When MSNBC's new slogan, "Lean Forward," became fodder for a Jon Stewart "Daily Show" skit last December, the folks at Mono, the small Minneapolis ad agency, figured they'd hit pay dirt.

As the creators of the "Lean Forward" brand for the cable news channel, the Mono team watched rivals Fox News and CNN respond with their own "forward" catchphrases -- "Move Forward" and "Moving Truth Forward," respectively.

All of which became fodder for Stewart's critical eye.

"We stirred the pot," replied Mono founder and managing partner Jim Scott.

What Mono does for MSNBC in terms of brand-building could speak volumes for the seven-year-old agency and mean big bucks for the cable news show, where audiences may skew older but are a reasonably affluent demographic that appeals to advertisers.

Currently, Fox News, with its conservative bent, is the clear leader among the three main cable news players with a 0.9 share. MSNBC and CNN sit with a 0.3 share. A 1.0-point share equals 1 million viewer impressions.

Overhead, particularly for Fox and MSNBC, is relatively low because their programming is talk-show heavy and, unlike CNN, doesn't require the expensive deployment of news crews throughout the world. That means moving market share even a fraction of a point translates into big dollars.

"Anytime a network rebrands itself, there are reasons behind it and at the end of the day it comes down to revenue for the network. [MSNBC is] trying to increase the audience so they can attempt to charge more for advertising," said Noah Everist, broadcast supervisor for Compass Point Media, the media buying arm of the Minneapolis agency Campbell Mithun.

Mono established itself as an image builder with several broadcast properties, including "Sesame Street," the Science Channel and Public Radio International.

But it was its work with the USA Network and the phrase "Characters Welcome" to emphasize the broad range of programming on the cable station that caught the eye of MSNBC, which is owned by the same NBC parent as USA.

"Mono was high on our list," said Sharon Otterman, chief marketing officer for the station. "'Lean Forward' took the terms liberal and conservative out of the message. It's all about progress without labels."

MSNBC is the latest in a string of high-profile clients landed by Mono, which has more than doubled in size to 56 employees in less than three years. Billings, meanwhile, have climbed by more than 50 percent to $48.5 million in 2010.

Mono's client list also includes Apple, NBA TV, Blu Dot furniture and the Mrs. Meyer's line of cleaning products.

Mono was created in 2004 by Scott, Chris Lange and Michael Hart. Scott, 43, came from Carmichael Lynch, where he was an account executive; Lange, 39, and Hart, 43, came from Fallon, where they were creative directors. They initially worked out of Lange's home and had one client -- "Sesame Street." Gross billings that first year were $2.2 million. They moved to their current Uptown address on Hennepin Avenue in 2008.

Spike Lee directs

The "Lean Forward" campaign began airing last fall on television, in print, in train stations and bus shelters and as images projected on buildings and other outdoor venues. Noted film director Spike Lee produced and directed the spots.

Neither Mono or MSNBC will say how much has and will be spent on the campaign, although Mono's Scott called the account "significant."

"The future belongs to the fearless" is one of the quotes used in the ads, which include some of MSNBC's best-known faces such as Rachel Maddow and Hardball's Chris Matthews. In another ad, the narrator says, "When we understand the world around us, we lose our fear and we move ahead."

"Lean Forward" is designed to differentiate MSNBC from the right-leaning Fox network.

"It's no secret that MSNBC is a network that appeals to progressive viewers," said Scott. "We wanted that understood but we also didn't want to alienate anyone."

The operating theme for the Mono team was to come up with a catchphrase that didn't lean right and didn't lean left politically. They arrived at the slogan "Lean Forward" to create an atmosphere for addressing issues and decisions facing America.

Otterman said the network has a "multiyear commitment" with Mono to be its brand brains. The next set of advertising and brand promotion is set to launch in April. It hasn't quite replaced MSNBC's old slogan, "The Place for Politics." Both the old slogan and "Lean Forward" can be seen on MSNBC broadcasts.

To see clips of the Lean Forward campaign, go to www.startribune.com/business.

David Phelps • 612-673-7269