Old-school ad man, entrepreneur and one-time chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party, Joe Erwin announced his retirement Monday, nearly 30 years after he founded the agency Erwin Penland in Greenville, S.C. He will effectively step down from his position as president on Dec. 31. The agency plans to announce his successor in the weeks to come.
A longtime Carolina native, Erwin graduated from Clemson University in 1979 and quickly made a name for himself in marketing and state politics. First as a College Democrat and later as two-term party chairman from 2003 to 2007, he worked on the campaigns of Rep. James Clyburn, former Sen. Ernest "Fritz" Hollings, former Gov. Jim Hodges and President Jimmy Carter. He also helped organize first-of-their-kind nationally televised Democratic presidential debates in 2003 and 2007.
Always an optimist, he launched Erwin Penland in Greenville in 1986 with one account and two employees: him and his wife Gretchen.
Over time, the agency expanded to become one of Greenville's largest businesses and launched an office in New York, creating more than 1,000 jobs between the two locations. The Greenville office is currently in the midst of an ambitious expansion project that will effectively redesign the city's skyline.
IPG's Hill Holliday acquired Erwin Penland in 2004 primarily because the two shared a significant client: Verizon. They continue to operate as sibling shops.
Throughout his career, Erwin has seen himself as both a creator and a humble servant. He often says he works for the people of Erwin Penland, not the other way around. His employees tell Adweek he has always been directly involved in the process whenever possible and no matter the size of the project.
In his farewell note, Erwin writes, "While this might seem sudden to many of you, the fact is that Allen [Bosworth, longtime COO] and I have been talking about succession planning for well over a year." He continues, "I love Erwin Penland and what we have done for more than 29 years—a place that began so humbly with a team of just three, where we believed that anything was possible. … My heart will always be with Erwin Penland, and I will always stand ready to help the agency."
Erwin and his wife have long shared a passion for public education and public health, and they plan to devote more of their time in retirement to those and other causes they are deeply about. The two created the Food for Thought conference, which gathers thought leaders in the health and nutrition fields for an annual event in Greenville, and the Erwin Center for Brand Communications at Clemson University.
"This arena is where I will focus even more energy," Erwin writes. "Beyond my work at Clemson, I will be looking at other opportunities where my energy as a creator might be helpful to others." He ends his note with a touching homage to his employees: "So in closing, let me just say thank you for allowing me to work for you. It has been an honor and a privilege."
In addition to his many roles in the Greenville community and the South Carolina Democratic Party, Erwin also sits on the 4A's Board of Directors as a southern region director.