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When two agencies merge it can either be a synchronous fit or a recipe for disaster. That's why eyebrows were raised in 1995 when two very different Milwaukee shops merged into BVK/McDonald: Birdsall Voss & Kloppenburg, with billings of less than $50 million, and the similarly sized McDonald Davis. Best known for its offbeat and irreverent creative, BVK had just won Best of Show at the Obies (more on this later). McDonald had a reputation for heartfelt health care advertising and strategic thinking.

After winning a spree of new-business in '96, and allowing time for the two agencies to acclimate to each other, creative director Gary Mueller says the agency is ready to resume with award-winning creative that he helped drive at BVK. "It's merged styles and opened us up to new thinking," Mueller says, adding confidently, "I guarantee in six months the work will be even better than it is now."

Early results are promising. A forthcoming campaign for Airadigm's Einstein PCS wireless phones shows off the product in some comical demonstrations that are sure to stand out among its techy competition. A POP poster for regional chain Cousins Subs, which just won a New York Festivals medal, reads, "Prepare for Elvis sightings" over a photo of a party sub. Cousin's extended family of TV and radio spots employs funnyman announcer Thom Sharp; in one spot he's harassing a Cousins employee trying to get him to scrimp on ingredients, while in another he mocks a customer who awaits his first Cousins sub as if it were a newborn.

Inheriting a strategic planning department from McDonald Davis has been the secret to selling more progressive creative, Mueller explains. For instance, Cousins Subs clung for years to using more or less ordinary food footage in its commercials. Collecting pointed research and planning about Cousins, and then showing a humorous campaign that could be executed out of that strategy, made the sell easier, Mueller says. "The spots are humorous," he says, "but the humor is grounded in a strong (product) benefit, which makes it work doubly hard."

This new approach to shtick seems to be sticking, too. "It's hard to measure appreciably, but we've got nothing but good comments from customers and people in the media," says David Hintz, marketing director at Cousins Subs in Milwaukee.

In a similar fashion, Mueller says the planning has helped BVK persuade United Vacations to support an awareness campaign around the theme, "Need a vacation?" It also provided the backbone campaign for Main St. Cafe, a new client that makes cold coffee beverages. The wry posters show a scale to rank product attributes, with a can of Main St. Cafe as the indicator. In a scale of "enjoyment," for instance, the scale ranges from calculus to sex, while "richness" has the U.S. government at the low end and Bill Gates on top.

The creative is also showing a sensitivity that Mueller believes BVK's often in-your-face work lacked before the merger. A radio spot for Sinai Samaritan on date rape awareness just won a Gold at the London International Festival. Print for the Greyhound Protection League, a group formed to find homes for racing dogs after their competition days are over, shows butchered dogs with tough headlines like "No wonder they run so fast." And TV spots for United Health Services eschew mawkish scenes for frank cameos of people talking about how health care issues affect them.

Perhaps the best example of balanced sensitivity and humor comes from a spot for the Institute for Minimally Invasive Surgery. Using clever counterpoint, it features a soothing VO explaining how fast surgery recovery time allowed a golfer to return to his game faster. But instead of merrily putting along, the poor bastard is seen digging divots and tearing up the greens. He's finally shown tossing his golf bag into a pond. "Now we have a really nice mix," says Mueller. "I think we were a little immature before. You can shoehorn a direction to make it fit. Now we can go both ways. There's a few agencies who can do that very well.

"Before, we were more of a boutique, coming up with clever angles," agrees Scott Krahn, an art director and creative director. "The first year there were some adjustments, and now we have a bigger plan."

The strategic planning has also fueled the shop's new-business streak-billings recently topped $100 million, thanks to recent accounts wins that include the Lee Island Coast Tourism account for western Florida and the $10 million Tenet Healthcare account that the agency took from Harris Drury Cohen in Ft. Lauderdale. "We walked in and won it without a review," Mueller says in amazement.

How common was it for BVK to win out-of-state business before the merger? "Never," says Mueller. "It just shows what we can do. A few years ago we'd get into the pitches because of our creative, but we wouldn't win. And now we've got the strategic backing. It puts us right on the edge of something big."

The bigger accounts also enable the agency to produce TV, which is an important recruiting tool, especially in trying to lure out of town hires to Milwaukee, where TV work, especially national spots, is rare.

Building an agency reputation is another way to draw creative talent to Milwaukee, and sometimes even bad publicity can reap good fortune. When BVK won its Best of Show Obie in May '95 for a hilarious outdoor ad for divorce attorney Leon Stenz that summed up his services with an unshackled ball and chain, all seemed bliss. Then The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that Stenz said he never paid for the ad. After investigating, the Outdoor Advertising Association of America ruled that the ad was legit because it appeared in a free supermarket kiosk. "Sometimes even negative exposure can lead to a positive, as long as you're correct," Mueller says. After the controversy, "I got hundreds of calls from creative people around the country."

Lately, the quality of life issue has helped Mueller lure talent to Milwaukee. Recent hires include creative director Joel Mitchell, a copywriter who's worked at Carmichael Lynch on accounts like the Minnesota Department of Tourism, and Chris Buhrman, an art director/associate creative director from McCann-Erickson/Puerto Rico.

But there's still a definite stigma about the city, Mueller admits, explaining that a lot of people are trying to change it, something he's against. "Milwaukee is a great place to do advertising," he says. "People are real; it makes it much more challenging to reach them because you have to connect with them and it has to be believable. I think it gives a better insight into how people think. And being in Milwaukee helps you do that."

And for anyone wondering whether the agency can still do the edgy work that catapulted Leon Stenz to fame, check out the goofy poster for the BVK/McDonald golf tournament that gives golfers tips to creatively improve their game by cheating. The irreverence will absolutely continue, Mueller says. "The world is

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