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Risky Business: 20 Years Of Anchor

Birthdays are a double-edged sword when you are in the business of branding and marketing. Experience is a plus, of course, but so are new ideas. Anchor Marketing turned 20 this year, and while we’ve come a long way from founder Steve Eickman and I working on desks salvaged from an office fire, I’m proud to say that we’ve been able to keep our focus on the cutting edge. It hasn’t always been easy. While some of our more innovative ideas went over like gangbusters, others looked like those fireworks that accidentally tip over on the 4th of July – spinning around and around in one spot until they eventually explode into a spectacular ball of flames there on the ground.

Looking back, I thought I would recap some of Anchor’s greatest hits – and misses – to celebrate 20 years of taking chances, both large and small. Some you may remember, others you may not. Whether they worked out great or came up short, I hope they bring a smile to your face.

Greatest Hit: The Internet
It may be hard to believe, but I actually used to teach classes to businesspeople about how to use the internet. Read that again: how to use the internet. People were terrified by it, convinced that it was either too complicated to understand or ruled by lawless gangs of hackers (Nobody wanted their photos online in case somebody altered them. Today, those same people use Snapchat to make their profile pictures look like beagles from the island of Doctor Moreau). For some reason, I remember a good chunk of time in these classrooms being spent off-topic, showing desperate users how to euthanize Clippy, the Microsoft paper clip.

At Anchor, we first worked with programmers coding in their basements, then eventually hired our own team (which became {code} Roadies over time). Nowadays, you build your websites with smartphones in mind, but back then we had to accommodate for browsers that only showed text. A huge part of our process was optimization because dial-up was so slow. Remember when you would start to download a song and then go to bed, hoping that it would be ready to play in the morning? In fact, moving any data was a significant challenge. I once got an angry 8:00 AM call from a web subcontractor in Fargo because I had attempted to email them a ZIP drive (remember those?) full of information and crashed their entire system.

Near Miss: www.grandgifts.com
As web-based businesses exploded onto the scene in the early 2000s, we decided to get in on the act, offering gift cards from local businesses. Everybody sells their own gift cards now, but at the time, grandgifts.com was revolutionary. Unfortunately, without help from social media (it hadn’t been invented yet), it was a time when grassroots marketing was at a disadvantage. We simply could not get the word out about our service as both the net and the airwaves were jam-packed with everything from a young Amazon.com to a sock puppet selling pet supplies on the Super Bowl.

Greatest Hit: Strategic Planning
When Steve founded Anchor, he opened a traditional advertising agency and that lasted for about six months. He quickly discovered that instead of buying a lot of classic media like newspaper, radio and TV, we were much better at helping businesses adapt to whatever communication vehicles were most effective. Sometimes we utilized mass media platforms like television or radio, but just as often we took advantage of guerrilla brand building via the web, sports marketing, public relations or sales support. We always knew that strategy was important, but we quickly learned that when you really put strategy first, there are no rules as to where it can take you.

Take heat-activated urinal cakes for example. For a client who’s main target audience was young men living in dormitories, they were an obvious choice. We had to get them from Australia, but the custom message came through loud and clear to an audience with nothing else to look at.

Near Miss: Yuletide Fruit
One Christmas, we decided to give our clients a little taste of summer as a unique present. Filled with youthful optimism, we ordered gift baskets full of fresh fruit. Of course this wouldn’t be a “near miss” if it wasn’t all spoiled. Like any Jimmy Buffet song after Margaritaville, it looked vaguely tropical but smelled old and was impossible to stomach. It was North Dakota in December, after all. Fortunately, we were able to stop delivery after the first basket was dropped off at a very kind and understanding client’s office. That’s a theme in our success, actually. Which leads to the next heading:

Greatest Hit: Our Clients
The first thing any successful branding agency needs is good clients. Or in our case, a good client. That’s right, when we got our start we only had one of them. Over time we got more, of course, but we were – and are – just as grateful for the latest client as we were for the first. We do our best work for people and companies who appreciate strategy, quality and determination. They may not choose to act on every suggestion we make, but they appreciate that we bring them new ideas that they might not have come up with themselves.

Near Miss: Animating Anchor
Remember when Adobe’s Flash player was the ubiquitous standard for animation on the web? It was installed on something like 99.9% of computers, and we were all trying to figure out how to use it to make an impact. As an experiment, the creative team at Anchor once spent a good chunk of time attempting to create our own animated virtual greeting card. The results were laughably bad. The animation was choppy but watchable, but the voiceovers that we recorded ourselves were something entirely different. It’s hard to describe just how grating they were, especially my own. I sounded like a Disney gopher with anger management issues who was being waterboarded in a cave. The entire production was supposed to be funny, but it was mostly just sad. Thankfully, five years later Flash died a horrible death, sacrificed by Steve Jobs on Apple’s shiny white altar of simplicity in Cupertino.

You know that line in movies where the hero describes a plan as being “so crazy it just might work?” That’s Anchor in a nutshell, and it’s been incredible to have 20 years of clients who have loved every minute of it. We work hard, we put our clients first and sometimes we break the rules to get results. We ask tough questions like “What if your most important target audience is internal, not external?” We find ways for smaller companies to take on much larger competitors. We seek out vendors who share our unrealistically high standards and then we hold them to them. We embrace risky ideas because when they work, they can change the world.

Thanks for 20 great years. We’re just getting started.