Besides all the awards on the wall, the thing that catches the eye of a visitor to the New Brighton offices of Risdall Marketing Group is all the neon light artwork -- more than 200 pieces.

"We need to stimulate people's brains with bright colors, bright lights," says agency CEO John Risdall. "We want to know, 'Are you professionally creative?' We have to do that on command, not as a lark."

Risdall has been in the advertising market for 40 years now. He is, in some respects, the dean of Minneapolis agency heads.

His organization consists of 14 divisions ranging from branding services to public relations to fundraising.

The agency has won more than 130 awards over the past seven years from the Web Marketing Association for websites created for clients. In 2010, the agency won two prestigious Clio awards for its work on behalf of Go Girl and Baxter.

With a staff of 61, Risdall lays claim as the seventh-largest advertising agency in the Twin Cities and the sixth-largest public relations firm. Revenue last year hit $30 million on billings of $200 million.

Risdall sat down recently to reflect on his career.

QWhen you started in the business 40 years ago, what were the principal advertising vehicles?

AMy first job was at Harold C. Walker Advertising in the Plymouth Building in downtown Minneapolis. I was a copy contact [copywriter]. It was pretty media-intensive, particularly in print. TV was still burgeoning. The agency DDB led the way with Volkswagen advertising and it assigned teams to do the creative. In 1972, I went out on my own because I had worked for four agencies and thought I could do better. Then the recession hit and cigarette advertising came off the air and the auto workers went on strike. Everyone cut back. I went back to work with Harold. It was a promotional agency by then, and I had Pillsbury as a client.

QWho were your first clients?

AHoles-Webway, a cardboard printer out of St. Cloud, along with Smith System, the educational furniture company, which is still a client today. My first office was in my basement in New Brighton. I stepped off the fiscal cliff and made a grand total of $5,000 the first year. I ate a lot of potato chip sandwiches.

QHow has advertising and marketing evolved during your time in the business?

AWhen I started you needed 13 employees to generate $1 million in billings. Today, one employee alone can generate between $2 million and $3 million in billings. Sure, there's inflation in those numbers, but the growth in computers allows one person to do the job of six or seven people.

QHow did you get into social media?

AWhen websites started to show up, we were one of the first agencies to have our own website. We had the Gopher browser, then the Illinois browser. Soon, every school in the Big Ten had a Web connection. Every client we put on the Web saw that it worked. Smith System was set up to allow customers to order over the Web. All of our deals worked. This was back when newspapers saw the Web as a threat. We started entering the Web Marketing Association awards in 2000 and for the last seven years have been one of the top winners. For a company our size to compete at that level is pretty crazy.

QWho are some of your current clients?

AWe have a lot of med-tech companies and educational clients. We did a rebranding campaign for the College of Science and Engineering at the University of Minnesota. We've done work for the University of North Dakota, St. Scholastica, St. Thomas and Bethel. We do website, branding and image. We work our way through it.

QWhat do you see for the future of advertising and marketing?

AOver the last two years our business has been about 30 percent on the Internet and 40 percent in social media. Our client Affinity Plus is growing 50 percent a year with our help. I don't know how high Internet use will go. The effectiveness of media is critical. We now conduct Web seminars for clients, prospects and friends. We fill those up.

David Phelps • 612-673-7269