"Welcome to Cincinnati—Branding Capital of the World," read a sign at Brandemonium's first conference, held last year.
That wasn't meant as hyperbole.
This city in the heart of the country, where the living is cheaper and consumer sentiment is more representative of the country at large (or, say, the two coasts), is a draw for companies large and small. They include major corporations (Procter & Gamble, Macy's and Kroger are headquartered here), agencies, design firms, tech companies and startups. Together they're injecting renewed energy into a city already flush with new hotels, a new Major League Soccer team and a revitalized urban core.
Brandemonium is being held here again (Oct. 2-4), and Bill Donabedian, organizer of the event—which has more than 100 speakers—isn't concerned that it overlaps with New York Advertising Week. His attendance is on track to reach or exceed the roughly 1,000 who attended last year, he says, at a badge price just below the base cost for the New York event.
"How do you compete?" asks Donabedian. "You don't. It's what you can offer that New York can't."
A little over a decade ago, you could roll a bowling ball down the sidewalks of downtown Cincinnati at night without hitting a soul. No longer. People are returning to Cincinnati's urban core and, along with them, a hopping nightlife.
Much of this is due to the Cincinnati Center City Development Corp., a nonprofit backed by local businesses in 2003. The group spurred development of Over-the-Rhine, a scenic 19th-century German neighborhood. The 3CDC also secured funding to rehab OTR's Washington Park, which was where heroin addicts could once be found nodding off on benches. Now it's a family-friendly urban playground with a dog park, weekend art fairs and mass yoga classes.
Alex Tosolini, who left P&G as VP of global e-business four years ago, spurned offers from around the country, opting to stay in Cincinnati as senior VP of new business development at Kroger.
"The city has much more to offer than most people know," says Toso-
lini. "It has the offerings of a big city without the complexities."
More than P&G
It's easy to point to the world's biggest advertiser as the reason for Cincinnati's growth. But in addition to P&G and other big players like Macy's and Kroger, there's media company E. W. Scripps, Japan's Kao (its North American headquarters is here), the major operations of General Electric, and small and emerging players like Pure Romance, the Tupperware of sex toys. It boasts 30,000 sales representatives—5,000 of whom converged on Cincinnati this year for a convention.
Like many places in flyover country, Cincinnati wants to be a bigger player in the tech industry. Unlike others, it just landed a top global digital marketing executive to lead that effort: Nestle's Pete Blackshaw. Blackshaw is the incoming CEO of startup hub Cintrifuse, a public-private partnership whose mission is to attract more tech players to the Greater Cincinnati area.
There's already a strong marketing technology focus in the city, thanks to companies such as Ahalogy, an influencer marketing network that sold earlier this year to Quotient. Another local player is Lisnr, which moves data across devices through ultrasonic signals to back retail marketing and other uses. And Kroger runs a data-based marketing agency called 84.51.
Cincinnati is also a draw for design shops. It houses LPK, the largest marketing-services firm in the city with 190 employees, along with WPP's Landor and Omnicom's Interbrand. LPK Chairman Jerry Kathman says there's not an aisle of any supermarket in the world where a Cincinnati design shop or brand consultancy hasn't "helped birth or burnish a brand franchise."
Ad agencies have moved in, too—think Grey, Omnicom's Barefoot Proximity and MMI—in part fueled by P&G as Chief Brand Officer Marc Pritchard pushes to have more shops be physically closer to the head office.
Cincinnati is also where ad agencies can get tax incentives to relocate, a benefit that's affected three prominent area shops: VML, Curiosity and Empower.
Experiential firm Agar, set to increase revenue 30 percent this year according to CEO Josh Heuser, is another fast-growing presence. It grew from an event promotion business and may be best known for Blink Cincinnati, a light projection show across two miles of the city expected to return next year. Local shop Curiosity, which handles Roto-Rooter, Cincinnati Bell and P&G venture work, has made the Inc. 5000 list of fastest-growing companies four years running.
Empower, a media agency co-founded by Mary Beth Price, has been expanding its scope as a creative media agency under her son, Jim Price. The shop has won creative assignments in the past year from Formica, Jack Links and Kao's John Frieda and Curel.
Cincinnati is also drawing talent like Rob FitzGerald, who formerly ran We Are Social in New York. In August he joined Empower as chief operating officer. "There's a buzz about the city," says FitzGerald, comparing it to Portland, Oregon, and Austin, Texas. "It's part of this whole maker, artisanal resurgence."
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Jack Links is owned by Conagra.