Minneapolis Is Growing Up, While Trying Not To Grow Old

In 1997, Fallon McElligott introduced the world to “Dick,” a brash young advertising superstar. With ideas that included dressing a motorcycle-riding man in a beaver costume, the campaign was alternately loved and loathed—but undeniably creative.

As it turns out, Dick was much like the community from whence he came. Since the ’80s, Minneapolis has earned a reputation for eye-catching, creative ads—from Carmichael Lynch’s bold efforts for Harley-Davidson to Peterson Milla Hooks’ design-driven Target television work.

Now, nearly a decade after Dick, Minneapolis is at a crossroads. The creative spotlight is shining on other agencies and other cities, like Miami, and the local agency community is trying to figure where it fits in the advertising scene. “Minneapolis is not seen as the destination it once was,” said one search consultant, adding that is partly due to the inevitable fade of novelty. “They don’t have the same kind of hot presence they used to.”

Another executive likened the city’s situation to a young adult who has graduated from school and is facing the challenges of adulthood and the real world. “It’s like they’re saying, ‘Who am I, and who do I want to be?'” he said.

For most of its recent history, that raison d’etre was creativity. Though the city’s largest agency has been around for 70 years, the “creative is king” philosophy was born in the 1980s, when local agencies tried to top one another with each campaign.

As account planning began to take hold in the 1990s—in Minneapolis as well as the industry as a whole—the creative thinking became more strategic. “It used to be that the strategic planning started a half-hour before making the ad,” said Fallon founding partner Fred Senn. “Now the planners focus the creatives. The hip-shooting is more organized. There’s not as many bullets going in the top of your boot.”

While the addition of strategy has equalled smarter, more focused work, some sources suggest it has also led to less surprising creative. Tom Riddle, a former Fallon art director and creative director at Make in Portland, Maine, recently served as a judge at the local award show. “The work we saw was a little more grounded and focused on strategy—not stuff that would have you say, ‘Wow, how did they get there,'” he said.

Jan Apple, an area consultant who’s been in business for nearly 20 years, commented on the city overall. “It’s changed for sure. It’s a completely different place than it was when I started,” she said.

The biggest change she and other sources cited was the presence of holding company ownership. Of the city’s top five agencies, only Martin/Williams was wholly owned by an outside entity 10 years ago. Now, the largest agencies are all owned by holding companies. As such, their priorities have changed. “If the No. 1 priority is delivering profits to the holding company, then it isn’t clients’ business,” Apple said.

Granted, all of these factors—strategy, holding company ownership and even client conservatism—are not unique to Minneapolis. “Like every agency in the country, they have to re-evaluate what they are and who they are. But I think that happens everywhere,” agreed Judy Neer, president of Pile and Co.

As the Midwestern city looks to the future, several sources said the next generation of leaders needs to step up. Of those who served as mentors for a younger generation—such as Ray Mithun, Pat Fallon, Tom McElligott, Lee Lynch and Bill Westbrook—only the 60-year-old Fallon remains. But the city’s four biggest shops have all brought in new creative leaders over the past two years: Paul Silburn, Roger Camp and Mark Taylor at Fallon; Peter McHugh at Carmichael Lynch; Tom Moudry at Martin/Williams; and Jonathan Hoffman at Campbell Mithun.

“The talent that is being assembled has the potential to do the next remarkable thing,” said Jack Rooney, CEO of Interpublic’s Campbell Mithun, who joined the agency a year ago himself. “It’s just a matter of time.”

Minneapolis continues to have a cache with clients. In the last six months, clients such as Borders, Payless ShoeSource, Coleman and Vanguard Car Rental have brought $120 million in billings. And virtually every agency with any heft received the initial RFP for Lee Jeans’ $30 million account, according to sources. However, in the same time period, major losses add up to about $160 million, most of which came out of Fallon.

Vanguard CMO Jerry Dow said, “It definitely feels like the work is more mature, but it’s no less creative or breakthrough.”

And other creatives continue to be impressed by the work. Riddle said, “I’ve been in San Francisco, New York and Boston, and I still consider [Minneapolis] among the best.”