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The Austin, TEXAS, office of SandersWingo Advertising Inc. (No. 5 on the BE Advertising Agencies list with $111.8 million in billings) can be found just steps away from the University of Texas’ sprawling campus and a stone’s throw from the State Capitol building. Though more than 1,700 miles from New York City’s Madison Avenue, the capital of the American advertising industry, this agency has managed consistent year-over-year growth–something even the biggest players have been unable to accomplish in this environment.
Although the Austin site is not the company’s headquarters (that’s in El Paso), it is home to the company’s growing multicultural business and appears conducive to the flow of creative energies. High ceilings and an abundance of tall windows offer a view of downtown Austin and the college campus. Successful print campaigns for AT&T, State Farm, Chevrolet, and other clients adorn earth-toned walls. A vintage arcade game sits in the lobby for those who want to rejuvenate creative juices by destroying alien invaders. In one of the so-called “creative rooms,” a team works on an upcoming campaign. Photographs and sketches depicting people of all races and hues are tacked to boards while youthful-looking employees engage in a spirited debate of ideas. At the helm of this thriving organization is Robert Wingo, the unassuming 25-year industry veteran who credits much of the company’s success to the stellar creative team management has put together.
In 2008, SandersWingo managed to not only become General Motors’ agency of record for African American, urban, and youth marketing for Chevrolet, but also picked up new clients including Austin-San Antonio Commuter Rail District and INX Inc., a technology solutions company. The firm even managed to land some general market work for AT&T and GM–a rare feat for a black-owned agency. All told, this activity has led to a roughly 25% increase in billings for a company with more than five years of consecutive growth during a period in which many competitors–those within and outside the ethnic space–are on life support. For Wingo and his team’s collective vision and ability to thrive in today’s unforgiving business climate, Black Enterprise has named SandersWingo the 2009 Advertising Agency of the Year–an honor that hasn’t been bestowed upon a be advertising firm since 2005.
THE POWER OF TEAMWORK
Advertising spending continues on a downward spiral as corporations continue to tighten budgets by slashing such expenditures (Forged in Fire: The New Rules of Doing Business). “Independent African American agencies have a tougher time and a tougher fight than those who might be partially owned by an advertising holding company such as Publicis or Omnicom, in order to really get new business,” says Greg Head, president of HEADFIRST Insights & Strategy, a Stone Mountain, Georgia-based marketing research firm. “That being said, I think SandersWingo is an exception to the rule right now. They’ve just done some marvelous work over the last several years.”
At the heart of this growing company is a unified vision set by Wingo and his management team. To be successful their cadre of professionals must provide clients with solutions. So how do they achieve this goal? By helping align brands, offering fresh approaches, and creating a value-driven proposition–often something extra clients don’t request but the team feels they need. Wingo says, “We ask ourselves the who, what, and why questions every day. Who are we talking to? What are we trying to accomplish?Â What can we bring the client that is above and beyond? Why are we doing it? That is a value-driven proposition which will help their business move forward.”
That teamwork has been paying off. Mark Gibson, assistant vice president of advertising for State Farm Insurance, credits the company’s presence in the African American community to SandersWingo. “We found them to be a great partner that’s helped us push much further and much more deeply in connecting with the African American community and connecting with those consumers much more emotionally,” he says. He points out an emotional TV spot that depicts a family recently returned from a funeral where a young mother had passed away. As the family reminisced about her life the commercial shows a State Farm agent there with the family. “It was a very memorable, very touching, very emotional spot that not only spoke uniquely to the African American marketplace, but iwingot spoke to the family unit, our core competency of being there when people need us the most and helping them to protect the things they value the most.”
FROM EXEC TO ENTREPRENEUR
SandersWingo, which began as Sanders Advertising, was founded by David Sanders, a German-Jewish immigrant in 1958. Later renamed, Morton Advertising, its clients included Billy the Kid, a manufacturer of boy’s wear. Wingo served as vice president of advertising and marketing for the clothing maker during the early 1980s. “David and I got to be good friends and one day he asked me if I would ever have any interest in joining the agency as an owner,” recalls Wingo. In 1983, Sanders eventually wooed Wingo to come aboard as executive vice president and one of the company’s partners. The firm’s name was changed to reflect this evolution: Sanders, Wingo, Galvin & Morton Advertising Inc. (later shortened to SWG&M Advertising Inc.).
Over the years, Wingo bought the shares of partners Roy Morton and Elizabeth Galvin, making the firm a black-owned enterprise. But the Sanders name remained on the shingle as a sign of respect to the founder. “It’s a legacy thing for me,” Wingo says. “As long as I’m here his name will always be first on the door because this is, as far as I’m concerned, part of his legacy.”
