Ad agency returns to its roots to win clients, silence naysayers

Campbell Mithun is building revenue and a better business by adhering to founder's principles.

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Campbell Mithun President Jonathon Hoffman, CEO Steve Wehrenberg

Photo: Campbell Mithun Handout,

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There's newfound growth at old Campbell Mithun.

The dean of Twin Cities ad agencies, criticized for stodginess in recent years, has engineered a two-year uptick in business that seems to have wheels, thanks to several recent client wins in a period that has been kind of sideways for the Twin Cities ad community.

"We've won about $150 million in incremental billings this year," said CEO Steve Wehrenberg, a 25-year veteran of "CM."

He succeeded Jack Rooney last fall after Rooney moved on after three years to run Ogilvy & Mather's Chicago office.

Indeed, CM expects billings -- the amount that clients spend on media ads -- of more than $750 million this year, following three consecutive years of between $650 million and $700 million.

And that will mean another jump in revenue for the 400-person firm, including "MRM," its digital-marketing sister company.

Campbell Mithun, part of the New York-based Interpublic Group, posted revenue of $73.5 million in 2007, an increase of 3 percent. That makes CM the largest Minneapolis-based agency and the 31st-largest in the country, according to the annual rankings of Advertising Age.

The rap on Campbell Mithun a few years ago was that it had lost its edge. There were client defections and management departures.

Jonathon Hoffman, CM's president and chief creative officer, returned to the agency in 2004 after 15 years at Leo Burnett Worldwide of Chicago.

Hoffman, 45, said CM has returned to the principle established by founder and advertising pioneer Ray Mithun in 1933: a big, pioneering brand idea that communicates the point of the product and its value, driving increased sales and profits.

Back to basics

And you don't need to overblow things. In fact, blowing the horn too loudly can be a problem.

Case in point: banking. The customers of many big banks have been through hell with mergers and resultant accout snafus.

Last fall, National City Bank of Cleveland awarded its business to CM. The bank started falling apart thanks to bad real estate loans and other issues just as Peter Raskind was promoted to chief executive. Raskind, a former U.S. Bancorp executive, has proved a straight talker as customers and employees wait to see if the bank will survive independently or merge with another company.

Hoffman built a media campaign around courteous, direct employees who inform customers of no-hassle, low-cost service. For example, if customers are charged for transactions at other banks' ATM's, National City will reimburse the fee. The bank also notifies customers by e-mail once they reach a minimum balance and are in danger of incurring a fee.

"What's the fee to avoid the fee?" asks a disbelieving customer.

"No fee," says the National City banker.

"This is a bank, right?" responds the customer.

The National City campaign, which is drawing good reviews, is not meant to be clever or edgy, Hoffman said.

"I hope what's compelling is what can be delivered," Hoffman said. "It's not smoke and mirrors. It's all real stuff."

Last month, Campbell Mithun and its Compass Point Media subsidiary announced that it had won an account worth up to $80 million in media billings annually from Supervalu and its retail chains, including Cub Foods and Albertson's.

Other local wins include new business from Wal-Mart and Famous Footwear.

Roots in Minneapolis

CM's revenue peaked about a decade ago. Wehrenberg, 50, and Don Kvam, 52, a 17-year veteran and "chief growth officer," cite several enduring partnerships with clients over the years that buoyed the firm during leaner times. They include Land O'Lakes, an original client of 75 years, Toro (45 years), General Mills (39 years), Easter Seals (19 years) and Verizon Wireless (9 years). But in the last decade they also lost longtime clients such as Domino's Pizza and Kmart, which departed for new agencies.

Hoffman said he didn't have to reinvent Campbell Mithun when he arrived. He just had to connect it to its roots. And that's helping CM helping General Mills peddle Nature Valley Granola, Unilever sell more Klondike ice cream bars and H&R Block add tax customers.

"There was enough good DNA that you could scrape away the layers of avocado paint and find some pretty cool woodwork underneath," Hoffman told a trade publication recently.

Since 1983, Campbell Mithun has been in sometimes-unhappy unions with London-based Saatchi & Saatchi and the William Esty Co. Since 1996, CM has been a wholly owned subsidiary of Interpublic, whose biggest business is McCann Erickson, the world's largest ad agency.

CM markets itself as a Minneapolis-based agency.

"We run the business as an independent firm focused on our clients' success," Kvam said.

Finally, those of us who worshiped the Minnesota Twins during the 1960s will never forget Campbell Mithun's inimitable "Hamm's Beer" commercials ... "From the land of sky blue waters" ... which Ad Age calls one of the 100 greatest ad slogans.

I think there was a "Hamm's Bear" in there somewhere, too.

Neal St. Anthony • 612-673-7144 • nstanthony@startribune.com

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