Spamburgers for Everyone! How Agencies Adapt When Big Clients Are in Small Towns

The Skinny on Unexotic Locales Like Austin, Minn., Neenah, Wis. and Battle Creek, Mich.

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Smokestacks in Chocolate Town: Hershey, Pa.
Smokestacks in Chocolate Town: Hershey, Pa.

Agency life on the road is not always filled with swanky hotels and fine dining. Just ask Neil White, president-CEO of BBDO's Minneapolis office, whose travel agenda is typically highlighted by a night's sleep at a Holiday Inn and Spamburgers.

Mr. White oversees the Hormel account for BBDO. As such, he routinely makes the 100-mile trip south to Austin, Minn., the headquarters of Hormel Foods, whose brands include Skippy, Jennie-O, and of course, Spam. "Every single restaurant has a Spamburger on the menu," Mr. White said, and he regularly feasts on them. That is, if he can make it into town. "There can be days where you get halfway down there and you have to turn back because of weather," he said. "Winter can be particularly tough in this part of the world."

The Spam Museum in Austin, Mich.
The Spam Museum in Austin, Mich.

Austin is one of several small towns that are home to big-time marketing companies. Ad Age recently caught up with agency and company execs to learn the upsides and downsides of working for companies located off the beaten path.

These are places in which a single corporation dominates to the degree that it is often inescapable. In Battle Creek, Mich., for instance, Kellogg Co. fills the air. "You literally can smell the corn flakes cooking," said Graham Woodall, exex VP-creative director at Leo Burnett, Chicago, Kellogg's creative agency. He added: "It is a really nice smell."

Once a week, Mr. Woodhall makes the 168-mile car ride from Chicago to Battle Creek, or Cereal City, as it's known. The agency's hotel of choice is a Radisson 20 miles away in Kalamazoo, rather than the McCamly Plaza Hotel in Battle Creek that is across the street from Kellogg's headquarters. "The last guy that stayed there, we haven't seen him since he checked in," Mr. Woodhall quipped.

Realistically, the sulfurous smell of paper-making isn't nearly as pleasant as toasting corn flakes. Kimberly-Clark Corp.'s North American headquarters, in Neenah, Wis., is smack dab in the middle of what's sometimes called "Paper Valley."

Despite the image of belching smokestacks that conjures up, Neenah is quite bucolic, with one building on the corporate campus that houses a state-of-the-art virtual reality lab reminiscent of a hunting lodge from the outside.

For anglers, or any hardy agency folks who are interested, Kimberly-Clark also has an ice-fishing shack on Lake Neenah near the headquarters. For bicyclists, an extensive network of trails in the area allow many of the 4,000 employees to bike to work.

If you happen to miss the last connecting flight from Chicago or Milwaukee to Outagamie County Regional Airport near K-C headquarters, that can mean a multi-hour drive. (K-C at one point owned Midwest Airlines to help ensure the area had flights. That's now part of Frontier Airlines, which still serves the airport).

"It's a beautiful area," said Ken Smalling, VP-global communications for K-C, based in Irving, Texas, but a frequent traveler to Neenah. "If you live in Dallas-Fort Worth in the summertime and get to go there and see all the lush greenery and water, it's a nice change. It's a quaint small town, but it's got a lot of neat things."

Perhaps no other town is as closely linked to a company than Hershey, Pa. After all, Milton Hershey created the town just as he was building his chocolate empire in the early 1900s. "Unlike other industrialists of his time, Hershey avoided building a faceless company town with row houses. He wanted a "real home town, with tree-lined streets, single- and two-family brick houses and manicured lawns," according to the the city's website, hersheypa.com.

Kellogg's HQ in 'Cereal City'
Kellogg's HQ in 'Cereal City'

Today, chocolate is nearly everywhere. Even the street lamps are shaped like Hershey's Kisses. "Living in the 'Sweetest Place on Earth' in many ways is surreal," said Anna Lingeris, the company's senior manager-brand public relations and consumer engagement. Ms. Lingeris, who moved from Washington, D.C., in 2009, said that "despite the toughest days, handing out your business card receives a near unanimous 'You have the best job ever.'"

For agency staffers, small-town life means plenty of chances to network with client employees, because they are often running into them all over town, whether it be pumping gas or shopping. While that sounds potentially annoying, BBDO's Mr. White sees nothing but upside: "Often you bump into somebody and then you get to catch up and see what is happening on their piece of business," he said. "You get to be plugged into the overall organization."

BBDO employees almost always drive to Austin, often in groups. It might sound like a drag, but car time often leads to valuable face time, Mr. White said. "You get to spend time catching up on a lot," he said.
Especially if you are stuck in a snowstorm.

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