ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — When people think of the advertising world, they might often think of the smoky rooms, crisp suits, heavy drinking and high rises of the show “Mad Men.”
But advertising today is very different. It is a diverse world operating in many spheres, and thanks to the internet, New York is no longer a necessity for an ad firm. Small and midsize cities are able to compete on national and global scales and operate at significantly lower cost.
Albuquerque is one of those cities. Several successful agencies that have decided to make the Duke City their home over the last two decades are landing national accounts from large corporations, lobbies and nonprofits.
New Mexico offers benefits for an ad agency, whether it is the novelty of being “scrappy underdogs,” as Sam Maclay, partner and creative director for 3 Advertising said, or the attraction to a place that has been a mecca for artists for centuries as Steve McKee, partner at McKee Wallwork and Co., points out.
There are challenges to being based in Albuquerque. 3 Advertising and Esparza point to the lack of large corporate bases in New Mexico. McKee Wallwork and Co. makes it a mission to change inaccurate perceptions of New Mexico. Agenda, which is more of a hybrid agency, cites difficulty with travel. All of the firms the Journal spoke with said there is a shallow talent pool that makes hiring locally difficult. Entry-level positions are often given to locals, but specialized jobs require agencies to seek out-of-state talent with more experience.
However, all of the firms have a personal interest in seeing and helping the city grow, and all of them say they set up here and stay here because Albuquerque is home. Agencies are not migrating to Albuquerque to set up shop; the local firms are for the most part homegrown.
The Journal sat down with four local advertising firms to get their thoughts on being in Albuquerque and working on a national and global scale.
McKee Wallwork and Co.
McKee Wallwork and Co. has called Albuquerque its home for the past 20 years. The firm is the creation of Steve McKee and Pat Wallwork who have cultivated talent and leveraged that talent into success, first from a small space and now in a 12,000-square-foot building in Albuquerque’s Sawmill District. It has 24 employees.
McKee Wallwork and Co. has won many national awards over the years. Most recently it won Southwest Small Agency of the Year and National B2B Campaign of the Year from Advertising Age Magazine.
Locally, it does work for Visit Albuquerque, Hope Christian School, Heritage Hotels and Resorts, which includes branding and advertising for the new Hotel Chaco, and perhaps most recognizably for its billboards for French Burials and Cremations, in which McKee Wallwork and Co. has used a light-hearted approach to help “shatter the taboo around speaking about death,” as McKee said.
Nationally, McKee Wallwork and Co. has inserted itself as a competitor to the bigger firms in the more traditional cities. It has captured accounts with Hyundai Construction Equipment; Rehrig Pacific, a plastics company; Tutor Doctor, a Toronto-based educational company; and International Paper – its largest account – for which McKee Wallwork and Co. has won several awards.
Steve McKee said national accounts make up roughly 50 percent of the agency’s business.
McKee said operating out of Albuquerque comes with its own set of unique challenges. “There tends to be a couple of types of people out there. One is the Ivy League-snob, which you know ‘anything west of the Hudson River doesn’t exist.’ None of us have a shot with those people. But for the most part in this day and age … People recognize that talent is not a function of geography.”
McKee said the “Mad Men” days are over, and advertising spending is now more “geographically agnostic.”
According to McKee, who is from New Mexico but left for many years to gain advertising experience before returning, being based in Albuquerque “cuts both ways.” He said sometimes the company’s credibility is questioned because it’s not based in a larger city, but on the other hand, New Mexico is viewed as an exotic place. “There is a believability to prospects that great creativity resides here. And we leverage that.”
Esparza is the brainchild of company President Del Esparza, an Albuquerque native who started his firm in 2000 and operates out of an office in Downtown Albuquerque. The agency isn’t large. It employs 15 people. Esparza refers to it as a boutique firm.
Nationally, Esparza handles accounts for Oppenheimer Funds; Blue Cross Blue Shield in Texas, Illinois, Montana and Oklahoma; and Arbor Care, a post-acute care company based in Atlanta, among others.
Esparza said anywhere from 50 percent to 60 percent of the agency’s business is from national accounts. The firm has won numerous awards for its campaigns. Last year, Esparza took home five Golden Addy Awards. It also won the Advertising Works Award for most effective ad campaign for its work with New Mexico Crisis and Access Line.
