‘A Defining Moment’

Last updated on May 13th, 2019 at 02:36 pm

To survive in the advertising industry, agencies must do more than just offer good service at the best price. They must walk their talk and build their own brand to establish value that rises above the simple cost factor. Milwaukee-based Laughlin/Constable Inc. has changed its face and culture through growth and clientele about four times since president Karen Duffy first started working there 24 years ago.

As a growing agency, Laughlin/Constable’s Milwaukee headquarters and Chicago office set themselves apart from competing agencies by enacting a media agnostic approach to finding the best solutions for their clients. The agency can provide various marketing approaches, ranging from television, radio, print, interactive and billboard advertising to public relations and design work, depending upon what best serves its customers.

"You have to work very hard to maintain relationships, keep creating new ideas, presenting new opportunities and really becoming a partner in the client’s business," Duffy said. "I think where we have made a difference is that we invest ourselves in the client’s business and really see ourselves as being on their team. If we have an idea, it may not always be a marketing solution for us, but it is an opportunity for them."

The company created a brand for itself in the past five years to market a concept it calls "full circle branding."

"Visually, it would be putting the consumer at the center of a circle with our client’s brand encircling that. And the concept of full circle branding is that no matter where that consumer comes in touch with our client’s brand, it has to sound, look, feel, walk and talk the same. Whether it is coming from advertising, public relations or interactive," Duffy said. "It is coming to the table with a team that is well-versed in ideas and idea generation and being able to apply it to any one of those disciplines."

The advertising industry is ever-evolving, and agencies must continue to evolve to stay ahead of the competition. The average client/agency relationship lasts just under four years, partly because of the fast pace of society, Duffy said.

If a client does not experience a direct jump in revenue from a marketing campaign, chances are the client will start looking for a company that can deliver a faster return on investment.

"We have to be adept at making a connection quickly, having a point of difference that we can market to the prospective client, and it truly is all about ideas," Duffy said. "We have to be able to identify an opportunity, articulate the idea and sell it."

The agency had to slow down and take a step back in 1991 when it lost Miller Brewing Co. as a client. Laughlin/Constable changed its name from Frankenberry, Laughlin & Constable in 1993.

Laughlin/Constable was one of seven roster agencies that Miller had used across the country for advertising, public relations and promotional work.

When Miller decided to concentrate on working with only three agencies instead of seven, the Milwaukee brewer dropped Laughlin/Constable. At that point, it became obvious that Laughlin/Constable had, in effect, become a one-trick pony, with too much of its business relying upon one client.

"Back then, it probably was bigger news than the same kind of story today," Duffy said. "You would be hard-pressed to talk to any agency that hasn’t been in the position of doing really excellent work, having a positive sales impact for your client and having been asked off the business. It just isn’t that uncommon anymore."

When Laughlin/Constable lost Miller as a client, Duffy was serving as the agency’s media director. Staff changes followed, and the agency was forced to reconsider its future and its focus and realign its resources.

To survive, the agency would need some blue ocean thinking to recreate itself.

 "It was a defining moment for us, because we had teams that were dedicated to that type of business," Duffy said. "Unlike some retail operations or banks where the category has a number of other categories you can go to try to replace that business, it was a little bit more difficult to do that."

Instead of quickly letting a group of employees go or desperately looking for a new client to save the business and its reputation, Laughlin/Constable took a chance on the future of interactive media.

"At that time, we were lucky enough that the Internet was really in its early stages and the opportunities that it presented as a medium (for advertising and marketing) really couldn’t have been timed any better," Duffy said. "At that point, you take a step back and say, ‘OK, what does the future hold?’ And the Internet was the answer."

In 1995, Laughlin/Constable introduced its interactive group, which specializes in Web development, design, marketing and advertising.

Laughlin/Constable has developed interactive promotional campaigns for clients such as Huffy Sports, Firestone Tires and the Milwaukee Bucks.

In 1998, the agency broke into the Chicago market through the acquisition of an N.W. Ayer & Son office location. Laughlin/Constable secured relationships with nearly all of N.W. Ayer’s existing clients through the Chicago office, Duffy said.

Laughlin/Constable continues to focus on attracting new clients while working hard to maintain relationships with current customers.

Laughlin/Constable’s client list has become more diverse, as the company has developed: a radio campaign for Associated Bank; videos for Buell Motorcycles, We Energies and Baymont Inn & Suites; outdoor advertising for Oshkosh B’ Gosh; print advertising for Foley & Lardner, Harley-Davidson and Nunn Bush shoes; public relations for McDonald’s; and design work for Robert W. Baird & Co. Inc.’s annual report.

Ad agencies rise or fall with the creativity of their staffs, so maintaining a corporate culture that nurtures that creativity is crucial for Laughlin/Constable.

"I can’t think of an industry that should be more fun," Duffy said. "We are creating every single day, and if it feels like same old same old then we are not doing something right. The way we go about hiring and team dynamics is all a reflection of the work that we are able to produce and the quality of the ideas that we can bring to our clients."

Editor’s note: In this special report, Small Business Times is exploring how southeastern Wisconsin companies are enacting "Blue Ocean Strategies" to grow their businesses. See page 9 for more information.

Go Blue!

Laughlin/Constable, Inc.

Location: 207 E. Michigan St., Milwaukee and 515 N. State St., Chicago

Industry: Advertising, public relations and marketing

Leadership: Steve Laughlin, chief executive officer, creative director and principal; John Constable, semi-retired principal; Karen Duffy, president and chief operating officer.

Employees: 75 in the Milwaukee office, 30 in the Chicago office

Annual Revenue: Consistent growth of 5 to 10 percent over the past five years; $165 million in annual billings.

Blue Ocean Strategies:

• Recreated itself after losing Miller Brewing Co. as a major client.

• Set itself apart in the industry with its ability to serve clients as a larger agency would with the communication and partnership that a small agency can offer.

• Developed a "media agnostic" approach to identify the best options for individual clients.

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