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Tim Brinton, NewsArt

Ad, PR leaders rally against marriage amendment

  • Article by: JOHN RASH
  • Star Tribune
  • October 26, 2012 - 9:38 PM

The biggest Big Apple ad agencies aren't on Madison Avenue anymore. And the carousing, sharp-suited, mid-century climbers of "Mad Men" have evolved into casual, caffeinated creators of both sexes, crouched in front of computers instead of bellied up to the bar. But one thing is the same: New York is still the communications capital of the world.

Overall, however, Minnesota has punched well above its weight when it comes to the communications industry. By revenue, it's ranked seventh nationally, according to Doug Spong, president of the Minneapolis-based Carmichael Lynch ad agency. Spong, and many of his communications cohorts, hope to keep it that way -- or even improve. But they see a big branding challenge if Minnesota's voters pass the marriage amendment.

So Spong and others in the industry organized an event -- "Say yes to voting no" -- last Tuesday. Its invitation read: "If you think three feet of snow makes it tough to recruit, wait until we're known as Minnesota mean."

"The first question we have is, 'Just how cold does it get there?'" laughed Spong. "We have to get past that question. If we hang a big unwelcome sign on the state of Minnesota, a certain segment of the population will no longer view Minnesota as an inclusive, diverse, tolerant, welcoming state. It's going to cost us people. It's going to cost us talent."

By Spong's count, ad agencies, design firms, public-relations firms, and digital agencies directly employ 5,500 "highly-paid, well-educated professionals." Another 44,000 people work as illustrators, graphic artists, photographers, digital producers, writers, editors, print producers, social media mavens, broadcast producers and animators.

Spong estimates that these mobile, nimble professionals result in an annual average ad agency turnover of about 25 percent. Many of their replacements are newcomers. Carmichael Lynch's staff, for instance, consists of 47 percent nonnatives -- including Spong.

And New York, open to new ideas (including same-sex marriage), is very attractive to this increasingly international creative class.

Of course, voting "no" on Minnesota's marriage amendment doesn't mean a yes to same-sex marriage. But passing it could mean that some pass on Minnesota, according to several in the industry (including some former colleagues of mine) who attended the event.

"I felt the amendment was anti-business, anti-advertising, and anti-Minnesota from the beginning," said Steve Wehrenberg, CEO of Minneapolis ad agency Campbell Mithun.

He's hardly alone: In an ad to run in Monday's Star Tribune, an open letter, signed by several prominent business and nonprofit leaders, says in part, "Simply stated, it would make it harder for our businesses to attract and retain the talent needed for success. Objective research shows that most young, educated workers -- not just gays and lesbians -- want to live and work in communities that are welcoming."

The amendment effectively says, "'We don't appreciate that [diversity], and it's not going to get any better,'" said Wehrenberg. "If you have a talented person and they are thinking about where they want to go in life, and where they want life to take them, now Minnesota is basically saying, 'you are not welcome here.'"

So many in the industry are doing what they do best: Using their persuasion skills.

"We are communicators, and campaigns come down to conversations," said Tom Horner, the PR pro and former gubernatorial candidate who now runs Horner Strategies.

"We in the business community have a special message to give: We know what it takes to make a successful economy. We know what it takes to have an industry that is as vibrant and important to Minnesota's economy as the creative community. ... If we want to help the economy in Minnesota, we need to be able to attract those who are going to be on top of the talent pool, those who are going to lead our knowledge industries, our traditional business industries, and our new industries like the communication community. That's the business message, and it resonates."

What also resonated were issues beyond the bottom line. To most at the event, "saying yes to voting no" is just doing what's right.

"There is a mind-set in this state of openness, and tolerance, and I think it says a lot of what Minnesota represents, and what marriage represents," said Steve Knapp, director of brand activation at Carmichael Lynch.

"It's about love. It's about commitment. And to deny that sends completely the wrong message, whether to support business, or just the quality of life."

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John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. To read more marriage amendment commentaries, go here.

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