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Breaking All the Rules: Smith Brothers Agency

Breaking All the Rules: Smith Brothers AgencyAsk the Smith Brothers about their approach to the advertising business and they’ll tell you it’s simple: you have to know the rules well enough to break them. Having returned to Pittsburgh from Manhattan to start their own firm back in 2002, their smart and provocative work (think “Making Bar Fights Safer” for Iron City Beer’s new aluminum bottles or “Fruit Undressed” for Del Monte’s Fruit Naturals) quickly set their clients apart from their competitors and their company on a path to becoming one of Pittsburgh’s most successful advertising agencies.

The Smiths, including brothers Lindsey ’83, Miles ’84, and Bronson ’88, relocated to Pittsburgh from Chicago in 1978. All three enrolled at Sewickley Academy where they learned the skills they would need to pursue careers in the visual arts and communications business.

“I remember being grilled and challenged by Mrs. Patricia Rose and Mrs. Betty Colbert for spelling and vocabulary,” Bronson said. “Having the opportunity to explore a variety of subjects (including art with Mr. John White) formed my early love of the arts. I knew I wanted to pursue them as a career.”

“I realized the value of an Academy education when I got to college. I knew how to frame an argument, structure a paper, and write with purpose,” Lindsey said. “And when I wasn’t working on the next short story for Mr. Paul Kolakowski, I was in the art room with Mr. Brian Buckley designing, drawing, and painting.”

Lindsey matriculated at Georgetown University pursing majors in English literature and French, while Bronson continued his education at Ohio Wesleyan, majoring in fine arts (with a painting concentration) and French. After college, Lindsey moved to Manhattan landing a job as a receptionist for NW Ayer, a prominent advertising agency. “I was lousy at the job. When more than one call came in on the switchboard, I’d become completely unnerved,” he laughed. “Fortunately, I worked my way into a client service training program.” While he gained valuable experience as an account executive, he quickly realized that his heart was in the creative work – and he set out to become a copywriter.

Bronson also decided to move to New York after college, but he had grand plans of becoming a painter. When Lindsey’s roommate happened to be moving out at about that time, Bronson moved in. They nicknamed their tiny one-bedroom Soho apartment “The Broome Closet” after the street it was on. “I was not only living with Lindsey, but ended up working with him as an art director, partnering on projects and freelance together, and I haven’t looked back since,” he said.

Two of the brothers’ favorite campaigns from their New York days were for Johnnie Walker Black Label and Meow Mix Cat Food. “The Johnnie Walker campaign was the most intense marketing challenge,” Bronson said. “We were tasked with convincing younger drinkers, who hardly touched brown spirits back then, that it was a more sophisticated choice, a cooler choice than vodka or beer.” They launched “There’s More to Explore in Black“ and significantly grew brand share.

For Meow Mix, they were charged with reinvigorating the brand’s familiar “singing cats” advertising. They developed a humorous campaign where a cat named “Baxter” calls his owner at the most inopportune times, demanding the food that “tastes so good, cats ask for it by name.”

“That’s the great thing about the advertising business,” Bronson recalled. “It’s never boring. You can be talking scotch in the morning and cat food in
the afternoon.”

Shortly after 9/11, the brothers decided to move back home to Pittsburgh. Lindsey said it was fate. “The stars were just kind of aligned. We heard about a piece of business that was in play – Pittsburgh Brewing Company. We pitched it and won.” The brothers launched a new campaign for the low-carb I.C. Light – “More taste, less waist.” – featuring what they call “visual shorthand,” a way of telling the story through imagery, in this case a six-pack ring positioned over the ripped abs of models to reflect a flat stomach. “The client started out paying us $2,500 a month and as much beer as we could drink,” Lindsey recounted. “They lost money on us,” Bronson joked.

Smith Brothers Agency officially opened its doors in the old George Westinghouse building in the Strip District on April Fools’ Day in 2002. The agency, which currently has a staff of almost 60 people, started with only four employees, including their brother Miles who joined the company as the Chief Growth Officer. “It felt like the timing was just right. We all felt like we had a great run in New York, but we were ready to try something new,” Lindsey said. “We knew we had the two halves of an ad agency – the art direction side and the writing side. We had something we knew we could sell.”

Their success with the beer campaign along with the high visibility of the creative – hundreds of billboards all over Pittsburgh – led to opportunities with regional brands like Kings Family Restaurants and PNC Bank where they helped develop and launch its “Grow Up Great” early childhood education initiative.

But the brothers had always had their sights set on expanding to the national level. Working on national brands was, after all, what they were used to. “We wanted to be a great agency that happened to be in Pittsburgh, not a great Pittsburgh agency that only worked on local accounts,” Bronson explained. “We were out to grow the pie from outside the market, not simply compete for pieces of business that all of our friends at other agencies had,” Lindsey added.

To keep up with the expanding business, the brothers decided to hire Michael Bollinger ’74 in 2005 after meeting in Sewickley over Thanksgiving. “We connected like all good Sewickley connections happen— in the Sewickley Hotel!” Michael laughed. “I was introduced to Lindsey, and we exchanged business cards, realizing we were in the same line of work. The brothers were creative guys, and with the growth in their business, they needed someone on the account side to lead and continue to grow business. It was a lucky opportunity.”

