The “Mad Men” of the Bay

Contrary to norms of the “Mad Men”-era, the 21st century boasts a new branding world and corporate environment where women compete on equal footing, and the Internet and social media have revolutionized the industry, giving execs in Lower Alabama the same advantages as bigger agencies in larger markets.

Government Street is to the Mobile ad scene what Madison Avenue was to the 1960s New York agency world. With seven local advertising agencies, several of which dot the old Mobile thoroughfare, the Bay area boasts a warm community of creative Don Draper-types, getting paid to come up with brilliant, out-of-the-box ideas. And, like the hit AMC drama that follows the fictional Sterling Cooper Draper Price’s inner workings, awards for authentic, superior work abound for our local advertising big shots. They’ve got the ADDYs – advertising’s equivalent of EMMYs – to prove it.

These intelligent, witty campaign creators may look the part of business execs (sometimes), but they speak with a down-to-earth familiarity as if you have known them since grade school. In their workplaces, ideas are not confined to cubicles. In fact, their offices are rock-star-style lounges designed with cushy furniture, retro art and good music on command – not of the Muzak variety either. From the traffic manager, to the account executive, to the copywriters and researchers, all of the employees seem to embody the same laid-back vibe. And, if you ask them what they think of their jobs, most will say, “I can’t believe I get paid to do this.” This is part psychology, part art and part business.

Rich Sullivan, of Red Square Agency says, “We’re fortunate to have been recognized by some of the most prestigious industry award shows in the world, like the Webby Awards. The New York Times calls this show ‘the Oscars of the Internet.’” The team won most recently for work on Full Sail University.

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Research and Branding

“The wacky ideas never get sold unless there’s a lot of strategy behind that wacky idea.”­ — Johnny Gwin, creative director, art director and partner of Hummingbird Ideas, Mobile

Typical research can be boring, but marketers get to work on an interactive level, meaning agencies count on humans to investigate reaction or attachment behaviors. On a psychological level, “people remember the product better if they have an emotional attachment; this is the reasoning behind what we see in an ad. If the ad is something that creates an emotive response and sells, then you’re creating good advertising, ” says Johnny Gwin, of Mobile’s Hummingbird Ideas, the agency that has earned recognition for their unique national ads for the Hangout Festival.

Primary research consists of face-to-face interviews or focus groups, and secondary research typically means surveys. This is a vital aspect because “the consumer’s opinion matters as much as the client’s, if not more, ” says Jason Thomas, of J Thomas Inc. in Fairhope.

If there is so much research going into what we as consumers think, then why do we become so annoyed at the disruptions? Rich Sullivan, executive creative director and CEO of Red Square Agency Inc., suggests that “advertising is disliked, generally, because most of it doesn’t give its audience credit for having any intelligence.” On a local level, he adds, “Lower Alabamians are underestimated. So we follow this rule: Treat people with respect, and they’ll return the favor.”

Creative Concepts

“I believe advertising reflects much of popular culture, but seldom defines trends.”
— Bob Holberg, Bob Holberg Advertising Inc., Mobile

Writers, artists and thinkers embrace the slow pace of the South, which often cultivates the creative spirit, apparent in some of our favorite local advertisements, like the Hangout Festival, Mobile County’s Just Breathe campaign, and Foosackly’s. When we see ads that truly represent Mobile and Baldwin counties, we take notice and get behind the company’s message. And then we begin to wonder who came up with such a great ad or slogan.

So where do these great ideas come from anyway? Joe Brown, of Joseph Brown and Associates, in Daphne, says, “Some of our best brainstorming sessions happen when someone comes in with an idea they had in the middle of the night. Meetings are fine, but they generally don’t go as well as the spontaneous sessions.”

Sullivan, who came up with the slogan “Can’t Fight the Foo, ” for Foosackly’s, explains, “I pick and pull influence and bits of ideas wherever I can find them. Advertising people are professional pop culture thieves.”

“I wish there was some secret formula, but a lot of it is just so organic and happy accidents, ” says Puffer Thompson, creative director of Lewis Communications, Mobile office. (Last March, some of their “happy accidents” were recognized with 14 local ADDY awards and nine district ones, six of which went on to compete nationally.)

Brown, Thompson and Gwin, a Bay area trifecta of creative minds.

Copywriting and Art

“Culture is more visually based now. People don’t have time to read a lot. But if you take away the words, the visual won’t make as much sense. together, it’s synergy.”
— Puffer Thompson, creative director, Lewis Communications, Mobile office

Trend-spotting also comes into play. Ad creators consider forecasted color palettes for  predictions of what colors and font types will be hot in the future. “But, ” Sullivan says, “it’s our job to think about what’s next. Advertisers want to know what the trends are, but they also have the ability to shape the trends, which sometimes they forget.”

