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Ask Carmichael Lynch CEO Lee Lynch why Minneapolis agencies have always done so well in the Stephen E. Kelly Awards, and he'll blame it all on the Mississippi River.

It was the river that ground the grain that created powerful local advertisers such as General Mills and Pillsbury, he asserts. And it was the river that moved the trees that became the paper that created the overachieving graphic arts industry in the Twin City. Ergo, great print advertising?

It's true Minneapolis has some Kelly mystique, its agencies having become finalists more often than New York shops each of the last six years except 1990. And Minneapolis has had far more finalists that any other city except New York since the award was established in 1981, with 63 (Fallon McElligott alone has accounted for 41 since 1984).

But it's hardly the only agency community outside the Big Apple that has distinguished itself in print advertising. So what's geography got to do with it?

Nothing, say creative directors. Look instead at agency size.

The Kellys represent "strong campaign thinking in print. And [the award goes to] companies for whom print advertising is the foremost product, not the secondary product," says Paul Silverman, creative director and copywriter on the Timberland account at Mullen Advertising, Wenham, Mass. "It's the mid-sized agencies that get the national print budgets and the regional TV budgets."

Mid-sized agencies, of course, are spread throughout the country. But the best ones would probably not stay mid-sized long if they were located in New York, Mr. Silverman argues. Those shops would grow fast, which means they'd land national TV accounts and develop a tendency to turn their backs on print-intensive clients.

"That's not to say that big places don't put their efforts into print," says Dion Hughes, creative director on the Austin, Nichols & Co. campaign at New York's Angotti, Thomas, Hedge. "It's just a matter of where the money is spent."

Certainly big agencies are Kelly finalists, too, and again, geography has nothing to do with it.

Leo Burnett Co., Chicago, created the Dewar's campaign for United Distillers, and CME KHBB (now Campbell Mithun Esty), Minneapolis, has two finalists for client Andersen Windows.

Excellence in print "has to do with the product itself, and what medium is dictated by that," says Don Terwilliger, CME creative director on the Andersen campaign. "Andersen is concerned about TV, but they put much more emphasis on print. They've been doing that for 25 or 30 years."

The advertised product or service for Kelly finalists run the gamut, from bicycles to computers to shoes to skis to bottled water. But they share an emphasis on the print medium and a need for the simple, bold, thoughtful advertising that tends to come most often from the non-giants.

Mid-sized shops tend to "take a leaner, fresher approach. Their day-to-day business is making ads. They're not over-researched, over-analyzed, over-committeeized," points out Lyle Wedemeyer, creative director on the Minneapolis Institute of Arts campaign for Martin/Williams, Minneapolis.

They're also dependent on print for their primary national exposure, so they put their best people on those accounts. It's an investment that pays off not only in awards but in recruiting. Excellence begets excellence, particularly in this medium.

"It's an apprentice, journeyman, master type of progression," says Jack Supple, executive creative director at Carmichael Lynch, which has two finalists this year. "It takes patience. The best print people we have really love it. But it takes time to do it right."

TV commercials can succeed through the efforts of many people, he adds. But print ads "have to live and die on a single image. It's like taking a single frame from a commercial. Art and copy have to produce results."

Some of the credit also belongs to production departments geared to achieve high standards. Even Minneapolis sometimes undervalues its production support, Mr. Wedemeyer claims.

Award winners from throughout the country come to Minneapolis for crucial elements such as photography, typesetting and computer retouching.

General excellence in print advertising also may be a predictable phase in an agency's life cycle: on its way up to the big time, when billings reflect huge media budgets.

"This place was built on print," says Mr. Hughes. "At the time we produced the Austin Nichols campaign, we were about $100 million [in billings]. Now we've gotten a lot more into TV."

Fallon McElligott is a prime example of that, Mr. Hughes adds.

"They used to be a far better print agency than TV agency, but I wouldn't say that's the case any more.

"It's a matter of practice, practice, practice."

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