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“The only thing an agency has to sell is time and ideas. So an agency is only as good as their people,” president and CEO Terry Woodruff says, sitting in the Columbia office of his namesake company. “And I would put our group of 80 employees up against just about any other agency.”
Those aren’t just words. The marketing firm celebrated their 25th birthday in robust fashion this spring — along with a refresh of their brand and a name change from “Woodruff Sweitzer” to simply “Woodruff,” the company rolled out a new employee stock ownership plan, making them 100 percent employee-owned.
The ESOP has been a few years in the making, and the timing is right, Woodruff says. “I have the best staff that I’ve had in 25 years, so being able to turn over ownership of the company to this staff gives me confidence. I’m comfortable that they understand what ownership means to them and being able to carry the company forward. And they’ve been really excited about it.”
Woodruff first launched during the advent of the desktop computer. Terry Woodruff started with a Macintosh SE, which required the user to have two disks – one was a program disk, the other a working disk – to operate the computer. The firm maneuvered through decades of tech advances. Fax machines. Cell phones. When the printing world transitioned from plates to digital printing, it meant not just navigating their own firm through change, but guiding clients through another wave of innovation as well.
In the early days, the agency had a portfolio that included all types of disciplines in the marketing and communications world. For two reasons, it became apparent that they needed to focus on a few key industries: recruiting and retaining staff and being able to instantly offer solutions to clients. Hiring specialists in key areas means Woodruff is able to provide real-time consumer insights and industry trends without expending time and resources on research. Their main areas of concentration are health, animal health, agriculture, finances, and sports marketing. (The MU athletic department has been a notable client for a number of years.)
For an agency that’s mastered crafting brands for other companies, one might wonder what Woodruff holds as their own core value. The answer is freedom. Freedom to be bold. Freedom to experiment. Freedom to challenge. Freedom to act. Freedom to celebrate.
“Around here, you define your own future, you define your own success,” says COO Shelley Thompson, who’s been with the firm for 18 years. “If you’re an entrepreneurial spirit anyway — driven, courageous, someone who wants to seize opportunity — the possibilities are endless. You’re going to have the opportunity to grow. We empower our team members to make decisions. Be smart, be able to back up why, but be decisive, be nimble.”
Recruiting and retaining top talent has been paramount to the company’s success. Woodruff says being able to tap into the incredible talent that comes out of MU’s journalism school and the marketing and strategic communication programs has been incredibly valuable. But the beauty of having offices in Kansas City, Minneapolis, and Columbia is that a lot of recruits are looking at certain geographic locations, so being able to recruit to three national locations has been an advantage. There is no set “home” office in this team environment; each location works cohesively with the others.
“All offices work on all pieces of business,” Woodruff says. “We have technology to allow us to work in real time within those teams, so everyone stays connected — Google chat, video conferencing — so no, we’re not geographically exclusive. We’re all integrated as one company.”
“We might have an account service member in Columbia, an art director in Kansas City, and a copywriter in Minneapolis, and they’re working on that same client,” Thompson adds.
She says that atmosphere is what sets their agency apart. “We want our employees to really feel empowered and really grasp on to the freedom and understand the company’s success is relying on their own, and vice versa,” Thompson says. “‘We Are Woodruff’ is part of our brand, and that also portrays the power of the employees, that ‘every single one of you make up this company, every single one of you can benefit from this company, and you can take on that entrepreneurial, owner-minded approach to everything you do. Do better, work hard, and succeed.’”