Next time you leave your house, note how many businesses have lowercase-letter signage. The lack of a capital will drive a punctuation nerd batty, but the trend is incredibly hot right now. For example, national brands like eBay and Belk have changed their logos to ebay and belk. Locally, this can be seen on signs for “foosackly’s, ” “fuego coastal mexican eatery” and “cold snap frozen yogurt.” According to Thompson, there is a reason for this shift. “Advertising has become more pure, and the lowercase font is testament.”

Purity, or the transparency between the consumer and the advertiser, is one of the greatest differences in modern advertising. In other words, honesty is the new black. Traditional advertising could have said “ranked best in the world, ” and customers would have believed it, because the ability to research without the Internet was equivalent to spending hours at the library. Now anyone can whip out an iPhone. Everyone is an instant expert. “We have to be transparent and truthful in what we do because it’s easy to find out if we’re not, ” says Ellen Wingard, of Lewis Communications, Mobile.

Another shift is the change in diction. Copy can be as long or short as it takes to translate the idea to the consumer. An image with a single word can be intriguing, and this is a trend that is commonplace in print now.

Still, advertising copy has not completely changed, according to Bob Holberg, who paved the way for many of Mobile’s ad men and women today. In 1973, Holberg established Trebor Associates (Robert spelled backwards),   which is now Bob Holberg Advertising, Inc. Holberg says of ad copy, “key words and phrases like ‘Free!’ ‘New and Improved!’ and ‘Guaranteed Weight Loss!’ are still around and effective nowadays. The only one I would add to the list now is ‘VAMPIRE!’”

Ellen Wingard, Elena Freed and Stacy Wellborn set the standard when it comes to Mobile women in advertising. Each boasts a thriving career as a top exec in the field that was dominated by men in the recent past.

New Media

“People still run the same ads in the same spaces today, except for the Internet. The difference is who your target audience is.” — Elena Freed, executive vice president and chief operating officer of Red Square Agency, Mobile

The Web is big stuff. How many places can a person with a smart phone visit in one hour? Obviously, online advertising provides more options for businesses now to get their products noticed by consumers. “As the media and advertising landscape has become more fragmented, larger companies are looking at multiple agencies to work on specific parts of their campaigns, like only the digital, ” says Elena Freed, of Red Square Agency. The group was recognized nationally as a finalist in the South by Southwest Interactive Awards (alongside heavyweights like the Pepsi Refresh Project) for their “Be You” social sharing site for client Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Alabama.

With so many ads vying for our attention, how do agencies help their clients stand apart from the herd? “Ideally, there is some aspect of their business – the model, product, pricing or service – that makes them unique. We capitalize on that, ” says Stacy Wellborn, of Wellborn Ideas, a company that has its own unique selling point – an in-office local art gallery. In recognition, Wellborn Ideas received the Mobile Arts Council’s Business of the Year Award.

Wingard says,  “Our goal is to find out how people communicate in today’s multichanneled environment, which is different for every market and is constantly changing.”

An ever-changing world of consumers means more fascinating and fun advertising to come. When advertising makes us laugh, think, or is just good art, the ad folks have done their job well. “What I love about this business is the creativity that comes forth from a challenge and ignites what was once plain and methodical into an exciting new direction, ” says Beth Stafford, of Stafford and Associates. “In my opinion, that’s just about as good as it gets this side of heaven.”

Bob Holberg Advertising • 341-1670.
Hummingbird Ideas • 660 Springhill Ave. 434-9439.
Joseph Brown & Associates • 1745 Main St., Daphne. 445-5370.
J Thomas Inc. • 602 Nichols Ave., Fairhope. 928-6502.
Lewis Communications – Mobile Office • 1668 Government St. 476-2507.
Red Square Agency • 202 Government St. 476-1283.
Stafford and Associates • 4316 Lakewood Drive N. 344-2404.
Wellborn Ideas • 356 Dauphin St. 281-2005.

Antiques at the Loop • 2103 Airport Blvd. 476-0309.
CK Collection • 320 Fairhope Ave. 928-9006.
Metzger’s • 3702 Dauphin St. 342-6336.
Papillon • 9 S. Joachim St. 405-5877.
Julie Toifel-Rhames for Salon West 5400 • 5400 Cottage Hill Road. 662-8370.
Natalie Nelson Hall and Jessica Sheffield for Clinique at Dillard’s Bel Air • 3300 Bel Air Mall. 471-1551.

Text by May Laughton, Photos by Matthew Coughlin

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