Swanson Russell, state's largest ad agency, still has game

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Posted: Monday, April 8, 2013 12:00 am

If soybeans, ditch diggers, trout flies and bandages aren't exciting enough, how about free pizza, beer and basketball at work?

Staffers at the Omaha office of Swanson Russell turned to March Madness recently to spice up their monthly free-food event, part of the advertising agency's philosophy of working hard and playing hard — in this case, an NCAA tournament-style free-throw contest with brackets and champions.

The pizza-and-hoops lunch was in line with the job-life philosophy of company founder Warren “Gus” Swanson, who loved to fish and hunt. He loved outdoor sports so much that he turned his avocation into a business by selling ads to the makers of fishing and hunting equipment and supplies. When he retired, he switched to art, making sculptures with hunting and fishing themes.

“It was his passion,” said David Hansen, CEO and partner in the business along with Brian Boesche, chief creative officer.

Today, the Lincoln-based company lays a claim as the state's largest ad agency, with about 100 employees in Lincoln and 50 in Omaha. It has passed its 50th anniversary, a rare example of longevity in the fast-changing advertising world.

Although direct comparisons of ad agencies are difficult because their work varies and their financial numbers aren't public, Swanson Russell last year recorded a milestone $100 million in capitalized billings, a measure related to revenue.

That's evidence that since the economic downturn in 2008, advertising spending has been recovering nationally.

National advertising accounts for 90 percent of Swanson Russell's business, mostly in four categories: outdoor sports, especially hunting and fishing; health care, including hospitals and insurance; agribusiness; and the turf industry (think golf courses and landscaping).

That's where the ditch diggers, bandages and other goods come in. “We've diversified ourselves,” Hansen said. “The trend the last three years has been significantly up. Last year was our best year ever, and we're doing even better than that pace so far this year.”

Nationally, he said, one out of 10 ad jobs disappeared in 2008-09. Since then, Kantar Media of New York City estimates, U.S. ad revenue grew 6.5 percent in 2010, 0.8 percent in 2011 and 3 percent in 2012, reaching $140 billion partly thanks to political advertising for last year's election.

In 2008 and 2009, Swanson Russell avoided laying off people by freezing salaries, reducing retirement contributions, imposing a three-day, no-pay furlough, leaving vacant jobs open and making other cuts, Hansen said. By 2010, with advertising still lagging, the agency let four people go.

Now it's growing again, including a 20 percent increase in revenue last year. Over the past 25 years, the agency has averaged 11 percent annual gains in revenue.

Agriculture's steady performance helped carry the agency through the hard times, Hansen said, and part of the recent increase is from health-related business, headed by Tracy B. Stanko, executive vice president. Stanko, who joined the company in 1996 after working with Johnson & Johnson in New Jersey, and executive creative director Ed Salem are managing directors of the Omaha office.

Hansen said the agency has retained nearly all of its clients and added a significant new one: the Propane Council, an energy industry lobbying and education group in Washington, D.C.

Swanson Russell also plans to seek clients in the construction industry, a category with big equipment manufacturers, big building materials suppliers, big toolmakers and big financiers all its own.

How big? The World of Concrete exposition in Las Vegas in February attracted 60,000 people and 1,300 exhibitors, some of whom spent millions just on their displays. This October, the concrete industry will stage a spinoff expo in India, an indication of the global impact of the construction business.

Construction will be a solid add-on for Swanson Russell because there's crossover with some of the agency's existing areas of focus, Hansen said. Cranes and other equipment made by Vermeer Corp. of Pella, Iowa, for example, work for golf course and residential development, landscaping, agriculture and commercial construction.

Hansen said adding new clients is an involved process, sometimes requiring staff additions and education.

Sometimes corporate acquisitions cause switches in ad agencies. Swanson Russell lost the Creighton University Medical Center account after eight years when it was acquired by Alegent Health. Ad business for longtime client NC+ Hybrids moved to St. Louis after its 2005 acquisition by Monsanto.

On the other hand, the agency's Omaha office added Barnes-Jewish Hospital of St. Louis and Lancaster General Health of Philadelphia, and Swanson Russell has gained business in other corporate mergers.

Alongside its out-of-state clients, Hansen said, “We want to grow more business in Omaha and Lincoln,” pointing out the agency's work for the Omaha Convention and Visitors Bureau, Runza restaurants of Lincoln and the Great Plains Regional Medical Center in North Platte, Neb.

“We have some new business opportunities in the pipeline,” Hansen said. “You're not going to win all of those, but we have a pretty good percentage of wins, and the pipeline's pretty full.”

Although most of its work is for business-to-business clients, consumer goods have long been part of the mix. Swanson Russell promoted the first commercial golf cart for Cushman and the start of Cliffs Notes college study guides, both of which originated in Lincoln.

The agency owns a 90-year-old former insurance building and an attached 15-year-old office structure at 1222 P St. in Lincoln. That office space is headed for renovation.

“We really needed to upgrade this building in terms of just making it a much more collegial atmosphere,” Hansen said. The plan would retain its historic character, such as its oak woodwork, while creating more open spaces, meeting rooms and other features with modern lighting and fixtures. “It's time to make that kind of investment.”

The Omaha office, which offers full services except for accounting and human resources, is in leased space at 14301 First National Parkway.

Company co-founder Steve Russell still comes to the office but is not active with clients. Hansen joined the agency in 1988, and Boesche has been with Swanson Russell since finishing college in 1981. They bought out Russell and minority owners in 2007.

It was the latest ownership change for the agency, which had been known under past owners as Swanson Rollheiser Holland Inc., Swanson, Sinkey, Ellis and Swanson Russell Associates.

From now on, Hansen said, it's just Swanson Russell.

Contact the writer: 402-444-1080, steve.jordon@owh.com, twitter.com/buffettOWH

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