Don’t call it retirement.
To Doug Spong, the outgoing face of the Minneapolis public relations powerhouse that bears his name, the dreaded “R word” is off limits.
“Nobody should pin that scarlet letter ‘R’ on me. I’m not planning to retire,” Spong said.
At the end of the year, Spong, 56, plans to step down as president emeritus of Spong, one of the top-ranking PR firms in the metro, and leave his role as managing partner of the company’s sister advertising agency Carmichael Lynch.
Spong’s move comes after he helped usher in a new president for the company last month and recently celebrated the 25th anniversary of the firm’s launch.
“After 25 years, sometimes you got to know when to say when,” Spong said. “It’s time to move on and have more flexibility to do different things.”
Succession planning for the company started a year and a half ago and led to a national search for Spong’s replacement.
“At the end of the day, while we did our due diligence and looked outside, which I think was a really good thing, our best candidate was sitting right next door to me,” Spong said.
The company turned to its managing director Julie Batliner to be its new president.
Batliner, who was promoted after a decade working at the agency, said Doug Spong was good at figuring out where the industry was going.
“He really built a legacy of teams that solve business challenges with creative ideas,” she said. “He was really ahead of the curve in keeping track of the fast-paced change in the PR industry and hiring some of the best talent to continue to evolve the agency.”
The firm was selected as Creative Agency of the Year for 2013 by national trade journal the Holmes Report. The agency also is a four-time “agency of the year” award winner from other trade journals including PRWeek and PR News. Spong himself was recognized in 2013 with the Public Relations Society of America’s highest individual award, the Gold Anvil.
Spong, who grew up in the suburbs of Chicago and attended Iowa State University, knew since he was a kid that he wanted to be a writer. But at the end of his sophomore year in college, he decided he did not want to pursue a career in journalism.
“What I decided was I didn’t want to be the guy reporting the news that other people make,” Spong said. “I wanted to be the guy making the news that other people report.”
After he graduated in 1981, Spong worked at Colle+McVoy for nine years before he received a call from ad man Lee Lynch about starting a public relations firm for Carmichael Lynch. Spong then launched the public relations firm Carmichael Lynch Spong, which was rebranded last year to just Spong.
Carmichael Lynch and Spong, which share an office in the Warehouse District, behave like siblings, sometimes sharing clients and sometimes having their own clients under their Interpublic Group of Companies parent.
The companies’ collaborative work on Jack Link’s “Messin’ With Sasquatch” advertising campaign helped ignite the growth of the brand, Spong said.
“For 25 years, long before people started throwing around the term synergy and integration, we really had cracked the code on how do you found and develop a world-class public relations firm and pare that with a great creative agency,” Spong said.
Spong also has worked with clients such as Genuine Thermos Brand, Sherwin-Williams and Jennie-O Turkey Store.
Public relations has evolved since when he first started and now includes many facets such as special events and social media marketing, Spong said.
“PR has really grown up,” he said. “It’s matured, and it’s rounded its skill set out into many different areas.”
Spong said he would continue to have a leadership role in the public relations community. He said he will work with a few, select organizations to sharpen their positioning and help them enhance their competitiveness. Details will come early next year.
Kathy Tunheim, who started her Tunheim firm around the same time as Spong, said she thought he helped lead the evolution to more integrated marketing.
“There was always the sense that he had enormous confidence in the skills and the potential of public relations to solve client problems,” she said.
Spong never settled for the status quo, said Lynn Casey, chairwoman and CEO of PadillaCRT.
“I think he also helped decisionmakers understand that public relations agencies could be as creative as the most creative marketing and ad agencies out there,” Casey said.
She said she had always admired how Spong was able to carve out his own niche and align it well with the ad agency.
“He’s given a lot and he has a lot to give so I’m really excited about hearing what comes next for Doug Spong,” she said.