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Opinion and Insight

The Highest State: Getting to Know Colorado Creativity

LBB’s Addison Capper heads to the Rocky Mountain State to discover what’s going on in Boulder and Denver

The Highest State: Getting to Know Colorado Creativity

It’d be a fair thing to say that, until recently, Denver’s advertising industry was a little on the sleepy side. There were a handful of agencies that fought over a handful of local accounts – a point backed up by various locals that I spoke to for this story.

But in 2006 Crispin Porter + Bogusky, which had only one office at the time in Miami, decided to open its second outpost in Boulder, a smaller city just 25 miles northwest of Denver. According to locals that have worked in Coloradan advertising since before then, this was a big deal, somewhat of a turning point for the local scene. 

“When Alex Bogusky moved CP+B to Colorado,” says Mike Lee, a strategic director at Denver-based Cactus, “it sparked a renaissance in the front range advertising scene, drawing in tons of national talent, who then fell in love with the Colorado lifestyle and decided to stay. This created gravity for the agency scene in Colorado.”

Nowadays, both Denver and Boulder, situated at the foot of the Rocky Mountains, boast booming markets. Much of the advertising work produced in the area is still on a regional level and, while that leads to difficulties over budgets and opportunities, it does mean agencies often need to look outside the box to make things happen. What’s more, given that the clients and the work are often equally local, there’s a sense of ownership over an agency’s output. 

“Relationships become a lot more important when you’re working in your backyard,” says Cactus media director Diana Berry, who used to work on more national work in Minneapolis. “There was a distance to the work I was doing in Minneapolis because often I wouldn't see it. I feel a greater sense of ownership of the work I am doing now - I see it, my peers see it and my clients see it. I want it to be the best work I can do.” Diana also believes that, as Denver continues to establish itself, more national clients will explore the city for their marketing. 

As that evolution unfolds, the city is set to have the talent pool and agency base to support it. Migration to the area is “Rocky Mountain high”, with incomers attracted by employment opportunities (unemployment in Metropolitan Denver is among the lowest in the US), proximity to the outdoors and, in the advertising industry at least, a favourable work-life balance. 

“In most agencies here, life outside work is considered just as important as life at work,” says Jamie Reedy, a creative director at health and happiness agency LRXD. “While that sounds like it might lead to less-than-stellar creative, I’m a firm believer that great ideas aren’t found inside the four walls of our building. I think a lot of agency leaders here believe the same. This prioritisation actually leads to bigger and better ideas and a refreshed workforce that never gases out. Happiness abounds here.”

Norm Shearer, partner and CCO at Cactus, studied and worked in LA. “I feel like it’s (Denver) on par with a big city now,” he says. “Maybe not on depth, but definitely on quality. So we aren’t missing out at all on city life, but we also get to ski, hike, bike, fish, camp and do all the “outdoor” stuff right out our backdoor. Without having to spend three hours in the car to get there.” 

His colleague Brian Watson, a VP, creative director at the agency, is equally enthusiastic. “You really can live and work in Denver. Work-wise, this is an ever-growing city that’s full of opportunities. And the opportunities life-wise are seemingly endless, year-round. There are concerts, festivals, events, sports, museums, galleries, restaurants and breweries all across town (and up in the mountains) all year long. And speaking of the mountains, they’re always beckoning from the horizon and just a short drive away.”

Brian also points out that, despite the industry’s growth over the past decade, it has maintained the community feel of a smaller town, in that most people know several other people at other local shops. “The best part of the smaller town feel is that people in Denver tend to genuinely support one another,” he says. “There’s a competitive nature here, but it’s generally friendly competition, followed by pats on the back when others succeed – because after all, those “others” are usually friends of yours.”

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A political vote in 2012 opened doors for the local advertising industry. On 6th November, the Colorado Amendment 64 was passed by voters, leading to the legalisation of recreational cannabis in Colorado in January 2014. 

I was intrigued to know how that shift had affected the role of cannabis in everyday agency life. The creative industries have never been too shy when it comes to recreational drug use, but I wondered if marijuana’s newfound legality had caused any issues in the workplace. It turns out that, no it hasn’t really. It’s much like alcohol - as long as it’s not affecting work, it’s fine in moderation, but agencies are neither encouraging or discouraging its use. 

It has, however, opened up new avenues of business - perhaps more so than people expected. “There are many opportunities that we expected — like packaging design and store marketing,” says James from LRXD. “But there are many additional, peripheral opportunities that have grown out of legalisation that no one in advertising was necessarily anticipating. These include marketing the nutrients and equipment to grow and cultivate cannabis, the tourism businesses around the industry, as well as all the governmental accounts encouraging responsible use and discouraging underage consumption.”

According to Howard Rubin, managing partner at Match Marketing Group in Boulder, “it’s a business just like any other and should be treated as such”, and he’s “looking forward to seeing how it evolves and grows up a bit to reach everyday people vs stoners”. 

Part of that growing up will be down to the flurry of agencies dedicated to marijuana marketing, such as Cannabrand, which claims to be the first ever marijuana marketing agency, and HILFE Cannabis Creative, that have popped up. And if all things go as predicted, they’ve landed themselves in a lucrative market. A report by GreenWave Advisors predicts that legal sales of marijuana in the USA will hit $30.3 billion dollars by 2021, up from $6.5 billion in 2016. What’s more, since the legalisation of the drug in Colorado, other states have followed suit. It is now legal in Washington, Oregon, California, Alaska, Nevada, Maine and Massachusetts. 

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The Kaufman Index, a study that measures new business activity, ranked Denver above San Francisco a the 10th best city for startups. In that same report it was estimated that one in every 10 Denver businesses is a startup. What’s more, as well as burgeoning new businesses, Google has doubled its number of Colorado employees since 2015 to more than 650 people. It also completed the construction of a new Boulder campus in July that can house around 1,000 employees. Initially they planned to lease the new buildings but it was announced in September that the company purchased them for nearly $131 million. Amazon is also weighing up the option of choosing Colorado as its second headquarters.

“The Denver/Boulder startup scene is taking off,” says Cactus creative technology officer Andrew Barker. “Just this year, Denver Startup Week shattered their attendance record with nearly 20,000 registered attendees, a 31% lift from last year's attendance benchmark. Data released this year shows that of Denver's 713 tech startups, 170 were founded in the past year. These startups combined employ roughly 4,875 people.”

“It seems there has been a transformation almost overnight,” adds Devin Reiter, managing director at CP+B Boulder. “Boulder has become a tech mecca, start-up hub and food-centric innovation centre. There is a growing need to help these businesses thrive, and advertising is in demand.” 

With the great outdoors, city life, low unemployment, a freshly flourishing ad community, one of America’s hottest startup hubs, and a work-life balance that actually involves a fair amount of life, it’s little wonder that Denver and Boulder are proving such attractive destinations to settle down in. Word on the street is that the craft beer and food aren’t so bad, either (if you look past the whole Rocky Mountain oysters thing). 

“Most of our folks are not from here,” says Devin from CP+B. “They come with a thirst to see what Boulder [and Denver] is all about. If an outdoor, clean lifestyle is what you are looking for, Boulder has a leg up. It is clean, green and progressive with a fantastic food culture and some of the best skiing in the world. Add a wonderful ad community, and it is a desirable lifestyle.”