A CENTURY AFTER BOZELL HUNG OUT ITS SHINGLE IN OMAHA, THE LEGENDARY ADVERTISING HOUSE – LIKE ITS UNCONVENTIONAL PRESIDENT – STILL DANCES TO ITS OWN BEAT.
Were it not for the side hustle of a Connecticut school teacher, one of Omaha’s most widely recognized companies might not be here today.
Robin Donovan, Bozell president, graduated from the University of Connecticut with a degree in English and set up shop as a high school English teacher. The New Jersey native loved writing, and she loved to talk, so teaching seemed the natural path. It wasn’t.
“I was a mild-mannered educator and one day, I realized I felt like I was about 103 years old,” she said. “I read about an ad agency that was right outside of Hartford (Connecticut) and it was supposed to be this wonderful, amazing place. So, one day I just picked up the phone and said, ‘Hey, if you need a copywriter…,’ and he said, ‘Well, I don’t.’”
It was one of the more inauspicious moments in her career — she’d call back and pitch again that summer, landing a job — but what a career it has been. After honing her chops with local agencies, Donovan would eventually arrive in Omaha with Bozell, then as now one of the most recognized ad firms in the Midwest if not the country. She, along with some co-workers, would one day save the company from the ash heap and Donovan is today recognized along with fellow owners Kim Mickelsen and Jackie Miller as true pioneers in the advertising game, women excelling in an industry still dominated by men.
“I love to see [Bozell’s] legacy continue,” she said. “I interviewed a woman a couple months ago and she said, ‘I’ve always dreamed of working at Bozell.’ You would be amazed at how much we hear that and we interview people from everywhere.
“Another thing is, we have a thing called the boomerang — people who worked here who want back in — and I’ve never seen it at any other agency the way it is here. We’re getting contacted all the time and a lot of our people are here for the second time around.”
Leo Bozell and Morris Jacobs didn’t even bother to buy individual desks when they opened their Omaha ad firm in 1921. The full-time journalists worked different shifts — Bozell by day and Jacobs by night — and resources were slim, so they shared a desk. Even more telling of the business at that time is, for the first year they didn’t even have a phone.
Over the first two years, the part-timers landed some small accounts until the hungry would-be admen were noticed by Nebraska Power Company. That account pushed them into full-time operation in 1923 and quickly carved out a niche serving regional utility companies. Their reputation began to attract out-of-state clients and branch offices opened in Indianapolis, Chicago and Houston.
Bozell & Jacobs was also adept at capturing the major accounts in its own backyard; in less than 20 years after its founding, the firm would list Union Pacific, Mutual of Omaha and the NCAA Men’s College World Series on its roster of clients. It also began a long pro bono relationship with Boys Town, which achieved worldwide name recognition due in part to the firm’s efforts and in part to the 1938 film “Boys Town” which earned Spencer Tracy an Oscar in the role of its founder Father Flanagan.
At the time of its 50th year in business, billings were approximately $100 million and Bozell ranked in the top 20 of agencies nationwide. Godfather’s Pizza, American Airlines, Lee Jeans, Greyhound Bus and the National Ad Council were a few of the headlining accounts in the company’s portfolio.
As its list of high-profile clients grew, so too did the iconic advertising created by the firm to support them. Iconic images like the “milk mustache” and coining the phrase “Pork the Other White Meat” all sprang from the minds and desks of the Omaha firm.
“Bozell was really a unicorn, because when I got here, we’d had several clients for 50 years. I mean, that’s crazy,” Donovan said. “We still have a couple of them, which is a miracle.”
Omaha is Home
Donovan and her husband Joe, a career banker, arrived in Omaha in the spring of 1997. Her industry knowledge had matured considerably since landing that first job, with a resume that included nearly two decades in the advertising game bolstered by a solid reputation. But by the 1990s, things were in upheaval.
“It was a weird time in advertising,” she said. “People were leaving advertising because there weren’t jobs. Then all of a sudden, it shifted the other way and I was getting phone calls from headhunters all over the place. I was recruited to an agency in southern Connecticut that just wasn’t a good fit. I didn’t love it.
“I talked to my old boss and said, ‘I’m probably not going to be here too much longer. Keep your ears open.’ Literally the next day I got a call from a headhunter about a media director job in Omaha.”
Donovan’s sum total experience with the Midwest to that point was changing planes at Chicago O’Hare on business trips, but she was intrigued enough to check out Omaha and interview with Bozell.
“We just liked it. I liked the feel of the company. Bozell, of course, I’d heard about them,” she said. “When I got back, they were really pushing for an answer and I called my husband. He said, ‘Well, we could go to New York, we could go to Boston. Let’s go to Omaha.’ And that’s how we got here.
“We did not expect to get the amazing things we have here. Omaha is a really unique market because for its size it has this amazing quality of life. I had people back east at the time who were like, ‘What do you think? Two years?’ Well, it’s almost 24 years later and I’m still here.”
