In the Spotlight

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Brainerd Group Runs with the Big City Firms
By Leif Enger
April 22, 1999
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There's something irrefutably big-city about the advertising industry. Think Madison Avenue, Thirty-something, the Gap. But the urban nature of the business is changing, and nowhere faster than in Minnesota. This weekend in Florida, the "Whatever It's Called Ad Association" will name its Agency of the Year. Among the nominees - the David amongst giants from New York and Birmingham - is the Russell and Herder agency from Brainerd, Minnesota.

WALKING INTO RUSSELL AND HERDER you feel instantly at a tilt. There's purple neon overhead. A flashing Uncle Fester pinball machine. Saucer-sized tropical fish leering from an aquarium so big, many mistake it for a wall.

The whole building is gleefully overdone. There's a deep-blue ceiling aglitter with stars. A waterfall tumbles two stories into the Kevorkian Pond. There are five themed bathrooms, including the Larry Johnson Memorial, named and decorated for the veteran employee who occupies it every morning at ten.

For quick trips downstairs, there's a purple tubular playground slide, known very locally as "Barney's colon." Even where the real work happens, play happens.

Started by Carol Russell and former partner Chip Borkenhagen in 1984, the agency has grown into a regional-advertising powerhouse. It's gone from 20 employees to almost 60 in the last three years. It grosses in the millions annually. Its client base is heavy on tourism and timber, as you might expect in northern Minnesota, yet diverse enough to include customers in Canada and Europe. In fact, says partner Brian Herder, communications technology has transformed distance from liability to advantage.

"Within the state, I think people have a preconception of the Brainerd Lakes area as vacation country," says Herder. "Anything that happens there is the opposite of working. When you get outside the state, people are less concerned with that. They're more interested in your book, in your client roster. We usually do better on pitches outside the state."

Herder spoke from Florida, where the American Association of Advertising Agencies will hand out the year's top honor. Russell and Herder already had a successful 1998, opening a new office in Duluth and expanding their interactive marketing division on the worldwide web; now comes this nomination for National Agency of Year, an honor based in part on a TV campaign for St. Mary's Duluth Clinic Health System.

The nomination, Herder says, shows it's possible to attract top talent to a place that's never appeared on the industry's radar screen.