Photo by Daniel Dinsmore
Mankato-based, full-service advertising firm owner masters left and right brain tasks to grow company and community.
Brian Maciej (pronounced MAH-Chee) and his business, Lime Valley Advertising, are a study in contrasts. The company 47-year-old Maciej owns is located in a two-story French Second Empire home, built in 1873, at 1620 S. Riverfront Drive in Mankato. The 3,700 square feet of space provide an elegant setting for the 16 offices from which a staff of eleven provides integrated marketing for clients. A conference room display of awards for cutting-edge advertising campaigns belies the feeling of having stepped back into a gentler, slower-paced era, a feeling augmented by the fragrance from several lit candles.
“Our goal is to help clients present their brand in a consistent manner, cohesive in look, feel and message, through print, electronic and interactive formats,” Maciej said. For him personally, the contrast comes in his ability to excel in the exercise of both his creative right brain and analytical left brain. His success in advertising rests on creativity, technical competency and good business sense.
“There are two real challenges—a technology that changes rapidly, both software and hardware, and keeping up with design trends, including color and pop culture,” he explained. That’s why the ink on new employees’ diplomas is barely dry. The last six employees he hired were fresh out of college.
“I want their creativity, their technical finesse, and their uninhibited creative energy,” Maciej said. “My personal likes or dislikes are irrelevant” in producing the best possible result for the client.
Back when he was one of those young people, Maciej’s activities focused on left-brain activities. Growing up in Hibbing, Minn., with three sisters, he wanted to become an architect. In 1982, he graduated from Hibbing High School, where both of his parents taught.
He said, “I had the most wonderful education. The course offerings and teachers were incredible, but as a student, you don’t realize that. I never took an art class because my father taught some of the art classes, and I didn’t want to be in one of his classes. In elementary school, though, I had my mom as a substitute teacher. I liked math, the problem-solving aspect. I liked graphing the solutions to algebraic equations. My high school, one of the most prestigious high schools in the United States, offered a class in engineering drafting, which I took. It was definitely the pencil-on-paper drawing, the precision of the process.”
Maciej’s high school years weren’t spent entirely in a rarified academic environment. At age 16, he took a job at the local Red Owl store bagging groceries, stocking shelves and even managing the produce department one summer. He explained, “I was in charge of ordering and scheduling. I could see the way the metrics of spoilage, the percent of store sales and the scheduling mattered. It was my first time of being measured for performance in a business.” He remained employed by Red Owl for five years, later working at a Bemidji store.
Maciej went on to Hibbing Community College, where he enrolled in the pre-engineering program. There he learned computer-aided drafting and took a paid position in the math department, tutoring military veterans in algebra. His last semester he took a couple of art classes, and that’s when everything changed.
“I really started to realize my more creative potential and wanted to explore that,” Maciej said. “I was no longer keeping up with the math and physics required in mechanical engineering.” After receiving an Associate of Arts degree in pre-engineering he enrolled at Bemidji State University, continuing the high-quality education to which he was accustomed. He majored in design technology, an interdisciplinary program that combined industrial technology and art, and chose a math minor, going through calculus 5 and linear algebra, and a concentration in business management, including macro and micro economics and accounting. He spent one quarter as an intern at the University of Winnipeg in Manitoba, Canada, where he experienced practical application of marketing.
In autumn 1986, with a Bachelor of Science degree in hand, Maciej applied for about 50 jobs, typing or hand writing each cover letter, which resulted in four interviews. Advertising Unlimited (now Norwood Promotional Products) in Sleepy Eye hired him to produce art for calendars and specialty advertising items.
“I drew by hand, although I’d had some computer experience at Bemidji State, where computers were just being introduced,” Maciej explained. “I worked in a department of about 20 production artists, mostly copying a design, doing very little creative work. Because of my mechanical engineering background, I did not find it boring at first. Later, to satisfy some creativity, I also began to work on freelance design projects for Doug Dybsetter in New Ulm.”
