BOHAN Features

BOHAN

The secret behind this Nashville-based ad agency’s work? Imbuing it with collaboration.

Matthew   Porter
N

ashville, nicknamed Music City, is home to thousands of artists and industry workers. Its legend is built upon generations of young musicians who’ve arrived here by Greyhound bus to pursue their dreams. Dolly Parton arrived on a bus a day after she graduated from high school. Garth Brooks sold boots here. Randy Travis washed dishes. Trisha Yearwood worked as a country Music Hall of Fame tour guide. A few make it to the Grand Ole Opry; many don’t. But what fuels most newcomers’ desires is the possibility that Nashville affords—like few other cities in the United States.

© Connor Carroll
From left: Gayle Fuson, chief financial officer;
Brian Gilpatrick, senior vice president of account
management; David Bohan, chairman; Shari Day,
president and chief executive officer; Cristina
Goodenough, executive engagement director; and 
Jon Arnold, vice president and executive creative
director
.

Nashville is part of David Bohan’s DNA. Unlike Dolly, Garth and others, Bohan didn’t arrive by bus. He was born here. While he started with few professional connections, he could identify talent and knew how to build creative teams. In 1990, at the age of 41, he formed BOHAN Advertising. 

“Nashville’s spirit can be characterized as ‘Let’s build this together,’” explains Bohan. “My early career was helped along by others. BOHAN has evolved with help from others. So we define people by the roles they play and the contributions they make, not by their rank, tenure or level of experience. We built this agency together.”

BOHAN is a big part of Nashville’s growing creative reputation, and of that, its founder is proud. He hasn’t forgotten his Nashville roots or his obligation to help newcomers pursue their dreams. He created a culture of respect, sharing, caring and, above all else, valuing the band over the solo performer. “This agency’s best assets leave every day on an elevator. It’s my job to make sure those who work here feel respected and fulfilled. That’s the only way I can ensure that those who leave here Tuesday night will be back Wednesday morning.”

WE SUCCEED TOGETHER
“A company’s culture is a reflection of its leadership,” says Shari Day, president and CEO of the agency. “David Bohan sets the tone. He knows our staff by name, and he has been known for his extraordinary acts of kindness on their behalf. He cares. We know it. Many in Nashville know it. Here, we don’t just talk about selfless teamwork and healthy culture—we succeed together. That is the basis for the quality and effectiveness of our product.”

Transparency and honesty are BOHAN cornerstones. The agency distributes an annual report to every employee detailing every dime the agency takes in and spends. It does not keep time sheets. If an account manager decides to dine at an expensive restaurant, everyone knows it. If production costs double due to bad weather, all are privy. All are accountable. All share profits. 

Client David Ellis of O’Charley’s Restaurants says this kind of transparency attracted his company to BOHAN: “When we went searching for a partner two years ago, we said, ‘We know who we are; we need someone to bring that identity to life.’ There’s a lot of fake in the world today, and people want a place that’s real. That’s what we wanted to convey from the start—that we were born in a kitchen, not in a conference room. People are looking for authenticity—in their relationships with each other and also with the brands they buy, and BOHAN has delivered that for us.” 

RED-HOT NASHVILLE
Outside the country music community, Nashville was once considered a cultural backwater. Not today. As national attention has focused on its rapid growth, low cost of living, cultural riches, booming real estate, hipster neighborhoods and culinary bounty, Nashville has become a destination. BOHAN is benefiting from the good news, attracting new talent from as far away as San Francisco, New York, Chicago and Minneapolis. “Most come here from somewhere else,” observes Jon Arnold, agency executive creative director and Ohio native. “But we’re cohesive. We share pride in craft and value family life. And those of us who’ve moved here now consider Nashville home, and we practice this city’s tradition of embracing newcomers who bring new ideas and talent.” 

BOHAN’s vetting process helps ensure new hires become solid band members. Says Arnold, “To get hired here, you have to ‘run the gauntlet,’ meeting with staff members at every level of the organization. A prospect might meet as many as ten people. If we see that a person will fit into our culture, it’s just a matter of working the numbers to get him or her here.” 

Nashville’s spirit can be characterized as ‘Let’s build this together. My early career was helped along by others. BOHAN has evolved with help from others. So we define people by the roles they play and the contributions they make, not by their rank, tenure or level of experience. We built this agency together.” —David Bohan

PULLING DOWN SILOS
BOHAN institutionalizes cross-disciplinary collaboration and open communication by mixing together writers, art directors, planners and account managers to work and share in “villages.” The villages represent the agency’s three principal client industries: health care, tourism and retail. Every client has an office they can visit, day or night. There’s no media department. No creative department. No planning department. Just villages populated by individuals with a collaborative work ethic. 

