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In a phone interview, the principals at Hunt Adkins don't sound like laugh-a-minute men. They've got that homespun Midwestern earnestness that was portrayed to such comic effect in Fargo, but, over the wire from bustling Minneapolis, it's coming across as just pleasantly businesslike. Yet, judging from their work, these guys could be sitting on their end of the line in full clown regalia, maybe with some professorial touches like oversized "serious" specs; Hunt Adkins does almost nothing but comedy, frequently on the more cerebral end of the zany meter, but guffaw-ful nonetheless. Never mind the client-even paper manufacturers and insurance companies get well-humored.

"Of course, there's all different kinds of humor," says president Patrick Hunt, 37, without the slightest trace of mirth. "There's silly humor, slapstick humor, witty humor and intelligent humor. But they all work in the right context."

"Yeah," creative director Doug Adkins, 30, echoes pensively. "Humor runs the gamut from over the top to very dry, and I think we've touched on all the bases at some point."

Indeed, they have-they even explained all the bases in a very clever "History of Comedy" ad series for local director Rick Dublin-and their laughfest hasn't gone unnoticed. Playing the comedy card has paid off for this now $20 million shop, which started modestly as the freelance Hunt Consortium in '91; for instance, they finished No. 7 on Creativity's Zenith List this summer, two spots ahead of local Dick-equipped comedy rival Fallon McElligott, interestingly enough (though the Zenith tabulations have since been called into question by FM, with some justification). But awards aside-and HA has won some award or other for just about every campaign it's ever created- reviewing a compendium of the agency's work is more amusing than a month of Mary Tyler Moore reruns.

So how did all the fun start? Was it one of those spontaneous cases of Wit Happens? "It was our intention," says Hunt. "Everybody talks about the cynical consumer today, about how they're predisposed to not pay any attention to advertising. Part of our philosophy is that humor is one of the most powerful tools we have to get past that cynicism and actually have a chance to converse with them."

OK. Let's run through some highlights of that conversation: The "Lizard" campaign, as it's known, for Minnesota's Indian-operated Mystic Lake Casino-an early, now-departed client whose work helped put HA on the creative map-featured stock nature footage of dumb animals running into trees and suffering other humiliations, tagged, "You're a lot luckier than you think." Mystic Lake print is equally off the beaten baize with all-headline ads like, "You can win more in one minute than you make all year. Sick, isn't it?" And, "You don't need dumb luck. Mildly stupid luck will do."

"Everyone else in the category was doing the usual Las Vegas girls in sequins," says Adkins with disdain. Another Mystic campaign with the same tag featured cel animation, with scenes like a guy in a canoe getting ingested by an alien spacecraft and then quickly regurgitated. "When we started with Mystic," Adkins adds, "as opposed to treating it like a cash cow, making sure everybody's happy while we take the fees, we staked our claim right there and did the work the way we thought it should be done." Sure, but lottery-style advertising for a casino, and the client is a tribal government, no less? Well, desperate marketing situations make for strange tentmates, which is key to the success of the agency. In this case, "it was an odd situation, because it was a minority-owned business perceived as a monopoly," says Hunt. "If you would have asked Minnesotans 10 years ago what they wanted to do on a Saturday night, not many would have suggested going to the reservation. We needed to make it a very appealing and entertaining place that they felt comfortable in. We had to make the brand very likable, so humor was appropriate. Now it's the 12th largest casino in the country."

"And the work was all humor-based except for some corporate stuff," Adkins chips in, "so we were in effect prequalifying future clients. They would see that, they would give us a call and it'd go from there."

And so it did. A U.S. intro project for Rohol, a 70-proof German liqueur, treats the product little better than factory bilge, tagged, "Industrial strength liqueur," with headlines like, "In a recent blind taste test, more people preferred the taste of Rohol over 10W40." A two-minute Rohol "Training Film" puts nutty narration over old pieces of assembly line stock footage for classic SNL parody effect.

