As Santa Rosa ad agency The Engine is Red marks 10 years, founder details growth spurt
Behind much of the success of Santa Rosa advertising and creative agency The Engine is Red is an entrepreneur who started the company without ever working in an ad agency.
Chris Denny, 37, grew up in South Florida, and became the first in his family to earn a college degree. After attending a small private arts school in Florida, he transferred to University of Iowa and studied entrepreneurship and design.
After moving to California in 2005, he launched the agency a few years later by organizing fundraisers, conferences and personal parties from his garage. Since that humble start, the agency has grown rapidly and has created ad and marketing campaigns for corporate powerhouses including Kendall- Jackson, Rombauer Vineyards, Tesla and Medtronic. Denny opened a second office in Minneapolis this year. Now, he’s on the verge of acquiring a design firm.
The Engine is Red recently turned 10, and Denny discussed in a recent interview his company’s nontraditional approach to developing brand strategies and interactive experiences for local, regional and national clients. The business seems to be humming: from 2017 to 2018, revenue increased by 58% and profit tripled.
Q: You’re celebrating your first 10 years. Where’s the agency going?
A: I think we’re going to continue to build relationships with great clients. We have no mandate to grow because we have no investors, no owners, no debt. We get the freedom to grow how and when we want, but I think the team is hungry. We’ve fallen in love with some great regional clients: government, nonprofit and for-profit. But we’re also growing our international portfolio.
Q: Where did the name of the company come from?
A: It came down to what does the client-agency relationship look like. Me and my cofounder at the time, we just loved this idea of combustion, that fuel and ignition have value. But together and just the right amount of controlled chaos, it’s explosively more.
Q: Describe the company’s growth and trajectory.
A: It started out small, two of us in a garage. I lived in the Luther Burbank Gardens area on Oak Street. I had just gotten married. I remember I was on my honeymoon, and I said, Babe, I think I want to leave my job. So later that summer I ended up leaving. We lucked out and had some really good clients those first few years, which allowed us to start to grow. That summer we had hired some freelancers and some interns and we didn’t have enough room in the garage. We moved to the backyard, under tents and gazebos in the backyard with thrift store furniture. About a year later, we got our first space downtown, which is now Flower & Bone.
Q: You said you don’t have an advertising background.
A: No, my background is on the client side. I was in the marketing department of a startup in San Francisco. So I started as a designer, and then got into marketing and hired agencies, but never worked for one.
Q: So, you know what the client wants.
A: As a client, working with an agency can be exhilarating. It’s a fresh perspective, bold ideas, a skillset that you just really can’t have in-house. But managing agencies suck, and the traditional model is really brutal. So, when we decided to start the agency, we really set out to say, could we create an agency clients love to work with, and what would that take. So, it’s been a crazy pursuit these last 10 years.
Q: Who was your first big client?
A: Our first big client was a startup called Pocket Radar. They’re another really great Sonoma County story: a couple of tech inventors who had left some telecom companies out of Petaluma, and Agilent and Keysight. They started redefining the way that radar guns work. It’s almost like the size of a cellphone but primarily focused on athletics. And we got to be a part of their launch story, which was just really fun. And then not long after that, we signed Mendocino Forest Products, which is a building materials company here. When the engine took off, it took off pretty quick, and that made it really easy to kind of give it your heart and attention and love.
Q: What were the early days of The Engine like for you compared to what it’s like now?
A: In the early days, I was the only writer, the only designer, the accounts guy, the new business guy. Today, I’m not on any client work. I don’t get to design, thank goodness, anymore. My job today is much more kind of strategy and leadership focused and investing in my team.
Q: Did things change quickly after those first big clients?
A: They became steady. So, we got those first few clients. And then we started to get steady work. And I would say, we didn’t do a great job of getting our name out there in the early years.