Bildsten on His Brew Boutique and More

CHICAGO As a kid, Bruce Bildsten would accompany his father to the family’s VW dealership and look, fascinated, through ad slicks created by Bill Bernbach.

Later, after hearing Tom McElligott speak, Bildsten changed his major from
architecture to advertising. The career path led him to spend 21 years at the agency McElligott co-founded (now Fallon), where he rose to ecd and his work included BMW Films.

Bildsten, 47, is now partner, cd at Minneapolis-based Brew: A Creative Collaborative, which he co-founded seven months ago. Brew recently became lead agency on Sun Country Airlines.

Q: Why start a boutique agency? You must have had opportunities to join
established ones.

A: I wanted to start something. I think this business is changing dramatically and the media landscape is changing so dramatically that [there are] a multitude of opportunities for more nimble and more inventive agencies to flourish.

What are the advantages of being in charge?
First of all, a lot of it has to do with being agile. We’ve created a model that’s about collaboration, about keeping a smaller core team and being able to turn quicker. And to me, a huge driver of this is partnering with Michelle [Fitzgerald, partner, communications strategist] and really bringing inventive media to our process.

Is that what makes your agency different?
She was a pioneer in what Fallon has called “connection planning.” What’s changing in this business is the media landscape. It’s more important than ever that media and creative work together.

What’s the biggest surprise you’ve encountered since opening Brew?
How much work it is. I’m definitely working harder than ever. But I love it.

You just won your first lead assignment, for Sun Country. Is that going to be the nature of the work you get, or are you expecting more project work?
We’re open to both. We like to call ourselves a mistress agency because in many cases we’ll be working with a client that already has a larger agency and is looking for someone that’s going to bring them some fresh thinking on a particular project or a particular brand that’s within their portfolio. If you look at marketers these days, that’s how they’re behaving more and more-they need different perspectives, and different projects within their portfolio need a different approach.

Any big clients you could talk about?
There’s one that we’re about to work on, but that’s still confidential. That’s the nature of being the mistress, you can’t talk about them all.

Who’s your main competition?
I’m sure most would compare us to other new-breed agencies like Droga5, Toy, Cutwater and Taxi. But in many ways we’re more like new media companies like Naked, but with creative. With Michelle, innovative media linked to deep consumer insights is integral to everything we do.

Is there room in the industry for all the boutiques that seem to be popping up?
Not all of them, but there is always room for the best. Stuck-in-the-mud, mediocre agencies are the ones most at risk.

Explain the “creative collaborative” part.
We’ll always have a core team. And we’re starting to build that team. But we also believe that, more and more, some of the best people are working by themselves or in small groups-especially in the world of interactive and
design. We also have a desire to work with people who are not traditionally part of any agency. We did a project very early on where we worked with a group of architects. Collaborative means finding out who’s the best senior talent available for the job and it’s also reaching out to a broader range of creative thinkers.

How do you find the best senior talent if they’re not attached to an agency?
There’s more and more of them working that way. A lot of people have been attracted by our model and come to us. That’s been the easiest part.

Who has influenced you the most creatively?
Early on, it was Tom. He really just made everyone stand up and notice at Fallon. I was as influenced as anybody was by Doyle Dane. Another was Joe Duffy. I’ve always enjoyed designers, and having their sensibility and approach to things is really helpful.

How is their sensibility different than a traditional art director’s?
I think designers often come up with purely visual solutions. They also tend to think more in terms of an identity and how everything fits together. Part of their discipline is creating complete identities that fit together. I think some art directors are thinking about this ad and this TV spot alone.

Who are you dying to work with?
Ricky Gervais or Sacha Baron Cohen. They both created new breed[s] of comedy and I’m confident they’ll do it again.

What’s your biggest pet peeve?
Ironically, it’s kind of this worship of advertising figures as celebrities. I think there’s too much focus on a small group of people and the whole Cannes scene. And there’s so many people out there doing great work and I think they get overlooked.

What’s the last ad that made you think, “I wish I had done that?”
As a body of work, I still most admire the “Truth” campaign. It remains vital, inventive in every media including online, and it’s built around brilliant insights about the audience. I also think it’s cool that two agencies seem to seamlessly collaborate on it.

What’s the smartest business decision you ever made?
So far-because this is new-I suppose it was landing at Fallon, where I spent 21 years and was able to grow with the place.

What’s the dumbest business decision?
That would probably have to do with where I invested my children’s college money, or something like that.

What’s your vote for the best agency out there?
I’d have to go with Crispin. They’ve had some missteps with things, but they’ve kind of shown everyone a new way.

What’s your dream assignment?
To be able to transform another car brand. I worked on BMW for 10 years and before that Porsche, and I just love that space. I’m seeing more and more now that there’s so much upheaval in the car brands and they’re making such surprising decisions?Audi with Venables, Cadillac with Hummer-that I’m hoping they will continue that and we can grow with it.

How do you get past a creative block?
I look for creativity in other worlds. I look through design books, art books, architecture. Product design is another thing I love.

What’s your greatest accomplishment?
To be part of the team that did BMW Films.

How has branded entertainment evolved since BMW Films?
The best examples are truly two-way and interactive experiences that put the viewer in the driver’s seat and reward them. It’s certainly not about sticking your product in a film or TV show.

What are the setbacks to managing a boutique?
You have to do so much more yourself. But that’s also invigorating. We can do so much so fast because we’re not held back by processes and layers. I do wish we had more of “us” to get out and meet more marketers and tell our story.

What’s the most important thing you learned from your parents?
That you can do it. My mom always had this saying that you had to will
things to happen-that you have to put your head down and make it happen.

What do you do when you’re not working?
I like to spend time with my family. And I’m the typical Minnesota guy with a cabin in the North woods. I love it there. My ideal day is tooling around in the pontoon boat with the dog and family and friends.