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Creative reinvention. It’s something like bipartisanship, happy holidays and other modern conundrums: Scads of people identify it as a goal, then stumble when trying to make it real. Even for nimble agencies, change is tumultuous. So imagine the prospects for a 75-year-old ad agency. In the Midwest. With a portfolio full of agriculture clients.

If Colle+McVoy is any indication, nothing—not even the creative reawakening of a mid-sized Minneapolis agency established in 1935—is impossible.

In 2004, marketing veteran Christine Fruechte joined Colle+McVoy as director of client services, taking on the role of president in 2006 and later CEO. As president, her charge was to breathe new life into the agency, attracting consumer clients and improving the creative and strategic offering.

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But she inherited a business in a modern but sterile suburban building, some of whose people were wed to the past. While the work was strong in pockets, including the design department directed by Ed Bennett, B2B accounted for more than 70 percent of revenue.

So Fruechte set in motion a series of disruptions, including a 2006 move downtown. In the warehouse renovation, walls came down. So did doors. And Fruechte settled into her open cubicle, like everyone else.

“Suddenly, we were in a space that fostered collaboration,” says Mike Caguin, executive creative director. “Now, some of the most critical meetings happen when someone throws out an idea as you pass by in the hallway.”

Just prior to the move, Fruechte managed to lure Caguin and creative partner Eric Husband back to Colle+McVoy. Both art director and writer had put in intermittent stints there before joining Butler, Shine, Stern & Partners, Sausalito, in 2005. So for the senior team, it was a homecoming. Caguin was promoted to his current role in March 2009, replacing the slot left by former executive creative director Mike Fetrow in fall 2008.

Having invested in interactive, Colle+McVoy began generating buzz, attracting talent and, eventually, recognition from The One Show, Communication Arts, the Webbys and Effies. By 2010, the agency—60 percent of whose revenue now comes from consumer—was a finalist in The O’Toole Awards’ Mid-Sized Agency of the Year category.

“Founded in 1935,” Colle+McVoyers say. “Reincarnated in 2006.”

With 2009 capitalized billings of $198 million and 170 employees, MDC-owned Colle+McVoy has experienced five years of year-over-year growth—a period during which the recession hobbled entire industries. Colle+McVoy hasn’t executed layoffs in response to the downturn. For that, significant credit goes to another decision from the CEO’s office—or cubicle.

In early 2008, Fruechte realized digital competency needed to permeate the organization. Disbanding the interactive department, she integrated digital experts into creative and account teams. Some who’d joined specifically to be in an interactive department left, but the decision more than justified itself when brands started cutting traditional ad budgets and increasingly sought integrated digital solutions.

Digital now accounts for more than 40 percent of Colle+McVoy’s business, with standouts like The Recreational Boating & Fishing Foundation’s Web site, featuring viral videos that make fishing cool (really), and a promotion for When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint that S*** Gold [asterisks added], a 2008 release by indie hip-hop artists Atmosphere on the Rhymesayers Entertainment label. Colle+McVoy’s PaintThatShitGold.com allowed users to tag offine images of other Web sites with digital graYti, using stencil and spray-paint tools. That May, the album hit number 5 on the Billboard 200.

We need experts, but we also encourage generalists. Hybrid thinking allows us to ebb and flow with the marketing landscape. It also keeps people happier.” —Mike Caguin

Last year, the agency made 40 new hires to keep pace with client wins. That includes agency of record responsibilities for Mammoth Mountain Ski Area, Explore Minnesota Tourism and Dorel Recreational/Leisure—which owns Cannondale, Schwinn, GT, Mongoose, IronHorse and SUGOi—plus project work for Old Navy, TV and radio for Regis Corporation-owned Cost Cutters and digital agency of record duties for Land O’Lakes Dairy Foods division.

On a recent agency tour, Caguin stands beside an enormous, barrel-shaped contraption, sitting on its side. “Erbert & Gerbert,” it says, inscrutably. It’s very...nineteenth-century mad scientist.

In his hoodie, the 38-year-old could pass for 28, especially as, straightfaced but hardly serious, he pulls on a rope attached to the barrel, drawing back a swath of fabric along with it. He lets go of the rope. A massive puff of air shoots out the other end. He raises his eyebrows with a look that says: “Cool, right?”

In 2006, sandwich franchise Erbert & Gerbert’s gave Colle+McVoy one of its first significant chances to prove itself in the consumer sector. The founder opened the restaurant in honor of his dad, who wove for his children a series of inventive bedtime stories. In them, brothers Erbert and Gerbert travel space and time with insanely named characters like Boney Billy, Bornk and Geeter.