Another major plus for the Midwest was the way she was treated as a woman in advertising compared to the agencies she’d served thus far.
“That was something that changed dramatically from the Northeast coming to the Midwest,” she said. “In the Northeast, there were things that got in my way on a daily basis. Part of it was I was younger, but coming to the Midwest I always felt like I was given a chance. I didn’t always feel that way in the Northeast.
“The difference between men and women is so much more pronounced when I was growing up in the business there, and here I didn’t feel like people treated me as an anomaly. It was a big, big difference and it was very welcomed.”
Donovan landed on a cusp in the company’s history, a time when independent ad houses were being swallowed up under larger and larger national nameplates. To feed these ever-expanding beasts, multiple clients in the same industry had to be maintained. Working among clients in competition with each other took a deft creative touch.
“We started to realize we don’t want our signature to be recognizable in our work,” she said. “In the ‘70s and ‘80s and ‘90s, it hurt the industry a lot when the work was so recognizable. That was why there was exclusivity. You couldn’t have two businesses in the same industry and a lot of the companies started going away from that.
“So, when you got into the late ‘80s and the early ‘90s, the work wouldn’t look the same even if it was the same agency. We had a number of clients in building and construction.
Some were tools, some were windows or doors. You didn’t want your
ads to look like everybody else’s and we were able to make it so it didn’t look like
everybody else’s. It was very distinct.”
The pressure to grow was unrelenting during the period when Donovan came
to Omaha. In 1986, Bozell had merged with Kenyon and Eckhardt to form
Bozell Worldwide. The partnership was a decade-long dose of rocket fuel for the
company, but brought with it the challenges and behind-the-scenes machinations
of global overlords. In 1998, Bozell Worldwide was abruptly purchased by True
North out of Chicago, in turn bought by Interpublic Group three years later.
“Interpublic Group came to us in the summer of 2001 and said, ‘We are not
going to keep an Omaha office. If you want to buy it, make us an offer,’” Donovan
remembered. She and three co-workers, one of them current-day CEO Kim
Mickelsen, cobbled together the funds to buy back the iconic agency.
The deal was consummated by that fall, the announcement of which was frontpage
news — for all of about three business hours.
“Our announcement actually came out in the World-Herald on 9/11. Literally,
9/11, 2001,” Donovan said, head still shaking. “I woke up, my husband’s reading the
paper, and he says, ‘Oh, look. You’re on the front page.’ I’m like, ‘You’re kidding. That
never happened before.’ And I got on the elevator at the office and it all went away.”
The new ownership didn’t take the events of that day as an omen, but their path
to success was anything but guaranteed. The deal didn’t include use of the name —
those rights would be bought separately later — and while none of the partners were
industry rookies, three of the four had never run a sprawling enterprise, either.
“I think not knowing what we didn’t know did us a big favor,” she laughed. “When
I was at an agency in Connecticut, while they didn’t share all their specific numbers,
they shared with us this is how we do business, this is how we make money. I was
kind of raised in an environment where I was very much aware of how challenging it
is to try to make money.
“We always had fairly sophisticated CFOs. You don’t necessarily need a CFO if
you’re a small ad agency, but if we had visions of doing some M&A, we had to have
more sophisticated financial help and so we had great advisers.”
Solid fiscal management laid the foundation for the company to meet the
challenges of a radically changing industry landscape over the next 20 years.
That period saw the rise of digital and social media components as critical in
campaigns, fed by new tides of data gathered from seemingly every angle.
“The client’s needs are different today and we’re continually trying to figure out
how to be as flexible as we need to be to meet those needs,” Donovan said.
This thinking has come to fruition in service offerings — in 2020 the
firm launched a proprietary platform, 360 Listening, aiming to help clients
understand target audiences by cross-referencing insights from search, social and
news listening — and in how the firm’s 60 employees are deployed.
“We are having to look at new ways of doing things,” Donovan said. “A year
and a half ago, we couldn’t do what we do without 60 people. Now we’re able to
do it with less and part of it is we are using people at a distance or maybe not fulltime.
We’re being a little more flexible in that respect.”
Donovan and Mickelsen are the only two remaining partners from the buyback
(Chief Marketing Officer Jackie Miller joined the triumvirate partnership
in 2016). Perhaps being women-owned shouldn’t distinguish Bozell after all of
these years, but it does. It’s a mantle that Donovan, recently honored with a 2021
Enterprising Women of the Year Award, is proud to carry both in business and in
“I just saw on LinkedIn that only 3% of women-owned businesses have sales
of $1 million or more,” she said. “That really shocked me. Kim [Mickelsen] and
I always said, ‘We are holding the baton for this period in time and we are hoping
that we do a good enough job to pass the baton to the next generation.’ That is still
the hope, that we will be able to do that.
“We have a huge responsibility. It’s a responsibility to own a company, but we as
a company have a responsibility to give back, as well. Our founder said, ‘You must
pay rent for the space you occupy on this earth.’ So that’s what we do.”