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Big Fish, Small Ponds

A look at small agencies across the nation that are proudly serving local clients

Brenda Peterson, CEO of the agency Wendt, says Great Falls, Mont. (population 58,505), is like living in a postcard. Photo: Jeff Paul

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Way, way off Madison Avenue, tiny agencies churn out TV spots, websites, mailers and more for hometown retailers, tourism authorities, and local universities and hospitals. While some stretch beyond their roots to serve regional and even global clients, most of their work is proudly local and decidedly unpretentious, cut for the kind of client that can't afford (or doesn't want) a big city agency. But when it comes to blending local expertise with a populist aesthetic, these are the experts, with close-knit teams crafting marketing messages as if they were speaking to their neighbors—because they are.

Neumuth Advertising

Fairbanks, Alaska: population 31,535 (city), 99,192 (metro)

Seated in the heart of the Alaskan wilderness, Fairbanks isn’t exactly an advertising hot spot. “It’s surrounded by nothing,” says Neumuth Advertising CEO Steve Neumuth. “There isn’t any spillover market.” Despite that, Neumuth’s tiny, six-person shop cuts slick videos for area clients like The Prospector, a retailer that peddles the sort of winter apparel most Madison Avenue execs would be pining for during a visit to the 49th state (or, maybe a one-mile hike in the Catskills).One of its spots for the store features celebrity musher Lance Mackey, a four-time winner of the 1,000-mile-plus Iditarod, along with his dogs. While the agency’s work for automobile dealerships—once a bread-and-butter category—has dried up as local owners have sold to dealer networks with their own agencies, a boom in medical services has helped make up the difference, Neumuth says. Business from the likes of eye doctors, vein-treatment centers and orthopedists increasingly are turning to advertising, the ad exec reports. Neumuth boasts some 63 clients—including, this being a small town, a few who compete with one another.


Ball Advertising

Casper, Wyo.: population 55,316 (city), 76,366 (metro)
“Casper is an energy town,” says Ball Advertising creative director Russ Weller. It’s not surprising, then, that its nickname is “the Oil City,” and that the agency, which was founded in 1978, has historically won many of its assignments from energy companies—among them, major marketers including Chevron, BP and Shell. Today, however, Ball has branched out. “We’re much more diversified than we were in the early 2000s,” says Weller. (Casper is Wyoming’s second-largest metro area, behind Cheyenne, the state capital.) Still, with the growth in wind farms, the five-person agency continues to boast its share of energy-related accounts, working with clients including power giant Duke Energy and Wasatch Wind. Politics also makes for a reliable source of business, as the agency includes U.S. senators and state pols in its portfolio. Weller’s mum about exactly which political campaigns it will be working for during the 2012 cycle—but count on it to pull for candidates on the red end of the spectrum. “I’m the token Democrat in the office,” Weller says, with a chuckle. “And I’m not even a Democrat anymore.”

New Boston Creative Group
Manhattan, Kan.: population 52,281 (city), 130,240 (metro)
Kansas pride runs deep at the New Boston Creative Group. All of the agency’s 11 employees, who are split between its Manhattan, Kan., headquarters and a booming outpost in Garden City, Kan., were born and raised in the Sunflower State. What’s more, the shop has built its business around the marketing of Kansas. Accounts include a recent assignment promoting tourism in Greensburg, the eco-friendly city rebuilt according to LEED Platinum standards after effectively being wiped out by an EF5 tornado five years ago. But New Boston isn’t just about drawing in travelers. Its work also includes the “ReNEWton” campaign, designed to persuade residents of Newton to participate in the town’s planning process. “We’ve had the privilege of working with a lot of great communities on community branding,” says Lisa Sisley, a principal at New Boston. As for political campaigns, not so much. Better not to alienate anyone, Sisley says, noting, “We stay out of politics—this is still too small of a town to hang our hat on that.”

Wendt
Great Falls, Mont.: population 58,505 (city), 81,837 (metro)
Founded 83 years ago, Wendt is a Montana institution. It used to have outposts in Billings, Mont., and Spokane, Wash., cities in which it still has clients. Today, all business is handled out of Wendt’s Great Falls headquarters, where 12 employees work on accounts including banking cooperative Farm Credit Services and insurance company New West Health Services. But it is the state’s busy travel and tourism industry—an economic driver in Montana second only to agriculture, and a category Wendt first started promoting in 1945—that accounts for the bulk of Wendt’s business. The agency’s latest work includes a campaign for the state’s stunning Glacier Country region. CEO Brenda Peterson, an avid fly fisher (pictured on the preceding pages), is delighted that she gets to avail herself of the landscape she happens to get paid to promote. “It’s like we live in our own little tourism postcard here,” she says.

