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People are amazing, aren’t they?” says Carter Weitz, who is standing before a Joseph Stella painting at the Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery in Lincoln, Nebraska. “They’re all so different.”

Few places could make that statement more palpably clear than the rooms of this modestly-sized museum—whose walls bring together works by Georgia O’Keefe, Theodore Robinson and Max Weber, among other strange bedfellows. Weitz, president of creative services at Nebraska’s Bailey Lauerman, is talking about the eclectic collection, not his agency, but his fascination with people’s infinite diversity has everything to do with his leadership style. He’s structured the firm’s creative approach around his belief that true innovation emerges only when different minds—each with its own set of experiences and references—coalesce around a problem.

“All innovation, including fine art, is evolutionary,” says Weitz. “One idea causes a mental adjustment and triggers another. We take that into account in the way we solve problems. If you try to construct communication in an assembly line, where people work alone behind a shut door, it takes longer and it’s not as good. But if you put a bunch of minds together, the opportunities for innovation are unlimited.”

At BL, writers art direct and art directors write. Planners and account executives are just as much a part of concepting sessions as creative teams. “We like to break down barriers and promote cross-pollination,” says Weitz. “We believe big ideas can come from anywhere, and we don’t care where they come from.”

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They can even come from Lincoln, a town from whose airport you can’t just hail a cab, as some visitors learn just slightly before it’s too late. But then, this is a city named for Abraham Lincoln, arguably the King of Big Ideas—whose legacy, incidentally, lives in the firm’s work. Number 16 regularly appears in the agency’s print campaign for the annual 26-mile race, the Lincoln Marathon. In one ad, an image of Lincoln’s statue at his Washington, dc memorial accompanies the copy: “One score and 6.2 miles.” Thanks to seamless post, the great emancipator is shown soaking his tired feet in a tub.

Weitz joined BL as associate art director in 1986, with a BFA in design from Iowa State. When he felt the urge to broaden his horizons, he put in a stint at Bernstein-Rein, Kansas City. Two years in, BL’s founder Rich Bailey enticed Weitz to return as associate creative director, where he’d have the freedom and authority to craft a creative department. “I have a little bit of an underdog mentality,” says Weitz. “And the challenge of producing great work out of a market like Lincoln was very appealing.”

By then, he’d had the chance to sample the dubious industry tradition of dividing creatives in teams that pitch against each other to win assignments, a practice he abolished on his return. “I felt it was important to do everything I could to make sure this was a noncompetitive environment—where people understood the enemy wasn’t within.” While it might extend the presidential association to the edge of credibility, it really is hard to hear that without thinking of that earlier chief exec—a leader with underdog proclivities, too—who said “a house divided against itself cannot stand.”

The agency’s history reads like a page torn from the underdog’s playbook. As a student at the University of Nebraska, Bailey and his friend Bart Lewis founded Lincoln’s Around Town magazine, developing content and selling ad space to local businesses. Their headquarters: The basement of Bailey’s parents’ house. As business picked up, the team, now joined by Bailey’s third cousin Jim Lauerman, encountered clients who wanted more than ad space: They wanted ads. Bailey et al. obliged, devising ads for the magazine’s pages until 1970, when they founded the agency Bailey Lewis. Lauerman later joined as account executive, ascending to the presidency first and then CEO in 1990, when the firm became Bailey Lauerman.

Today, the Lincoln office is housed in a building designed by I.M. Pei. That’s a long way from those basement beginnings, and not just architecturally. With 2006 capitalized billings of $63.5 million, BL has generated award-winning design, advertising and interactive solutions for a formidable list of national clients, including Honeywell Aerospace, Disney, Allstate and Union Pacific, as well as local accounts like Tobacco Free Hall County and The Lincoln Children’s Zoo.

Union Pacific is about the extraordinary ties the brand has with America’s economy and history. The two are so inextricably linked that you can see the history of Union Pacific as a great company through the history of America as a great country.” —Lance Koenig

Bailey, who retired in February 2007, graciously recounts the Around Town story, though he seems more interested in the firm’s current affairs. But it’s not entirely ancient history. By transforming that scrap of a media venture into a firm whose awards list includes Communication Arts, The One Show, OBIEs and National ADDYs, he planted the seeds for a business that, to this day, gets in on opportunities through the back door. “We didn’t spin off from another agency, walking off with a Rolodex of people we knew would follow us,” says Lauerman. “We started with zero—so we had to go out and find opportunities. When you start with that mentality, it’s in the DNA of the organization.” 

