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When Denise Stimac was eight, her favorite bicycle was stolen. To replace it, she and her father visited a discount toy factory in Milwaukee's Third Ward, a turn-of-the-century warehouse district that had fallen into disrepair. They bought an orange banana-seat bicycle. That this bike, too, was stolen is not the story's strangest coincidence.

Instead, jump ahead a few decades to find Denise spending much of her waking life in that same warehouse. Today, the refurbished space is home to Kohnke Hanneken, arguably the city's most creative advertising agency, and Denise Stimac is now Denise Kohnke, KH's founding partner and president. Denise, her art director husband Rich Kohnke, and writer Dave Hanneken, set up shop in the warehouse six years ago.

Today, the Third Ward is a thriving business and artist community, with Kohnke Hanneken championing its growth. Denise's bicycle story is more than coincidence; it underscores the deep ties Milwaukeeans have to the city. If people leave, they come back, and many go to great lengths to stay. Rich Kohnke hated the idea of a career that pushed him all over the country, so he founded his own without packing a single bag. Long a force in the local advertising scene, KH's steady output of meticulously-crafted work over the years has garnered a slice of overdue national recognition.

The Midwestern work ethic is a cliché for one reason: It's real. "We're not a 9-to-5 shop," says Rich Kohnke. "By that I don't mean that you have to be here from six in the morning until midnight. I mean that you're a student of advertising all the time, and thinking about your clients 24/7." Actually, when necessary, staffers do work until midnight, or at least something like it. KH's pride in product is exactly why talented people want to be there. "If we've allocated five hours for a project," says Denise Kohnke, "we bill for five hours. But we don't snatch whatever the team has when the five hours are up and show it to the client, unless creatives are comfortable with what they have. Creatives here spend more time because they want to. They complete their own circle, as opposed to having to bang something out in five hours and move on to the next thing. Mentally, it's different."

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The theme of hard work pervades the agency environment. In a nod to the city's blue-collar roots, the local ad club, on whose board Rich Kohnke sits, is called the United Adworkers. The club's awards are fashioned in the shape of oversized gold, silver and bronze nuts—the type you buy at a hardware store. Several rows of these line KH's reception desk. Even in casual conversation, you get the sense that these three aren't waiting around for their due credit. They're taking hold of it themselves by doing good—and, that's right, hard—work. Forget the you-betcha Wisconsin you know from TV. Observe out loud how interesting it is that such good work could come from a city known for cheese-wedge hats, and watch three sets of eyes glaze over. This is old news, to them at least. The partners would rather talk about their work than the beer-and-brats reputation—one they seek to debunk—of their city. After all, they have earned a host of national as well as local honors, including Communication Arts, The One Show, the Obies and Graphis.

In conversation, Rich Kohnke will refer to the art of the ad. That "art" sits comfortably within the agency vocabulary, that the term "production values," elicits an impassioned response, is apparent in their final product. The campaign for the Volkswagen retrospective at the Eisner Museum of Advertising and Design is as finely crafted as any exhibition on the museum's walls. One ad shows tiny VW Beetles pinned to a board like insect specimens. The payoff: "Follow the evolution of advertising's most well-adapted species." The aged visual texture, arrived at via meticulous retouching and testing by agency production artist/engineer Jim McDonald, suggests you might have stumbled across the ads in the basement of the Museum of Natural History.

In contrast, a campaign for Church in the City, a local congregation offering contemporary worship, takes an iconic approach. One print features a closely-cropped stoplight. Instead of the "walk" signal, a luminescent cross shines out, serving as the church's invitation to new members. Integrating the symbol of the cross into the fabric of daily urban life highlights the church's very mission with one simple stroke. "The Christian crucifix is the most recognizable symbol on the planet," says Hanneken, "with the Golden Arches a distant second. So not much explanation is needed." Summing up the campaign's creative approach, Rich Kohnke adds, "Religion is complicated. Advertising shouldn't be."

