West Michigan advertising making a comeback from recession


Todd Price says new advertising mediums are expanding in the digital age and that data analysis will become the most important tool. Photo by Johnny Quirin

Although many companies decide to cut back on advertising spending during tough economic times, area agencies said things didn’t end up too rough for them during the Great Recession.

Still, many companies said things are much better now that the economy has bounced back and continues to build.

John Sawyer, a partner in Grand Rapids’ Grey Matter Group, was surprised by the sectors that continued to advertise during the recession.

“When the recession hit, it was our nonprofit clients that kept us going. That surprised us a bit,” said Sawyer. “We thought giving would be down.”

Instead, the company saw increased business from the nonprofit sector, including Compassion International, a Christian child advocacy organization based in Colorado Springs. It generally relies on small donations, and Sawyer said it actually saw some growth through the recession.

Now, full-fledged growth is back on for Sawyer and his group. He said they are looking into the possibility of expanding because Grey Matter’s creative team currently is working overtime.

“Now that business is booming again, we are very busy,” he said.

As the digital age matures, the ways agencies handle the new mediums are expanding. Big Rapids-based Yellow Dux, which was founded in 2008, specializes in web content creation.

“The idea of being an expert in the field gets the client to have this knowledge that ‘they know what they’re talking about,’” founder Todd Price said. “You end up saying, ‘I’ll go with these guys because they have great content and I know what they can do.’”

The idea was attractive to a new venture between the NFL, NBA and MLB. Yellow Dux is helping put together content to help fight a bankruptcy epidemic among former athletes. Price said it’s sad to see Hall of Fame players, such as basketball player Scottie Pippen, football player Warren Sapp and baseball player Curt Schilling, go broke after terrific athletic careers.

“It was, ‘How do we educate these people?’” Price said. “So we gave them some pointers and connected them with experts that could create the content.”

Increased use of the Internet also has led to the biggest accumulation of data mankind has ever seen, Price said. However, many people are unsure of what to do with it. Author, blogger and data analyzer Nate Silver’s new website, fivethirtyeight.com, will lead the charge on solving that isue after being featured in popular data analytical pieces online at ESPN and The New York Times.

“We have this mountain of data,” Price said. “What do we do with it? You’ll begin to see more people on the analytical side of data, and that’s going to be a big piece of media soon.”

Although the Internet is here to stay, Price believes there will always be a market for print and local television news.

“I live in 49307 — CNN is never going to cover that,” he said. “Brian Williams will never talk about that. I have to get the news from somewhere, and small businesses will always need that avenue to advertise in some way.”

Although Sawyer may be a little biased, having worked at Zondervan Publishers for 10 years, he also thinks print is around for good.

“When television came around, people thought that’d be the demise of radio,” he said. “It is a time of a lot of transition. But when I go to the Internet, I tend to be more skeptical of opinions and news. It will ultimately settle on people’s preferences, and some will always say (they) enjoy reading the newspaper or magazine.”

Many agencies are beginning to integrate the various mediums into one solid effort, said Mike McCarthy, president of ddm marketing and communications in Grand Rapids.

“A couple of years ago, the focus was on digital marketing, but now there is more interest in the integration of online and offline strategies,” McCarthy said. “Recognizing this trend has obviously had an impact on how we've expanded our team.”

All of these trends, combined with a growing talent base in Grand Rapids, points to some encouraging news for Sawyer and the rest of the local advertising field. He said both he and colleagues from other agencies have noticed some of the larger brands coming back to West Michigan after seeking creative help from agencies in cities like Los Angeles, New York and Chicago.

“A larger agency might not always be adept at keeping up with the changes,” he said. “But it’s also a level of talent. Grand Rapids is becoming a great drawing place. And the economic reason … a lot of money is spent in the distance of a relationship, and the level of service is constant when you stay local.”

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