Loading ...

Even in the winter, Madison, Wisconsin, is full of warmth. Visitors tell tales of being lost downtown, only to have multiple friendly passersby greet them and offer directions. That salt-of-the-earth kindness and decency enables creativity to flourish.

Left to right: Curt Hanke, Michael Kriefski and John Krull.
© Jeff Sciortino

It’s no wonder, then, that professionals lured to the coasts from Wisconsin often settle back home. Mike Kriefski and Curt Hanke, two of Shine United’s three cofounders, both left the state early in their careers. After leaving the Midwest to join Young & Rubicam in Raleigh, North Carolina, Kriefski returned to Wisconsin four years later to work as associate creative director at one Madison agency and vice president/creative director at a second. There he met Hanke, who had landed back in Madison after stints in Los Angeles and Minneapolis. The two, along with designer and third cofounder Chad Bollenbach, hit it off, thanks to a shared mindset about what an ad agency could be. 

“Mike’s a creative who gets business, and I’m a business guy who gets creative,” explains Hanke. “We wanted to create an agency with a combined reverence for both science and art.”

Tired of traditional agency approaches, the two set out to create an agency that honors both the consumer and the brand. Declaring, “We hate advertising,” Shine’s first website outlined the new agency’s disdain for the status quo. “The idea is king,” the copy concluded. Sixteen years later, Shine continues to train its focus on big, unconventional ideas.

Shine’s client list includes quintessential Wisconsin clients like Harley-Davidson Motorcycles, University of Wisconsin Health and the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board, as well as large national consumer brands like GORE-TEX apparel and LaCrosse Footwear. 

“We wanted to start a national agency in a place with a wonderful quality of life,” says Kriefski. “The Midwestern work ethic is real. There’s an honest desire to roll up your sleeves and do great work.”

“We feel we have a fiduciary responsibility to our clients, and we’re on a never-ending quest to help them unlock the potential of their businesses and brands,” says Hanke, who frequently writes about marketing for Inc. and Advertising Age and is authoring a book titled How to Shine. “We see ourselves as a brand consultancy, and at our best, our planning, creative and client teams are all charging down the path together.”

Shine approaches each client relationship holistically, delving into clients’ financials, market size and dynamics to develop effective campaigns for them. Working in partnership with each client, Shine maps out a holistic marketing, brand and communications strategy, tying those efforts to the client’s overall business goals.

“Our focus is on making beautiful art and what it does,” explains Hanke. “It’s in the doing, the outcomes.”

As marketing teams are increasingly expected to improve both short-term sales and long-term brand equity, Shine’s clients have never needed more help, and the agency has never been more committed to transparency.

“Everything we create has a story behind it, and that story is rooted in asking hard questions—finding an inherent truth about the consumer, the brand and the relationship between them; identifying a desired outcome; and [making] 1,000 little decisions along the way toward building high-impact, high-octane communications,” says Hanke. “We make thoughtful, engaging art that amplifies the meaning of the brand and its relationship with its consumer.”

The agency constantly reports back to its clients, providing mobile dashboards for real-time reporting, monthly reports on digital campaign results, quarterly reports for other types of media, and annual reports that offer insight on sales and brand performance over the course of a year.

“If our clients let us, we’ll track everything,” says Kriefski. “We don’t just create beautiful art; we create beautiful art that actually works.”

Browse Projects

Click on an image to view more from each project

Inside the office door, it’s clear that Shine values its employees’ happiness. From the lockers in the front vestibule for employees’ bikes and winter boots to the salvaged 1950s-era mahogany bar, the space—originally built in 1906 as the Hudson Car Dealership and remodeled in 2011—is designed to make people feel at home.

“We believe great work comes from a true balance of individual ideation and team collaboration,” explains Kriefski. “As such, we put all of our individual offices around central common areas, allowing for both quiet workspaces and easy collaboration. We’re committed to this idea of an expanding and contracting work process.”

The workweek is designed to give employees large blocks of unstructured time in which to create. Monday staff meetings, held on the reclaimed high school bleachers in the common area, cover the highlights of the week’s calendar. Every Thursday afternoon at 4:30, a.k.a. “Beer Thirty,” everyone gets together to mingle. 

“Creative not only has a seat at the table here, it has a voice,” says partner and creative director John Krull, who after nine years at Shine was offered the opportunity to buy in and join the ownership group. Krull began his career in Iowa and worked at several Des Moines agencies before joining Shine in 2005. “Creatives have input on everything, from creative briefs and job orders to budgets and timelines.”

Shine’s planning team identifies each project’s end goal “starting with the end in mind”—a popular saying at the agency.

“The planning team defines true north,” explains Krull. “Then the creative team looks north, northwest and northeast,” bringing back concepts that reflect focus and breadth. For example, Shine created the Cheese & Burger Society microsite for the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board (cheeseandburger.com)—it draws more than a million new visitors every year. 

