Greg Veerman is an Astronaut, unafraid to sail into the outer reaches of Adlandia in his quest for a higher plane. In other words, he runs an agency in Sioux Falls, SD with a focus on serving clients in the clean technology and sustainable goods and services sectors. “Our job is to advance the cause of sustainability through the engine of the marketplace,” he says. That’s a mission I readily identify with, and Veerman doesn’t stop there. Pull up a chair and see for yourself what things look like 1500 miles from Madison Avenue.
Q. What, or who, led you to enter the ad biz?
A. Hemingway. After school the plan was to be him. That meant living a raw, dangerous life and writing fiction. It also meant starting at a newspaper, like Hemingway, which is how I got my first break as a writer in Portland, Oregon. I had some excellent opportunities reporting for a respected news weekly, an experience that permanently shaped how I think and write and taught me an important lesson: I wasn’t meant to be a reporter. After a few years, I’d published enough that an old buddy from college, who was a CD at up and coming Portland agency, threw me a couple bones from his world. Things worked out. So I crossed over to the dark side and have never looked back.
Q. How’d you get to Sioux Falls? And what are the pitfalls and advantages of running an agency in a small, under-the-radar market?
A. My wife is from South Dakota and she is persuasive. We came out here so we could get help from the in-laws with our two kids while she was in nursing school full time. I didn’t think we’d stay, but some cool opportunities came up and we connected with a lot of wonderful people. It’s safe here, schools are outstanding and people are really good to each other. I kind of got plugged in.
A major revelation for me was that there is indeed some very high caliber talent in Sioux Falls. There’s not as much of it as you’d find in a major city. But make no mistake: there are true A-listers lurking around these small to mid-sized markets. I’ve been lucky to work with a lot of them. Best of all, this is a Prima-Donna-Free Zone. The rock stars here work hard, produce solid creative and don’t expect adulation or fawning.
The advantage to running a shop in this kind of environment is that the community is incredibly tight-knit and generous. Both creative and production talent come to the table to work things out for projects large and small without a lot of fuss. They put a premium on relationships and accountability. And they just don’t screw each other. In part that’s the culture. I think it comes from the farming heritage of this region — people are used to being individually accountable for success or failure because on the farm, to which just about everyone has some kind of family connection, there’s no one else to blame but yourself. From a different perspective, people are good to each other because there’s nowhere to hide. Screw someone over, and you’re probably screwing a friend of a friend or someone you’re going to run into around town. So the default posture here is respect and humility. When you think about that in the world of creative services, it’s pretty refreshing.
The downside is that if you only serve clients in the local or regional area, you have a very limited pie to slice up. It’s just not a large enough single market to support a ton of agencies, and budgets tend to match up with that. Simultaneously, although the creative talent is here, and although Sioux Falls in particular has a really thriving, up-and-coming urban culture, what’s missing is that rich, dense artistic vibration that washes into every corner of life like you find in places like Minneapolis, Portland, San Francisco or Chicago. That passive inspiration, that background signal, and the demand for high creative that follows, just isn’t the same here. It’s easy to take for granted in a big urban core. We have to work harder to generate it in this town, but it happens. And I have such admiration for the friends and colleagues around here who actually create that gravity.
Q. Your agency focuses on helping clients in clean technology and renewable energy. How did you decide to focus on these emerging industries?
A. First, to play at the level I’d like for Astronaut, I knew we’d have to specialize. By becoming expert in this niche, which is actually fairly diverse, we get beyond the geographical barriers of our regional market and become a legitimate resource to companies all over the world. Second, the path is clear for clean technology and sustainable goods and services: investment is only going to increase, but not everyone in these industries is good at telling their story. This means opportunity for us and a competitive advantage for our clients. Finally, sustainability is profoundly important to me on a personal level. I grew up in Alaska and came up professionally in Oregon, two stages for that difficult dance between industry and the environment. I figured if I’m going to take a shot at running a business, I’m going to focus on something I care about. Our job is to advance the cause of sustainability through the engine of the marketplace. It’s a calling that covers all the right ground for us from a creative, business and human standpoint. It’s pretty easy to get out of bed and go to work on this assignment.
Q. Renewable energy has both B2B and B2C applications — which is more fun and more rewarding to work on?
A. The B2C opportunities are the sexiest because they have the bigger audience, but B2B is more rewarding in some ways because the institutional challenges are greater and the accomplishments seem more profound. Most of the people we serve are not used to either the work we do or the way we think — I’m talking about scientists, engineers, chemists and other rational thinkers. It’s pretty satisfying to win with these folks. And they give us the intellectual challenges that make this business so cool. We’re lucky to work with them.