When having an opportunity to start an in-house agency at Mankato-based Condux Corporation, Dybsetter invited Maciej on as a full-time employee. The new business was called Lime Valley Marketing Communications.
“We worked for Condux and North Star Concrete several years and caught up on their backlog,” Maciej said. “Then management invited us to apply our talents to other companies, to recruit new clients for Lime Valley Marketing Communications. It was a nice way of saying, ’Start making money here, or you’re finished.’ Doug was not interested in that, so he went back to his own design business. The copywriter, Steve Durham, and I were still pretty new in the industry, so we thought, ‘Let’s make a go of it.’ Condux employee Kevin Klanderud joined us and is still with the agency today.
“We began Lime Valley Advertising using the skill I had learned from Doug on how to design and market from business to business, especially in manufacturing,” Maciej said. “There was a market opportunity here, largely ignored by Twin Cities ad agencies. We are a full-service advertising agency, from idea and concept all the way through the production of the final product, which could be print materials, a video or DVD or an advertising product.”
When Maciej bought and incorporated the business in 1996, he moved it from its Lime Valley location to the Voyager Bank building in downtown Mankato. Three years later, the company relocated to the historic building that had occupied an acre of land when built by retired tailor William Irving nearly 140 years ago. The move provided an environment of understated elegance, a message not lost on potential clients.
The company’s in-house services include creative writing, technical writing, graphic design, illustration, media buying, digital video, trade show display design, photography, website design, point-of-purchase displays, public relations, search engine optimization and multi-media development (from web banner ads to animated video). Outlab services (subcontracted to other businesses) include offset printing, photographic and digital enlargements, trade show display systems, prototype models, packaging, and CD/DVD duplication.
“I think there’s a real need in our region for a full-service agency,” Maciej said. “In tough economic times, companies need an advertising partner. Most of our clients have an advertising department, but it makes sense for them to utilize a full-service firm rather than ramping up their own department or working with a variety of specialized partners, which can result in the message being diluted. When I incorporated the business, my goal was to create an environment where we could continue to grow in our careers. This would happen only through creating the highest quality product we could. We had to change from the manufacturing environment of Condux to one of creativity, but Condux continues to be our client.
“We had eight clients our first year. We used personal contacts and word of mouth. Our work is noticed. We also engage in community volunteer opportunities, donating time and talent, and networking. We do some social media marketing and some advertising, and we send a newsletter to previous and potential clients. We now have 80 clients, and half have their work here at any given time, some with multiple projects, so we are working on 75 to 80 projects at any time. The average client/agency relationship in this industry lasts three years. An examination of 25 of our senior clients shows all have been with our agency a minimum of four years, 50 percent have been clients for 10 years or more, and several for 20 years.
He said, “About 10 years ago we did a logo for the Dance Conservatory of Minnesota, donating our services. A student intern from Bethany Lutheran College did a brilliant design and, I think, surprised himself. The design looks as fresh today as it did then. We have one or two student interns per semester; we are an approved internship site for Minnesota State, Gustavus Adolphus College, Bethany Lutheran College, South Central College, Bemidji State and South Dakota State-Brookings. Internship requirements vary; we typically provide 120 to 150 hours of hands-on work and occasionally up to 400 hours, depending on college requirements. Usually an internship is a crossroads of school and work, but at Lime Valley it’s more of an interchange. There’s as much to be gained from the students as they learn from us. Three of our current staffers began here as interns. Close to a dozen interns have been hired and have moved on. One has his own business in the Twin Cities and now offers the same internship experience to students.”
The paid staff includes nine full-timers and two part-timers—copywriters, graphic designers, web programmers and media buyers. Maciej retains the role of art director.
