Credit: Courtesy Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp.

City Spotlight: More Than a Music Town, Nashville Is a Booming Marketing Hub

Small Town In Big City Is More Than 'Big Hair, Belt Buckles and Boots'

By Published on .

Kerry Graham, CEO of Nashville ad agency Bohan, nudges a visitor: "Elvis is in the building."

Technically, he was outside the Tennessee city's Ryman Auditorium, the morning sun glinting off his rhinestones and full dark sideburns on a late September day. It's part of the paradox that is Nashville -- an Elvis wannabe touring an auditorium that was originally home of the Grand Ole Opry but now also plays host to the likes of Billy Idol, Counting Crows and Rob Thomas.

Nashville is known as Music City and wears that mantle proudly, but this town wants you to know it's about more than, as one local pundit put it, "big hair, belt buckles and boots." The area is also home to about 25 ad agencies, marketers like Mars Petcare, Nissan (Anne McGraw, who runs the automaker's global digital marketing, was recently elected to the local school board), Cracker Barrel, Dollar General Corp., Genesco, Tractor Supply Co. and more. It's also host to a burgeoning tech and fashion scene.

Country icon Garth Brooks calls it "a small town in a big city and a big city in a small town." If so, it's a boomtown: New construction is inescapable. There are so many building sites in Nashville that there are T-shirts portraying its skyline crammed with cranes.

CNN named it one of the Top 10 fastest-growing cities last year and said 82 people move to Nashville every day. This has caused a bit of a housing crunch downtown and raised rents in hot districts like The Gulch, where a one-bedroom apartment can run as high as $1,800 a month, double the norm for the region. It's also causing traffic snarls that can reach New York levels.

Migration last year accounted for 65% of the population growth, according to The Tennessean, and that is evident from talking to residents in the marketing and ad industries here. Populating two of the city's more prominent shops, Bohan and hometown rival Buntin, are transplants from markets like San Francisco (Pereira & O'Dell and Goodby Silverstein & Partners); Seattle (Wong Doody); Chicago (Leo Burnett); Richmond, Virginia (The Martin Agency); and elsewhere.

"Nashville has caught a tailwind," said Jeffrey Buntin, president-CEO of the eponymous agency with deep Nashville roots -- his father founded the shop, which today contains a firepole that employees sometimes use as an alternative to stairs, in 1972. "When I had a conversation with a candidate eight years ago, it was a lot different than today," Mr. Buntin said. "Now I have people coming in saying, 'I want to be in Nashville.'" Buntin says it is the city's largest agency, with 150 staffers and $130 million in annual billings spread across clients including Trex, Perkins Restaurant, Chinet and John Deere.

According to Forbes, Nashville claims 1.8 million residents with a median household income of $53,463. Ad people moving to the area can expect salaries about half or two-thirds what they might make in New York or Los Angeles, say locals. But Forbes pegs the average home cost at $172,106, and the Nashville Chamber of Commerce indexes the cost of living at 90, vs. 222 for New York.

The health-care and education industries are the biggest employers (HCA is based here, as is the Vanderbilt University Medical Center and a host of other hospitals), providing 23% of the jobs, according to the chamber of commerce. Beyond Vanderbilt, there are 11 local universities in the region. A number of restaurant chains are also based here, including Captain D's, Logan's Roadhouse, Shoney's and O'Charley's.

While it's no Austin, Texas, when it comes to the tech scene -- though the area still needs more data scientists and digital talent -- startups are nurtured locally at the Entrepreneur Center. Not surprisingly, several of them are music-related, such as Project Music, a tech accelerator run by former Sony exec Heather McBee that has funded projects such as a classical music distribution platform.

Former New York Post writer Libby Callaway is also helping to lift Nashville's fashion scene -- she says there are currently 150 local designers; perhaps the best known is Amanda Valentine from "Project Runway." Ms. Callaway is leading an effort to make the city even more design friendly by raising money for sewing academies, among other ventures.

One local fashion success is Imogene & Willie, a brand born in a funky old Nashville gas station that now sells high-quality jeans that can cost $300 a pair or more. Local resident Reese Witherspoon is also opening a shop in the same 12th South neighborhood for her Draper James lifestyle brand. Another recent settler to the area is Aerosmith's Steven Tyler, who is making his first country album.

Yet despite the town's broadening horizons, you can't get away from music in Music City. Locals will casually point and say, "There's Dolly's place" or "Here's Wynonna's spread." Music is part of the DNA.

