Mon, 14 Nov 2022 15:00:00 GMT
BUNTIN is a ‘fiercely independent’ ad agency, founded in October 1972 by the father of current CEO - and his namesake - Jeffrey Buntin Jr., who acquired the company in 2003. Based in Nashville, the company has grown to 130 associates and $200 million annual capitalised billings by creating award-winning campaigns - and around 5,000 pieces of social content each year through its in-house content lab - for a variety of national and international clients.
Recently celebrating its 50th anniversary as a business, LBB’s Ben Conway decided it was the perfect time to catch up with Jeffrey (Jr.) and speak about the legacy of the company and his father, the projects and partnerships that stand out from the last five decades, and the philosophies and missions that will take BUNTIN into its second half-century. Now entering ‘Chapter Four’ of its agency mission (hear more about that later), Jeffrey tells a tale of great change but consistent values, of a familial business that promotes ‘calloused hands, not calloused people’, and of five decades of evolution - in BUNTIN’s work, the creative identity of Nashville, and his personal development as a CEO.
To mark the half-centenary, BUNTIN let loose with a classic Nashville throw-down at the agency’s headquarters in the city’s Railyard District - a revitalisation area of the city that the company is helping to pioneer, alongside other content creators and artists. Describing it as “an awesome night for the team and agency,” Jeffrey says that he made a conscious effort to slow down and be present - a rare opportunity to soak in the moment after a busy 18 years as president and CEO, which has seen the company evolve whilst preserving its roots.
“Everything has changed. And, at the same time, a few things haven’t,” he says. “We remain deep believers in the power of ideas to transform a client’s business. As the foundation for everything else, we value people, their interests and their worth as human beings. Other than that, we find ourselves in constant pursuit of doing things first. Through this, almost everything else can change, does change or we hopefully are pushing to change, every day.”
(Jeffrey addresses guests at BUNTIN's 50-year anniversary party with wife Kemp at his side.)
Not one to view Nashville’s ad industry as an island, Jeffrey feels that BUNTIN has amalgamated with the ever-widening “creative aperture of the city.” By building ‘high conviction brands’, he says that the agency contributes to, and is very much part of, the famously creative community of the Music City.
“The architectural design coming out of the city, the inventors and artisans, the fashion momentum, the food scene, the not-for-profit impact, the entrepreneurs and the music – all of that fuels each other in one amazingly combustive way. It’s a creative city that can’t easily be put into categories. We’re proud to be a key part of that creative identity.”
Starting in Nashville in the ‘70s with Jeffrey Buntin Sr. - and now led by the founder’s son - BUNTIN could be described as a family business. However, Jeffrey Jr. is quick to make the distinction between a ‘family business’ and a ‘familial’ one. “One of the most important pieces of copy we’ve written as an agency is, ‘There are a couple of Buntins. But many of the Group.’ This has been our way of not making it about the name on the door – but about the talent and unity of the people at every desk. It is familial, in that we deeply value people.”
Speaking of the pride he has for his team members and for continuing his father’s - and BUNTIN’s - legacy, he says that maintaining the agency’s historical core values while embracing constant reinvention has been a privilege. According to him, the legacy of his father and of pre-2003 BUNTIN was that of “business, results and people” - a heritage that he believes remains intact, despite ‘aggressively shaping and reshaping’ the company’s identity for the future.
This new, enduring identity was built on a foundation of conviction-over-attention; BUNTIN’s answer to marketing and living within a “vastly fragmented culture.” Jeffrey says, “Fragmentation runs so rampantly, we can almost no longer see it. Information is fragmented. Channels are fragmented. Data is fragmented. People are fragmented. This is pushing us into an attention economy, where results not only become elusive, but actually become dismissed.”
He continues, “Our mission is to push beyond this to a more authentic, enduring and impactful place for brands. To gain attention with our ideas, yes – but to go further in striking conviction.” Jeffrey explains how this agency platform of going beyond ‘brand attention’ to reach ‘brand conviction’ will be “transformative” for clients and agency-alike, by creating experiences - not just messages; building proprietary tech; working with data, and applying the five conviction drivers (practical, emotional, personal, causal, sustainable).