A back-door approach to generating new business is also BL’s answer to the realities of its location. When many clients still seek the sheen of a big-city shop, BL has quietly earned its place on the national stage by transforming modest prospects into major achievements. More than once, the firm has parlayed its role as a supplemental agency into a seat at the high table. Allstate, which calls Leo Burnett its agency of record, initially tapped BL to execute local-level marketing; today, the firm handles national as well as local projects for Allstate. Similarly, Disney hired the firm to work in collaboration with its in-house, Orlando-based agency Yellow Shoes. That supplemental position grew into a more substantial role in 2006, when BL’s TV spot, “Cinderella,” co-produced with New York’s mcgarrybowen, hit national airwaves.

Lauerman certainly knows a back door when he sees one. When he heard that Omaha-based Union Pacific was considering a review of brand consultants and agencies, he convinced Robert Turner, senior vice president of corporate relations, to hold off until the agency one town over could give it a shot. Turner agreed. As Lauerman recalls, the senior vice president also said that the odds that BL would do more than present its initial research findings were—and here he held up his thumb and finger half an inch apart—“about this big.” 

BL forged ahead, undertaking to help Union Pacific—which had gone without advertising for 25 years—reestablish itself as one of America’s most respected brands. “What we found is that Union Pacific is not just about delivering the raw goods and finished materials America needs,” says Lance Koenig, executive vice president/account planning. “Union Pacific is about the extraordinary ties the brand has with America’s economy and history. The two are so inextricably linked that you can see the history of Union Pacific as a great company through the history of America as a great country.”

We didn’t spin off from another agency, walking off with a Rolodex of people we knew would follow us. We started with zero—so we had to go out and find opportunities. When you start with that mentality, it’s in the DNA of the organization.” —Jim Lauerman

In 1862, Abraham Lincoln signed the Pacific Railway Act and Union Pacific was created, to link the nation’s east to the American west and the reverse. One stake-in-the-ground at a time, the railroad connected a nation still ravaged by war. To leverage that legacy, BL devised creative around the concept, “Building America,” which the brand embraced and ran with.

Today, BL handles nearly every piece of Union Pacific’s internal and external communications, including national print and television. In one spot, the camera sweeps across immense swaths of American terrain in a single pan to meet an oncoming train. But the train is an almost cursory element. Rather, the commercial’s protagonist—and the more appropriate symbol for the soul of this brand—is the American landscape, which Union Pacific connected by way of 33,000 miles of timber and steel, as we learn from the voiceover: “And it’s been said that in those 33,000 miles of rail, you can feel America’s pulse.”

The campaign passes all the traditional metrics of effectiveness, but the more powerful evidence emerged when BL presented early spots to a focus group of tenured Union Pacific railroaders, a crowd you wouldn’t expect to emote overmuch, particularly not about a couple of ads. But these grizzled railroaders got choked up. “It’s not too strong to say that in a few instances, people were almost brought to tears,” says Koenig.

To support its new client of record, BL opened its Omaha office in 2001, not bad for a firm whose chances were initially said to be half an inch wide. As it’s done with numerous clients, BL won over Union Pacific by delivering more than the brand expected from a Lincoln-based shop. That location, it turns out—where world-class work can flourish without the egos or antics of big-city agency life—has its advantages.

You could argue that Nebraska itself has been a kind of back door for the agency—an unexpected place from which to launch into the national arena. Out of the way and under the radar, it’s put BL in the perfect position to sneak up behind—and pleasantly surprise—the rest of the industry. Consistently, the agency has delivered more than many might have expected from a mid-sized shop in the middle of America—capturing a robust slice of the national spotlight in the process. ca

Tiffany Meyers is a Chicago-based freelance writer. Her articles about business and visual culture have appeared in such magazines as Surface, the Chicago Tribune, HOW, Metropolis, American PHOTO, PINK, Entrepreneur and Advertising Age, among others.

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