The slogan at the small Minneapolis ad agency Wingnut is "What if?" It could just as easily be "Living small."
With a tidy 15 employees, the nearly 10-year-old agency occupies a compact suite in a brick-lined building in the North Loop of Minneapolis.
Its client list is eclectic, ranging from Leeann Chin and Cargill to the Robbinsdale public schools and Wander North Distillery.
The agency's business plan can be described as slow but steady growth.
"We're really hitting our stride," said Jim Cousins, the firm's president. "Corporate-owned agencies only need one big client to make their year, but independent agencies like ours need diverse client portfolios to survive."
Over the past year, Wingnut has added 10 new clients. Revenue for 2014 is tracking toward $2.64 million, up from $1 million just four years ago.
Success at Wingnut is emblematic of a trend toward smaller shops in the advertising world, particularly in Minneapolis where the ad landscape is dotted with agencies of fewer than 50 employees.
Last year, Ad Age magazine named Solve of Minneapolis its "small agency of the year."
Solve, whose client list includes Porsche Cars of North America and True Value Co., has 27 employees.
"More and more clients are looking for the resources and efficiencies they get from smaller agencies," said Solve founder John Colasanti. "There are fewer layers, more accessibility and more exposure to senior members of the agency."
Steven Wehrenberg, the former CEO of Campbell Mithun in Minneapolis now teaching at the University of Minnesota School of Journalism and Mass Communications, said large agencies aren't for everyone in the advertising business.
"There are a lot decent-size agencies here owned by holding companies, and holding companies run a business in a certain way. After a while, entrepreneurial people want to do their own thing," Wehrenberg said.
Wehrenberg also said the recession five years ago changed the way marketers look at their advertising budget.
"Since the recession, clients have recalibrated what they want to pay an agency and independent agencies are probably cheaper and that gives them a competitive advantage," he said.
Wingnut is actually in the process of expanding across a hallway into vacant space in the Itasca Building on 1st Avenue N. The new digs will allow Wingnut to employ as many as 25, which is the game plan for the next 18 months.
With clients such as Optum, the data services unit of UnitedHealth Group, Wingnut used to be heavily weighted with health care clients. Health care now comprises just 30 percent of the agency's client portfolio.
"That's intentional," said agency co-founder John Arms. "We don't want to be that attached to a single industry. There's too much risk there. Diversity is very important."
A year ago, Wingnut added Stormy Kromer, the cap and outdoor clothing manufacturer, to its roster, followed by St. Paul's Bremer Bank and Old Dutch potato chips.
The Bremer Bank work can be heard frequently on radio this days. Its tagline: "Work hard, bank easy."
Wingnut's work is currently being used by the Robbinsdale schools as voting nears for a pair of referendums to renew one tax levy and provide districtwide funding for a technology upgrade. That tagline, which is used on school publications and website is, "Individual focus. Infinite potential."
"That was something that resonated with us. It summarized what we do," Superintendent Aldo Sicoli said.
One of Wingnut's start-up clients is Wander North Distillery, a fledgling liquor producer located in northeast Minneapolis that is owned and operated by Brian Winter, an Iraq war veteran and bit of an adventurer.
Winter hired Wingnut after meeting agency project manager Joshlyn Goepfrich during a marketing event at another of Wingnut's clients, 612 Brew, a microbrewery.
"I was looking for a bottle design and a website. I know distilling, but I can't say I'm a genius on the marketing process," said Winter whose brand of vodka, called Outpost, is now available in liquor stores across the Twin Cities.
The clear longneck bottle features the image of an actual island from Minnesota's Lake of the Woods. The name, Outpost, also came from Wingnut to reflect Winter's background, which includes nearly 20 years in the National Guard.
"It pushes boundaries," said Winter. "Not everybody's path goes in the same direction and everybody should get out and explore."
A downturn in business caused by the Great Recession resulted in the dismissal of two employees at Wingnut in 2009. "It was the toughest thing for me," said Arms.
But five years later, Wingnut's finances are strong.
"We are debt free and we haven't pulled on our [bank] line of credit since last year when we had a couple of hires," Cousins said.