Thoughts on a Transforming Industry

Campbell Mithun CEO Steve Wehrenberg talks about following a legend and navigating the transforming ad industry.

By Beth LaBreche

Advertising agencies play an important yet changing role in the reputations of companies and their brands. Industry veterans like Steve Wehrenberg, CEO of Campbell Mithun, the Twin Cities' oldest agency, is leading his team and his clients into the brave new world of advertising.

Q: You're following in the footsteps of local advertising legends like Ray Mithun. What do you feel are your responsibilities to the industry and our ad community, and how do you fulfill those?

» One day, while teaching my grad school class over at the University of Minnesota, I stopped during our break to admire the display on the wall in the hallway memorializing [Ray Mithun]. It struck me at that moment what an honor it is to run the place that bears his name. Ray started Campbell Mithun in the Great Depression. And he considered it his personal responsibility to help local companies drive the economy, create jobs and make a better community. So in addition to creating value for shareholders, I feel like I share his original goals. Toward that end, I teach at the university, where I feel like I get as much back from my students as I give. And our company makes a huge commitment to the United Way, in giving money and time. And despite these tough times, we have remained committed to our Lucky 13 internship program, giving several students a chance each year to gain some valuable experience, even if we aren't hiring.

Q: Advertising is going through quite a transformation-from changes in agency-client relationships to innovation in digital media to the rise of social media and downturn of traditional media. How, as a leader, have you and Campbell Mithun adapted and innovated?

» I have a simple philosophy: Learn, unlearn and keep. So we're always thinking about what new things we need to learn more about, like digital and social media and marketing analytics. We've added digital creative, media and experiential capabilities and apply them very strategically toward accomplishing our clients' marketing objectives. Lots of marketers want to be derivative; we don't. We encourage clients to put 80 percent of their budgets into what's proven, 10 to 15 percent into new channels that have shown promise and 5 percent toward experimentation. Our media business has moved to the forefront of the strategic process and often leads it. One thing we try to do is to develop a connections blueprint for our clients, which becomes the roadmap for how to go to market with target segments, messages, connections and engagement strategies.

Q: Campbell Mithun believes that, especially today, "everything talks." What do you mean by that and why is this concept so important?

» When you have an original, ownable, pioneering idea, any brand can talk, and be talked about, with greater effectiveness and efficiency at every point of contact. The concept is very relevant today, when there are so many channels and communities and ways in which that message can and should be talked about. Managing them is the trick.

Q: What are you telling the new members of this profession? How are you preparing them for an industry that's changing?

» I tell them that this is both one of the most exciting and the scariest times to enter the business, because everything's changing and no one has really figured out the new model. So it's a time for the fearless, energetic people who believe in the power of ideas. That said, I try to teach the fundamentals of branding, positioning, targeting, storytelling and connecting. To me, the new digital and social channels have become new ways of applying the fundamentals.

Q: Campbell Mithun has client relationships it has maintained over the history of the firm-77 years. What is the secret to keeping those relationships, and keeping them strong, over time?

» Ray Mithun had an approach that we try to apply today: Listen well, put your client's interest first, work hard and always remember that the job is the boss.