Carol Russell doesn’t own the biggest or brassiest marketing agency in town.
She can claim that she has prospered at 20-employee Russell Herder doing it in a collaborative, low-profile way that has brought a lot more attention to clients than her agency over the last 35 years.
Russell has seen a lot of competitors come and go in an industry often known for top-dog turnover, talent-jumping and consolidation with huge firms over the last 20 years. Think: Carmichael Lynch, Campbell Mithun, Fallon and Martin Williams.
CEO Russell and Chief Creative Officer Brian Herder joined forces at a coffee shop in Brainerd in 1984.
Russell, 65, who later moved the firm to Minneapolis, has no plans to change what has proved a successful formula.
“We are not the oldest agency,” said Russell, from her stylish, art-laden office at International Market Square, a hub of color and creativity that once was a clothing factory. “But we are still the owners. And we gravitate toward clients that do work that matters.”
In short, you won’t find Russell Herder bidding to help peddle the trendiest beer, coolest car, pro teams or hot new restaurant.
There’s plenty of competition, and sometimes controversy, in those big-buck campaigns.
Russell and Herder, 63, meet new clients at places like Rotary meetings, community health seminars and job-training summits.
Russell Herder has to grow and make money to stay in business. But maybe not every last buck on the table. They are built differently, boasting relatively low client turnover that cuts down the huge expense of prospecting and pitching new business.
For example, Russell Herder does research and some marketing for the Grand Rapids, Minn.-based Blandin Foundation, a client for 28 years.
Blandin focuses on rural economic development and health in areas more dependent on up-and-down mining, farming, timber and tourism. It’s a different economy and people than the Twin Cities.
“Carol is from Cass Lake, the center of the Leech Lake Indian Reservation,” said Allison Ahcan, a Grand Rapids native and Blandin manager who once worked in marketing in the Twin Cities. “She took the time to understand our community of Grand Rapids and Itasca County.”
Ahcan said that Russell understands the need to uncover what’s going on with the community’s unseen populations, including American Indians, immigrants and women.
“Carol is a trusted partner in seeking the perspectives that we fold into our research,” she said. “She takes great care to make sure that we do this in a way that is accurate and honors differences. Whether a small community or a diverse population, she finds people where they are at. Her work has gotten stronger and stronger.”
Similarly, Russell Herder has launched a successful and ongoing anti-opioid social media campaign that has helped thousands connect with help for an addiction that disables, traumatizes or kills thousands of Minnesotans annually.
Russell Herder also works for the Minnesota Department of Health, small arts groups, Indian tribes, immigrant groups and the Minnesota Agricultural Utilization Research Institute.
The agency has grown sales more than 10% a year over the last decade, approaching $5 million in revenue.
Russell also puts some of her own skin in the game. Some clients, small businesses and nonprofits can’t pay pull freight. Russell Herder commits nearly a quarter of the firm’s operating profit, about $165,000 last year, to pro bono work and discounts.
A couple of years ago, Russell Herder codified its approach by becoming the first Minnesota marketing firm and one of fewer than 20 companies in the state to become a certified B corporation. B corps are required to complete a certification process that ranges from corporate governance to community outreach, in addition to independent annual audits, to demonstrate their commitment to stakeholders.
“Their work is amazing,” said Tara Anderson, of Crescent Cove in Brooklyn Center, which serves 250 families who have children with terminal diseases, as well as operating a respite center and hospice. Anderson met Russell at a Rotary meeting a few years ago. She and another Russell Herder staffer toured the facility and got to know Crescent Cove. The small nonprofit was just buying a building for a hospice.
“Russell Herder did our branding work pro bono and they charged us a minimal amount for redesigning our market materials,” Anderson said. “Our old tag line was: ‘A place of respite.’ In addition to a lot of other things, they helped us use the word ‘joyful’ for our hospice. That’s what we do. It’s a sad situation for these families. But we make moments count for kids and families. We try to help bring joy on the journey.”
Russell still loves her work. But a fall down the steps of her home last year hospitalized her, then sidelined her for months.
It made her think about the future.
“This business probably shouldn’t see me as CEO in five years,” Russell said. “We’re all replaceable.”
Her absence also gave her confidence in a future led by the young people, particularly a diverse group of women, to whom she entrusts more responsibility than she did a few years ago.
“Everybody stepped up,” recalled Russell, who got daily briefings while she was convalescing. “We didn’t miss one deadline.”