Michael, a lifer at the Academy, found theater and arts through adversity. “I tore up my knee playing basketball and was on crutches for most of my high school career,” Michael reflected. “The teachers weren’t going to let me sit on the sidelines. Mr. Greg Ziegler pushed me into helping him make some films, and I got into acting when I could no longer play sports.”

Michael matriculated at Union College and majored in English. “Everybody said to me my senior year of college, ‘What are you doing to do? Teach?’ And my answer was, ‘No, hustle,’” Michael said. “I hit the ground running, working for a TV station in Clarksburg, West Virginia, selling advertising. Whatever I sold, I had to write, shoot, and edit the spot. I called on an agency in Pittsburgh to sell them on my station and thought, ‘Now, this is where I want to be.’ It’s been almost 40 years now that I’ve been making ads.”

While working for DDB Worldwide in Washington, D.C., and Chicago, Michael also landed deals with big companies like Cellular One and Dell. He helped Dell create a campaign with one of the most popular catchphrases of the early 2000s, “Dude, you’re getting a Dell!” The ad campaign took the brand from number four to number one in a year. “It was exhilarating to be part of an ad campaign that made that big of a difference,” he said. As president of the company, it is Michael’s job to grow national accounts and land new business. “When I joined the company, I recognized the talent the brothers had. We all worked in big markets on big brands and wanted to work on big national accounts,” he stated. “The brothers had a real expertise and passion for consumer packaged goods. We landed the Heinz and Del Monte campaigns in 2006 which fueled the next phase of growth in the agency. We developed this vertical industry expertise that led to winning Nestlé, Smucker’s, Pinnacle, and Ghirardelli. We are not one of the world’s advertising giants, but we can compete with them in that space because of the depth of our expertise.”

By late 2006, Smith Brothers Agency was growing faster than their sublet could accommodate. Since Miles’s first love was commercial real estate, he led the brothers’ search for a new home. In 2007, they bought a three-and-a-half story building on the North Shore. After extensive renovation, the pet-friendly space now features a bright and open office layout, a rooftop deck that overlooks PNC Park, creative brainstorming spaces, multiple kitchens, spacious common areas, photo and video studios, and even a slide between floors. The walls are decorated with the agency’s creative work, and in the lobby, you’ll find a cooler stocked with ice cream, a perk of having Nestlé as a client.

Although Miles left the company to pursue a career in commercial real estate in 2012, Lindsey, Bronson, and Michael continued to push the company’s boundaries in the new space. Recently, the agency launched Smith Brothers Studios to keep up with the demands of social content from their broad clientele base. They converted about 5,000 square feet of space into a studio, which includes a prep kitchen as many clients are in the food and restaurant industry, prop storage area, and dedicated editing suites. This new venture allows the agency to efficiently produce high quality content for clients across the spectrum of social platforms, including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Tumblr, Snapchat, LinkedIn, and YouTube. “It’s a completely different model. We’re now creating 90% of the content for our clients in-house,” Lindsey explained.

Why the push to get into content creation? “Losing some big businesses taught us a lot about risk,” Michael said, referring to losing the Del Monte account (in 2010) and the Heinz account (in 2011) when the companies were sold. “The greatest risk is staying who you are with service offerings. We need to be advancing all the time in terms of what we’re delivering. We need to innovate and collaborate, testing new waters and becoming something tomorrow that we aren’t today.”

Smith Brothers Agency has become accustomed to working on campaigns that receive a tremendous amount of publicity. The agency worked with Red Bull when the company first launched its “Wings for Every Taste,” introducing the first new flavors in the brand’s history. The agency also partnered with Primanti Brothers to launch “the HBK sandwich” – a nod to the Pittsburgh Penguins’ third line of Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino, and Phil Kessel. The triple-meat sandwich is piled high with ham, bacon, and kielbasa (hence the HBK) and staple French fries, coleslaw, and tomatoes between Mancini’s bread. When the Penguins won the Stanley Cup in 2016 and made their triumphant visit to the White House, former President Barack Obama commented on the HBK sandwich at the press conference.

These days, Smith Brothers Agency is working with a mix of regional and national accounts. They not only work with established blue chip clients like UPMC, MSA, and PPG, but with new clients and new products, including Hydralyte, a hydration beverage based in Boston; Bibigo, a Korean BBQ sauce based in Los Angeles; and Avoderm, an avocadoenhanced natural pet food based in San Francisco.

Growth is a goal for the agency, but the Smith Brothers aren’t planning to move to Madison Avenue anytime soon. “Growth for growth sake is not driving us; growth for creativity sake is what drives us. Clients who want to use great creative to drive their businesses are the folks we’re looking for,” Michael explained.

“We’re hands-on guys. We like running an agency where we know everyone’s name and where everybody’s accountable to one another,” Lindsey added. “It’s never been about being the biggest agency – just the best.”

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