Go ahead, roll your eyes. But in BOHAN’s capacious brick-walled offices inside an old warehouse in the middle of Nashville’s Gulch district, this arrangement is more than physical: it’s philosophical. Ellis agrees. “Our village setup drives creative thinking. Lots of places talk about breaking down silos, but we live it. This gives us tremendous influence and connection. That’s powerful stuff. Much more so than just ‘making ads.’”

Brian Gilpatrick, senior vice president of account management, has been with BOHAN for more than 20 years. He describes himself as “a cross between a librarian and a mechanic”—a “nerd” who gets along with others because, he says, “I listen more than I talk, and I’m always digging around to learn as much as I can.” Gilpatrick is paid to poke holes in others’ assumptions. “Not for fun,” he cautions, “but to provide better solutions.” During his tenure, he’s seen BOHAN grow up. “We’re doing the best work in our history, and I attribute this to a few characteristics. First, everyone who works here must devote time to understand their client’s business. Clients depend on us to see trends and adapt to change. Second, we don’t let our egos get in the way of good work. Assholes—whether clients or employees—are unwelcome. Finally, we know our strengths, and we encourage clients to define theirs. This requires soul-searching and, sometimes, painful honesty.”

PIGEON FORGE, FOREVER
If you’ve ever been to Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, or wanted to visit, thank BOHAN’s campaigns for piquing your interest. It’s a heck of a place to have a whole lot of fun for not a whole lot of money. Designed for families and people with modest incomes, the town attracts those who love go-cart racing, miniature golf, zombie rooms, waterslides, goats on the roof, zip lines and, of course, Dolly Parton. Pigeon Forge is also big on loyalty—it’s had the same city manager, tourism director and marketing manager for almost 30 years. The current mayor and city commissioners who approve and fund the tourism department have served more than 20 years. BOHAN is no exception to the rule: it’s been the town’s agency of record since 1990. 

Leon Downey, executive director of the Pigeon Forge Department of Tourism since 1989, explains why this relationship has endured nearly three decades. “They’ve recommended and executed marketing programs that have helped us attract new guests, the lifeline of our tourism economy. There’s rarely a workday that we don’t interact with them on multiple projects. Because the marketing programs they’ve recommended have worked well, there’s great trust between us. And while BOHAN has larger accounts today than Pigeon Forge, David Bohan remains involved in our account, and other BOHAN folks have served us for more than fifteen years. They know our staff, our guests and our business community. We rely on them to share fresh insights on many things besides marketing. We consider David and his BOHAN team part of our extended staff.”

I believe effective advertising is the product of effective people. When you trust people, good things happen.” —David Bohan

EAGLE STEVE SOARS
When Erica Brister learned that her father wanted to retire and close his decades-old Nashville pest control business, she wondered if she would be able to carry her father’s torch. In the end, loyalty to her father, her hometown and the people of U.S. Pest Protection convinced her to keep the business open. She left Boston, gave up her dream career in broadcast journalism and moved home. But she had some conditions. She wanted to grow the company. She wanted a marketing program that would shake up the local market. She needed to get folks talking about her family business, and she wanted BOHAN to help her do it. And all on a limited budget. 

Brister and BOHAN made a deal: she would get what she wanted at the price she could afford, but she had to learn to trust BOHAN to define what it was she thought she wanted. It had to be groundbreaking, unusual and all or nothing. The solution for U.S. Pest Protection? Eagle Steve, a peculiar puppet mascot accompanied by a zany theme song. 

“The pest control industry’s comfort zone is narrow, but I’m drawn to creative risks,” says Brister. “My inner rebel said, ‘Trust them. Pull the trigger.’” Eagle Steve soared on YouTube. In just a few weeks, 115,000 visitors have viewed this odd spot. Will it become a cult classic that propels U.S. Pest Protection to national prominence? Who knows? It’s certainly weird enough. But it now drives the company’s hometown brand recognition. Eagle Steve, BOHAN’s brainchild, has made it likely that U.S. Pest Protection will be around for at least one more generation of Bristers. 

GET ON THE BUS
“I once heard someone say, ‘It’s not hard to make advertising that is distinctive—it’s hard to make advertising that is effective,’” says Bohan. “I believe effective advertising is the product of effective people. When you trust people, good things happen. We trust people here. It’s liberating and refreshing. People want to be a part of this.” 

Those one-way tickets to Music City aren’t just for guitar players and songbirds these days. There are others on that bus: advertising dreamers of Atlanta, Chicago, San Francisco, New York, Seattle and Minneapolis. The undervalued, overlooked, disempowered and rent-impoverished are heading to Nashville. BOHAN will welcome them with open arms. It’s the Nashville way. ca

Matthew Porter is a writer, critic and creative consultant who lives in his hometown, Atlanta, Georgia. His company is PorterWrite Design Consulting.

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