Spokane Journal of Business

Advertising agency soars with big national clients

Spokane’s WhiteRunkle hits $72 million in billings, now employs staff of 75

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While promoting other businesses and organizations, WhiteRunkle Associates, a full-service advertising agency here, has created a pleasant byproduct: its own success.

The 23-year-old Spokane-based firm, which serves clients ranging from AT&T Wireless and Nintendo of America Inc. to the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture and the Spokane Hoopfest Association, had $72 million in gross billings last year, up from $62 million in 2001, says President Jack White. Its billings were $10.8 million in 1995.

The company now has 75 staff members, up from 23 seven years ago. Nine of its employees are housed in its Seattle offices.

In its most recent coup, the company has landed a contract to handle interactive advertising and promotions for Ericsson North Americas operations. That includes all the Plano, Texas-based cell phone giants Internet-based promotions, such as those for its Web site and its e-mail ads.

WhiteRunkles office here, at 518 W. Riverside, looks better suited for downtown Manhattan than downtown Spokane, and its owners claim that it competes with ad agencies in the Gotham market, which is one of the worlds most competitive advertising arenas, and others like it. Despite WhiteRunkles success nationally, though, it hopes to draw more business from local and regional clients in the coming years.

Our emphasis in 2003 is on business development, White says. The future is in regional business, not national.

The company plans to fill a business-development position soon with a new staff member who will be responsible for targeting potential clients closer to home.

Sometimes the glitz of WhiteRunkles success with national accounts has deterred potential clients here who assume they cant afford the agencys services, co-owner Bob Runkle claims.

When we first started, they said we were too small; now they say were too big, he says. We feel were an optimum-sized agency because were big enough to have the necessary resources, but small enough to provide good service.

White, Runkle, and Ed Miller own the agency.

In its infancy, the agency grew quickly, doubling its billings every year for the first five or six years, White says. Its peak annual billings during that period reached $3 million, he says.

WhiteRunkle hit a soft period in the late 1980s after losing several major clients, including Old National Bancorporation and the Crescent department store, but the agency began to rebuild its staff and billings again in 1994. Revenues took off about three years later, after the agency started landing nationwide work for AT&T Wireless, Runkle says.

Thats when we really went into the stratosphere, he says.

Five years ago, WhiteRunkle added a Seattle office. The nine people there do account planning solely for AT&T Wireless projects.

AT&T Wireless billings make up about 60 percent of WhiteRunkles overall billings, says Miller, who heads up that account. The agency has followed AT&T Wireless through several changes. In fact, it first worked with the Spokane office of Cellular One, AT&T Wireless predecessor. When the AT&T Wireless office here needed help with its brand-name transition, it turned to WhiteRunkle, the agencys owners say.

Weve had to evolve with them because theyre constantly refining their organization, Miller says. Because weve stayed with them every step of the way, weve honed a nationally competitive team.

The agencys work has earned it recognition from other big national players in the advertising industry, Runkle says. That includes compliments from Brian Collins, the advertising guru behind last years mLife campaign for AT&T Wireless, which kicked off during the Super Bowl and gave no information about the product, sending thousands of people to the Internet searching for mLife and its purpose. Collins visited the Spokane office of WhiteRunkle recently. Runkle claims he equated the agencys work to that of Manhattans best advertising companies.

Collins works for Ogilvy & Mather, of New York City, an international advertising powerhouse that has done work for other large companies such as Coca-Cola Co. and Ford Motor Co. Another prominent advertising agency, Frankel, of Chicago, handles the Target Stores Inc., Visa USA, and Tropicana Products Inc. accounts. In 2002, WhiteRunkle, with the help of Anderson & Mraz Design Inc., of Spokane, beat out both those agencies to redesign the look of AT&T Wireless stores interiors, Miller says.

Thats a feather in Spokanes cap, to have two Spokane advertising agencies go up against those agencies and beat them, he says.

In addition to Anderson & Mraz, WhiteRunkle has collaborated with Coeur dAlene-based Hanna & Associates on another AT&T Wireless project. Its pretty unorthodox in this business to work together like that, Miller says.

Then again, WhiteRunkle isnt exactly orthodox in its approach to advertising or its approach to its work environment. At 8 a.m. on a recent Tuesday, when a reporter arrived for an interview, music echoed through the companys modern, industrial-style offices in the Hill Bros. Building. The company kitchen looked less like Dilbert and more like Metropolitan Home magazine and was a revolving door of activity as employees arrived, put their sack lunches in a stainless-steel refrigerator, and poured themselves coffee.

White recalled a recent Friday afternoon when the owners did something simply to make the job fun.

We brought in five live donkeys, he said.

Runkle corrected him: No, they were burros.

The animals didnt do much more than walk through the office, raising employees spirits, the owners say.

WhiteRunkle Interactive, a division of the agency that designs Web sites, banner ads, and e-mail advertising, is located on the buildings seventh floor, where a trash can overflowed with empty beer bottles and Margarita mix containers that morning. Staff members joked that the items were the remnants of a brainstorming session the previous night.

Runkle adds that employees often spend long, stress-filled daysand nightsmeeting clients demands.

Says White, Weve worked for people who werent having any fun. People tell us that they love coming to work.

Attracting employees to Spokane was difficult in years past, the owners say.

Thats changed, White says. Were having more success now.

They attribute that, in part, to improvements in downtown Spokane, including the Davenport Hotels restoration.

Three of WhiteRunkles newest employees hail from Arkansas, New Jersey, and Oklahoma. The fourth is from Spokane, a point the owners are quick to make.

We run (help wanted) ads locally and make every effort to bring in local people, Miller says.

Many of the agencys 25 clients are Spokane or Northwest-based, including the Spokane Transit Authority; Northern Quest Casino, of Airway Heights; and Silverwood Theme Park, of Athol, Idaho. WhiteRunkle also handles the television, radio, and newspaper advertising for the Tri-States Association, a cooperative of 70 McDonalds restaurants in Washington, Idaho, and Oregon. The agency landed that account three years ago.

In addition, WhiteRunkle does work at no charge for the Vanessa Behan Crisis Nursery, Interplayers theater, and other organizations.

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