You’d expect marketing agencies on Madison Avenue and Michigan Avenue to be producing world-class advertising for big companies. But how about marketing agencies in Cleveland, Ohio?
Major marketers can choose agencies anywhere in the world, yet more and more are selecting marketing teams in Northeast Ohio.
Top executives from three regional agencies and a large Midwestern bank explained why global brands and other market leaders are “Choosing Cleveland” at a NOCA (Northeast Ohio Communications Advocates) Forum at the Cleveland Plain Dealer on April 27.
Here’s how these local firms are landing prestigious accounts and helping national and local clients create smart marketing strategies.
Start with Ideas, Build Relationships
Lisa Zone, Senior Vice President, Dix & Eaton and President, AAF Cleveland, led the discussion. Tim Brokaw, Managing Partner, Brokaw Inc., Joanne Kim, Partner/Chief Idea Officer, Marcus Thomas LLC, and Julie Clemo Tutkovics, Senior Vice President, Chief Marketing Officer, FirstMerit Corporation, were panelists.
Everyone agreed that the quality of an agency’s ideas trumps its location. “No one cares where you are,” said Kim. “The question is, ‘who has the best thinking, the best ideas,’ not ‘where are you?’
“Large agencies in bigger cities tend to be focused on brand, with some digital,” she continued. “Marcus Thomas has both brand DNA and digital DNA in-house, with more holistic thinking. Our clients like this.”
Brokaw said that new client Vitaminwater “appreciated our Midwestern values. We offered the same quality of ideas as big city agencies without the egos.”
Clients also value in-depth expertise more than location, said Zone. “Large clients often pick Dix & Eaton for a specialty practice area, like crisis communications or investor relations. We grow the relationship from there.”
Tutkovics said FirstMerit Bank wanted an agency in its Midwest footprint, but didn’t care where. The bank sent RFPs to 12 agencies in Chicago, Cleveland, Columbus, and Akron and chose Cleveland-based Brokaw. “It’s not about location, it’s about relationships,” she noted.
Kim agreed: “Great work wins the business, but chemistry keeps the business.”
The Power of Midwestern Values
All panelists cited “Midwestern values” as a big advantage for Northeast Ohio marketing firms. “Having Midwestern values means you’re scrappy, humble, hardworking, with a roll-up-your-sleeves attitude,” Brokaw explained.
Kim stated that Cleveland-area firms were more approachable and collaborative. “Other agencies sometimes can have an attitude: ‘We know more than anyone else in the room, including the client.’ We like to tout our Midwestern sensibility.”
Tutkovics called Clevelanders “honest, candid, and direct. The issue is ego,” she said. “It’s just easier here; there’s no attitude, just great collaboration and partnerships.”
Silencing the “Little Clevelander” in All of Us
“We thought big, out-of-town clients cared that we were from Cleveland and we had to quiet the ‘little Clevelander’ in all of us that has an inferiority complex,” Brokaw recalled. “When we won Vitaminwater, it affirmed our self-belief: ‘We can do this.’
“We started embracing our location and our position as the underdog, especially when pitching against agencies three and four times our size.”
Tutkovics, who worked for several years in Boston, observed that “there’s a pride in being from Cleveland, like a best-kept secret. We tend to have a chip on our shoulder, but when you leave the area, you see how great it is to live here. Also, it’s fun to win with local people.”
Agency executives said that despite the great quality of life in Northeast Ohio, it can be hard to attract seasoned talent from other cities. “But young kids are hungry,” Brokaw noted, “and they want to do great work. Most of them don’t care where.”
Telling the Northeast Ohio Marketing Agency Story
Though there’s a great story to be told about the success and creativity of Northeast Ohio marketing agencies, Brokaw noted that one of the challenges is convincing major marketers in the Cleveland area to select local firms. “It’s like the ‘no one ever got fired for picking IBM’ syndrome,” he explained. “It’s the same with Madison Avenue or Michigan Avenue agencies. It appears to be more risky to pick a local firm. We have to prove that we’re worthy, that we can handle the large accounts.”
Kim said getting the word out was essential. Marcus Thomas uses public relations to generate press coverage in industry media and stay on prospects’ radar screens. Brokaw landed another large, national client that read about the agency’s work in Adweek. Dix & Eaton has eight bloggers who constantly publish content related to the firm’s expertise.
“We have the passion and we’re more nimble,” Brokaw concluded. “We need to celebrate the success and let local and national companies know the level of talent here. We need to build the buzz.”
“Some clients in New York or L.A. will never look at a Cleveland marketing agency,” Kim acknowledges, “but others will look for the best ideas. If you end up in the pitch with the best ideas, you will win.”