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Terry Woodruff knew the poke from his business partner was coming halfway through Steve Sweitzer’s sentence.
The old high school buddies were bantering while posing for a photograph when Sweitzer began to ask, “Can you PhotoShop some…”
“Hair?” Woodruff, who happens to be “follicly challenged,” asked. “I know where you were going with that.” Then they jokingly made gang signs, and Sweitzer deadpanned, “We need to do a gangsta Facebook picture.”
The way Woodruff and Sweitzer talk to — and about — each other speaks volumes about their personalities.
“Don’t let him be humble,” Woodruff said before Sweitzer’s interview.
They have “a lot of mutual respect for each other,” Sweitzer said. “That’s the key to our relationship.”
Woodruff, the president of their namesake advertising agency, and Sweitzer, the chief creative officer, are both mid-Missouri natives and have known each other for decades. They attended the same high school in Mexico, Mo., and both attended the University of Central Missouri in Warrensburg: Woodruff with a degree in marketing and Sweitzer with a degree in commercial art and broadcast production.
They were friends in high school but didn’t socialize in college. Their jobs took them around the country, but both ended up in Los Angeles for a time, and their linkage never broke.
Woodruff was a tour manager for various bands, including U2 before the group became internationally famous.
“I told them, ‘I think you’ve peaked,’” Woodruff said with a laugh.
Woodruff said he developed a lot of different skills working in the industry when MTV was just getting big.
“I enjoyed the PR part of artist management more than the babysitting, so I got involved in video production and PR with music groups,” he said.
He then moved to Los Angeles to start a film and video production company, which produced commercial videos. But when his daughter was born in 1990, he and his wife didn’t want to raise her in L.A. and decided to move back to mid-Missouri. Two years later, he started an advertising agency in Columbia, Woodruff Communications.
Sweitzer, meanwhile, worked for advertising agencies. He started close to home and went coast to coast while climbing the corporate ladder. He went from Kansas City to Omaha, then Austin, Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York and Dallas.
“My goal was always looking out there to find the best job in the advertising world, so I traveled wherever the job was I thought would benefit my career,” Sweitzer said.
In Los Angeles, Sweitzer worked for an agency called Chiat/Day, where he eventually became creative director and worked on campaigns for companies such as Energizer and Sony. He said the agency won the Sony PlayStation account and launched PlayStation in the United States, a project he’s particularly proud of.
“It was probably my high point at that job,” Sweitzer said.
And although he didn’t invent the Energizer bunny, he worked on the campaign that developed roughly 140 bunny commercials.
“We would have meetings where we would have these insane conversations, and say, ‘In this given situation, what would the bunny do?’” Sweitzer said. “‘If the bunny’s on a construction site, and he needs to get from point A to point B, how would he get there? And how would he react to construction people along the way?’ One day I said, ‘I wonder if the Barbie people are having this same kind of conversation.’”
Sweitzer said he got to the point that he knew the bunny so well, it was occasionally difficult working with new people who didn’t understand the brand the way he did.
A recent college graduate “would say, ‘Well, I don’t think the bunny would do that; I think the bunny would do this,’” Sweitzer said. “I would just look at him and say, ‘I am the bunny. And the bunny would do that.’”
In 2004, Sweitzer was considering opening a creative and production company in Dallas at an old firehouse. He said he was showing the photographs he had taken of it to Woodruff, and Woodruff said: “Don’t do it. Why don’t you help me grow this thing?”
Sweitzer said he missed Missouri and wanted to be closer to his aging parents, so the idea of joining Woodruff Communications was appealing. In July of that year, Sweitzer joined the company in Columbia, which became Woodruff Sweitzer.
Given the wide range of skills both men have, Woodruff Sweitzer is more than an advertising agency. The company specializes in “delivering unexpected ideas, nurtured in fresh air,” as its slogan goes.
“We’re an integrated marketing firm based in idea generation,” Woodruff said. “I get most excited about taking marketing insights or consumer insights and bringing them and developing them with our team to then take ideas to clients for new products or services and then seeing those be successful.”
Sweitzer said he is proud of the company’s ability to “transcend traditional advertising.”
“Folks think that we just do a bunch of brochures and radio spots and print ads,” Sweitzer said. “Ideas are the most important part of what we’re doing. How we execute it is just a tool. … As long as it promotes the messaging the way we want consumers to perceive it, then we consider that a success.”
For example, Woodruff Sweitzer worked on an event marketing campaign for Versatile Tractors, where they arranged for the tractors to be put on the back of 18-wheelers and driven around the country for the “North American Heavy Metal Tour.”
“The way we’ve come at it is to be proficient in everything, to be helpful to clients in every way,” Sweitzer said. “Our current client roster understands that, and we want it to be where they can say, ‘We should talk to Woodruff Sweitzer because they probably know how to get that done or know someone who does,’ and that’s the position we want to be in.”
Mary Wilkerson, senior vice president of marketing at Boone County National Bank, said she’s known Woodruff and Sweitzer for about 15 years, and BCNB is one of the agency’s clients.
“The thing I really appreciate about what they do is they’re very good at thinking outside the box and really challenging us in terms of the way we think about marketing and advertising,” Wilkerson said. “I go to them for the big ideas, and they always deliver.”
It’s a concept that seems to be working; the company has continued to grow, even during tough economic times. The company’s gross billings were about $6.5 million in 2006 and $8.7 in 2009, and Woodruff expects business volume to be higher again in 2010.
“We’re growing to the point (where) we’re currently hiring in several areas and in all three offices,” Woodruff said.
The company has 45 employees in offices in Columbia, Kansas City and Calgary, Canada.
“I think it’s important to talk about our staff,” Woodruff said. “All we sell is ideas and strategy, so our product is only as good as the people that come up with ideas and strategy. So it was my philosophy early on to find the best minds in the business, and that’s one reason why the opportunity to bring Steve Sweitzer — the caliber of Steve Sweitzer — on the staff was important to me.”
The company has employees from agencies from cities nationwide, including Minneapolis, Chicago, Atlanta, Dallas, Los Angeles and New York.
“At the end of the day, we’re only as good as the ideas we generate,” Woodruff said. “We compete against large agencies across the US all the time. … I’m obviously not the one sitting back and cranking out ideas all the time, so it’s important to mention the talent and expertise of the 45 people on the staff.”
To encourage new ideas, their office in a historic brick warehouse is open and spacious, with a metal spiral staircase and a roof patio, the city’s first “green roof” on a commercial structure.
“We encourage people to work out here [on the patio] and get some fresh air,” Woodruff said.
Wilkerson said Woodruff “gets business.”
“He absolutely runs a tight ship and understands business and understands how to run a business, and in the creative field that isn’t always the case,” Wilkerson said. “He’s also a very pleasant, local boy.”
Sweitzer, too, Wilkerson said, is very approachable.
“Sweitzer’s just unbelievably creative, unbelievably committed,” Wilkerson said. “He just throws himself 150 percent into whatever he’s doing. He truly cares deeply about his clients and their success.”
“I honestly like them both as people,” Wilkerson said. “It’s been a joy to work with them. I am a very, very particular person, so if you can meet my standards you’ve got to be pretty special. That’s my version of high praise.”
Both Woodruff and Sweitzer talked about the positives of working in Columbia.
“I think the fact that we’re in rather nontraditional cities for what we do plays to our benefit,” Sweitzer said. “The people you’ll find at Woodruff Sweitzer live and work here because we want to. We don’t feel like we have to go to Dallas or go to New York. It’s fine to have done all those things, but it’s also nice to know that you’re able to come to somewhere that’s just a great place to live and be able to do great work.”