“We describe this as our fourth agency chapter,” he says. “Chapter Four, ‘Beyond Attention. Conviction’, is a mission in every sense of the word, not just another agency mantra. Following ‘Results’ (Chapter One), ‘Brand Fluency’ (Chapter Two) and ‘Everything Speaks’ (Chapter Three), we want people to believe and act as critical catalysts for business.”
(Jeffrey Buntin Sr. in 1972 with his original staff of ten employees.)
Looking back through these agency chapters, many influential projects in BUNTIN’s 50-year story stand out to the CEO as key building blocks for the company as it exists today; helping restaurant chain Cracker Barrel grow from 17 fuel stops to over 650 locations nationwide; the creation of SERVPRO’s award-winning ‘Like it never even happened’ tagline (which is now in the Urban Dictionary); helping people heal with a deeply emotional post-9/11 campaign for a global denomination, and creating the first-ever non-traditional communications effort in the war on drugs.
In its five decades, BUNTIN has also created an app that repels mosquitoes for a Malaria campaign in Africa, funded in part by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and once staged a moonshine run that duped the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms into actually raiding American Born Moonshine’s offices. Now the agency is embarking on an ambitious relaunch with spirits brand Southern Comfort, hoping to add to its many enormous successes (and without a federal raid of the brand's offices this time).
As well as working on the creative side of things for these brands, BUNTIN has a dedicated in-house content lab called ‘Zephyr’, which Jeffrey says produces 4,500 unique pieces of content annually. “I like to say our reel includes work that cost over $1 million to produce, as well as work that was basically created for free. And all of it is great work. We see content and data as two key drivers of the future and efforts are underway to push these disciplines closer together inside our overall agency model.”
Using content and data to drive into the next 50-plus years of BUNTIN, Jeffrey has set some ambitious goals to kick it off. As well as focusing on its clients, the company is actively innovating its internal team’s perks, opportunities and DEI policies as part of its employee platform of ‘Calloused Hands. Not Calloused People’. He adds, “It’s our platform for maximising conviction among our own team, as well as ensuring we bring positive cultural energy to our work with clients. And, of course, we’re also focused on ideas – how big they can be, how innovatively we can activate them and how well they’re working.”
However, he leaves BUNTIN’s potentially loftiest target to the end, saying, “Lastly, we have a goal of doubling our revenues over the next five years. So we’re focused on all that – not to mention planning one hell of a holiday party this December.”
(BUNTIN's new Railyard District HQ in Nashville.)
While reflecting on the company’s 50 years of work, evolutions and creative collaborations, an opportunity for a personal retrospective also arises for Jeffrey - not just as someone who has grown up with the agency and as a bearer of the Buntin name beyond the business - but as the agency’s CEO who will himself celebrate an important milestone soon: 20 years since he assumed the presidency of BUNTIN.
Discussing his proudest accomplishments during that time, he says that his reasons for being in the industry have evolved over time, as have his sources of professional gratification. “For me, the evolution has gone from making great work to crafting strategies that inspire great work, to producing breakthrough results, building deep client relationships and nurturing internal culture. What rewards me most now is a fusion of all these things.” He adds, “ I like to make things with my mind and hands; apply some level of ingenuity in that creative process; have something meaningful and ideally lasting when the work is done, and hopefully, leave things better than they were before.”
“If I think about the lives our agency has impacted over the years, the neighbourhood we’re pioneering in Nashville, and the brand and client successes we’ve been a part of, it all reflects a raw, humble, hustle approach to art that fits my identity. And I suppose will inform my legacy.”
Concluding, he imparts some wisdom for promising independent agencies who are looking to follow in the footsteps of the agency and both Jeffreys - junior and senior - to forge a legacy in the industry that is as strong and long-lasting as BUNTIN’s 50 years (and counting).
“Integrity. Business. Creativity. Valuing People. Being smart with money. Ingenuity and kindness,” says Jeffrey. “Don’t just tell your story; Be it.”