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As Santa Rosa ad agency The Engine is Red marks 10 years, founder details growth spurt

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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.

Q: How did that happen and when did that happen?

A: Two or three years in, we as a leadership team decided that we needed to connect and invest in the community here. So, we started doing quite a bit more nonprofit work. We started with the chamber, and then a couple other nonprofits, and then the Center for Wellbeing, and really started to build relationships. And then that entered kind of a phase of growth that was really driven by regional companies here in Sonoma, the North Bay, which in our first few years, we didn’t really have. We’ve probably worked with over 150 local companies and organizations since then.

Q: How have you leveraged technology in your work?

A: Technology is really transforming client work in two ways. One, it is leveling the playing field for mid-sized and smaller organizations. An independent winery can launch a campaign that can rival a national brand, through technology and digital. It gives more nimble organizations a much bigger playing power than traditional media used to be. The minimum ad buys, the cost of production is so different.

For us on the collaboration side, shared version control, video conferencing, files, presentations allows us to be remote. So the fact that we can serve clients nationwide from here, and that we can recruit creatives from Minneapolis, from Los Angeles, from Finland, from Idaho, from Canada, if it wasn’t for technology, we couldn’t do that. We can scale with the growth of our company without being dependent on a single labor market. And we can serve clients from San Diego to Indianapolis to New York to Miami because of the way that collaboration works through technology.

Q: How much of the company is here and how much of it involves people working remotely?

A: About 40% of our staff is in Santa Rosa. And 60% of the staff is either in our Minneapolis office or at large. And sometimes at large isn’t very far. One of our creative directors is in Oakland, our VP of client partnerships is out of San Francisco. So they’re not in Sonoma County, but they’re drivable. Then LA and all the way to Finland, it kind of spreads out.

Q: Last year you launched a campaign with Kendall Jackson in which you lobbied for the creation of a white wine emoji, submitting a 15-page proposal to the Unicode Consortium. What were the primary goals of that campaign?

A: Kendall Jackson is just such an iconic American brand. It’s been a part of people’s lives for so long. They wanted a chance to just connect with their guests, something that met them on their own terms. What they had found is that these loyal fans of Kendall Jackson from across the globe love Kendall Jackson on social media. It’s something very human, right, just text messaging and connecting. It’s fun. It’s casual. It’s personal. The white wine emoji campaign was led by Kendall Jackson, but there are dozens and dozens of wineries that have participated and supported it. From the industry to the guest, just to not take yourself too seriously, to focus on joy and have a little bit of fun. So our team was really able to come around with them and help make it a reality.

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @pressreno.

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