Ad agency's name is also a business model

  • Article by: TODD NELSON , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 25, 2014 - 9:06 AM

Friends & Neighbors, an agency run by industry vets, is built around the lifestyle of their creative talent.

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Mark Bubula, on far left, co-founder of Friends & Neighbors, was joined by Meg Van Sloun, Tom Fugleberg and Bob Brihn, far right, to create the agency.

Photo: Friends & Neighbors,

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When the ad agency veterans leading Friends & Neighbors, a marketing consultancy in Minneapolis, set out to launch a client’s line of flame-resistant performance workwear, they naturally called on their friends and neighbors — the creative ones.

In this case, bringing to market client Bulwark’s iQ Series of flame-resistant apparel, created with Milliken & Co., meant assembling a team of designers, technologists, musicians and digital media experts reaching from the Twin Cities to San Francisco, Santa Monica, Nashville, Belarus and Nepal.

As that example suggests, the Friends & Neighbors name reflects a business model adapted to a workforce increasingly made up of free agents, especially among creative talent, according to Mark Bubula, co-founder and president.

Friends & Neighbors consists of a core group of just four industry veterans, including Bubula, co-founder and co-creative lead Tom Fugleberg, both of whom helped build Minneapolis ad agency Olson to prominence. Joining them are co-creative lead Bob Brihn, another Olson alum, and project manager Meg Van Sloun.

They then select what Van Sloun termed an “all-star team” of creative and other specialists they collaborate with to deliver projects for clients ranging from Minneapolis restaurant Butcher & The Boar to medical device manufacturer Cardiovascular Systems Inc. to Horace Small, which makes police and firefighter uniforms. Newly won clients include Illinois-based eyewear maker Europa International and the Minnesota Timberwolves, teaming on the latter with Minneapolis agencies Little and True Media.

‘Free agent nation’

Bubula, citing a prediction that more than half the private workforce will be self-employed by 2020, said he believed advertising is far ahead of the “free agent nation” trend. He experienced it first hand at Olson, where he helped shape that agency’s culture and fuel its growth from 35 employees to 435 in his nine years there.

“A lot of great people out there don’t want to be confined by an agency anymore,” said Bubula, noting that Friends & Neighbors hired some 50 contractors last year. “We tried to hire them at Olson and got the Heisman, politely. We’ve now built a model that allows us to take advantage of all that great talent out there.”

Bubula and Fugleberg started their agency, then known as Human Brand Strategy, in early 2012, seeking to reinvigorate the entrepreneurial spirit they had developed at Olson. After proving their concept for more than two years, they recently rebranded the agency as Friends & Neighbors.

The Friends & Neighbors name also speaks to how the agency has grown and will continue to, Fugleberg said. That’s primarily through “relationships and reputation,” with the agency often working with clients with whom it has history and people they know who have moved to other companies. The agency is projecting it will finish 2014 with revenue of $3.5 million to $4 million.

From ‘marketing to a movement’

The agency’s brand-strategy work helps encourage alignment with a company’s values and culture among employees, amplifying and bringing those aspects to the surface to forge strong connections with a brand’s audience, Fugleberg said. That can unleash “the power of turning marketing into a movement,” he said.

“The brands that can create the closest connections to their stakeholders on a level of shared values, more than as a consumer, are the ones that are going to have the greatest long-term success,” Fugleberg said. “We’re known for creating really contagious movements across companies that impact about every aspect of that company and then that forges a tighter bond with all of their stakeholders.”

Aimee Say, marketing manager for uniform maker Horace Small, said Friends & Neighbors is helping to do that in bringing an athletic, performance-wear feel to the 77-year-old brand that has resonated with police officers and firefighters.

“We were searching for how to differentiate ourselves in our market,” Say said. “The culmination of all of our efforts has landed us in a great place for this brand and they’ve been an integral part of that. We know that it’s the right direction. It’s created a great foundation for growth.”

The expert says: Mike Porter, director of the master of business communication program at the University of St. Thomas’ Opus College of Business, said Friends & Neighbors enables its core team to “keep the tone of their agency while being able to scale.”

“They were at an agency when it was small and built it up to something big and probably left partly because it wasn’t the same kind of environment,” Porter said. “It’s infinitely more likely that they would be able to manage the culture (at Friends & Neighbors).”

That culture enables Friends & Neighbors to be close to both its customers and its contractors, Porter noted. “It’s sort of mandated by their model but it supports their model at the same time. They’re going to be more in touch with what their ‘friends and neighbors’ who are doing the work can do but they’re also going to be more intimately involved in the attention that the clients are getting from them as well.”

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