Under the Influence

Under the Influence

Pocket Hercules may be the new model ad agency. It’s small, run by seasoned veterans, and works directly with client decision makers, without layers and endless meetings. It seeks to reach the community around a brand. And it sells its own beer.

It’s hard not to fixate on the old Moby Dick’s sign near the front door of Pocket Hercules’ Warehouse District loft space. And hard not to think that it’s a splendid symbol for this five-year-old ad agency.

There are some important differences. Unlike that infamous dive (infamous to people of a certain age—it was demolished along with the rest of the old Block E in 1988), Pocket Hercules doesn’t have a floor sticky with the spilled beer and spewed blood of countless bar fights.

But that sign—it’s old school. So are the metal signs advertising mostly defunct brands of pop and gasoline that adorn Pocket Hercules’ office walls. Most have come from the collection of Jason Smith, one of Pocket Hercules’ three managing principals. Smith found the Moby Dick’s sign several years ago under the staircase of a Minneapolis architectural salvage emporium. Those signs are one of Smith’s enthusiasms. And Moby Dick’s certainly had its enthusiasts (so this scribe has heard). It was a community of sorts.

And like Moby Dick’s, Pocket Hercules has plenty of involvement with sea creatures and beer—embodied in particular by Lakemaid, a brew it developed with a client, fishing lure maker Rapala. Moby’s bragged that it served “a whale of a drink.” And in a way, Pocket Hercules is in the distilling business. Smith talks about his copywriter partners, Jack Supple and Tom Camp, having the “unique ability to take really murky complex problems and just distill them down to black and white, simple, digestible pieces of information that consumers can understand and are relevant to them.”

It’s an old-school approach to advertising—very direct, with no irrelevant touches that are more about how clever the ad is than what the product is about. No game-y digital effects or “funny” characters.

And in that oldness is something very new. It’s less about the brand’s message and more about the community around that brand. Pocket Hercules’ clients aren’t huge, but they have national presences: They include several fishing-related companies like Shimano and G. Loomis rods and reels, as well as B2B, medical, and nonprofit clients.

Many agencies talk about “brand communities” and how “consumers own the brand.” Perhaps because the brands it works with are so focused in their products, Pocket Hercules actually walks that talk. It doesn’t see those consumers solely as consumers. They’re enthusiasts who influence each other.

Our work is very distilled and pure in its purpose,” Supple says. “It isn’t encumbered by long, deadly kinds of processes that make it less potent.”

That might sound like a subtle dig against Supple’s previous employer, local ad giant Carmichael Lynch, where he was chairman by the time he left. It’s not. He loved the work he did there, particularly with one of Carmichael’s top clients, Harley-Davidson. The agency helped Harley leverage an identity as an enthusiast brand, focused on a community, not a mass market. But as a top executive at Carmichael several years into the new millennium, Supple was beginning to feel trapped in “an ivory tower,” disconnected from the beating heart of creative projects.

In 2005, Smith and Camp, who’d been Supple’s colleagues at Carmichael Lynch (and who’d also worked on the Harley account), struck out on their own. Supple joined them a couple of years later to help direct their start-up agency. It had taken as its moniker the nickname of Turkish weightlifter Naim Süleymanoglu, whose four-ten stature didn’t keep him from winning Olympic gold medals in the 1990s. Among the agency’s own awards: Advertising Age’s 2009 small agency of the year for the Midwest.

Pocket Hercules may be a young agency chronologically, but its veteran staff gives it a less twitchy, more serious air than agencies dominated by Millennials. And while numerous agencies have been shedding staff, Pocket Hercules’ employee number grew nearly 25 percent last year. Sure, that was from a small base—the company now employs 16. (It expected 2010 revenues of $2.5 million, a roughly 25 percent increase.) But size hasn’t kept Pocket Hercules from being able to use just about any kind of platform—print, TV, radio, online—that a large agency can. It’s not rocket science.

But it does require knowing the customer not as the member of a focus group, a mass-market segment, or a target. It means working closely with a client’s top people, with as few layers as possible.

“Our clients don’t want a lot of process,” Smith says. “They want to see movement and things progress.”

“They don’t want to lose control,” Supple adds. “They don’t want to see a lot of money poured down nine months of people talking to one another and the resultant idea isn’t very good.”

“It’s the difference between a marketing director making a decision versus a committee,” Smith says. “Things get watered down. There aren’t a lot of great decisions that come out of showing your work to 10 or 12 people.”

To be sure, there are many clients, particularly large ones, that find levels of bureaucracy and months of back-and-forth useful, even comforting. But when Minneapolis-based Mortenson Construction hired Pocket Hercules to create marketing materials for its wind energy services, it was looking for the direct approach.

“I wanted a smaller agency that had a lot of bench strength,” says Cameron Snyder, Mortenson’s communications director. Snyder has worked in marketing on both the client side with Andersen Windows and Target and on the agency side at Campbell Mithun and Kerker (now Preston Kelly). “There’s this misperception that smaller agencies don’t have something that a larger agency does, and I find that completely inaccurate,” he adds. “A lot of smaller agencies nowadays are filled with veteran talent and they’re very nimble. They provide exceptional service. That was what I was looking for.”

Pocket Hercules likes to get close to a client in order to find that communal core. “Intimate” may be too strong a word. Or in the case of Pearl Izumi, maybe it’s not too strong. The Colorado-based maker of athletic gear, mostly for runners and bicyclists, hired Pocket Hercules to get back on the enthusiasts’ radar. Pearl Izumi, Smith says, was “kind of a sleepy brand in that it was one of the larger manufacturers of bike gear, but there were some really high-end boutique brands coming out of Europe that were seen as better.” Pearl, he adds, “was looking to get its edge back.”