By the turn of the century, business was good. The firm had clients that included Sprint, The Popular Department Store, Sheldon’s Jewelers, and clothing manufacturers Farah and BTK Industries. Wingo took a calculated risk, however, by deciding to pursue the multicultural market: targeting African American and Latino consumers. To that end, the firm opened an office in more racially diverse Austin in 2000. “I took the risk of opening an office in Austin with no business. I’m not saying that I was the smartest nut in the barrel but I did it and things worked out,” he says. “It was a gamble. I think people who don’t take risks will never move to another point in their business careers.”
ROCKY ROAD TO THE MULTICULTURAL MARKET
In 2000, the U.S. economy was strong, the financial markets were at all-time highs and the tech-fueled “New Economy” promised countless years of untold prosperity–or so many thought. When the firm opened the Austin office it was on the strength of three accounts from a trio of high-tech companies. These clients would be the foundation to gain more business within the multicultural space. But the dot-com meltdown dictated otherwise. “We ended up doing little or no business with any of them,” recalls Wingo. “So I was sitting there with this big, new shiny office but not a whole lot of business.”
Those were frightening times. “We got absolutely body slammed,” recalls Wingo. While business was solid at its El Paso headquarters, the fledgling operation left many wondering whether the company bit off more than it could chew. “It was devastating to lose those opportunities after you’ve banked on them to be the footing of the business.”
The company needed to generate new business. Wingo had his team attend seminars and hired consultants to teach his staff more sophisticated business and presentation techniques. “We pitched a lot of business. We learned a lot from the business we didn’t win on how to do it better and smarter,” he reflects. “That was really the evolutionary period in time, the ‘aha’ moment for us. We had enough talented people that we could compete for a more meaningful share of bigger brands. We don’t want anything handed to us. We want to go out and earn the right to do business with companies.”
His gambit paid off. The firm gained more work from SBC (now AT&T) and Shell Oil. By 2005 it would be named SBC’s agency of record for the multicultural market and handle print, television, radio, and online campaigns for the telecom giant. “Bob Wingo’s greatest quest is to not only understand why or how things work but the people who drive it,” says daughter Leslie Wingo, the firm’s senior vice president and account director. “He can draw meaning from every single conversation or consumer insight.”
SCIENCE OF THE SUCCESSFUL CAMPAIGN
Successful campaigns don’t just happen. They’re the result of the team digesting detailed research so it fully understands the target audience. It’s then mixed with a message developed by the creative side of the firm to speak to that audience and backed by–you guessed it–even more research. “We may do ethnography, where we go into people’s homes and talk to them about their vehicles, needs, and wants,” says senior vice president and chief marketing officer Antonio Patric Buchanan. “Sometimes we do anthropological studies, where we cross the country and film how people are living their lives and using products.”
After conducting extensive research, they find the best way to engage that consumer. “It’s not about us. It’s not about the client. It’s about the consumer,” says Buchanan. “If we nail that, then the client makes more money, they sell more products, and we achieve exactly what we were hired to do——establish a true relationship with the consumer.”
It was this inventive approach that led to the company’s outdoor campaign for Shell Oil, developing a series of murals produced by graffiti artists to promote V-power gasoline. Dana Satterwhite, one of SandersWingo’s creative directors, wrote the copy using urban poetry.Â It was younger and fresher than anything the company had done before, admits Scott McAfee, senior vice president and executive creative director. “It made me feel like we wanted to go in this direction.”
Chevrolet commercials featuring Mary J. Blige and the AT&T “Kicks” commercial introducing a young, globe-trotting African American entrepreneur generated hundreds of positive feedback comments. “When we did the ‘Kicks’ campaign, which was a spot that used mobile technology as a way of showing how you go from place to place and still have your mobile technology, we did it in an authentic way,” says Wingo. “By saying here are actual locations of companies around the United States that were hip and cool, places where kids could go and get their kicks. And people saw that and said, ‘You know what, AT&T gets it.’”
GOING HIGH TECH
Part of connecting with that audience is speaking to them in ways that they communicate with each other–using technology to build a rapport through social media. “I believe instead of doing what people have done in the past–such as just putting banners up and that’s it–we’re really engaged in terms of a social network,” says Buchanan. The company uses platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and blogs to get a sense of what people are thinking and feeling throughout the country. “Are African Americans marching in line with everybody else in terms of trends? Is there a trend that’s occurring within the African American space that hasn’t gotten to the general market yet? Are we starting to see it pick up on general market blogs or sites?”
The company employs several solutions to help it conduct business. Among them is a proprietary tool called Urban DNA, giving them access to roughly 1 million consumers the firm can tap online or via mobile devices to get answers related to how and why people purchase certain products. “We use our own techniques and get that information, then match that up against what we heard from our clients,” says Buchanan.
While most firms are holding off on any sort of investment until the tide turns, Wingo has never been one to sit on the sidelines. He has invested a substantial amount in the firm’s technological infrastructure. “Every year we invest in technology and people who can deliver on those technological advantages,” he says. “I’m not afraid to take the risk to make that happen. It’s kind of one of the things billionaire investor Michael Lee Chin prizes: crisis plus danger equals opportunity. Well, risk is a key component in that whole idea and we have taken a lot of risks.”