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Minneapolis's mono is beating out the big ad shops with the message that simplicity sells

There's a small branding firm in Minneapolis' Uptown--a firm so Minnesota-modest in demeanor that it won't capitalize its name--that's going head-to-head with the biggest agencies in the country--and winning.

When mono pitched to USA Network in 2005, they competed with TAXI  and other marketing powerhouses with hundreds of employees.

"We were 11 people in a tiny little shed across town," says Jim Scott, managing partner of mono. "I don't think the client ever knew that, and we certainly didn't make a big deal of it. And we just stayed toe-to-toe and we faked it. … They never knew."

mono got the job and generated the USA brand concept that's still in effect today: "Characters Welcome." It's a tagline designed to capture all of the network's programming in one simple slogan.

Simplicity is supreme at mono. Staff work together around central bulletin boards, continuously stripping down complicated ideas until they're left with only the simplest messages to pitch.  

"Brands that are simple and smart are the ones that are really admired," Scott says.

mono is still considered a relatively small agency, but it's growing quickly. Its overall business is up 61 percent over 2009, and capitalized billings exceed $38 million. The 56-member agency added 25 employees this year, and it's slated to add a dozen more in the coming months. The company's client roster has grown to include Harvard Business School, General Mills, and Mrs. Meyer's Clean Day. (See our news stories on the firm here and here.)

"We Make the iPod"

When Steve Jobs unveiled the iPad this year, he stood in front of a large graphic designed by mono. Apple has become mono's single biggest client, and the company took the unusual step of calling the agency and hiring it for a trial run, without a single meeting, for the "holiday '06" campaign. The gig was certainly a surprise—when Scott took the initial call, he assumed he was speaking with Apple Vacations or Apple Financial Services.

"I said, 'Tell me a little bit about what you do,' and there was just this pause," Scott says. "They said, 'Well, we make the iPod.'"

Apple reportedly liked mono's philosophy and its website--the homepage is stark white with nothing but the logo at the top and a few one-word links at the bottom.

"The marketing world is getting more complex," says mono's creative director, Michael Hart. "People are going to gravitate toward things that don't make their heads spin."

mono was founded by three longtime friends: Hart, Scott, and Chris Lange. They worked for Minneapolis agencies on big accounts like Porsche, PBS, and Harley, and they talked about opening their own shop for a long time. They were tired of the time-intensive process of selling ideas internally. They wanted an agency where staff could collaborate to find a good idea fast, and spend more time fleshing out that idea.

Opening Sesame

In 2004, a colleague alerted them that Sesame Workshop, the company behind Sesame Street, was looking for a small agency. The trio drafted a proposal, and they were shocked when the president signed off on it. They quickly proceeded to quit their jobs and create an office in Lange's home.

One of Sesame Street's brand problems was apparent the moment that mono walked onto the television set. The magazines in Mr. Hooper's store served as a time capsule. The 40-year-old light post prop was duct-taped and spray-painted. The show's marketing team was starting to worry that Sesame Street was becoming irrelevant to new generations of kids.

"There's a vibe, there's a beat, there's a tempo that kids today are used to looking at, and this wasn't exactly matching," Scott says. "They didn't have the ability to redo the show, but they had the ability to create a couple little segments."

mono provided art direction for new portions of the show. To modernize and energize the content, they filmed puppets outside the studio in a new segment called, "What's the Word on the Street?" More than 50 of the segments have aired on the last two seasons of Sesame Street.

The Sesame assignment was a bit broader than the mono founders' earlier work in the industry.

"A decade ago, it was about advertising," Scott says. "I could buy print, I could buy TV, I could run radio.…Now we've got everything from social media, to very real-time branding events, to traditional media that still exists.…At the end of the day, we build brands and we give brands meaning."

For the furniture designer Blu Dot, mono created a short documentary in which they dropped chairs on the streets of New York, used GPS devices to track where the chairs ended up, and interviewed the new owners.

For MSNBC, mono created the brand "Lean Forward," aiming to place the No. 2 cable news channel in a progressive and hopeful light. They blanketed train stations with ads, created television spots directed by Spike Lee, and projected the new brand on barns and sports stadiums at night.

'Tis a Gift to Be Simple

The founders admit it can be challenging to take on campaigns that might have been absorbed easily by massive, hundred-year-old marketing firms. The MSNBC job was their largest campaign to date, and staff spent four-and-a-half months filming nine TV spots and crisscrossing the country to project the ads on far-flung buildings. If they learn on a Thursday afternoon that Steve Jobs doesn't like an idea, staff must spend the hours necessary to make it right.

But the founders say mono isn't a sweatshop. Staff count is growing to handle new business, and staff are rarely required to work on Saturdays. Instead, they work hard the moment they walk in the door--creative minds aren't playing video games until the muse strikes them.

At the moment, the creative minds at mono are brainstorming ways to reach some of the 1 million visitors that flock to the Tillamook Cheese gift shop in Oregon each year. They figure if they can tap into the fan mania, it will point them toward Tillamook's paramount branding message.

"The simpler the idea, the more inventive the variations can be," Hart says.

Of course, the concept of simplicity isn't a revolutionary idea in advertising.

"Having simple messages is something that any good marketer will strive for," says Sean Killackey, past president of the Society for Marketing Professional Services' Twin Cities chapter.

But simplicity in marketing seems to be back in vogue, according to Andrew Chollar, president of the American Marketing Association's Minnesota chapter.

"Just from personal observation lately, simplicity seems to have been 'discovered' … again," he says in an e-mail. "Actually, for what, like the 1,000th time since the VW ads in the early '60s?  The problem is that those who know what works are genuine believers in simplicity as a general rule of thumb, because as we know, simple IS actually better. Unfortunately, hiding among them are far too many agencies that do it just because they think it's 'cool.'"

Nonetheless, the folks at mono would like to think their focus on simplicity as a core operating principle is a bit ahead of the curve.

"A lot of agencies are sort of chasing their soul as the market turns and weaves, and they don't quite know what they are," Scott says. "I don't think anybody has set out to simplify the complex.…We've [done] this since we were three guys in an attic, and now we have 50 or 60 people in this building and we still think that simplicity is core to what we do."

Michelle Bruch is a freelance writer based in Minneapolis.

Photos, top to bottom:

mono partners Michael Hart, Chris Lange, and Jim Scott in front of the firm's Uptown office

Partners pow-wowing in the office

mono's employee census is now pushing sixty and still growing.

The agency's meetings emphasize getting to the core questions quickly.

Ping-pong for conceptual blockbusting only

All photos by Bill Kelley

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