Persuasion Arts & Sciences: Big ideas, small office

  • Article by: JOHN EWOLDT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 26, 2013 - 7:07 AM

Two former Fallon ad consultants emphasize creativity, not advertising, in their firm.

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Mark Johnson, left, and Dion Hughes of Persuasion Arts & Sciences say their business saves clients money by finding more efficient ways to market.

Photo: Bruce Bisping, Star Tribune

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Don’t call Persuasion Arts & Sciences an advertising agency. “It’s a consulting company,” said co-creative director Dion Hughes, who started the Minneapolis creative consultancy with Mark Johnson in 2007.

In an industry where firms can employ several hundred people, Persuasion is a three-person operation that collaborates with new clients as well as with some the pair worked with during their years at the Minneapolis agency Fallon.

The small operation still works with big clients such as Best Buy, Lowe’s, Burger King, Macy’s and Apple as well as smaller ones such as Nice Ride in Minneapolis. The firm recently attracted the attention of Fast Company magazine and biz whiz authors Dan and Chip Heath in their book “Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work.” Both were interested in Hughes’ and Johnson’s focus on getting more creativity to seep into client interactions.

The Star Tribune sat down with Johnson and Hughes in their office in the Whittier neighborhood in Minneapolis.

Q: How is a creative consultancy different from an ad agency?

Hughes: We treat advertising as an act of last resort. We look at all the touchpoints along the way that could use an injection of creative thinking, starting with the product or service itself.

For example, we worked with a family-owned frozen novelty brand called Diana’s Bananas. They wanted to spend $80,000 on a TV commercial for the chocolate-covered frozen bananas. We didn’t think that was the best way to spend the money because frozen bananas are an impulse purchase that aren’t usually on a shopping list.

We came up with multiple decals placed on the floor in the frozen foods section at Jewel stores. It’s hard to ignore a banana peel on the floor. Our freezer aisle takeover caused Diana’s Bananas to jump from No. 78 in its category to Top 10 in less than a month. The factory had to add two shifts for the first time in company history.

Q: Explain what you mean by being a “big agency brain that wants to be everything that big agencies aren’t.”

Johnson: Big agencies equals big brands and aggressive competitors. It’s high stakes with a lot of impediments. It’s easy to feel disconnected from the end product when there is a writer, creative director, planning director, brand director, marketing director and merchandise guy involved. We wanted to short-circuit the number of layers so we don’t feel separated from the client’s business challenges. We may not have a staff of 10 or 100, but we find the right person for the right job.

Q: How do you try to get at the heart of a client’s problem?

Hughes: Creative people shouldn’t be separated from knowing what makes a business tick. If a store in Manhattan says that sales are soft, it helps to be able to see them tracking live sales and the units per transaction. That’s what commerce is.

Best Buy Mobile wanted to keep customers who had bought a phone from them 24 months ago. Once the phone was purchased, the company could only hope that a customer would remember them instead of a carrier store at upgrade time. We asked if Best Buy knew anything about their customers’ lives. They said no, so we researched the dips and arcs of how people feel about their phone over the two-year period. It starts with “wow,” then there’s the first scratch, and eventually the feeling that I’m saddled with this old phone. We started a monthly e-mail that always came bearing a gift. Some e-mails were phone tips. At the 12-month mark in the contract, we offered a free skin. The program increased retention and has the highest open rate of all their e-mails.

Q: What advantages and disadvantages does being small provide?

Hughes: We’re very competitively priced without the overhead. We don’t lose business on price. There’s no way we could ever be more expensive than an advertising agency. We save clients money by finding more efficient ways for them to market. In the case of Best Buy Mobile, they didn’t have to spend any money on paid media, even though the carriers are spending billions to attract customers.

Johnson: Disadvantages? I have no idea.

Q: You call yourselves lateral thinkers. What does that mean to your clients?

Hughes: We see our job as connecting the dots for our clients. Kind of looking at the same facts and arriving at a different conclusion. Business tends to embrace process and efficiency and hold creativity at arm’s length. They see it as fragile, dangerous and wacky. We want it to be integral in the thought process, not just something that’s pretty or fun.

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