“While concepting ideas for [the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board], we pushed far and wide, looking for new ways for consumers to interact with its Wisconsin cheese brand,” explains Krull. “Smart insights lead to amazing creative.”

Krull notes that Shine’s small size means they know their clients personally and want to do right by them. “The Midwest work ethic is how you excel,” says Krull. “Caring more and working harder makes a difference.”

The founders have deliberately kept Shine small, finding that 40 to 60 employees helps the agency stay nimble and flexible. “Our size allows us to hire only tier-one talent,” says Kriefski. “Clients always get our A-team.” 

In addition to receiving profit sharing and fully paid medical coverage, Shine’s employees can spend $400 each year through its arts initiative to learn a musical instrument or take an art class, have summer Fridays off, and receive a $10,000 gift to take a vacation on their ten-year anniversaries. It’s no wonder Outside magazine has ranked Shine as one of America’s best places to work four years running.

“Agencies and design firms are only as good as the teams they have,” says Kriefski. “At the end of the day, all we have are our people, so attracting and keeping a talented team is so important.”

We wanted to start a national agency in a place with a wonderful quality of life. The Midwestern work ethic is real. There’s an honest desire to roll up your sleeves and do great work.” —Mike Kriefski

Most people don’t know that the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board, a Shine client since April 2007, typically wins more cheese-tasting awards than any state or country combined. To elevate the client’s brand image, Shine hired Nir Adar, a food stylist who studied sculpture, and photographer Ashton Worthington, who specializes in shooting cosmetics and jewelry.

“They made the cheese look like art,” says Krull. 

“We’ve engaged with Shine in a variety of areas, and [its] thought-provoking approach to strategic development is one reason the engagements we’ve had with them have yielded highly measurable positive outcomes,” says Brian Gallagher, head of Footwear, Gloves & Accessories Global Marketing for the GORE-TEX brand at W. L. Gore & Associates, Inc., in Elkton, Maryland. “We’ve traditionally approached the running category from an ingredient perspective. We decided a few years ago to change that approach, and Shine was instrumental in helping us change the strategy and the messaging.”

The resulting campaign aimed to embody the tenacity of winter runners, with print ads declaring: “Winter is a thief. Rain is a tyrant.” Digital banner ads ran when the seasons changed. 

“[Shine’s team members] asked us a lot of really hard questions that helped us frame our thinking,” says Gallagher. “They came to the table very prepared, with great background info on the category and consumer, and drove us to think about the category in a different way. We ended up with great creative that was well received, not only by consumers, but also by our licensee base and retailers.” 

When Park Bank, based in Madison, embarked upon an awareness campaign to target executives, professionals and small business owners who dream big, Shine crafted the tagline “Make someday today.” Related TV, radio and print ads pushed prospective and existing customers to ask themselves why they hadn’t pursued their dreams yet and showed how Park Bank and its experts could help make them a reality. 

“Shine’s staff challenges us,” says James Hegenbarth, Park Bank’s president and chief executive officer. “They approach the problem by doing research, data collection and analytics to show us where we are and where we want to be. The creative team then creates a masterful story to make the reader, listener and viewer feel good about the possibility. I don’t know how they could do it any better.”

We make thoughtful, engaging art that amplifies the meaning of the brand and its relationship with its consumer.” —Curt Hanke

Shine’s name was inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright’s nearby home, Taliesin, whose name is Welsh for “shining brow.” In 2012, the agency changed its name from Shine Advertising to Shine United to reflect its expansion beyond conventional advertising to brand consulting, digital marketing and design.

“From the beginning, we wanted to position ourselves as a full-service agency that could be a brand’s AOR [agency of record], handling all their work,” explains Kriefski. “Once we felt like we had good awareness and were turning away more work than we took on, we evolved from ‘Advertising’ to ‘United’ because we felt that was one of our key points of difference—to unite a brand’s voice and messaging across all media.”

The agency’s logo features a red-winged lion, an alchemist’s symbol of the transformation of objects into gold. For brands that are ready to embark on a metamorphosis, Shine will be here, in its beautiful corner of the Midwest, to guide them.

“Our Midwestern ethos is part of what makes us different,” says Hanke. “We keep our promises and tell the truth. Having focus and a culture of fearlessness means anything is possible.” ca

Katie Ginder-Vogel is a freelance writer and editor whose work has appeared in Delaware Today and Update—the Wisconsin School of Business alumni magazine—as well as numerous digital publications.


With a free Commarts account, you can enjoy 50% more free content
Create an Account
Get a subscription and have unlimited access
Already a subscriber or have a Commarts account?
Sign In

Get a subscription and have unlimited access
Already a subscriber?
Sign In