Spong sets tone at CLS by overachieving for clients

As managing partner at Carmichael Lynch Spong, Doug Spong looks to make the agency the 'undisputed champion of best practices' by hiring only top people to work with its roster of top clients.

As managing partner at Carmichael Lynch Spong, Doug Spong looks to make the agency the 'undisputed champion of best practices' by hiring only top people to work with its roster of top clients.

Doug Spong, managing partner of mid-size firm Carmichael Lynch Spong (CLS), says of his recruitment program, "It's more of an adoption than a hire."

Dory Anderson, senior partner and a 10-year member of the CLS team at its Minneapolis headquarters, confirms the "arduous interview process." That is not to say it was unpleasant, she adds. "It helped me better understand the firm, the people, and the kind of work that we do." To this day, Spong interviews every person hired by the firm, in each of its four offices.

Spong's approach to hiring is at the heart of his philosophy for the agency. He is keen to bring people into the firm - "like-minded achievement addicts" - who will further its mission to service top-tier clients.

"If you want to set the high-water mark for work, you are not going to do it with small-cap, small-venture-funded companies," Spong explains.

Thus, the firm's roster is populated with mid- to large-cap market category leaders like American Standard, Harley-Davidson, AG Edwards, and Maytag. "Those are the clients that have the appetite and resources to demand the best work. We aim to live up to the covenant with them and achieve great things on their behalf." The proof of their success in doing that lies in the numbers. Spong says that more than half of the firm's new income each year comes from existing clients expanding the relationship.

Focusing on great people and top brands were two of the three principles upon which Spong launched the agency in 1991. A graduate of Iowa State University, Spong was a double major in journalism and English, but didn't relish a career as a reporter. "I did that when I was in school for The Ames Daily Tribune. You had to sit in a lot of city council meetings, listening to discussions about bridge abatements and things like that."

In his junior year, he began to learn more about PR. "I found it combined my love and skill for writing with this opportunity to consult with organizations about how to achieve their business goals through communications. That really appealed to me."

Not long after leaving college, he was hired at the fledgling outfit of Colle & McVoy in Minneapolis, which had about four employees at the time. He stayed for nearly a decade. It is a quality of Spong's that he has not been a job-hopper. "I like to stick to things," he says. "I like to live with the consequences of my actions and decisions."

What finally lured him away was the opportunity to launch a PR division for advertising firm Carmichael Lynch. "We built this thing from zero," Spong recalls. "[We] did about half a million in the first fiscal year, and in 14 years have enjoyed 31% annual compounded growth. Last year we grew 33%."

Clients recognize that Spong's spirit is at the heart of the firm's success. "He is the one who drives the high creative standards," says Jill Spiekerman, PR director for Maytag. "Doug sets the example for those people to be a counselor, to provide more than what the client is asking for. The firm is one of the most favored agencies. Everyone here is jealous of my relationship with CLS."

Tom Macklin is president of Rapala, CLS' first client, though he went to the company after a stint at CLS. He says that Spong is not only a great counselor, but a talented businessman in his own right. "I can't think of a time he's ever missed a number."

The third principle upon which the agency was founded was to "be the undisputed champion of best practices," and the firm's reputation for quality work extends to the journalists who cover the industries it specializes in, such as food and beverage, and home and garden.

"They are really on top of things, whether it's a product sample, getting an expert to interview - all the last-minute requests we make," says Leslie Clagett, a journalist with Woman's Day Specials Kitchens & Baths magazine. She said that even as the firm has expanded to new offices, the caliber of its people has remained consistent. "I have yet to encounter a weak link."

Much of the firm's character comes down to its leader. And a lot about an individual's character is revealed in the kinds of stories that are told about him by those who work for him.

While most of the stories about Spong center around his dedication and passion for the work - the kind of energy that made him an enthusiastic demonstrator of the flushing features of American Standard's new Champion Toilet, unveiled at an event last year - there is little resistance among those who know him about sharing the more human side of his personality.

For example, Spong launched the Weenie Award at the firm more than 10 years ago - a gong to the most inane behavior by a staffer during the week, in the form of a hot-dog trophy. Spong himself was a recent recipient. After eating lunch at a restaurant with Anderson, he grew agitated when the pen he was using wouldn't write as he tried to sign the bill. Turns out he'd failed to click the Bic open, something Anderson had to point out to him.

Spong gives a lot of time to his role as treasurer of the Council of Public Relations Firms. Council president Kathy Cripps calls him "a very genuine person. You know where he stands on issues." But he is also a dedicated family man, with a son and daughter who are both champion skiers and who keep Spong and his wife busy with their various races.

After all these years, Spong still loves going to work.

"I have loved this profession from the day I entered it," he says. "You know, like the old Chinese proverb goes: If you love what you do, you'll never work a day in your life."

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Doug Spong

1991-present

Carmichael Lynch Spong, managing partner

1990-1991

Carmichael Lynch Spong, EVP

1981-1990

Colle & McVoy, various posts including AE, account manager, PR director, VP, and SVP

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