Big Fish, Small Ponds

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

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.”