Dave Damman, the chief creative officer and a managing partner of Carmichael Lynch, doesn’t want to talk about clients. Or accounts. He wants to talk about how to make Minneapolis a center of the advertising world again. Like in the ’90s. To do that, he says, creativity should be measured by what you do, not what you say you can do. Creativity for creativity’s sake. No client needed.
“We want people to say: ‘What if . . . ?’ and then answer it,” says Damman. Answers to ‘What if . . . ?’ can be seen on the Carmichael Collective website, where the company showcases its brand-free, unpaid-for projects: a bath towel that looks like the pixelated blur used to censor nudity on a computer screen; urinal cakes, frosted and decorated to look like celebration centerpieces; a shopping-cart-sized upholstered purse, holding a standard-sized poodle, which a woman trails behind her. These creative flights of fancy have generated more than 170 million media impressions and nearly a quarter of a million views on YouTube. They’ve also been covered by BuzzFeed, Wired, Fast Company, The Huffington Post, and others. Not bad for a hard day’s play.
There’s more. Not only do Carmichael Lynch creatives generate national buzz, but they buzz around on the company’s free-to-use Handsome Cycles, zipping off to fetch supplies for concerts played on the agency’s rooftop stage. The bands that appear on the 17,000-square-foot rooftop deck are rather lofty creatives themselves. Trampled By Turtles, Mason Jennings, the Heartless Bastards, Ivan & Alyosha, and Dawes, among them. When the sun sets, another layer of creativity appears. On that selfsame roof, a hundred-year-old water tower the company calls Rusty comes alive, glowing with projections generated with the help of MCAD students. Fawns leap, faces contort, balloons rise, a strange guy in a zebra mask and a suit stands gravely. If you’re in certain seats at Target Field, you’ll see Rusty’s glow. You’ll also see Rusty’s glow if you work at Olson, another great Minneapolis ad agency that happens to be separated from Carmichael Lynch by the canyon of Target Field.
Not that Damman is trying to annoy the folks at Olson with such flagrant displays of unpaid-for creativity: “In order for Minneapolis to be a great advertising city again, we all have to do well—Olson, Fallon, mono, everybody,” Damman says. “It’s like restaurants: You can’t have a great restaurant scene, or be a great food destination, with one restaurant. You need a lot.”
So when Carmichael Lynch invites bands to its roof, it invites employees at rival agencies, too. Those of a less generous heart might take the gesture as one less of open creativity and more of sending flowers to another man’s wife, considering Carmichael Lynch is growing by leaps and bounds, adding nearly 30 new jobs this year so far. But no matter—creatives are aware of the agency’s growing power, thanks to its award-winning, tear-jerking, car-purchase-driving Subaru ads and its Jack Link’s “Messin’ with Sasquatch” campaign, in which hapless human smart-asses get into vaudevillian pratfalls after messing with a bigfoot, a bigfoot who has transformed a little Wisconsin beef jerky maker into the national beef jerky king. Recently the agency scored the Tempur-Pedic foam bed account; if you suddenly find yourself compelled to replace your mattress, it will be because of this little hot spot of creativity.
“We don’t have a warehouse full of widgets,” Damman says. “Advertising agencies are just people and space.” He gestures to the creatives around him, constantly churning the answer to the question ‘What if . . . ?’ and so generating something almost palpable, like widgets of new thought.