Then there was the one-year project for the Minnesota Brewing Co.'s Pig's Eye pilsner, known as, "A brutally honest beer," with a brutally inspired TV campaign based around a picture of a talkative pirate's face with a live eye and mouth matted in-Conan O'Brien should be lucky enough to someday do anything nearly as funny with this technique.

And how about current client Domtar, a Canadian paper company with a pair of comedy campaigns to its credit that read more like promos for the One Show. Based around the theme, "Everything turns out better on Domtar paper," a series of mock official documents features ads like an extremely authentic Parking Violation Notice with this in the Description of Violation box: "Because car was blocking alley, it stopped escaping bank robbers. You're a hero! Disregard ticket and come to station to collect reward money."

A Domtar poster campaign tells stories that start as nightmares and end as fairy tales: "And as Leatherface stepped out of the darkness, his chainsaw roared to life, its jagged blade grinning dimly in the pale moonlight. And then, as the women and children trembled helplessly before him, he screamed maniacally, charged towards them, lifted the chainsaw over his head and suddenly he made a left turn into the woods where he proceeded to cut up firewood for his poor, cold neighbors and they all roasted marshmallows . . ."

"Ultimately, paper is paper," says Adkins. "All the companies in the category are making the same claims; printability, runnability and what have you. In branding Domtar, we wanted to find a different way to say those things."

"Domtar has about a 70 percent market share in Canada," explains Hunt, "but is relatively unknown in the U.S. They really needed to stake a claim. In b-to-b advertising, it's all clutter; you have a print book where virtually all the advertising is in one category. It's really critical to stand out, and the client saw this."

VH-1 was apparently equally seer-like, if only briefly; HA TV promos for the channel are startlingly funny. One, for a campaign themed, "The Music is Everything," plays the light and airy '60s single "Windy" over the opening of Easy Rider, with riotous effect. Another campaign stars the animated Johnny Amsterdamn, a has-been rocker who's been reduced to playing children's birthday parties and trying to trash motel rooms where everything's locked down.

On a potentially more serious front, a newspaper spot for the St. Paul Pioneer Press has a guy in a jacket and tie-and a leotard-do an "interpretive dance" straight out of Monty Python to show us "the changing picture of the world." Awfully silly for a supposed bastion of credibility like a newspaper, but "here's another client who knows the value of getting noticed," says Hunt. "They're competing against the bigger Star Tribune in Minneapolis."

And HA hasn't mellowed with time; a new agency promo campaign, mailed periodically to prospective clients, includes ads like, "36 percent of all advertising contains blatant lies. (Which is even more disturbing when you consider that we just made that statistic up.)" And: "Most advertising is written to the intelligence level of plywood. (Despite recent studies that indicate plywood has very little discretionary income.)" Another, done as a mock newspaper article, trumpets: "Hunt Adkins resigns Hunt Adkins account." ("We're satirizing the pitch process," explains Adkins.)

Then there's their first ad for big new client Northwest Airlines/KLM, where they've got the travel/trade and cargo business and some other even less glamorous units. It's a chart that offers translations of "Where's the bathroom?" in 39 languages to illustrate how Northwest flies to a lot of European destinations. "I think it's intelligent humor," says Hunt.

These guys are incorrigible. They estimate that only 80 percent of their work is humor-driven, which seems a suspiciously low figure, but do they have a single substantial client who does strictly serious work? "Uh, I'd say no," Hunt guesses. "Maybe The St. Paul Companies. Medical insurance. Well, the humor is real subtle. Again, it's intelligent humor. You take a Cliff Freeman, who I think does humor very well, but it's slapstick humor. This is different." Typical St. Paul Cos. ad: A Band-Aid in an evidence Baggie. Headline: "Exhibit A: Adhesive bandage, which plaintiff alleges defendant pulled rapidly from skin, violently tearing three hairs from plaintiff's arm, which resulted in severe shock, trauma, disfigurement, chronic debilitating pain and permanent psychological damage." The theme: "To protect your reputation, we take every claim seriously."

