh thinkers who can experiment and adapt quickly—and they're finding that, increasingly, by going off the beaten path.

"The advent of non-traditional media has created a demand for non-traditional thinking from more nimble agencies—and that is making this a good time for regional independents," says Carolyn Hadlock of Young & Laramore in Indianapolis. Indeed, the hunger for integrated thinking and resourcefulness seems to play to the strengths of many of these regional players. "Small agencies, in smaller markets, have been working in an integrated way for years, out of necessity," says Steve Hunt, creative director at Cannonball in St. Louis.

The new regional revolutionaries don't necessarily have a local style or flavor. In fact, regardless of what part of the country they're located in, they tend to have certain things in common: An interest in working across media platforms; a strong belief in planning and consumer insights; and a willingness to push the envelope, creatively. In some ways, that makes them a new breed of small agency. But at the same time, they're carrying forward a tradition established by the first wave of regionals from Minneapolis, Richmond, et al. "Those agencies all proved, at the time, that you didn't have to be in a certain market in order to do good work," says Jay Giesen, creative director at Blattner Brunner's Pittsburgh office. "Now, in lots of other small cities around the country, we're proving that same point again."

From the Northwest to the Southeast, here's a whirlwind tour of the new regional hotspots and the agencies that are heating them up.

Seattle
It's a bit odd that Seattle would even be thought of as "off the beaten path"—after all, this is the dynamic town that gave us Starbucks, grunge and Microsoft. But when it comes to creative ad agencies, Seattle has lagged well behind that other great Northwest city of Portland. While Tracy Wong's WongDoody agency occasionally succeeded in getting Seattle on the radar through the years, as did the local Cole & Weber office, for the most part, the city's advertising has been pretty much decaffeinated.

Until lately. Newer creative agencies such as Creature have injected fresh energy into the market. Jim Haven, a creative director at Creature, says, "What's happening creatively in Seattle seems to reflect the global trends in the business. The world is demanding less old-school clout and more pure, raw, smart thinking to cope with empowered consumers and greater media choices. This bodes well for both the new and old agencies in Seattle, and they seem to be taking advantage of it."

Creature sure has: The agency made headlines in 2005 with a guerrilla stunt for Starbucks that involved attaching a coffee cup to the roof of a car. These days, Haven's shop is working with HBO on promotions for some of the channel's hottest new series, while also doing spots for Pacifico beer (shot down in Baja on Super 8), and a nine-episode video podcast series for Nike+, not to mention shooting 25 online films for Google.

While Creature represents the rise of the small independent in Seattle, Publicis is proving that a big network can shine here, as well. The Seattle office, with Rob Rich at the creative helm, has been doing stellar work for the Lottery and T-Mobile. Wexley School for Girls is another strong local player.

Though all of these agencies are competitive with each other, Haven says, "I think we're all committed to taking this place to the highest level and have a lot of respect for anyone that does."

San Diego
"Here's our situation in San Diego," says John Robertson of VitroRobertson. "To the east of us lies 300 miles of desert. To the west, 10,000 miles of water. Seventeen miles south of us, there's a foreign country. And north of us, there are 400 other agencies trying to convince clients that L.A. is the hippest place on earth. So we're a little boxed in."

But that has never stopped Robertson's agency from making its mark. The agency broke through on the national awards scene more than a decade ago with luscious print work for Taylor Guitar, and continues to shine with work for brands from such far-flung places as Atlanta, the U.K. and Manhattan.

Robertson notes that a few small newcomers have started up in the last couple years, but the market is still dominated by a handful of shops. VitroRobertson, at nearly 70 people, is by far the largest of those. NYCA, located a bit to the north in Encinitas, California, has shown a creative flair, and MiresBall in San Diego is another of the town's more prominent names. (While largely a design shop, they also do advertising and brand identity work).

"The biggest change we've seen in the last couple years is an increase in national clients, coming to area agencies," Robertson says. "This has led to a much greater sophistication and elevation of the creative work coming out of those shops. In terms of our agencies, we almost never compete against other local shops—we're usually competing against high-profile creative shops located in San Francisco, L.A. or New York. The increased level of competition has made us all better."

Las Vegas
As the line goes, what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas. That's been true of most advertising produced there as well, though R&R Partners has broken through as a national presence thanks to its slightly risqué campaign promoting Vegas as a place of well-kept secrets. R&R creative director Randy Snow notes that his agency is seeing growing creative competition from a number of local players, including SKG, DRGM, Robertson Wood, and other small boutiques and design firms. "Slowly but surely, the creative in the Las Vegas market is maturing and getting better," Snow says. His own agency is going beyond its flagship Vegas account work to do some unexpected things for the kind of clients not necessarily known for breakthrough creative—including the Southern Nevada Water Authority, The Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, and the Utah Opera.

Of course, the casino/resort industry continues to drive the local ad market. "The work for those clients is all over the board, from very retail and unexciting to some very elaborate pieces," says Snow. "Print, out-of-home and design seem to be the areas where the best work occurs. For the most part, humor is rare, but it can happen. At least it does in our work."

Salt Lake City
Salt Lake City has a strong advertising tradition that dates back to award-winning campaigns produced for the Mormon Church in the 1980s. And in more recent years, the city has produced some stellar local creative talents, including Dave Newbold (formerly of FJC & N) and Scott Rockwood of Williams & Rockwood. Today, Newbold and Rockwood are teamed together at Richter7, an agency that has been tearing it up, creatively—winning "best of state" honors for several years running with work for Utah Safe Haven, Utah Symphony, Tree Utah, and others.

But Richter's not the only game in town. Letter23 (formerly W Communications) is doing strong work for the Utah Department of Health and Utah Travel and Tourism. A couple of other small agencies, Struck and Love Communications, are also heating things up. "We all bicker and fight for clients, but we are kind of a family," says Sage Turk, creative director at Letter23.

Turk says that in Salt Lake City, the Mormon influence remains pervasive, particularly in terms of "shaping the psyche of consumers." But it can also invite advertisers to react against conservatism by pushing the envelope, and that's what the city's top creative shops have been doing. Says Turk: "People look at some of the advertising being done here and they say, 'Wow—how'd you get away with doing that in Salt Lake City?'"

To read more about our regional agency tour around the U.S., pick up the winter issue of one. a magazine.



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