Ad Man

Not long ago, Colle+McVoy, the second-oldest ad agency in Minnesota, was thought to be a stodgy place; mostly it created ads for agricultural products, a decidedly un-sexy category. But last fall, observers got to scratching their heads when the agency won top honors at “The Show,” an annual awards ceremony from the Advertising Federation of Minnesota, for its work for the Erbert & Gerbert’s chain of sub shops. Colle+McVoy also walked away with the most awards, sixty-nine in all. As it turns out, a coup took place a couple years earlier, when Mike Fetrow, formerly an award-winning art director at Fallon, Minnesota’s most famous agency, signed on as Colle+McVoy’s executive creative director. Now the agency has won a host of hip clients (including August Schell Brewing Company, Aveda, and Wolfgang Puck Catering and 20.21), and recently relocated from a Bloomington office park to a fashionable address in Minneapolis’s warehouse district. We recently sat down to shoot the breeze with Fetrow, a forty-two-year-old father of two, about the tumultuous industry in which he works.

The Super Bowl is coming up on February 3. Are the ads still a big deal?

I don’t think so. Going back ten, fifteen years, they were the thing. From a client standpoint, it was the place to be. And from a creative standpoint, it was a career-maker; you were on the big stage. Now advertising has changed and clients have changed their vision of how to use advertising. It’s hard to justify the one-time appearance on a Super Bowl spot when you can use other media and have a consistent presence.

So it’s not a bad sign that no Minneapolis agency has a Super Bowl ad this year?

I think it’s reflective not only of the state of advertising but also of some of the transitions Minneapolis is going through.

Is it safe to say Minneapolis is still an advertising town?

I think so. The city is and always has been a really artistic place. But I think the sands are shifting, and it’s natural that cities and agencies should go through that … the advertising agencies we’re going to be hearing about will have different names.

What kinds of advertising or marketing strategies actually work in today’s media-saturated environment?

We’ve had success with ideas that exist in a lot of different media at the same time. We create an idea that is a print ad and a poster and sometimes an event and a website. So if we create an event where people get a poster or a T-shirt, the event might happen just one day but the T-shirt will be around for months. It continues to be active, versus a one-time ad in the Star Tribune.

With Erbert & Gerbert’s, for example, we cut up a coupon for a free sub into four different ads in the newspaper. One quarter of a coupon really didn’t make any sense. But four or five pages later, you’d see another quarter of the coupon, and another. If you were curious enough and cut them all out and taped them together, you’d find a coupon for a free sub. It’s something that people can interact with.

Who has time for that? Personally, I find it irritating that advertisers should want me to do all that work.

If ads make the assumption that people care, you’re right, people are offended. They know the brand is trying to get them to do something, and it’s sort of insulting. You have to make sure that if it’s going to take time, it’s something people want to find. It’s something people want to pass to their friends.

What ads out there right now do you find remarkable?

There was a viral thing for a show about a serial killer [Showtime’s Dexter]. You [go to a website and] type in the name of a friend and a little fact, and the friend ends up getting [an email about] a news report that says “Serial Killer At Large, He Always Leaves Clues To His Next Victim.” It’s absolutely brilliant. As the person getting the email, you’re totally convinced you’re the next one to die. It’s so entertaining and so engaging you can’t help but participate.

OK, we’ve all heard about “viral” this and “viral” that. Can you define “viral” in this context?

“Viral” has become an easy-seller catchphrase, because in truth you can’t make something viral; it either becomes viral or not. But the definition is something that kind of catches on with consumers and gets passed around and starts to spread out.

Do you have to do anything in your work that’s really awful—things in total opposition to your tastes and values, just because they work for the client?

Not anymore. There is that in advertising; sometimes you’re selling a product that you know is not as good as you’re trying to get people to believe. But we find a way to love our clients’ products—people around here wear Red Wing shoes. And we just started working with a hip-hop record label, a local, small one called Rhymesayers. That was just a passion we have. So sometimes we try to follow our passions and let success come as a second. But when it’s the client who comes to us first, we try to find a passion within them.

To what do you credit Colle+McVoy’s recent achievements?

Well, few agencies value personality as much as talent. I didn’t really come in to change the work we were doing; I came in to change the personality of the agency.

What was its personality before you arrived?

It was a confident, professionally strong agency—but it was just quiet. For the first few hires I purposefully chose people who were really passionate and loud. Ramon Nuñez [a broadcast producer] was one of the first and he’s really big-chested, loud, listens to Cher.

How important is the physical environment at an ad agency?

It’s huge. Advertising is sort of messy; anything creative should be. So our new space is open. You can’t hide. And I don’t think people want to hide, because it’s more fun.

How do you feel about the cubicles?

It was funny coming to this new space; everyone had offices out in Bloomington and was really worried about cubes. We went so far as to not say the word “cube”; we said “personal workspace.” And in truth, they’re cubes. They’re fine. Nobody complained.

Do you think ad agencies ever over-romanticize their creative cultures? Can there be too much foosball?

I guess there’s a point where it could go too far. But as much as we are a business, we’re on the play-fringe of business. People expect us to bring that excitement. For a lot of clients, this is their exciting appointment of the week; they get to come in and it’s kind of crazy.

The ad industry is famous for how many ways it awards itself. What’s the purpose of so many little trophies?

The main one nowadays is to attract talent. I don’t know whether we’re in the same sort of environment that Fallon grew up in. Fallon was able to use awards to really show clients they were doing breakthrough work. It was a new message at the time. But now there’s so many award shows, and clients have gotten hip to it. It doesn’t have the same sort of punch.

What would you be doing for a living if you weren’t doing this?

I feel like I’m the luckiest person alive. I stumbled into advertising and I don’t think I would’ve been good at anything else.

I understand you love graffiti art.

Yeah, that’s a huge passion. I do some things in my basement on plywood boards and stuff.

Were you a tagger as a kid?

Unfortunately, I found graffiti when I was a little too old. And I think I’d embarrass my kids if I got caught.