How Duluth is Tapping Into Its Creative Side

How Duluth is Tapping Into Its Creative Side

Duluth’s marketing scene is attracting clients and talent well beyond the city limits.

If you walk down West Superior Street in downtown Duluth, you’ll see storefronts for banks, restaurants and shops—what you’d find in most business districts. You’ll also find the stylish orange-and-green storefront of Giant Voices, a creative marketing firm. It moved to the former hardware store space early in 2017, after about five years in what became cramped offices in Canal Park.

Giant Voices’ location reflects the increasing prominence of Duluth’s creative marketing sector. And it’s not the only one that has found itself bursting at the seams. In 2014, 40-year-old agency Hailey Sault moved into larger quarters, with an interior that would look right at home in a North Loop warehouse in Minneapolis. Another expanding Duluth firm is Swim Creative, which will begin leasing new space this year.

Compared to the behemoths in the Twin Cities, none of these agencies, though growing, is big. Hailey Sault employs 21 and Swim has 15 employees. None is an agency of record for a major brand or Fortune 500. But they all work with national accounts, and along with several other firms in Duluth (see “More Duluth shops making a mark”), they’re creating a distinct Duluthian work culture. And they’re having no trouble attracting talent of all kinds—digital, design, account management, copywriting and more—from outside of the region.

In 2012, Duluth native Pascha Apter and Twin Cities émigré Lisa Bodine joined forces to launch Giant Voices. Both had backgrounds in sales as well as marketing. Along with standard marketing offerings such as ad campaigns, packaging design, PR and content creation, the firm also consults with clients in areas like sales expansion strategy, lead scoring and marketing automation. It’s that sales background “that’s a unique point of differentiation,” says CEO Apter.

Giant Voices’ biggest client sectors are B2B—manufacturing, energy and technology. “They make up about 85 percent of our business,” company president Bodine says. An increasing number of those clients are from outside Minnesota.

They include Iowa-based Involta, a national data-center and managed-services firm that has facilities in Duluth. There’s also Massachusetts-based ThompsonGas, which bought a Minnesota-based propane company that had hired Giant Voices for client work. Another is Connecticut-based private equity firm Brynwood Partners, which acquired client Cold Spring Brewing last August. Brynwood’s portfolio also includes St. Paul-based Pearson Candy Co. and several beverage brands (Harvest Hill, Sunny Delight). That could open up opportunities to work with other brands that Brynwood owns. “Brynwood is now one of our largest clients,” Apter says.

She doesn’t think that its Duluth storefront space has brought her agency new local business. But for national clients with global businesses that are visiting from Manhattan or elsewhere, the new space provides credibility. For clients that might perceive Duluth as a small town, Apter says, Giant Voices’ new offices make the city seem a bit bigger—and able to compete on a national scale.

Giant Voices recently struck a deal to acquire Lightpost Digital, a San Diego-based digital marketing firm, Bodine says. Through the acquisition, Giant Voices becomes part of Arizona-based Canal Partners’ portfolio of companies. By year’s end, Giant Voices expects to have more than 30 employees, with offices in Duluth, San Diego and Scottsdale.

Finding their happy place

The same year that Apter and Bodine launched Giant Voices, Marsha Hystead and Mike Seyfer bought out their longtime employer, Duluth agency HTK. Founded in 1975 by Duluth marketing godfather Harold Klatzky, HTK had in the past 15 years become a specialist in marketing work for health systems and hospitals. In early 2017, Hystead and Seyfer undertook what Seyfer calls a “positioning exercise,” designed to create a more distinctive brand for HTK. Out of that effort came a new name, Hailey Sault, which the former HTK assumed in July. (“Hailey” is Hailey, Idaho, one of Seyfer’s favorite destinations; “Sault” is a village in southern France particularly close to Hystead’s heart.)

In addition to Duluth-based Essentia Health, Hailey Sault’s clients include New Jersey-based CarePoint Health and Sacred Heart Hospital in Eau Claire, Wis. Not all of its work is in the health space: It also has created marketing work for tourism bureau Visit St. Paul. Hailey Sault opened a second office in the state of Virginia to expand into new regions. This spring, Hailey Sault opened its third office in New York City.

The positioning exercise also led to the development of an agency culture that focuses, not surprisingly, on health. Hailey Sault has a workout room, and a yoga instructor comes in once a week. In 2017, Hailey Sault was named the country’s 15th-healthiest workplace in Outside magazine’s “Best Places to Work” issue. Indeed, Seyfer notes, “someone on our team has kayaked to work.”

Bright colors and the word “Creativity” on the walls of Giant Voices represent the energy of the creative marketing firm in Duluth. Amsoil and Third Street Brewhouse are among the clients of this growing business. Duluth is now home to a cluster of marketing firms that serve clients across the United States.

That culture and Duluth’s growing national reputation for all-season outdoor recreation has helped Hailey Sault “attract new talent that is remarkable,” Seyfer says. Duluth’s marketing agency scene, he adds, once was more inward-looking. “We used to have a hard time recruiting people from outside of Duluth,” Seyfer says. No longer.

In the swim

While some view Duluth as a fun place to live, the location can still pose business challenges. “Duluth is a tough market,” says Patrice Bradley, CEO and creative director of Swim Creative, which she founded in 2006. With several strong local agencies and not enough Duluth-based work to pay the bills, Bradley and her business partner, David Sadowski, have cast their net into Ohio and the South. Swim Creative looks at areas that Bradley calls “advertising deserts”—smaller population areas with few agency options.

Still, Bradley’s current clients have been keeping her staff busy. Swim has created work for Bent Paddle Brewing Company, the University of Minnesota–Duluth, and several other regional clients. Outside of Minnesota, its clients include Alaska-based

Like Giant Voices and Hailey Sault, Swim has found talent easy to find. Though it has mentored and hired local creatives, “the majority of my staff is from elsewhere,” including Milwaukee and the Twin Cities, Bradley says. She adds that “we get 10 applicants a week, easily. People see us online and they say, ‘You’re the kind of agency I want to work at.’ ” Bradley believes that a big part of the appeal is a healthy work/life balance. At 5 p.m., she says, her staff is able to leave and do outdoor activities. Getting out of the office, Bradley believes, results in better work.

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Bradley and Sadowski both immigrated to Duluth—in her case, from Minneapolis right after graduating from college in 1989. “Watching Duluth evolve over this time has been really fun,” says Bradley, who is a big local music fan. The city’s livelier and less insular, which has helped give Duluth a burst of creative energy that is reflected in its music, arts and craft scenes. And its marketing industry, too.

More Duluth shops making a mark

  • AimClear has built an international reputation for its digital marketing work, a portfolio of services that includes paid search and SEO, audience targeting, content creation and web design. It’s been listed for six years in a row on the Inc. 5000 list of fastest-growing U.S. companies. AimClear’s also the driving force behind the annual Zenith Digital Marketing Conference held every spring.
  • With clients like the Greater Downtown Council, Sammy’s Pizza and several regional tourism and health care groups, 20-year-old Out There Advertising Inc. might be the most Duluth-y of the city’s homegrown agencies—even though it was founded by two Los Angeles ad-industry émigrés, John and Kim Keuning.
  • Founded in 1946, Flint Group has grown by acquisition, and has offices in Minneapolis and St. Cloud as well as North Dakota. Its Duluth operation dates back to 1949, when Fargo-based Flint acquired the local H.E. Westmoreland Agency. —G.R

Gene Rebeck is a Duluth-based freelance journalist who writes monthly for Twin Cities Business.