We let the client look behind the curtain." —Dave Hanneken

Rich Kohnke and Dave Hanneken met and cut their teeth in the industry at Milwaukee's Curro Eichenbaum from 1985 to 1989. Hanneken moved on to Ogilvy's Hawaii outpost, and then back home—to some of the most reputable local shops, including Cramer-Krasselt and Hoffman York. Meanwhile, Kohnke met and married Denise, and went on to Frankenberry Laughlin Constable, the pinnacle of Milwaukee's creative advertising at the time. In 1991, Kohnke launched Kohnke Koeneke with Denise and then partner Steve Koeneke. The first call Rich and Denise made when they and Koeneke parted ways in 1997 was to Hanneken.

Twenty people strong, KH is big agency talent in a small package. Given that the four-person creative department includes Dave and Rich, the best idea gets produced, whether it came from the AD or the AE. The lack of layers attracts staffers, often refugees from big agencies who are dissatisfied with the brief-from-the-sky chopshop model. At KH, a creative can't blame the suit if an idea doesn't fly, because that creative was in on the research and client meetings from the start. In fact, there really are no "suits." KH account executives have as much creative inclination as business savvy. This is because such people, as Denise Kohnke says, "Have a hope in hell of understanding what we do here." An account person's role is not to sell creative. "AEs are like grout," she says. "They hold the mosaic together." She adds, "And it's good not to be a salesperson."

Credit KH's style of client interaction for the enviable position. Clients provide input before a single typeface is selected. There are no surprises, no need to sell hard. Throughout the process, a postcard will receive the same hands-on care as a print campaign. "It's not the best business model, frankly," says Denise Kohnke, "but it allows you to sleep at night knowing you've done the best work for every client, every minute of the day." To that end, KH eschews the venerable tradition of the so-called "safe ad," which more often than not is the one the marketing director buys. Instead, clients see marker renderings—stick figures and hand-drawn copy. In place of the temptation to kill an idea because of a stock photo is the concept, naked as a stick figure. "We let the client look behind the curtain," says Hanneken.

Once known as a print shop, KH, with billings of $20 million, finds itself producing more broadcast than print these days. In an economic climate where networks and little boutiques pitch against each other as a matter of survival, KH's steady growth is impressive. Missing from the account list is the cash-cow client, which keeps the books in the black but siphons off creative resources. Historically, KH's accounts have included the Milwaukee Brewers, Potawatomi Bingo Casino, Park Bank, The Eisner Museum of Advertising and Design, Alverno College, Global Healthcare Exchange, The YMCA Metropolitan Milwaukee and The YMCA of the USA, and range from $150,000 to $2 million.

We're not a 9-to-5 shop. By that I don't mean that you have to be here from six in the morning until midnight. I mean that you're a student of advertising all the time, and thinking about your clients 24/7." —Rich Kohnke

The agency's brand management approach meets a very real need among small clients in the throes of repositioning themselves, who often believe brand redirection is an option only for big companies. And KH bucks every client longevity average. The Milwaukee YMCA, for instance, was Kohnke Koeneke's first account in 1991; the Y is still on board in 2004. Based on KH's strategic guidance, the Milwaukee YMCA recently made television its primary messaging platform. No longer perceived to be "medicine ball land for transient men," as the case study says, the Milwaukee chapter is today a highly sophisticated marketer, known as a family center for mind/body health. This tends to happen with clients. Denise Kohnke compares the agency to a teaching hospital. Marketers learn and grow through their work with KH.

In an ad for Park Bank—a small company that has remained independent in an era of megamergers—a lemon of a truck is shown mid-air, attempting to jump a row of cars it obviously won't clear. "Exactly how confident are you in your bank's ability to overcome obstacles?" asks the copy. As Hanneken discusses the strategy, it takes only a moment to realize he could easily be talking about his own shop. "In business," he says, "odds are you'll have to deal with these big [bank] conglomerates. They're slow, they're clunky, and it takes forever to get answers. You can call Park Bank and say, 'I want to extend my line of credit,' and your banker doesn't say, 'This will go to committee and I'll get back to you in a week.'" A point of pride at KH is that clients can pick up the phone and talk to anyone at the shop, any time. The slick campaign for the bank is a testament to the bang clients get for their buck in working with a nimble agency that cares.

As for the future, KH would like to see its good work translate into more national business. Part of the challenge in landing those accounts is practical: Milwaukee houses few national corporate headquarters. The other challenge is perceptual: Clients still buy into the cachet of having an agency of record from a status city like New York or Chicago. According to Rich Kohnke, it's only a matter of time. 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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