And what’s edgier than getting naked—or at least feeling that way? This year, readers of bicycling magazines and Web sites will witness Pocket Hercules’ campaign for Pearl Izumi’s top-end bicycle clothing line. The ads emphasize the garments’ form-fitting characteristics in some provocative ways. Though not appropriate for more sensitive clients, it works for Pearl’s cyclist customers, who after all are very pelvically focused. Last April Fools Day, to promote the “enhanced precision anatomic shaping process” of Pearl’s chamois inserts for bicycle shorts, Pocket Hercules released an online video called “Project Uranus.” Google it. Yes, you caught the pun. The video went viral across the globe—as of January 5, it had more than 16,000 hits on YouTube alone.

“We do things that people want to see and talk about,” Supple says. To do that, “we’ve always looked at the enthusiasts at the top of the ladder and tried to adopt their attitudes and become one of them. They are the influencers, because they are the ones who influence the opinions all the way down the food chain.”

That means you can’t talk down to them, the way mass-minded marketers often do. It also means not getting too cute and “creative.” Last year, Pocket Hercules produced a series of TV commercials for Gorilla Glue. The Cincinnati-based superglue maker has done nearly all of its marketing in house, and had never run commercials before. It had tried working with agencies in the past, but as Lauren Connley, Gorilla Glue’s director of marketing, recalls, “No matter how many times we said, ‘No bananas, no jungles,’ people kept coming back to us with amazing ideas about bananas and jungles.”

Pocket Hercules, she adds, “caught the person who uses the product. They got that person very quickly. It’s about this tough, strong product, but it’s also about how that product makes the person feel: They’re empowered, they’re tough and strong. ‘Self-reliant’ is a word [Pocket Hercules] used a lot. And we loved that. They embodied the person that uses the product rather than [presenting] a gorilla.”

 

Agencies often experience roller coaster revenues. Looking to smooth those out a bit, Pocket Hercules hit upon creating its own products. Other shops, in town and elsewhere, have offered software and digital novelties developed in house. Pocket Hercules took a different route—real, tangible consumer goods.

Its first was Lakemaid, introduced in 2008, brewed by August Schell in New Ulm, and directed toward avid freshwater fishermen—and, Supple hastens to add, fisherwomen. But even those who find walleye more appealing on a plate than in a plastic bucket can appreciate the art of the Lakemaid brand. There’s the pinup-style art of mermaids who are part freshwater sport fish—too playful to be sexist (maybe not everyone agrees). The woodsy design recalls the pines and lofty balsams summoned up in the Hamm’s beer jingle. Last year, Pocket Hercules invoked another historical marketing reference for Lakemaid, installing a set of billboards on Highway 10 heading north out of St. Cloud reminiscent of those for another famous Minnesota brand, Burma-Shave.

By creating its own product, Pocket Hercules was able to better “understand what it’s like to be a client,” Supple says. It’s learned that in more ways than one: Pocket Hercules has been getting calls from people selling broadcast space and online banner ads, as well as those seeking Lakemaid’s sponsorship of fishing events. “Now we’re a mark for all that,” Supple notes.

Since its launch, about 100,000 cases of Lakemaid have been sold, enough to encourage Pocket Hercules to bring out a second product last April: Tiny Footprint coffee, produced by Twin Cities firm Roastery 7. Pocket Hercules calls it a “carbon negative” coffee: For every pound sold, the agency supports the planting of a tree in Ecuador’s Mindo cloud forest. More than 2,000 pounds had been sold as of late 2010, primarily to colleges, corporations, and food co-ops—communities that care about carbon. Pocket Hercules even contemplated opening a Tiny Footprint coffeehouse in Minneapolis.

“We were talked out of it,” Smith says. “We were told by a consultant, ‘You don’t want to run a coffeehouse. There are a lot of headaches. The profit margins aren’t there.’”

Pocket Hercules itself is profitable. It’s still small, and probably will remain that way. But its existence points to some something big that happening in the ad industry: Size doesn’t matter. The client and its customer do. An agency doesn’t have to be a whale to catch that.

—Gene Rebeck

From the land of sky-blue waters, v.2: Pocket Hercules joined forces with fishing-lure maker (and agency client) Rapala to create Lakemaid lager beer. Its lushly retro packaging features Miss Walleye, a freshwater mermaid. Pocket Hercules is considering introducing a version of the beer for saltwater fishing aficionados.

Given how revealing a lot of bicyclist wear is, the series of new print ads that Pocket Hercules created for Pearl Izumi’s high-end gear marks a logical marketing progression, particularly if you’re not worried about offending the mass market. In a similarly let-it-all-hang-out manner, Pocket Hercules designed a “pee poster” for Pearl Izumi that was affixed to portable toilets at long-distance running events. Color swatches on the poster tie urine color to level of hydration, from white (“overly hydrated spectator”) to a deep rusty brown (“This level of masochism has a name: rhabdomyolysis”).

 

Most print ads for wind energy services feature a picture of a wind turbine and a lot of verbiage. (They also often look as though they were designed using a late-1980s desktop publishing program.) For Minnesota-based Mortenson, Pocket Hercules took a different tack: photographing wind-blown company staffers. “What Pocket was able to do was come in and say, ‘No, it’s more than just wind turbines. The people and the expertise that your company has are really what helps set you apart,’” says Mortenson communications director Cameron Snyder.

 

 

Pocket Hercules created Gorilla Glue’s first TV commercials, which aired in 2010 on ESPN and the National Geographic channel. The core message: self-reliance, with DIY “enthusiasts” the core group targeted. Pocket Hercules didn’t go for cute and clever: “Instead of trying to change the company, they jumped right in and joined the company,” says Gorilla Glue marketing director Lauren Connley.

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