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Continued: Hybrid advertising works for Hello Viking

  • Article by: TODD NELSON , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Last update: January 17, 2010 - 4:35 PM

As they explored new worlds, the Vikings of old carried ideas about business, culture and government over a good portion of the globe.

A Minneapolis-based hybrid advertising agency called Hello Viking has invoked a similar enthusiasm in the business of spreading ideas.

"The Vikings ... were always looking at the horizon, always trying to figure out what's the next thing, what's out there," said Hello Viking CEO Tim Brunelle, citing Norse accounts of Viking contributions. "They were advocates for ideas, really. They were risk takers and experimenters.''

Rather than set sail on longboats, however, Hello Viking uses a hybrid approach that mixes traditional advertising and marketing with "digital experiences" such as websites and mobile applications as well as social media.

That holistic viewpoint -- embracing both new and traditional advertising methods -- stems from the extensive experience Brunelle and Jennifer Iwanicki had leading interactive efforts at big ad agencies before striking out on their own to launch Hello Viking in July 2007.

"I feel like we need to be as dramatically, remarkably different as possible," Brunelle said, given the way changes in the economy and technology have shattered the rules of advertising and ad agencies. "That's not for the sake of rejecting the past. It's trying to keep the best of what we've learned ... and be as open and curious and eager to embrace the new methods.''

Brunelle, a former creative director and head of interactive at Carmichael Lynch in Minneapolis, previously helped lead Volkswagen's "Drivers wanted" campaign for nearly a decade for Arnold Worldwide in Boston.

Iwanicki, chief operations officer at Hello Viking, had helped found Arnold's interactive practice before serving as director of production at the Barbarian Group, another Boston agency. Brunelle and Iwanicki are married and have two young children but keep a low profile professionally as a couple.

Hello Viking, launched while the economy was still fairly strong, has managed to stay busy, although the scope of some projects diminished as the downturn hit. The company had revenue of $3 million in 2009.

The hybrid theme extends to Hello Viking's 12 employees (10 here and one each in Boston and in North Carolina). The agency looks to cast, in Brunelle's words, employees with multiple personalities, at least professionally, who can shift among disciplines -- from writing to consumer research to video editing, in just one example.

"We can do more with less, so we're much more efficient, which theoretically helps us in terms of pricing," Brunelle said. Said Iwanicki: "We're really lucky to be in a situation where we can experiment at our own pace.'' The company plans to add five to eight new employees this year. Hello Viking hopes to expand work with existing clients and gain new business with the addition of a marquee talent in Michael Bodnarchek.

The St. Paul native has returned to the Twin Cities after more than two decades in Hollywood, where he gained renown as an executive producer in advertising, music video and film production.

Bodnarchek co-founded -- with director Quentin Tarantino and producer Lawrence Bender -- A Band Apart Commercials and Music Videos in 1995. As CEO and co-president of the since-shuttered company, Bodnarchek worked with the likes of director Tim Burton and actor/director Billy Bob Thornton and helped revive Johnny Cash's career by using him in an award-winning TV spot for Nissan in 1997.

For now, Bodnarchek holds the title of interim executive broadcast producer at Hello Viking. He said he had been speaking to other companies when he decided to give Hello Viking a try, finding its entrepreneurial spirit appealing.

"Not only can I spread my wings but because of my contacts I can also bring in work to Hello Viking," Bodnarchek said. The project that exemplifies Hello Viking's nimble and edgy nature is a series of three recently completed TV spots for the University of Vermont.

Working with a skeleton crew on a shoestring budget, Hello Viking shot the 30-second spots, involving 34 students, faculty and alumni and 22 locations, in just two days. Each has an cinematic quality in part because executive producer Bodnarcek had lobbied to use a very new camera, the Canon 7D on the project. The camera shoots full 1080 HD (high definition) video, Brunelle said, and already is getting use on motion pictures in Hollywood.

Steve Lauder, director of e-commerce at Jostens, brought in Hello Viking for a Web-based project that involved both design and user-interface issues.

"We were looking to sit down and creatively think through a problem," Lauder said. "We were looking for outside talent and input to move forward at a faster pace, and that's what they were able to provide."

Hello Viking's understanding of how people react to both the traditional and nontraditional methods was critical, Lauder said.

"Consumers and customers don't work in silos so neither can your agencies or your work output," Lauder said.

The expert says: Avinash Malshe, assistant professor of marketing at the University of St. Thomas Opus College of Business, said Hello Viking appears to be going in the right direction with its hybrid approach. "They have a nice mix of creative people and a nice mix of people who understand the right technology," Malshe said. "They have the right mind-set. This is where the future is."

Malshe said he believes downturns are a good time for companies to experiment and invest in research and development.

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

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