People liked the quirkiness, but they didn’t get it. Why was a tuna salad sub called The Bornk? On a tight budget, Colle+McVoy overhauled the in-store experience, with explanatory and impeccably-designed signage, before rolling out resource-stretching communications. Working with The Onion, Colle+McVoy hid a tiny pickle icon within an article. Those who discovered it redeemed the paper for a free treat. For a viral video, “Human Flipbook,” the agency ironed 150 cartoon stills on that many T-shirts. Photographing each shirt, worn by an intern, the team created a stop-motion animation that made it to YouTube's homepage.

So when the sub shop turned twenty, Colle+McVoy wasn’t about to do a cake and call it an anniversary, but a cake whose candles were blown out by a massive ring of air? Shot from a barrel-like apparatus sitting 180 feet away? That they would do. “So we built what we believe to be the largest air vortex canon in the world,” says Caguin, deadpan.

The anniversary event, says Caguin, was among the most fun days he’s had in advertising. Which, incidentally, is important to him. Fruechte describes Caguin: “He may seem understated, but he’s one of the most competitive people I know about advertising.” (Other stuff, too: The guy’s an Ironman.) But he takes the broad view.

“Everyone on the leadership team has worked on projects that produced great results, but the process to get there was excruciating,” he says. “I believe wholeheartedly that it’s not just about doing great work. It’s about a great journey on the way.”

Here, that includes summer yoga classes on the rooftop. For the agency’s cycling enthusiasts: Showers. And a shiatsu therapist provides on-site services. Showers and shiatsu. It’s hard to trump. A less tangible factor—specifically, the agency’s emphasis on multidisciplinary problem-solving—probably has as much to do with employee satisfaction, providing constant growth opportunities.

“We need experts,” Caguin says, “but we also encourage generalists. Hybrid thinking allows us to ebb and flow with the marketing landscape. It also keeps people happier.”

Colle+McVoy often uses that hybrid thinking to unearth, then reinvigorate, inherent but forgotten qualities within a brand’s ethos. It proved a successful strategy for Caribou Coffee. Seventeen years after its 1992 launch, Caribou was being out-spent by its competition—specifically, Starbucks and McDonald’s McCafé—95 to 1.

“Founded in 1935. Reincarnated in 2006.” —Colle+McVoyers

The dated, Alaskan-inspired identity helped not a bit. As design director Bennett led the redesign, Husband and team wrote hundreds of new tags. But the existing copy, “Life is short. Stay awake for it,” kept bubbling to the surface. “Originally, it was about staying caffeinated,” says Husband, group creative director. “We reinterpreted the statement, embracing it as a seize-the-day mantra.”

The March 2010 brand relaunch, spanning Web to outdoor, revolved around that repositioning. A bus shelter embedded with a 3-D globe read: “Step 1. Spin. Step 2. Pack bags.” A new cup showcased carpe diem statements, while the “Make The Cup” microsite did one better, inviting consumers to submit the reasons they stay awake. Of more than 25,000 consumer-generated responses, 125 were printed on cups.

In 2010, Caribou reported a year-to-date five percent increase in store traffic. During the second quarter of that year, when the campaign launched, Caribou’s market share in Minneapolis increased five percent as Starbucks’ fell by ten percent.

Colle+McVoy builds from scratch, too. In 2010, the Bikes Belong Coalition Web site was primarily industry facing. For the Boulder-based group, which advocates for bike-friendly communities, consumer participation was critical. Colle+McVoy’s solved the problem by devising a new brand: People for Bikes launched that spring. It aims to make biking more accessible, gathering 1 million consumer pledges in support of cycling.

Referencing Interstate signage, its red, white and blue logo features a silhouetted bike whose wheels form the eyes of a face; beneath it, a curved mark creates a smile that doesn’t scream “smiley face!” so much as evoke happiness. To keep the campaign relevant to all, pledgers choose from among different types of bikes for their online badge: Competitors can go with a BMX bike, for instance, moms a bike with kiddie seat.

Supported by a Web site, point-of-purchase and a PSA that aired during the Tour de France, the movement earned 150,000 pledges within six months, making Bikes Belong America’s largest cycling advocacy group. Among the pledgers: Lance Armstrong.

For his part, Caguin wasn’t just doing duty when he signed the pledge. The die-hard cyclist rides year round. (In the winter: studded tires.) So it makes sense that, as a creative leader, the Ironman would think in terms of journeys.

“In a word, it’s about fulfillment,” he says. “To me, a great journey plus a great outcome equals fulfillment.” 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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