Q. What qualities do you find in a great client?
A. Optimism, curiosity, communication, ambition, the ability to suspend judgment, the ability to apply good judgment. I hope our clients find these qualities in Astronaut, too.
Q. What’s the most challenging aspect to running your own agency?
A. Time. We started Astronaut in 2007. I started joking that I always wanted to run my own show, but I wanted to wait until I had a four kids and a recession. That all came together a year after we launched. So I often feel like there is not enough of me to go around and that the days run out before I even begin them. The solution of course is to have a great team and I’m lucky that the people I work with are so talented, devoted and willing to put up with me. Sometimes I honestly don’t know why they do it.
Q. Do you ever long to go back to being on staff at an agency, so you can wear one hat instead of four or five?
A. Sometimes — it would have to be the right circumstances with the right team with the right goals. A friend gave me great advice about business early on: “Burn all routes of retreat.” Don’t even give yourself the option to go back. Going forward is another matter. And that can have all kinds of different dimensions I’d welcome. I’m on a mission up in here. It’s going to drive me a good long while.
Q. Does the Midwest really have a better work ethic?
A. I hate to generalize, but hell yes. In almost 10 years out here, I’ve found that people uniformly show up early, stay late and don’t complain. Again, I think it comes straight from the farming heritage of the region. If you didn’t grow up on a farm, someone in some corner of your family did, or your friends did. And farmers are business people who are responsible for absolutely everything: if you don’t do it, it doesn’t get done. Pride in workmanship and a sense of accountability are off the charts. People work their tails off and just don’t expect a parade for it afterwards. It’s a standard I’m still trying to live up to because I really like parades.
Q. Is there anyone in our business–another agency, perhaps–that you particularly admire?
A. My old role models were the creative geniuses. My new role models are those who lead teams and grow businesses. Trevor Graves at Nemo Design is an old friend and a guy who started as an A-list creative but has built something special with a lot of study and hard work. The guys at 3 Advertising in Albuquerque are people I’ve worked with and admire for the team they’ve built. They are true role models. Sullivan Higdon Sink is the definition of success for a mid-sized Midwest agency. I also respect the hell out of my friend Paul Koblik, who runs Slice Editorial out of Oakland. Even though they’re down the street from Pixar, they’re probably not going to show up in Post magazine, but they serve Fortune 100 clients who love them because their team is so tight and they’re so reliable. Those are the people I admire.
Q. Has the shift to digital impacted your work?
A. Where to start? Of course it has. And the impact has multiple dimensions, both in terms of operations and in terms of solutions we explore for clients. We deliberately choose not to have an internal digital department because there are just too many experts in too many niches of the digital world, from social media to apps to digital signage to ecommerce. I want our clients to have the right digital solution for the right job, so that means keeping a lot of different options open. And by the way, we have a couple major, major digital developers in this town who have melted faces at the highest levels of Silicon Valley and NYC. So I’m spoiled: these people are friends and I don’t need to go more than 10 minutes down the street to get with them on projects big or small.
Q. How do you advise advertising students and other prospects trying to get their first break in the business to conduct themselves?
A. Be an interesting person. Read a lot of things, not just blogs or fiction, but periodicals, non-fiction, politics and the arts. Be conversant in many subjects. Your job here is to be a professional student. The more you can prove that, the better. I once hired a young guy not because of his book (it was just okay) but because at the time of our interview he was “trying out Ramadan” and in the middle of fasting — this was a South Dakota kid raised an evangelical Christian. That right there is an interesting person. Be curious and learn to ask good questions. Also, iconoclasm is more interesting if it’s quiet. So you might want to read some Hemingway.
Q. What’s the best MarCom book you’ve read in the past few years?
A. This one came out a while ago, but I loved Phil Dusenberry’s Then We Set His Hair on Fire.
Q. If asked, would you want to participate in AMC’s new show, “The Pitch”?
A. I don’t think so. Over the years my ego has shrunk down enough to fit on AMC, but it’s still very fragile. I don’t know if it could bear the slings and arrows of a such public arena.
Q. What do you do for fun?
A. Be a dad. It’s an ongoing project that gives me more challenges and rewards than I could invent on my own. My kids are the most interesting things in my life. I have four of them, so the fun never ends.