“It’s my favorite thing to do and my greatest contribution,” he said. “I share the responsibility of account management with copywriter Jim Schill. We meet with clients to determine their needs, such as a marketing plan, specific advertising campaign or new product introduction. Sometimes the client doesn’t know the answers, so we challenge the client to focus. We ask the client questions to which the client knows the answers. For a new product, that’s who will buy it and at what cost, and we build off that. The client answers the question, ‘So you have this new product—who cares?’ Creativity must have purpose and wisdom to be effective. Being asked by a client to change the ‘product’ is part of the creative process, usually within a couple of proofs. A website, however, has three or four client input stages during the design process.
“Where my art director aspect applies is in the conceptual stage,” Maciej said. “I do very little actual design, but I review every proposal. I also review every invoice. We invoice 1,000 to 1,200 projects per year and have only one or two client questions on billing annually. That’s a testament to my staff.”
One of Lime Valley’s start-up award-winning campaigns was for Wow! Zone. The creative ideas were applied not only to ads, brochures and a website, but also to a company vehicle that Wow! Zone’s owners drive in parades. “Redline Signs positioned our design elements on the vehicle so it looks like it’s moving when it’s standing still,” Maciej said. “You can see the energy. The design was done by an employee out of college less than a year.”
Lime Valley Advertising also has won several regional and national awards for marketing projects done gratis for the Twin Valley Council, Boy Scouts of America, one of many projects done pro bono by the company’s staff. Maciej said, “Our company donates four percent of its production capacity. Another donated project was for the Mankato Marathon, in which one of our staffers participated. I think it’s remarkable that I work with people who have the same vision.”
At least one of Maciej’s staff was hired as a result of Maciej’s passion for education. He has endowed a scholarship in graphic communication at South Central College and often speaks to classes there. When he interviewed a job candidate for a design position a few years ago, Maciej asked where the applicant had heard of Lime Valley Advertising. The applicant replied that it was at a high school career fair at SCC, at which Maciej had given a presentation and demonstrated the logo design process. That student is now Lime Valley’s associate art director.
“If I didn’t own Lime Valley Advertising, I would be teaching design,” Maciej said. “I wonder if instructors ever fully realize the influence they have on their students. I hold close relationships with some of my instructors to this day.”
- Greater Mankato Growth, Bronze Investor Member
- Twin Valley Council, BSA, Executive Board, vice president of marketing
- Greater Mankato Diversity Council, Founding partner, 2006 Pathfinder award recipient
- South Central College Graphic Communications Program, advisory board chair
- Founder of annual scholarship in graphic communications at SCC
- Bemidji State University Design Technology Advisory Board, charter member
- Regional Center for Entrepreneurial Facilitation, board of directors
- Second Wind Network (a national association of small advertising agencies), member
- MMSCU Designing with Technology Conference, 2008 keynote speaker
Personal: single, no children, and no pets.
Hobbies and recreation: “I don’t have a lot of time for recreation, but have an appreciation for the outdoors. I enjoy hiking and biking. I go fishing, both here and Up North. I also enjoy automobiles and drive a modern muscle car, a 2010 Camaro. I enjoy driving it, even to work. That’s what they’re for, to drive. In my house on Mankato’s hilltop, I have household projects such as landscaping and finishing the basement.”
Of what accomplishment are you most proud? “My commitment to education, to helping students who are pursuing a design career. I’m also proud Lime Valley Advertising is surviving the recession with no cuts in pay or employee benefits and no layoffs. We remain the right size, in the right place, with the right talent.”
What possession do you value most? “Ownership of the historic house in which I have my business. I also value having the jigsaw puzzles my father cut out of Masonite and painted when I was six.”
What intangible do you value most? “My drive and ambition.”
What three words or phrases describe you? “Driven, ethical, having high expectations.”
If you could change one thing: “I would change unethical business practices of using intellectual property without permission of the creator. Work in this industry gets stolen. I’d like to see everyone in the industry protect one another’s work more diligently and to show more respect.”
The Essentials: Lime Valley Advertising
- Address: 1620 South Riverfront, Mankato, MN 56001
- Phone: 507-345-8500
- Web: limevalley.com