"I think we scare people around here a little bit," says Kohnke (pronounced CON-key) of the three-year-old shop. "One of our goals as an agency is to make Milwaukee a better creative community, raise the standards here," adds Koeneke (that's KENNA-key). "I think for a long time the creative coming out of Milwaukee has been relatively mediocre, with a few bright spots here and there. We want Milwaukee to be recognized as a hot regional creative community, and I think that's now starting to happen."
The pair were a team at what was then known as Frankenberry, Laughlin & Constable, one of the town's biggies, in 1990 before opening their own shop in '91, and, as a token of their toughness, they're not taking a sentimental approach to their former creative director, the late Dennis Frankenberry, whose cocaine problems and tragic suicide were well-publicized in the trade press, and who, for this pair, was clearly no mentor. "Dennis was a good new-business guy and account services guy," is about all they have to say about him, though they stress they left not as result of any friction but because it was simply time to do their own thing. Koeneke, 38, the copy guy, and Kohnke, 33, the art guy, have done their own thing, on a decidedly modest scale so far-they say they're billing between $3 million and $4 million-but not without some creative notoriety.
First off, after coming in second in total awards in '93, they topped the '94 Milwaukee Ad Awards with a Best of Show TV spot for their first and biggest client, the YMCA (they presently handle Milwaukee, Chicago, St. Louis and Denver Y business), as well as nine Gold and five Silver trophies. "We kind of kicked ass," chuckles Kohnke. (Laughlin/Constable, as it's now known, ran a close second with six Gold and eight Silver awards.) The low-budget Y spot is a simple compendium of shots of one of those cute but extremely annoying little boys who does nothing but ask "Why?" He asks it in bed, at the fridge, in the bathtub, while Daddy is reading the paper, and the payoff, finally, is a VO that tells us, "Maybe it's not a question. Join the YMCA. You belong here." The spot was directed by Bob Purman of local RYP Filmworks, who's done most of KK's TV. "He's a hidden treasure," says Kohnke. As for the boy in the "Why" spot, "we casted about a hundred kids," he explains, "and all we got were these sweet, little smiling guys with great teeth and no personality. But Steve had a neighbor with an obnoxious son, and he saved the day."
Besides winning the show, KK won the local politically incorrect sweepstakes when its billboard for Hector's Mexican restaurant, having stood in town for a while without garnering any negative notice, was shown as part of the Milwaukee Journal's awards coverage. The board features a photo of a chef defensively hiding his face with his hand, and the headline, "There are two things our cook won't discuss. His recipes and his citizenship." The tag: "Authentic food. Authentic people." Too authentic for some; a group of protesters picketed the awards show-it was the town's biggest gustatory to-do since Jeffrey Dahmer's kitchen was closed down. The client, who indeed has Mexican-American employees, had no problem with the work, explains Koeneke, but some people from the local Mexican-American community apparently were offended by the board, or at least by its appearance in the newspaper. "We don't find anything offensive about it to this day; we're sorry some people had a problem with it; we apologize, but we still think it stands up as good work," says Koeneke. "People just need to lighten up," adds Kohnke. They still do Hector's, whose most recent billboard pictures a jalapeno and the line, "Enjoy one of our after dinner mints." "I hope it doesn't offend jalapenos," says Kohnke.
Another remarkable piece of KK work is a commercial for Hang Tough called "Karate," again directed by Purman. One of the most unusual anti-drug spots to be seen in quite a while, it presents a little black kid who demonstrates his amazing martial arts prowess, in a sort of Mighty Morphin Power Rangers parody, as two other kids look on in awe. There's no tiresome crack attack, just scenes of the kid leaping through the air, doing endless flips and powdering a brick wall with his fists, complete with hokey Bruce Lee-style sound effects (there's even a radio version). "We were screwing around in the office doing karate shit," explains Koeneke, "and we thought, this would be a fun thing to do for Hang Tough. The idea is to empower kids, so they believe they're stronger than all the evil influences out there. Why not make a spot where the kid is in control and play it out through something kids can relate to?" The spot, along with two more-conventional ones, is getting national play via The Partnership, but has yet to be entered in any awards shows.
Their intimate knowledge of Mexican cuisine notwithstanding, Kohnke and Koeneke are Midwestern born and bred: Koeneke, a Kansas native, is a University of Kansas journalism major who spent 11 years in Minneapolis at Carmichael Lynch and Campbell Mithun before moving to Milwaukee and Eichenbaum-Hemke. He worked there with Kohnke for about three years before the latter moved to Laughlin in 1988, Koeneke to follow two years later. Kohnke is a Milwaukee native and a graphic design graduate of the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design, who worked at several local design firms before joining Eichenbaum. This design background, as well as that of art director Taylor Smith, who joined the agency out of the Milwaukee Institute, can be seen in KK's collateral for clients like First Bank, the Milwaukee Public Museum, the Milwaukee County Zoo and U.S. Chemical. They've even done YMCA annual reports. KK, a full-service shop, now has a full-time staff of nine-five creatives including the co-CDs-and the K-guys make special mention of their third partner, Denise Kohnke, Steve's wife, who anchors the business side of the agency.
As they prepare to defend their local awards title, Kohnke and Koeneke are looking for a piece of breakthrough business, possibly in the restaurant area; they're doing project work for Let Us Entertain You, a Chicago-based restaurant conglomerate, and they say they're talking to a national restaurant chain. At the same time, since they're all into health and fitness at KK, says Koeneke, they hunger for a bicycle account that would provide a creative showcase akin to Goodby's Specialized work. Trek bicycles, made in Wisconsin, are high on their list. "We want to be a national agency," says Kohnke, "a national presence. We've got Chicago right in our backyard; there are a lot of national accounts based within 500 miles of Milwaukee that we want to tap into," though he also notes with some disappointment that beer has deserted the town.
In the meantime, should something go terribly wrong, they always have their clothing business to fall back on. Yes, Backhoe Bob, KK's workwear subsidiary, has standing orders from Macy's and Dayton-Hudson, say the KKers. The clothes themselves, the logo, packaging and direct mail were all designed by Kohnke and Taylor, and it's this collateral that won the One Show Pencils. But these guys clearly want to do a Tom McElligott, not a Tommy Hilfiger. "Minneapolis is a good role model for this town," says Koeneke. "Milwaukee is where Minneapolis was 10 or 15 years ago before Fallon McElligott Rice turned the town around. I know it can happen; we're doing what we can."
"We want more competition," says Kohnke. "We want better work from other agencies in town." With the exception of Birdsall-Voss & Kloppenburg (eight medals at the Milwaukee show)-"They do nice work," the two admit-they're not impressed with anyone in town. As for Laughlin/Constable, "their accomplishments are many over the years," says Kohnke, "but they've changed from a creative-driven shop to almost a PR- and account-driven shop. They grew much larger and became a down and dirty, do it for the money kind of shop. Our opinion of them has slipped."
"The one thing we learned there was how not to run an agency," adds Koeneke. "We