The Hilton Garden Inn prints its logo on guitar picks left for guests in its rooms. Lifelong Nashvillian David Bohan, chairman of the agency that bears his name, said that when the shop originally opened 25 years ago, it took over Tammy Wynette's offices. Today, Bohan, which has annual billings of $70 million, makes its home in a converted electrical warehouse in The Gulch and shares space with Tim McGraw and Faith Hill's management company.

"Nashville has a deep creative class of collaborators born out of its music heritage, which encourages an environment where musicians, writers and others literally play well with others. That culture has had a strong impression on how we have structured Bohan," he said.

That structure is a "village" system that groups its 80 staffers by account. Clients such as O'Charley's, Jos. A. Bank, Dollar General, Saint Thomas Health and moonshine maker Dueling Grounds Distillery are offered offices at the agency and a card key to the building, which includes a period-appropriate Sterling Cooper Lounge. Several offices contain martini-shaped lights, which President-Chief Operating Officer Shari Day said burn continuously during a pitch.

One of its quirkier clients is an eclectic eatery, private club and cigar bar to the stars called The Standard. The converted mansion, built in 1843, is dotted with hidden rooms and secret panels and sports a divan that was featured in a Taylor Swift ad for Diet Coke. The Standard is owned by Joshua H. Smith, whose trademark is an untied bow tie.

Like most every place in town, The Standard offers valet service. This is a city obsessed with valet parking, to the point where yoga studios and health clubs will park your car. Ryman sponsor Nissan offers free valet parking to Nissan drivers. (The automaker, which employs 11,000 people in Middle, Tennessee, is also a sponsor of the Tennessee Titans, which call Nissan Stadium home, and the Nashville Predators hockey team.) Whether you live in the hip, gentrified East Nashville; the restaurant-heavy Belmont area (including the Blvd restaurant owned by "Top Chef" contestant Arnold Myint); the charming Franklin area, which houses many established country music stars; or one of the places offering subsidized housing for emerging artists, you need a vehicle to get around subway-less Nashville.

Sharing the roadways on the saloon-heavy Broadway strip -- a street that looks more Vegas than Nashville -- are golf carts to transport "honky tonkers," the term for bar hoppers who may travel from country havens Robert's or Tootsie's Orchid Lounge to songwriter haunts like 3rd & Lindsley and the Bluebird Cafe. Tootsie's connects to the Ryman via an alley that many a performer traversed during shows; Ryman Senior Marketing Manager Brian Wagner joked that there are 32 steps to the bar from the theater and 78 back.

New to this strip are "pedal bars," literally gin joints on wheels that 10 or so people -- many of them bachelorette parties recently flocking to Nashville -- pedal down the street as they drink.

The strip houses a lot of country music bars, but in an interview with Ad Age, Garth Brooks said that Nashville "gets branded with a country thing, but a lot of people play here," citing Billy Joel, Dan Fogelberg, Bob Dylan and the Eagles. Mr. Brooks called Nashville a "city of dreamers" last month when the Oklahoma transplant received a star on the Music City Walk of Fame alongside wife Trisha Yearwood. He told Ad Age that often the person "who waits on you at a restaurant is a better singer or songwriter than you." As for those restaurants, he recommends to visitors the Loveless Cafe and the Pancake Pantry.

And consider this evidence of the intertwining of music and marketing in Nashville: Mr. Brooks has a degree in advertising. "I can't read or write music, so it allowed me to write jingles, which is about getting a message across in as few words as you can, and that's exactly what songwriting is," he said.

But then, it seemed, a better gig came along.

(From l.) Bohan founder David Bohan, Chief Operating Officer Shan Day and CEO Kerry Graham. Photo courtesy Bohan.
The Broadway strip. Photo credit: Sean Pavone/iStock.
Fashion consultant Libby Callaway is leading an effort to make the city even more design friendly by raising money for sewing academies, among other ventures. Photo credit: Rick Stack for Ad Age.
Garth Brooks calls Nashville 'a small town in a big city and a big city in a small town.' Photo credit: Terry Wyatt/Getty Images.
Local marketing execs at blvd restaurant. Photo credit: Rick Stack for Ad Age.
Hilton Garden Inn's guitar pick. Photo credit: Courtesy Hilton Garden Inn Nashville.
Butin President-CEO Jeffrey Buntin. The agency is the city's largest, with 150 staffers and $130 million in annual billings. Photo credit: Rick Stack for Ad Age.
The secret room at The Standard. Photo courtesy The Standard at The Smith House.
The State room at The Standard. Photo courtesy The Standard at The Smith House.
The Standard at The Smith House. Photo courtesy The Standard at The Smith House.
Most Popular