Blink Marketing & Design
Brunswick, Ga.: population 15,383 (city), 112,923 (metro)
Run by wife-and-husband duo Sheri Wiggins (accounts) and Jim Wiggins (creative), five-year-old Blink may be the archetypical mom-and-pop shop. The agency’s team of six works across various media for some 30 clients. “We have everything from restaurant to retail, service industry, medical industry, B2B,” Sheri Wiggins says. While it does a little TV, the medium is too expensive and inefficient for most clients. Building websites is a staple of the business. One project is Adoption Share, a social network that facilitates contact between parents and adoption agencies and that helps streamline the adoption process.

Gravity Group
Harrisonburg, Va.: population 48,914 (city), 126,562 (metro)
Some 15 years ago, Gravity Group’s founders escaped the city for a more bucolic life, two hours southwest of the nation’s capital in the Shenandoah Valley. The agency still has clients in the D.C. area and Richmond, Va., a two-hour drive from its Harrisonburg, Va., base. But local and regional clients account for some 60 percent of its business—the largest portion coming from nonprofits, healthcare companies and institutions of higher education. With recent campaigns for organizations including the DuPont Community Credit Union and RMH Healthcare, the seven-person shop leans toward those accounts whose messages the agency’s employees can believe in, according to president Steve Gilman. “We fit best with brands that are trying to do something good,” he says. “It’s definitely a lifestyle decision.” With fewer new business opportunities than exist in larger markets, the agency also is focused on cultivating long-term relationships. “We definitely don’t have a volume-based growth strategy,” Gilman notes. “We have a lot of very loyal clients that we’ve had for a long time.”

Briggs Advertising
Bath, Maine: population 8,514 (city), 515,807 (metro Portland)
While part of the Portland metropolitan statistical area, Bath, like most of Maine, is rural. And with a staff that fluctuates between five and seven depending on client load, Briggs is “about as small as you can be without being a one-man consulting operation,” says CEO Walter Briggs. He says he picks up some business from Portland proper (a 40-minute drive from Bath), even serving as a sort of brand manager for a car dealership there. Other accounts include Skowhegan-based Gifford’s Ice Cream, which Briggs gave a tasty brand overhaul in late 2010. Bright and inviting TV work for regional energy company Downeast Energy, meanwhile, shows the shop’s range.

Burns Marketing
Johnstown, Colo.: population 9,886 (town), 305,525 (metro Fort Collins-Loveland)
In the age of connectivity, it’s become easier for a small town advertising agency to mine for business beyond its borders. Over the last decade, some 60 percent of Burns Marketing’s business has come from out of state. And with major accounts such as Hewlett Packard (a client for 25 years), the 40-year-old shop has deep roots in marketing information technology. “We’re part of that industry, not just trying to learn it and speak it,” says Burns’ account development director Johnny Hyde. Proximity to Colorado State University in nearby Fort Collins and the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley provides the shop, with about 30 employees, access to a pool of young talent, Hyde says. It also makes for an entrepreneurial culture and a crop of startups—and Burns clients—like computer company Rebit and RideKick, which markets motorized trailers that use electricity to power bicycles. “We’re very, very tuned into the potential of these companies to do great things and help them tell great stories,” says Hyde.

Hitcents
Bowling Green, Ky.: population 58,067 (city), 127,607 (metro)
This shop’s technological chops have helped it develop global reach. Only 10 percent or so of the interactive agency’s business comes from inside Kentucky, in fact, according to Hitcents co-founder and chief financial officer Ed Mills. The website it created for Chicago-based beverage giant Tampico earned it Hermes Creative and W3 awards, and its client base extends all the way to Sydney, Australia, where it works with software giant SAP. The Draw a Stickman website, an agency promotional toy Hitcents launched last fall, has drawn more than 63 million hits worldwide and two Webby nominations. That led the agency, which skews heavily toward development (some 35 of its 50 employees are coders), to repurpose the Stickman technology for campaigns for clients including MSD, an animal health company based in the U.K. Hitcents is doing so much work across the pond, it hopes to open a second office, in London.

Hanna Advertising
Coeur d’Alene, Idaho: population 44,137 (city), 141,132 (metro)
Located on the banks of Lake Coeur d’Alene in Northern Idaho, Hanna offers its 25 or so employees a lifestyle far afield from the rhythms of its big city counterparts. A New York expat, president Dayne Hanna founded the agency in the resort town in 1977, specializing in B2B services for the region’s industrial mining market. Over the years, however, Hanna’s focus has shifted toward more consumer advertising. Today, its largest client is Northern Quest Resort & Casino, just over the border in Spokane, Wash. 

Illustrations by Sam Bosma