BBDO, Minneapolis, and Hormel Win Gold in Ad Age's Best Agency-Client Marriages Contest

Minneapolis Shop and Spam Maker Celebrate 83 Years Together

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When Hormel Foods Corp. acquired Skippy earlier this year, there was little doubt that BBDO would get the account. That's just the way it goes with these two, whose client-agency bond is stickier than, well, peanut butter.

Launched in 1937, Spam has only had eyes for BBDO.
Launched in 1937, Spam has only had eyes for BBDO.

From Spam to Dinty Moore stew to Jennie-O turkey, BBDO has serviced every Hormel brand since 1930. Such longevity and consistency are rarities in today's marketplace, where some relationships barely last eight months, let alone eight decades. That's why Ad Age is giving BBDO-Hormel top honors in our first agency-client-marriage contest, which recognizes relationships that are not only long, but incredibly strong.

Over 83 years, this pair's secret to success is commitment and near-constant communication. BBDO, which runs the account from its Minneapolis office, on most days has someone on site at Hormel, headquartered about 100 miles south in rural Austin, Minn.

As in any relationship, issues do arise. But over the decades, Hormel has focused on working through them, rather than launching a knee-jerk agency review. "When a client fires an agency, [they] lose all of the good people along with the few that have disappointed him," former Hormel CEO Joel Johnson, who retired in 2006, said in the company's submission to Ad Age. "It's smarter, and more fair, to deal with the problem than to terminate the entire agency."

Jeff Ettinger is Hormel's current CEO and the eighth leader to oversee the BBDO relationship. He has inherited the company's pride in working hard to achieve the best relationship with its agency. "If all we were doing was commissioning an artist, it would be easier to just change horses," Mr. Ettinger said, but "there is so much that goes behind the relationship ... in terms of the business partnership." He emphasized that BBDO has a deep understanding of the Hormel brand and its niche in the marketplace.

Neil White, president-CEO of BBDO's Minneapolis office, credited Hormel with getting the agency involved in the company's strategies "beyond just the advertising." For product launches, for instance, the agency is "involved early, which really helps us understand what the product is going to be, what the category is, who the consumer is [and] how they might use the product," he said.

The tone was set more than eight decades ago. It was then that Jay Hormel, son of the company's founder, lured BBDO to the Midwest after he traveled to New York during the Depression seeking to grow the pork marketer's profile with new products and aggressive advertising, according to a historical account from Hormel. He returned with signed contracts for $500,000 worth of advertising, startling his father, George Hormel.

The bet paid off.

Look no further than Spam, launched in 1937 and propelled by promotions such as the Hormel Girls, a 60-member troupe that toured the nation in 1947, creating awareness for the canned meat and other Hormel products. Fast-forward to last year, when BBDO launched the brand's first spokescharacter, silly Sir-Can-A-Lot, an icon for the social-media age.

When Hormel looks for fresh thinking from the outside, it usually does so within the BBDO network. For instance, as the marketer develops a campaign for a sandwich product called Hormel Rev Wraps, it has invited teams from New York, Chicago and Atlanta to brainstorm alongside the Minneapolis office.

It's a "very open relationship," Mr. Ettinger said. And BBDO's Mr. White is just fine with that. "We bring the best that we can of the world to Minnesota," he said by phone from Mr. Ettinger's office in Austin. And with that, the two men rushed off to review the ideas -- together, of course.

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