This piece was researched over the past few weeks and before Hurricane Irma struck. As we understand it, the storm is due to reach Atlanta and our thoughts go to all those living there and those who we spoke to - and of course everyone affected by the extreme weather in North America and the Caribbean right now.
Nestled on the northern edge of the southern US state of Georgia, Atlanta is a city with some serious creative clout right now.
The city is populated by less than 500,000 people but boasts the busiest airport in the world
. This is down to the fact that 80% of the USA’s population is reachable within a two-hour flight from Atlanta and the possibility to fly almost anywhere in the world direct from the city - a rare feat in a country the size of America.
Some of the biggest brands in the world also call Atlanta home. That little old drinks company, Coca-Cola, made its first sales at Jacob’s Pharmacy in Atlanta some 131 years ago in 1886. It has been headquartered in the city ever since and arguably shaped its modern-day landscape (but more about that later). Then there’s Delta, The Home Depot, Arby’s, UPS and more, while Porsche and Mercedes recently relocated there. 26 companies of the 2017 Fortune 1000 are headquartered in Atlanta, of which 15 are also ranked in the 2017 Fortune 500.
And then there’s the creative industries, which are arguably Atlanta’s most exciting business sector at the moment. Feelings among adlanders are roundly positive with homegrown stalwarts like 22squared and Fitzgerald & Co (Fitzco) excelling, and next-gen agencies such as Huge and AKQA recently attracted to the city.
Spence Kramer, who’s the CEO at J. Walter Thompson Atlanta, moved to the city just over two years ago after stints in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Miami and Portland. He was worried he’d find an industry and city that was a little sleepy, but is happy to admit that he’s since been proved wrong. “Culturally, Atlanta is on fire,” he says. “It’s now the largest film centre in the entire world, the food scene is amazing and agencies here are taking on bigger and more meaningful work. People are seeing Atlanta, rightfully, as one of the greatest creative hubs in the whole world.”
It’s also the most community-geared ad city that he’s ever worked in due to New York and Los Angeles being too big, and Portland and Miami being “basically one-agency towns”. He adds: “There is always ‘competition’ among agency brands here but it’s genuinely a friendly one. We root for each other. The better one of us gets (or the better talent one of us attracts), the better the whole community is.”
Tangible proof of that is last year’s launch of ‘Advertising for Change’, a four-agency coalition between 22squared, Moxie, Fitzco and J. Walter Thompson dedicated to attracting and retaining diverse talent in the city. It involves a “first-of-its-kind rotating internship programme, where all 10 interns spend time at each participating agency. There’s then a ‘most valuable intern’ award recipient that can accept a job at their agency of choice.
Spence is amongst a big group of outsiders that have moved to Atlanta after stints in other ‘bigger’ ad cities. His colleague Vann Graves, the agency’s CCO, is originally from the south but spent much of his working life in New York. He’s a firm believer that Atlanta offers the best of both worlds - “the bigness of a city but the community of a small town”.
Matt Woehrmann, CEO at Fitzco, worked for two years in Atlanta before heading to New York for five and then returning. He was amazed by the creative evolution that had unfolded in his time away. “The increasing energy behind the film industry and the vibrant arts and music scene has played a role in that [evolution],” he says. “The midtown and other urban areas are not only growing both as social hubs but also becoming more and more where people want to live — especially the young, creative set. It’s a big part of why we’re moving the agency to West Midtown. We want to be a part of that, and it’s simply where people want to go to work. The ad industry is getting more attention, too, and attracting talent and doing work on a level it wasn’t before.”
That evolution and revitalisation is, according to everyone we spoke to for this piece, leading to more and more talent opting to stay in the city instead of pursuing careers elsewhere. Atlanta has a steady stream of creative talent thanks to local schools SCAD, GA Tech, The Creative Circus and Portfolio Center. “For the first-time people are staying here to pursue their advertising careers vs. going to other cities,” says Chris Tuff, EVP, director of content marketing and partnerships at 22squared. “We also have burgeoning startups which have established themselves, like Mailchimp, Spanx and sharecare. I think these companies are tapping local talent for their own marketing positions and the ad agencies are tapping them.... people are staying in Atlanta!”
His colleague Emily Grim, a strategist at the agency, adds: “We have the distinct advantage of being the biggest city in the region, with major client diversity in size, scope, and vision, which all works to attract exceptional people.”
As mentioned earlier, one of said clients is Coca-Cola - and having such a behemoth in your backyard naturally has an impact on the city and its industry. It’s even to thank for the structure in which Atlanta was built - in-town neighbourhoods like Ansley Park and the Prado were initially built based on the Coca-Cola executives’ desire to live close to work. “Coca-Cola touches pretty much every facet of life in Atlanta,” says Bark Bark’s Daniel Sattelmeyer. “It’s not just a beverage company, it drives the local and global economy and put Atlanta on the map.”
“Coke has done a ton in terms of giving back to the community here but also in terms of attracting international family and talent,” says Chris from 22squared. His colleague Emily adds: “It’s hard to find an established agency here that hasn’t worked with Coca-Cola in some form or fashion, which is wonderful.”
Having worked with Coca-Cola is almost a necessary stamp of approval in Atlanta, according to Spence from J. Walter Thompson. “It [Coca-Cola] definitely affects advertising in Atlanta. In other words, everyone wants to have at least one Coke project (or brand) on their agency reel to be considered ‘legit’.”
The startup scene is one sector of local business that still needs to grow into itself and find its way. That’s largely due to a lack of investors and venture capitalists instead creative innovation - Atlanta was recently ranked number three tech start up city by Forbes. What’s more, there’s still ample affordable real estate available in the city, which offers the perfect setting for a new company to find find their feet and set their roots. It’s “still in the underground phase,” says Daniel from Bark Bark, “but primed to burst onto the mainstream.”
And who’d bet against him? As location begins to matter less and less as time passes, being located outside of a ‘major’ city becomes less and less important. Clients will follow talent and right now Atlanta has bundles of that in both the production and creative scenes.
“While it’s blossoming quickly, Atlanta is still doing it right,” adds Daniel. “You can really test out the waters and figure out what part of the industry you want to move into.
“Between The Walking Dead, Stranger Things, The Vampire Diaries, Marvel movies, Hunger Games franchise, Pinewood Studios, and 100s of commercial productions, Atlanta is now the place to be in the content industry.”