Speaking of taking claims seriously, the lone straight-faced commercial on the reel is an old :30 about a bunch of kids playing cowboys and Indians in the attic, and no one wants to be an Indian. A super closes the spot with, "Tribal government gaming supports Native Americans' right to support themselves." It doesn't even evoke a titter. "The hospitality industry was trying to get slot machines in bars and restaurants, which would have been very damaging to tribal gaming, so that spot was more serious," says Hunt somewhat apologetically.

Are there limits to growth in this self-created pigeonhole? If there are, the agency doesn't worry about them. "We'll always be at a natural size, you might say," says Hunt. "Our mission statement says we 'want to approach but not attain critical mass.' We're very careful about who we work with. They have to get what we're doing."

Size matters, but Hunt and Adkins insist they're not willing to find out how big they need to get before they get bad. "We're not measuring our growth in increased billings," says Adkins. "We simply want to broaden our reach."

"There's a danger in saying we want to bill $50 million in two years," adds Hunt. "That could cause us to make compromises to the work to meet a financial goal."

But at the same time, they do want their public exposure to match their industry recognition. "We're looking to go national," explains Hunt. "It sounds corny, but we're like a baseball player moving up to the big leagues. And in virtually every category we've worked in, there has been room for humor-unless it's strategically inappropriate."

Well, they'll cross that "strategically inappropriate" bridge when they come to it. The agency is 20-strong now, with eight creatives, and Hunt pooh-poohs the notion that Minneapolis is too shopped-out a market to compete in. "There have always been a lot of agencies here, and it's always been very competitive in a healthy way," he notes. "Hey, there's a big pool of people to hire from."

Hunt and Adkins are not exactly strangers to the area. Hunt was raised in Milwaukee, but he did a four-year stint in the account and planning departments at Fallon in the '80s before changing hats for a marketing job in the restaurant/catering field.

Adkins is a Minnesota native whose first job was at Bozell in town. Two years later he joined what was then Hunt Murray, which opened in '92 when Hunt Consortium freelancer Mike Murray, who'd worked at several Minneapolis shops, officially joined forces with Hunt. Murray departed in '95 in what "wasn't a falling out," says Hunt, "we just started diverging on how things should be managed. It was a mutual decision that he should leave." Hunt insists there wasn't much of a stylistic comedy transition from Murray to Adkins; "it was always Doug who was the chief source of the humor. While Mike could be very funny, he brought more to the art direction side of the work."

The agency's biggest problem right now is a distinct lack of TV clients. HA resigned Mystic Lake a few years back when a Las Vegas-type marketing guy came in, which, combined with some thorny political tribal matters, shot the advertising onto a traditional tits 'n' tinsel trajectory. Ironically, Mystic has returned to comedy recently with local shop Kruskopf Olson. Unfortunately, Northwest Airlines, which shares top-billings honors with Domtar, is limited to print, radio and collateral. Hunt says The Pioneer Press is No. 1 on the HA broadcast slate at the moment, but he insists he's not concerned. "It ebbs and flows; there was a time when we did a hundred or so spots in a year. We can be patient."

The TV they do get is, of course, on the low-budget side, as it's always been, but they can put a neat spin on this too. "In the case of Mystic," says Adkins, "we showed the client ideas that would be far more expensive than what we did, but we felt the screaming lizard was the most effective idea we had. So we said, 'Hey, keep your money.' We had a campaign that would have cost about $350,000. The lizard cost $40,000."

On a more hopeful note, does the Fallon/Miller Lite phenomenon signal a resurgence of bizarre humor in Minneapolis? "I don't think it's limited to Minneapolis at all," says Adkins. "There are agencies all over that are trying to do advertising that doesn't look like advertising, because all the viewers have internal mute buttons. Breaking through is very difficult, and one way is to create entertainment."

Maybe one day they'll make that breakthrough in front of a hefty national TV audience, but if perchance it's not your kind of fun, fine. "We're not right for

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