Playing copywriter for a day wasn’t much of a stretch for me, considering I once held that title before I joined the OnMilwaukee team. So when Julie Ferris-Tillman, content manager for Bader Rutter, invited me to spend the day at the agency’s stunning new building, I enthusiastically accepted.
Immediately after I accepted the opportunity, my brain filled with the burning question, "What should I wear?!" Most days, I'm a pretty casual dresser. I mean, I'll bust out a blazer if need be, but ... I own a lot of hoodies.
To my relief, Ferris-Tillman assured me I would be perfectly welcomed wearing a hoodie. She said I could even rock a flannel if I wanted to. In the end, I did neither, but it was a sign that I was going to enjoy my time at Bader Rutter.
The first things that struck me when I walked into Bader Rutter were the openness of the space, the plethora of natural light, the movement of people and the presence of a coffee bar – which upon spotting, I thought, "I'm never leaving."
The plan for the day was for me to experience a "hyper-condensed" version of what it would be like if I had been hired as a full-time copywriter.
I started out by sitting down (coffee in hand, of course) with Ferris-Tillman and Bader president, Jeff Young, who told me more abut the company. Today, Bader employs about 260 people in Downtown Milwaukee with satellite offices in Chicago and Lincoln, Neb. They are a full-service agency with an emphasis on the agricultural industry, but have clients from many other industries as well.
Originally, it was located Downtown, but in 1984, the business moved to Brookfield until just a few weeks ago when Bader moved into a massive space at 1433 N. Water St. Part of the structure is new development and part of it was the former Laacke & Joys.
"This is a business built on energy and youth, and although we loved our time in Brookfield, there’s a little more energy and youth in Downtown Milwaukee," says Young. "You can’t beat being on the river, in the midst of burgeoning development and the hustle."
I gleaned that the move was a significant change for the employees. In the Brookfield space, most people had offices, but in the new structure, there’s an "open concept" that was created on purpose to facilitate collaboration. Thus, no one, not even the folks at the top, have their own office.
Bader Rutter has an abundance of different spaces available for meetings, from large rooms to break-out booths to one-person "pods."
"Collaboration its a necessity in our business," says Ferris-Tillman. "Whether we’re meeting with clients or need to have an impromptu meeting with a coworker, the space here can accommodate us."
After my initial overview of the company and a tour with Ferris-Tillman and community manager Colleen Ludovice, I was put to work.
I met with creative director Sarah Kmet-Hunt who shared with me some of the company's philosophies and projects. Because Bader Rutter has so many agricultural clients, one of the products we discussed was something called "footbaths" – antiseptic "baths" for cattle’s feet. This is exactly the kind of information I enjoy receiving and filed it immediately in my mental filing cabinet under the label "who knew?"
During our conversation, we sat inside a community area with the "garage doors" wide open, overlooking the sparkly river. Others were meeting in small groups of two or three at tables and two people were sprawled out on couches with ear buds, typing on their laptops. A few more employees sat directly on the sunny Riverwalk, working.
"It’s a very productive but casual environment," says Kmet-Hunt.
I then met with Amy Graff, senior account manager, who briefed me about a product for which I would later participate in a brainstorming session to come up with advertising messages.
"It doesn’t matter if it’s a building or hair products, we want people to fall in love, to feel emotion about it," says Graff. "We're very good at that."
The brainstorming session with creative director Nicholas Cialdini and employees Kevin Sparrow and Danielle Cameron was my favorite part of the day. (Well, except for maybe the coffee bar. Coffee bar, people, bar!) It forced me to think in a different way, one which felt very natural to me.
Cialdini served up great prompts and then we scribbled out ideas for a few minutes and shared them. The thinking ranged from very technical to extremely obtuse – one moment we were talking about sticky shopping cart wheels and whether guacamole would be good inside a donut – and then the next we were discussing very specific building materials.
I ended the shift conversing with Linda Hogan, the vice president/executive director of employee experience. She was one of the nicest and, even more importantly, sincerest people I have met in a long time. Plus, her job – in a nutshell – is to value and support the employees.
"A lot of agencies are focused on their clients and meeting their goals, and although this is very important to us, our employees are the most important," says Hogan. "We continually need to invest in them and support them."
Hogan – along with employee Amy Sonnenberg – implemented what she refers to as a "new culture from the ground up" which includes extensive training, coaching/mentoring, regular goal-based reviews, health and wellness opportunities, skills training, learning and development sessions and personality assessments.
Every January, Bader has a "vision week" to kick off the year with a fresh perspective and focused goals. The week includes a variety of social events and also allows employees to identify a mantra for the year. For 2017, Hogan’s is "boundlessly creative."
All Bader Rutter employees take the Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) test. "This allows us to have a common language about who we are and what our personalities are like which will help us understand what makes each other tick and, in turn, will make us work together better," says Hogan.
At this point in the day, I knew Hogan was being sincere about the culture at Bader Rutter. It felt busy yet focused, professional yet friendly. Plus, during my visit, I was touched by the details. They made me business cards – just as if I were truly a new employee – and took me out for burgers at AJ Bomber’s. People looked me in the eye and smiled.
"Our people are our business and we want to make sure we are respecting them and understanding them," says Hogan. "We’re authentic about that. It really comes from the heart. And that makes good business sense: the happier our people are here the longer we will be able to retain them."
Molly Snyder started writing and publishing her work at the age 10, when her community newspaper printed her poem, "The Unicorn.” Since then, she's expanded beyond the subject of mythical creatures and written in many different mediums but, nearest and dearest to her heart, thousands of articles for OnMilwaukee.
Molly is a regular contributor to FOX6 News and numerous radio stations as well as the co-host of "Dandelions: A Podcast For Women.” She's received five Milwaukee Press Club Awards, served as the Pfister Narrator and is the Wisconsin State Fair’s Celebrity Cream Puff Eating Champion of 2019.