Colman Brohan Davis, a woman-owned agency in Chicago, next month will celebrate 20 years in business.
The agency was founded as Lighton Colman by then partners Brooke Lighton and Lori Colman. Colman is now co-CEO with Liz Brohan, who joined the agency in 1998. Colman had been an account executive at Cramer-Krasselt, Chicago, and Lighton was a freelance creative, following a downsizing at Foote, Cone & Belding.
While making a creative pitch to CimLink, a provider of factory automation software, Lighton learned that the client wanted a full-service agency, so she talked to Colman about forming an agency to pitch the business. Colman, who was fresh out of work after Cramer-Krasselt lost a big client, agreed, and Lighton Coman was born.
“We pitched against a lot of agencies in the b-to-b space,” Colman said. “We came in with a huge proposal and a lot of strategy—that is how we beat them.”
Lighton Colman won the business, which was a new product launch for CimLink. It involved brand positioning, advertising, direct mail and media. There was no online at the time.
“We found that b-to-b technology was a really interesting niche,” Colman said.
The agency went on to win business from SSA Global for the introduction of new software; Zenith, to introduce products into the lodging and hospital industries; U.S. Robot- ics, for the launch of a new modem for home PCs; and Bruening, which was later acquired by OCE, for its copier business.
Ten years ago, Brohan joined the agency as partner and president. In 2003, Lighton was bought out and the agency's name was changed to Colman Brohan Davis. (Jeff Davis is a silent partner in the business.) Colman and Brohan had previously worked together at Kobs & Brady Advertising, a direct marketing agency in Chicago that later became Draft and is now Draftfcb.
“I came on to grow the consumer division, but I got bit by the b-to-b bug and had some quick successes,” Brohan said.
The agency was able to pick up some larger b-to-b clients, including W.W. Grainger Inc. and Siemens Systems. It helped reposition Grainger's sales organization from a focus on products to a consultative approach. It worked with Siemens' buildings technologies group to launch new products and deepen channel relationships.
“We have kept a very strong focus on b-to-b, although we also have a very strong consumer division,” Colman said. More than half of the agency's business still comes from b-to-b.
Recent account wins include Constellation NewEnergy, to develop lead-generation and conversion marketing programs for several divisions; CF Industries, to provide branding, positioning and marketing strategy; and Lipid Nutrition, to handle product launches targeting food and supplement companies.
“One of the things that makes us a little different in the marketplace is the amount of strategy we provide upfront,” Colman said.
For example, in working with CF Industries, a fertilizer producer and distributor, the agency provided strategy to help the company adapt to a competitive business model. CF, which was previously owned by regional cooperatives, went public in 2005.
“They realized their approach to selling was not supporting a public company,” Colman said. “We had to dive pretty deep and talk to them about branding and changing their lingo to talk about selling as a value as opposed to selling as a commodity.”
Brohan said one of the most significant shifts in b-to-b is the move to more interactive technologies to reach customers. “Things like Web 2.0 are changing the way marketers are providing information and gaining access to customers,” she said. “We are seeing interactive become much more of a hub than a spoke in the wheel, where they can reach individuals on a daily basis where they are looking for information.”
Colman said a goal for the agency in the near future is developing more sector specialization in manufacturing, agriculture, food ingredients, higher education and technology.
“We want to become engaged in those sectors with thought leadership positions, speaker engagements and developing a brand personality for CBD around that insight,” she said.
The agency already has a unique personality and culture in its historic Courthouse Place Building in downtown Chicago. Since its founding, the agency has allowed employees to bring their dogs to work. There are currently four full-time dogs at the agency. “Back in the '80s, the landlords were pretty desperate for clients, so we had dogs written into the lease. They are still in the lease,” Colman said.
How do clients respond to this animal-friendly environment?
“A lot of our clients bring in their dogs, too,” she said.