Plenty of Room for Big Ideas in Montana

It's a 'Global' Industry, Right? So Give Us Some Respect

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Jeff Welch Jeff Welch
If I've learned anything in my years of building an ad agency in Big Sky Country, it's that everyone wants to live here but no one wants to work here.

Alex Bogusky probably summed it up best in an interview last summer. "What am I going to do, move to Montana?" he said regarding his agency's move to Boulder, Colo. "I know there aren't any good advertising jobs in Montana."

Oh I get it. "I like you, I just don't want to marry you." It's not like I haven't heard that before, though usually it's from new-business prospects, not one of our industry's own.

Yes, we are one sexy bridesmaid out here in our fly-fishing gear, cowboy boots, snowboards and what have you. But we rarely get to wear white.

Isn't the ad business supposed to be the great equalizer? The one industry that truly lives up to the notion that good ideas can come from anywhere? As I sit here and write this from a satellite internet connection from my mountain cabin just outside of Go Find It, Montana, I can't help but wonder if that thinking has been forgotten. And maybe that's a big reason for the malaise the industry seems to be in right now.

Whenever I introduce myself to national prospects or others in the field, the conversation usually goes something like this. Yes, we set up shop in Montana. On purpose. In fact it is one of the 50 states. Electricity and everything. No I don't own horses. Yes, I fish a lot.

The upside of such meandering conversation is that people seem to like us. Are even fascinated sometimes. But we're not often taken seriously in business. We can't possibly have good ideas -- we're in MONTANA for god's sake!

It is so much easier to gauge an agency's worth on what names are dropped (global brand experience preferred), what resumes are touted (nothing less than Cannes counts) and what clothes are worn (darker the better, with really nice shoes).

We're the ad industry's version of the soft bigotry of low expectations.

I invited Alex to Montana to see our fledgling ad community firsthand. I wanted to get some small measure of validation on my dying romantic notion that a good idea really can come from anywhere. And though he didn't know me from Adam, to his credit, Alex accepted.

Our whole creative community came to together and put on a big event with Alex as the headline speaker. We made name tags (from cow ear tags), hired music (bluegrass) and got some kegs (local micro). We played up the rube thing big time.

Hundreds attended. Standing room only. Alex was great. We gave him a stuffed deer head and some mud flaps as a thank you. He was stoked.

And we left believing the fairy tale to be true. If it can happen in Miami or Boulder why not Montana? Good ideas do come from anywhere.

And so we sent off a press release complete with photos of some of our creative people giving Alex the deer head. It's a great shot. Perfect for those back-of-trade schmooze-fest galleries.

And what happened? Nothing. It never ran. "This seems like something for the small agency section" was a typical editor response. In other words, if it didn't happen in New York or L.A., it must not have been a very good idea.

Not long ago, information was power. And ad agencies were every bit part of the power structure. Today, information is rapidly becoming a commodity. Yet there is still a sense of entitlement -- that somehow certain agencies, certain places have more information, more answers, more ideas, better ideas than everyone else. As the traditional agency business model continues to erode, I would suggest that herein lies the problem. Being in the commodities business is not going to be pretty for our industry.

Here in the West, ranchers have been operating in a commodity environment for decades. Those that have been most successful aren't the ones that cast their lot with big shots. They're the ones that differentiate. They looked for ideas -- from anywhere. So I'm going to take my inspiration from them. If we just keep churning out our grass-fed, free-range, organic, Montana ideas, we might even end up ahead of the curve. Especially if we supplement that diet with a little venison.

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Jeff Welch is the owner of Mercury Advertising in Bozeman, Montana.
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