In the deadly aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans-based Peter Mayer Advertising ended up in Baton Rouge, an hour-and-a-half from home. There, the shop’s leaders—Josh Mayer, chief creative officer, and Mark Mayer, president and CEO—rented three houses to live and work in.
“It should have been a reality TV show,” says Josh Mayer. (His father, Peter, founded the agency in 1967; he died in 2016.) But despite the many challenges, there were bright spots: Josh, for instance, says he brought a number of wines salvaged from his wine cellar and opened them up nightly, and brought in a polka band for an Oktoberfest party. “We tried to keep everyone’s spirits up,” he says.
That’s just how they do it in New Orleans.
Katrina was devastating to the city. But it also revealed the resiliency and creativity of its locals. And it prompted a rebirth of sorts, even strengthening some of the city’s businesses, including the advertising community—a mélange of traditional mainstay shops and upstarts.
“If there was a silver lining … it was an awakening of activism,” says Pat McGuinness, who co-founded Trumpet Advertising in 1997. “The force of will that came out of the tragedy [was that] if we’re going to be anything but this boutique city, we’re going to have to do it ourselves.”
McGuinness says that after the storm, Trumpet ended its relationship with its biggest client, a restaurant company, and took a look closer to home. “Selling tacos didn’t seem that important when our city was on life support,” he says. So the agency started working with Louisiana Economic Development and the New Orleans Convention & Visitors Bureau (now referred to as New Orleans & Company).
“It wasn’t all altruistic. We knew there was going to be plenty of focus and eyeballs on New Orleans, and the work we could do here,” McGuinness says.
The agency’s focus on tourism continues today: It recently won the account for the Audubon Nature Institute, the New Orleans nonprofit operating the local zoo, aquarium and parks, and is working with the Sazerac Company as it plans to open a facility, The Sazerac House, to tell the story of the eponymous local mixed drink.
Other agencies have a similar crop of hospitality and tourism clients: Peter Mayer Advertising, for instance, was hired in August to work with the Mississippi Gulf Coast, a tourism organization.
There’s also been an uptick in new businesses, with upstarts like Krewe, a trendy eyewear company named for the social clubs that put on parades and balls for Carnival season, gaining national prominence. Dixie Beer, a century-old craft beer brand that moved to contract brewing after its brewery was gutted in the hurricane, has announced a multimillion-dollar project to open a brewery on the Industrial Canal, which will create jobs.
A growing digital presence
Digital companies are also on the rise. Louisiana gives a 25 percent tax break on qualified payroll to companies moving at least part of their tech operations to the state, and companies like Austin-based software company Accruent have taken the bait.
The city additionally is attracting more talent from other cities.
“Before, when I tried to hire people from out of town, we were … almost considered a C town. It was very hard to get people to move down here,” says Nathan Chapman, president of legal marketing firm Firmidable. After Katrina, “the quality of resumes got better overnight,” he says.
In recent years, Peter Mayer hired an executive creative director from Facebook Creative Shop. Michelle Edelman, Peter Mayer’s chief strategy officer, has credentials from shops including Leo Burnett and Ogilvy. And the agency is set to bring on another creative heavyweight out of Los Angeles.
Pure, an “on-demand” ad agency with a full-time core staff that brings together teams of contractors from around the country, relocated from New York to Louisiana a few years ago. Founder Tarik Sedky says the agency has benefited from all kinds of local talent.
“We tap local musicians and we tap local artists to help create the work that we make for our clients. Some of our most successful work came from people here … who have never worked at an ad agency,” Sedky says.
But it’s not all work. Zehnder, a 23-year-old full-service agency, is based in a corner of the French Quarter—meaning quite literally it’s part of the party. In the office, “at any given location, you may see a parade going down the street,” says the agency’s social media manager Allison Stiel.
Trumpet bought a building in the Bayou St. John neighborhood called the Icehouse that was, yes, once an icehouse (as well as a coffin factory). Located in the middle of a residential neighborhood, it functions as a co-working space for nonprofit companies and startups.
At Peter Mayer, employees get free tickets to a day of the city’s famous Jazz & Heritage Festival. The agency also does a crawfish boil in a city park.
It’s a decidedly more laid-back culture compared to San Francisco or New York. “Your life here is as important as your work,” Chapman says.
In fact, the players in the local ad community root for one another, says McGuinness. “Everybody understands a rising tide lifts all boats,” he says. “The industry as a whole [is] diminished by a client leaving town for an out-of-town agency. I think there’s a certain camaraderie. I think that comes from true care for the city.”
New Orleans will be the site of Ad Age’s tenth annual Small Agency Conference & Awards, to be held July 30-31. To apply for the awards, click here.