StoneArch builds on foundation

  • Article by: TODD NELSON , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 7, 2012 - 10:32 AM

Longtime owners are positioning the Minneapolis medical-device marketing agency for the future.

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Judy Kessel, StoneArch founder, and Jessica Boden, president, in the StoneArch offices overlooking the Mill Ruins Park and Stone Arch Bridge in downtown Minneapolis.

Photo: Bruce Bisping, Star Tribune

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StoneArch, a small, independent marketing firm in Minneapolis, has spent the past three decades quietly building a niche serving one of the state's biggest industries -- medical device manufacturing.

Under agency owners Judy Kessel and Jerrold Gershone, StoneArch now is following a prescription for continued stability and growth that includes an infusion of next-generation leadership, new products and services, and a higher profile, in part to fend off big competitors.

"When we see how we compete against the larger national agencies and how good we are, we say, 'You know what? Let's start being a little more boastful here, a little bolder,'" Kessel said. "We're just as smart. We're probably smarter."

StoneArch has helped industry-leading medical device and health care companies launch more than 500 products since 1984, when Kessel founded it as a small video production house called Media Productions. More than half the staff of 43 has industry experience, working for device manufacturers or hospitals or as health professionals and nurses. Minnesota, home to medical industry giants Medtronic, St. Jude, Boston Scientific, 3M Health Care and American Medical Systems, is a national hub of medical device manufacturing, with those five companies alone generating more than $22 billion in sales, according to a 2010 report from the University of Minnesota's Humphrey School of Public Affairs.

The agency's leadership succession and other forward-looking steps have made these pulse-quickening times at StoneArch, which is projected to top $9 million in revenue this year, up from $8.5 million last year. StoneArch describes its work as partnering with clients "on all facets of strategy, creative and execution across every media platform" to produce integrated marketing communications, meetings and learning initiatives. New clients include medical products companies Hill-Rom and Bioventus, joining existing clients such as Baxter, Abbott Vascular, 3M Health Care, Gambro and St. Luke's Hospital.

In January, StoneArch promoted 10-year veteran Jessica Boden from executive creative director to president. Kessel, founder and formerly president, became board chairman, focusing on business development while Gershone continues as CEO.

Key hires since last year include client services director Nikos Katopodis and creative director Phil Hoch , who joined newly promoted chief financial officer Brian Gezella and agency and industry veteran Ellen Schuller, strategy director, on the leadership team.

"We're moving the next generation of leaders up, people that share our values and can take the agency to the next level," said Kessel, who spent seven years developing training programs at Medtronic before leaving to start her own company.

As the agency's new president, Boden is leading a move into product development, with StoneArch preparing to launch an iPad sales platform.

"Given that almost all our clients are very dependent on a direct sales force to help them sell their products, we said there's got to be a way to help them do this better," Boden said.

To balance its medical device work, Boden also would like StoneArch to expand into in health promotion advertising, delivering messages related to health conditions or diseases. Examples include the agency's "Urinal Cake Man" campaign for a Minnesota Department of Public Safety initiative to discourage 18- to 24-year-old men from drinking and driving.

Another such project is the "Tie it Teal" campaign that StoneArch created for the Minnesota Ovarian Cancer Alliance. Working pro bono, StoneArch conceptualized the campaign theme, name, logo, symptom card and poster, and shot and edited videos supporting the campaign. 

"I have utter confidence in their expertise around public health messaging and communicating to a general audience sometimes-complex health messages," said Kathleen Gavin, the alliance's executive director.

StoneArch is doing more work outside of Minnesota, with a slew of national awards boosting Kessel's efforts to raise the agency's profile. The recognition includes a three-year run of winning Gold Awards -- which Boden described as the Oscars of health care marketing -- at the Medical Marketing & Media awards program in New York City.

The expert says: Mike Porter, adjunct marketing instructor and director of the master of business communication program at the University of St. Thomas' Opus College of Business, said medical device companies and those in health care generally are very particular about the agencies they work with, so the longevity StoneArch has enjoyed speaks well of its work. "It's a very difficult market to crack and get significant experience in if you haven't done it before," Porter said. "You don't get the kind of clients [StoneArch] has had without a solid history.''

He called the leadership transition underway "an extraordinarily valuable move."

"It's hard for someone who founded a business to say it's time to do some succession planning and how are we going to move to the next level," Porter said. "It takes a certain amount of courage and a certain amount of self-awareness.''

Todd Nelson is a freelance writer in Woodbury. His e-mail address is todd_nelson@mac.com.

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