Even though it's his field, Tom Townsend understands the public's feelings about the unrelenting ubiquitousness of advertising. "They never want to read your ad or see your commercial," he acknowledges. To draw them in, takes "a sense of the provocative or inspiration."
Townsend's job is to bottle that inspiration in a 30-second spot or a half-page advertisement. He is the co-founder of Rodgers-Townsend, a St. Louis-based ad agency that represents Anheuser-Busch, Microsoft, and telecommunications giant SBC, among many others.
Rodgers-Townsend was founded in 1996, when Townsend and his colleague, Tim Rodgers, left D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles, one of the largest firms in the world at the time. They felt stifled and, as they moved up the corporate ladder, increasingly distanced from the creative work they both enjoyed.
Their new venture had a humble beginning. Townsend and Rodgers shared the only desk and borrowed phones, faxes, and a conference room from a neighboring law firm. But they soon picked up Mercantile Bank Corp. and RightCHOICE Healthcare as clients. Their agency picked up speed, as well: From 1998 to 2000, Rodgers-Townsend tripled its sales; the agency earned more than $8 million in revenue last year.
The success hasn't gone unnoticed. Rodgers-Townsend was named St. Louis Entrepreneur of the Year in 2001 and has won dozens of ADDY awards, which recognize creativity in advertising locally and nationally.
Today Rodgers-Townsend has three floors of office space in downtown St. Louis, complete with a shuffleboard set and pool table, not to mention an acoustic guitar at seemingly every workspace. "We have a lot of musicians," says Townsend, who used to play piano in a rock band himself.
The intent, he says, is to cultivate creativity through a loose atmosphere, and it seems to be working. Rodgers-Townsend ads have an uncanny way of grabbing your attention. One particularly clever Anheuser-Busch spot depicts parents who want to discuss drinking with their kids; they practice by lecturing a soccer ball in a chair.
And an ad for Spectracide TripleStrike Grass & Weed Killer nicely captures the frustration of lawn care: It shows a man who has clearly snapped taking a military-grade flamethrower to the dandelions in his backyard.
The decision to start a new agency resulted from frustration with the red tape inherent in working for one of the industry's giants. Both Townsend and Rodgers had risen high in the ranks at D'Arcy but had grown dissatisfied with the corporate hierarchy.
"Things were getting to the point where Tim and I were being pushed higher and higher into upper management and away from the ability to really impact business," Townsend says. By contrast, at Rodgers-Townsend, creative teams, which consist of a copywriter and a designer, have relatively free rein over their work. Each creative team (including one for which Townsend writes copy) takes its turn in a rotation.
While renowned for its nationally prominent clients, the agency has been most active within its hometown. The St. Louis Children's Hospital, the Missouri Humane Shelter, and the Black Repertory Theater are among many local institutions to benefit from Rodgers-Townsend's services. In 2001, the firm received the Spirit of St. Louis Award in recognition of having donated the equivalent of more than $1 million in volunteer time to the city.
One local client capitalized on its newfound exposure in extraordinary fashion. When Rodgers-Townsend added the St. Louis Rams in 1999, the pro-football franchise was coming off its ninth-straight losing season.
By February of 2000, the Rams were 13-3 and Super Bowl champions.