Zimmerman's Moment in the Sun

What's Behind the Florida Agency's Recent New-Business Binge

By Published on .

It's not yet 5 a.m., still dark outside, and Jordan Zimmerman, 52 years old, tan and barrel-chested, is about to bench press 225 pounds. This is the self-imposed, militarylike ethic with which he starts each day just before 4, when his alarm clock goes off and he hurries to one of two gyms in Boca Raton. The onetime competitive bodybuilder, who was "Mr. Florida," eats the same breakfast every day: oatmeal with fruit, scrambled egg whites and a juice made of leafy green kale and seaweed.
Jordan Zimmerman
Jordan Zimmerman
When he pulls into the offices of the ad agency he founded at around 7:30, he is usually the first to arrive.

"If I told someone 20 years ago that I was going to build a company like this in South Florida, they would have said I was crazy," Mr. Zimmerman told a bleary-eyed reporter while grunting his way through a rigorous workout. "But you have to be a bit off in order to succeed in this business."

This cowboy-boot-wearing registered Republican is known to friends as "JZ," and while you wouldn't confuse him with the rapper, he is every inch the mogul -- he owns a stake in the NHL's Florida Panthers -- and he knows a bit about the good life. He collects Bentleys and Ferraris and flies only by private jet. He summers in the Hamptons and rubs elbows with the likes of Don King. He has even hosted President Bush at his waterfront home in a Boca Raton gated community. And he has a personal chef named Dudley, who wears a uniform with the letter Z emblazoned on it.

The profile he cuts isn't exactly what you'd expect from an ad-agency executive these days. "The reason Jordan is successful is because he's abnormal," said John Schnatter, founder, chairman and former CEO of Papa John's, a client. "Being high-discipline and high-integrity are fundamental in his beliefs. ... His sense of urgency is unequivocal."

Focus on analytics
Zimmerman Advertising launched in 1984 in a 400-square-foot space in a strip mall with used office furniture. Its expertise was pretty much limited to car-dealer ads. Mr. Zimmerman slowly grew his business, taking on bigger clients and acquiring area firms. Two decades later, Zimmerman is a beast of an agency under the Omnicom Group umbrella, with 22 offices; more than 1,000 employees; a burgeoning roster that includes Nissan, Six Flags, Crocs and Friendly's; and projected billings of $2.5 billion in 2008, per Ad Age estimates.

"They are raising their awareness in the industry because of the wins that they've had with well-known brands," said Judy Neer, president of Boston-based search consultancy Pile & Co. "That's moved them away from just being known only for their heritage in the car-retail arena."

Zimmerman's business mix is about 35% automotive; the rest is a mishmash of fast food, financial services, retail, real estate, sports and travel.

The little-talked-about agency has quietly propelled itself from a mediocre regional shop to a take-notice national force, getting into pitches and winning them even when up against arguably the hottest shop in the business, Crispin Porter & Bogusky.

Behind an impressive new-business tear in the past 18 months is an analytics-focused model that's clearly working. Case in point: Zimmerman, which holds Nissan's regional retail account, has helped the automaker double sales to more than 1 million units and close in on rival Dodge. While some agencies fear client pullback on marketing budgets in a recession, Zimmerman is confident that a tough economy means marketers will be hungry for its areas of know-how: strong analytics -- tracking sales, traffic and customer calls in real time -- and an intimate knowledge of the retail chain that blurs the line between agency and marketer.

Data crunching
Marketing, once dominated by emotional appeals to consumers, is increasingly data-driven -- all the more so in marketing organizations with quant DNA or where bean counters hold sway. Zimmerman thrives in creating marketing strategies for complex, franchise-based businesses and tracking return on investment to gauge response to a given program or communications effort.

"I don't think people realize how innovative he is," said Mark McNabb, who recently left as top North American sales and marketing executive at Nissan to become a VP at GM.

Zimmerman's innovations include a proprietary ROI-tracking tool, ZTrac; Pick N Click, a fully automated virtual ad agency; and the latest, RetailCity, a concept for a forthcoming office space that would incorporate a retail complex.

At Zimmerman's no-frills headquarters in Fort Lauderdale, which smacks of Madison Avenue's bygone days, with its wood paneling and glass trophy cases, the founder's testosterone-charged style infects staffers in an almost cultlike way. Executives readily say that working for Mr. Zimmerman comes with intense pressure. What makes it OK, though, is that he works just as hard, if not harder.

On a roll
During the past 18 months, Zimmerman has won 14 of 16 pitches.
  • Six Flags
  • Seabourn luxury cruises
  • PayPal
  • Crocs
  • Hhgregg electronics/appliance retailer
  • Longs Drug Stores
  • Integrated Beverages Group
  • Smart for Life Weight Management Centers
  • Nissan (Hispanic)
  • Lennar (national)
  • Fury (Crocs brand)
  • Friendly's
  • Pep Boys
  • Aruba Tourism
  • Birks & Mayors jewelers
"No one wants to work for an asshole," said Cliff Courtney, exec VP-chief strategy officer. "And he's a good guy. This is someone I can be on the phone with at 6:30 in the morning on a Sunday and I don't resent that."

Work-hard, play-hard culture
With an aggressive, fast-talking management style that's more used-car salesman than polished and professional, Zimmerman clearly is not for everyone. The human-resources department weeds out candidates who don't have enough drive with the help of personality tests. A laid-back attitude is not an option; the motto is "24/7 (seriously)." Mr. Zimmerman, a father of four who met his wife, Denise, at the agency, has established a work-hard, play-hard culture.

"He's always accessible, he always knows what's going on -- sometimes even details of the business I don't know of," said Skip Weldon, VP-marketing for Friendly's. "Jordan demonstrates a greater passion than any of the executives I've ever worked with before. And it's not just client speak. Jordan really cares, and that's pervasive through his team."

Born in Newark, N.J., he grew up the oldest of four siblings in a middle-class family. He spent summers working in the family business, a manufacturer of cherry syrups and toppings, and started his first business at age 8, selling greeting cards door to door. By the time he was a teenager, Mr. Zimmerman already had his sights set on a career in advertising, thanks to the allure of "Mr. Dazzo," a neighbor who was an executive creative director for a large New York ad agency.

After graduating from the University of South Florida, Mr. Zimmerman took a shot at Madison Avenue, interviewing at big agencies. When he was turned away and advised to come back with a graduate degree, he returned to his alma mater to earn an M.B.A. It was there that he formed the concept of "brandtailing," a business plan for marketers that focused on building a brand over time and building profitability overnight. That is still the hallmark of the Zimmerman platform and a philosophy he's applied to his own business.

Still a ways to go
"From the moment I first met Jordan, I was struck by the intensity with which he focuses on business," John Wren, president-CEO of Omnicom, which acquired the agency in 1999, said in an e-mail. "With his energy and drive, it was clear that he was looking to build a great agency for himself and great sales results for his clients."

Zimmerman still has a long way to go before it reaches that echelon of agencies that attract top-tier talent and brands. "Are they top of mind for people? Probably not," said ad-industry recruiter Sharon Spielman, managing director at Jerry Fields Associates in New York.

In a way, Zimmerman Advertising's biggest strengths have also held it back. The focus on metrics and client profitability has at times stifled the creative. But that's something it is trying to address with the hire of Exec VP-Executive Creative Director David Nathanson, who has had a long career at Omnicom and ran his own agency, Bezos/Nathanson.

Pile & Co.'s Ms. Neer said Zimmerman "has been really pushing to improve the creative product so that companies look at them for both strong retail savvy and creativity."
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