It also operates locally with companies such as PNM, Sandia BMW, Camel Rock Casino and Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Mexico.
Esparza is happy to be in Albuquerque and proud to be building a successful national ad agency in his home city. He believes that New Mexico offers a unique perspective that he can leverage into standing out when marketing to clients. “It’s the perspective of diverse thought,” Esparza said. “It really has this kind of rebel-like, rustic, authentic, hard-working perception. It’s intriguing to many prospects.”
Esparza does recognize there are challenges in setting up in Albuquerque. “The obstacle is that there are just not that many companies in New Mexico that need the services of a advertising agency … In order to scale up and to grow, we need to look at other markets that are much bigger that maybe have clients, prospects that we can convert into clients.”
Esparza, like McKee, said he can get mixed reactions from national clients when he first tells them where his company is based. At times, Esparza said clients are excited about adding a unique and diverse perspective to their branding. Other times, the city causes confusion and some hesitation.
“It’s not unusual to have people say ‘Oh, you have a satellite office in Albuquerque,'” Esparza said. Esparza has a satellite office in Houston and its main office in Albuquerque. “The caliber of work that we produce out of our agency, when we show it, it causes pause as to why we are in such a midsize city.”
Ultimately, however, Esparza said there is no place he would rather be. And thanks to the rise of the internet he doesn’t have to think about moving.
3 is a relative newcomer to the Albuquerque advertising landscape. It started in 2005 and operates out of an 8,000-square-foot office near Pan American and Montgomery NE. All three founding partners, Sam Maclay, Tim McGrath and Chris Moore, cut their teeth working for Rick Johnson & Co.
Creative Director Sam Maclay relishes the company’s image as a young upstart firm and leverages that perception to his advantage. The company has used its affordable pricing to garner a variety of clients both locally and globally.
Locally, 3 does work for PNM, Presbyterian, Tricore, Skarsgard Farms, Humble Coffee and a slew of other businesses.
Out of state, 3 has either taken on full accounts or worked on a project basis with companies such as Facebook, the National Environmental Health Association, the Brew Institute and a number of tech startup companies in Palo Alto, Calif. It’s also worked on projects in Spain, the Netherlands, Australia, Belize and the Canary Islands.
The firm has won 11 National Addy Awards since 2006. Last year, 3 won for a poster campaign created for online outfitter Sackwear.com.
Maclay and Design Director Tim McGrath say they don’t view being in Albuquerque as much of a hindrance at all. “The internet has really flattened (things) out. People just don’t care so much about where you are (these days),” said Maclay.
Maclay and his partners work to market their services as affordable without a sacrifice in quality, and being in Albuquerque allows them to do that. In fact, Maclay views Albuquerque as a novelty that can help 3 stand out when pitching to prospective clients.
But the partners also say that while starting may be simple and relatively inexpensive, growth potential is stunted in Albuquerque. “There are just no huge businesses based here.”
Doug Turner’s company, Agenda, is less a traditional advertising firm than it is a hybrid ad agency/public relations firm/lobbying group. Agenda does creative work, like any other advertising firm, but most of the campaigns it takes on deal more with issues and business-to-business strategies than traditional business-to-consumer marketing.
Turner began his career elsewhere, living in New York and Tokyo before returning to New Mexico, his home state, to start a firm. His first firm, D.W. Turner, closed in 2010 and Turner ran for governor. The next year, he began Agenda.
Globally, Agenda recently launched a “We Are NATO” campaign for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The campaign is designed to help member nations explain the benefits of membership to their citizens. Agenda has also worked with DuPont on GMO transparency issues, as well as companies like AT&T and entities like the king of Jordan and the prime minister of Japan.
“Take a little bit of government affairs, a little bit of PR, a little bit of advertising and it all gets sort of bolted into one unique package,” Turner said.
Turner is trying to build a global company but enjoys being in Albuquerque from a personal standpoint.
As far as his business goes, the lack of large business headquarters is a hindrance, which is why Turner seeks most of his clientele in other places.
However, perceptions of Albuquerque don’t factor much into his clients’ decisions to seek Agenda’s services. “It’s a pretty small world these days,” Turner said, adding that travel in and out of Albuquerque is what he gets asked most about.