Erwin Penland Founder/President Announces His Retirement

By Patrick Coffee 

Joe Erwin, founder of South Carolina-based agency Erwin Penland who has spent more than three decades in the advertising industry, announced yesterday that he will be stepping down from his position as president and retiring. His last day on the job will be December 31st.

The agency will announce succession plans in coming weeks, with the presidency expected to go to either longtime COO Allen Bosworth or CMO/former Verizon executive Joe Saracino.

A lifelong South Carolinian, Erwin graduated from Clemson University in 1979 and simultaneously went into marketing and state politics. As a college-aged activist and during a four-year stint as Chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party in the 2000s, Erwin worked on the campaigns of future Rep. James Clyburn, Governor Jim Hodges and President Jimmy Carter.


He founded Erwin Penland in Greenville, S.C. in 1986 with only one client and one other employee: his wife Gretchen. The agency went on to become one of the more successful businesses in the Greenville area, expanding to New York and briefly maintaining an office in Detroit. In 2004 it was acquired by IPG’s Hill Holliday, which still operates as its sister agency (at the time, both shops counted Verizon as a client).

Changes in the Verizon account have led to some layoffs across the Erwin Penland organization over the past year, but Erwin himself notes that plans for his retirement have been in the works for some time.

After his internal memo went out yesterday, employees threw a going-away party in Greenville and the agency created a #ToastToJoe microsite and hashtag so staffers could share their thoughts on his departure.

One Erwin Penland veteran tells us that Erwin, ever the old-school businessman, always told employees that he worked for them rather than the reverse. He restated that point in his farewell note yesterday.

He and his wife plan to spend their retirement working on long-term passion projects involving health and public education.

Here’s the full memo.


I am writing to let you know news that I’ve shared with Allen, and with leadership at Hill Holliday: I am announcing today that I will be leaving Erwin Penland, effective December 31st of this year. While this might seem sudden to many of you, the fact is that Allen and I have been talking about succession planning for well over a year.

As you might imagine, the impending change has me experiencing a range of emotions. 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. In our early years, Gretchen, Allen and I rode ups and downs together, always believing that if we put service above self, we might just build something special. And thanks to hard work, commitment, shared sacrifice and perhaps some luck, we created a unique and successful agency. And in more recent years, when the three of us accepted the offer to become part of Hill Holliday, we did so knowing that we were joining a special team in Boston that shared our values.

My heart will always be with Erwin Penland, and I will always stand ready to help the agency. So what’s next for me? Many of you know that Gretchen and I have a passion for public education, and that in 2012 we pledged multi-year donations to create the Erwin Center for Brand Communications at Clemson. This arena is where I will focus even more energy. Allen too, has enormous passion for public education, and I’m excited that he wants Erwin Penland and the Erwin Center to continue to build a dynamic bond that will help each entity achieve very high goals. Beyond my work at Clemson, I will be looking at other opportunities where my energy as a creator might be helpful to others.

My time here has been the stuff dreams are made of. So many of you are responsible for helping create the success we’ve achieved, and to you I am eternally grateful. I’ll close with something several of you veterans of Erwin Penland have heard me say: years ago, as we were growing beyond what most would have thought possible, I came to understand that as we worked hard to recruit special women and men to join Erwin Penland, that they really were not coming here to work for me. Rather, they were joining a team where I worked for them. So in closing, let me just say thank you for allowing me to work for you. It has been an honor and a privilege.