Kim Mickelsen

Bric is for people who are building great creative agencies. Kim Mickelsen the CEO of the marketing services agency Bozell is doing just that. 

Her focus in running Bozell is on strategy — as opposed to just blind creativity.

She believes strategy is exactly why Bozell has produced countless successful ads since its founding in 1921, and why in the late 1990s it was the 8th largest advertising agency in the United States. Their campaigns have always been more than just pretty pictures. 

Strategic project planning is why Bozell’s ads, like the “Got Milk campaign and the Boys Town slogan “he ain’t heavy, Father, he’s my brother,” are national successes. 

Below Mickelsen shares the story of her strategic process, and how buying back Bozell in 2001 allowed her and her employees to work the way they intended to work when they joined the creative industry.

A timeline of Kim Mickelsen’s strategic development.

Mickelsen’s first encounter with the advertising world started in high school in Grand Island, NE. For her high school newspaper, Mickelsen sought out ads from local businesses which, she said, was pretty difficult. Decades later, the roles reversed. People now seek her out for ads.

The ad world changed dramatically since she entered marketing after college. Ad agencies were primarily focused on the creative message. Now it’s more about finely honed strategy; the creative message is just one part of that process.

“We used to say that the target audience of ads were adults ages 25-54,” she said, “but that’s not the case anymore. And it really never was the case.”

“What we do now is ‘peel the onion.’ It’s a series of questions for our client about their core business ideas, trends, sales. Then we do our own research, since no one clearly sees their own situation,” she continued.

Strategize, then execute. Less is lost in translation with a system like this. The potential loss in jumping into the creative steps without a tested and multi-level plan of attack is profit. Without focus on how the plan impacts returns on investments, the creativity has no purpose.

Along these lines, instead of trying to create a cool ad for a loose demographic, Bozell has a strategic system for success. It goes like this:

Immerse: This is the peeling of the onion. Mickelsen described it as becoming “deeply entrenched” in the situation of the client.

Reframe: This is where strategy comes in. After gathering all the information about the client, where is the opportunity for positive change? 

Disrupt: This is the creative phase of making the ad. Mickelsen put it well: “In today’s world, ‘me too’ doesn’t cut it.” What is unique enough to drag people out of their everyday lives?

Unite: Bringing it back to the brand. How does the uniqueness of the ad tie to the client’s character? Relevance is key.

Ignite: It ain’t over when it’s over. You don’t just drop an ad and wait for sales to go up anymore. Igniting is about growing the ad, “making it fly” as Mickelsen put it. Coming up with new ideas even weeks after the campaign started is part of this stage.

Measure: Because of the growth, ad campaigns create data. What worked in week one? What faltered in week seven? This is valuable information to save for future decisions.

What works best for Bozell in project planning, Mickelsen noted, is organizing teams that can handle all the different points of strategy. Some are art directors, some writers, some financial organizers, some data analysts. Most are capable at more than one thing, but together can balance each other into greatness.

“This hasn’t changed drastically over the years. None of us can do everything,” Mickelsen noted.

What has changed over the years at Bozell is the hierarchy of management. Before Mickelsen bought back the company in 2001, her and her employees had a lot less say in what projects they took on.

The long and winding history of Bozell.

Bozell began in 1921, originally called Bozell & Jacobs after its two founders.

Get this: the company originally made profit by creating ads that sell electricity. For instance, ads targeted housewives, telling them they should use more electronic appliances so they don’t work themselves to death. 

You won’t see the slogan “Use more energy!” anywhere anymore.

However, clever ads like that kept Bozell & Jacobs independent and employee owned until the early 1980s.

In 1984, Lorimar bought Bozell & Jacobs. This lasted only until 1987, when it turned private and employee owned again. Kim Mickelsen joined Bozell in 1989.

Ten years later it was a multi-national company and the 8th largest ad agency in the United States. However, the world changed in the 90s. Businesses were bought out by bigger and bigger holding companies left and right. Bozell was suscept to this.

In 1997, Bozell became part of True North, then the publicly held parent of Foote Cone Belding

“This was a pretty good deal. Our ethos stayed intact and it didn’t feel super icky. But it was the time of the tech bubble,” Mickelsen said.

Along with Bozell and Foote Cone Belding, True North held an agency in Silicon Valley called Poppe Tyson. Poppe Tyson created DoubleClick, which “spun out” into it’s own company. Today, Google owns DoubleClick. 

Many senior level management, which included Mickelsen, had stock options in DoubleClick. And that’s how, in 2001, Mickelsen was able to be part of the buyback of the company. 

Without the profit from DoubleClick, Bozell would not be the independent, unique ad agency it is today. 

Placating the need to “soothe our creative souls.” 

Unlike when they were a publicly held company, today Bozell’s top priority churning out work to drive their own revenue. Their priority is developing plans that help clients grow their businesses. 

That client focused approach sometimes means turning work down. As part of the immersion stage of Bozell’s project planning process. If a customer asks for a commercial, but after a thorough examination Bozell sees they need a referral program, Bozell will turn down the work and help guide them to their true needs. They want what is best for the customer, not their wallets.

“We also have the freedom to take on non-profit clients where we make no money in order to feed our creative souls,” Mickelsen commented.

Another positive shift post-buyback was that Mickelsen now has more control of who she hires. In fact, Bozell is one of the only firms in Omaha that doesn’t require previous agency experience for hire. They’re not afraid of training new talent, and they’re not afraid of turnover. It’s part of the business.

“We want to be the place the best clients want to hire, and the best people want to work for,” Mickelsen admits, “We can’t compete with the corporate world in terms of salaries. So we built a culture of trust in our employees that gives them more flexibility. We’re not a hierarchy. We’re a loose affiliation of entrepreneurs under the same banner.”

Kim Mickelsen runs Bozell with the ethos of the founders: “You must pay rent for the space you occupy on this earth.”

Despite the fluid history of Bozell, Mickelsen believes their is a certain mindset that hasn’t changed since 1921. What is it? Be kind to the customer. Be kind to employees. Don’t make profit the sole focus of your business.

Bozell, of course, wouldn’t be around if it wasn’t making profit. They wouldn’t be able to hire the best employees and choose the best clients without it. The reason they make profit is because they don’t focus on profit, they focus on the client’s needs and each other. They don’t get lost in the creative work, they have a tried and tested project planning process. Bozell has stability.

Kim Mickelsen “uses her powers for good.” Doing exactly that brought Bozell from 1921 to 2016.