The Wild Wild Midwest

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"Some people think we're a design firm, and some people think we're an interactive firm; other people think we're an ad firm," says Michael Hart, co-CD and co-founder of Minneapolis agency mono. "We like people being a bit unsure about exactly what we are. That tells us we're doing something right." While agencies on both coasts make a lot of noise about the death of the old advertising models, mono has been quietly bending the rules, as one might expect a nice, modest Midwestern agency to do. As Hart says, "part of the Midwestern psyche is you do the work and that should speak for itself."

Hart, 40, and creative partner Chris Lange, 36—both Minneapolis natives who have spent most of their careers there, except for a sojourn at Mullen in Massachusetts—founded mono with managing partner James Scott in 2004 after successful runs at Carmichael Lynch and Fallon. (Scott arrived directly from Carmichael.) At Fallon, they won both an Emmy—for Errol Morris's "Photobooth" spot for PBS—and a Media Grand Prix for "The Open Show," a series of episodic web films that ushered in the trading day on the online stock exchange Archipelago. While often pegged as design-focused—at least by ad agency standards—Hart says they prefer to say that "design has an equal place at the creative table as anything else here."

"We wanted to create a place that was more about the ideas and less about fiefdoms, and trying to incorporate more disciplines together into the creative process," says partner Lange. "Therefore, a typical creative team at mono includes an interactive specialist and a designer in addition to the traditional copywriter/art director pair." Adds Hart, "Our model is that the more of those different approaches we can [bring to] a problem earlier on, the more interesting the solutions are going to be."

And mono has, thus far, created some interesting solutions, many of them tethered to the sort of disciplined insights for which Minneapolis agencies have become known. The agency has designed car exteriors for Flexcar and produced segments for Sesame Street. It created weekend-centric calendars for Airstream and captured the uniqueness of Custom Chrome Motorcycles with the simple yet instantly recognizable notation "1 of 1." For the USA Network—in what has to be the shop's most visible contribution to pop culture to date—mono delivered the enduring "Characters Welcome" brand platform at a meeting in which the client expected little more than concepts for TV spots. And for a New Year's greeting in 2007, the agency built the addictive—and, as it turned out, infectious—"monoface," a microsite that allowed users to combine the faces of mono staffers in almost 800,000 different ways.

Today you'd be able to make a few more faces, however, as mono adds both staff and clients. Now 25 strong "and hiring," as Hart says, the boutique (which is partly owned by Canadian holding company MDC) plans to move into a larger space by the end of the summer. Recent projects include an immersive website for TurboChef (theovenreinvented.com), a flashy rebranding campaign for Animal Planet (featuring the photography of Jill Greenberg), an online effort for the offbeat AMC series Breaking Bad and project work for OfficeMax. Herman Miller, the Michigan-based furniture designer and manufacturer also recently named mono as its agency of record—the marketer's first significant agency relationship in several years, says Hart.

As for the end-of-advertising talk that is popular on the coasts, Hart says, "We don't subscribe to the model that the world's blown up and everything that used to be doesn't work anymore and you have to reinvent the whole agency model. We're in a state of evolution here. We're just at the beginning of change. We've got to have a lot more arrows in our quiver, and we've got to be able to use them all equally well. To not be great at TV is just as bad as not being great at something else, and there are plenty of agencies that don't know how to do TV. That's a problem, too."

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