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Ad execs: Prize proves something about making it here in ABQ

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

McKee Wallwork + Co. of Albuquerque has won another prestigious award for its work in the advertising world, but its staff believes there is a wider message for the young people of its hometown: You can make it here without having to leave.

“This is something I want to convey to young people in the state: You can have a future here,” said Jonathan David Lewis, a 34-year-old company partner and strategy director. “It’s easy to get negative about our community because we have challenges, but it’s possible to succeed here.”

The company’s latest award came from Advertising Age, which named it the “Southwest Small Agency of the Year.” The firm won that award in 2015 as well, and it marked the fifth time in four years that the company has won an award from the national advertising publication.

It was a sweet victory for one of the firm’s founders, Steve McKee, who said he felt the need to leave to pursue his own career more than two decades ago. He moved to Phoenix to work for a Los Angeles-based firm when he was 24.

McKee came back to Albuquerque, though, and started McKee Wallwork 21 years ago. One of his goals was “to be a nationally respected firm right here in Albuquerque,” he said.

“We’re actually doing it,” McKee said he told his staff of 18 after news the firm had won the Advertising Age award.

He said he wanted to bring back the attitude he found in Phoenix that he found so “stunning” when he first moved there: People were saying, ‘Why not here’ as opposed to what he might hear in New Mexico at the time, where people were saying, ‘Why here?’ ”

Lewis said he wanted to convey his message about Albuquerque in light of the numbers of young people who are leaving the state in search of jobs elsewhere.

Demographic figures show that between 2011 and 2016, 42,000 more people left the state than entered it. Among those, the majority were college-educated, including 17,000 people with a bachelor’s degree.

Still, Lewis and McKee acknowledge there are challenges in deciding to stay.

“In the ad world, New Mexico is off the beaten path,” Lewis said. “That makes things more difficult for us, but it also forces us to innovate.”

McKee said the firm has had to “prospect nationally” in order to grow because there are fewer companies located in New Mexico than there are in other markets.

He also said it’s more difficult to recruit talent, although the company tries to “make our own people” by holding twice-yearly advertising boot camps for college students that sometimes result in job hires.

And while pay in New Mexico is generally lower than elsewhere, deciding whether to be here is a balancing act between earning top dollar and other considerations.

“To look at the Sandias every day, what’s that worth?” McKee said. “It’s worth a lot. But everyone’s got their own equation.”

Lewis says that, although he has been approached by companies in Denver and Texas, “I want to be here.

“It’s a commitment to being part of the solution … because this is important for me and my generation.”