Anthony Romano joined independent Midwest agency Laughlin Constable one year ago as its CEO. The family-owned agency was founded in 1976 by Steve Laughlin, who today is chairman of the board, and while less involved in the day-to-day running of the business, is a close advisor to Anthony. Steve's children, Jon and Pat Laughlin, were named co-chief creative officers of Laughlin Constable in late 2021.
Prior to joining Laughlin Constable, which has offices in Milwaukee and Chicago, Anthony founded an independent marketing and growth acceleration consultancy in Minneapolis, where he had previously relocated to run Wunderman Thompson as the president of its Midwest offices. Prior to Wunderman Thompson, Anthony was at BBH as the CEO of its New York office, and at R/GA, where he served as the agency’s US chief of client services.
After a year of what Anthony calls "rethinking and rebuilding" for Laughlin Constable's next big chapter, LBB's Addison Capper caught up with him.
LBB> Laughlin Constable is somewhat of a family business. If at all, how did you consider this when mapping out your vision for the agency, and how does it inform how you run the agency today?
Anthony> I can’t say that the family aspect of the agency specifically informed the vision, but it definitely informs how I approach the job every day. With families comes an innate entrepreneurial, founder spirit. I’ve been fortunate in my career to have worked around some of our industry’s most iconic founders — like Bob Greenberg, Sir John Hegarty and Lee Lynch — and I’ve always just gotten a tonne of energy and inspiration from them. It doesn’t matter what generation of advertising they come from, or how plugged into emerging trends they might be, the one thing they all share is an insatiable appetite to ask, ‘What if?’. Steve Laughlin is no different. He’s not involved in the day-to-day business, but he’s a close advisor to me and someone who I tap into regularly for his natural ability to help me stay balanced and focused.
I consider myself lucky to have his sons, Jon and Pat, at the agency as co-chief creative officers. They’ve both genuinely bought into the value of having a non-family CEO perspective, and they both share Steve’s relentless spirit of reinvention. That dynamic is key to our strong relationship. And, although I’m responsible for leading the agency, the fact is, they’re more personally invested in the agency’s success than anyone. So as someone who feeds off other people’s hunger and drive, I choose to embrace the power of that, and work hard to treat them as equal partners on many of the key decisions that affect the direction of our business and our people.
LBB> You joined around a year ago. Tell us about how it's gone so far and some of the biggest moments along the way.
Anthony> It’s been an incredible year. I came into this role after several years inside the big holding companies, so I have to say, it’s been totally liberating to be part of an independent shop where we can architect our own destiny. With that autonomy comes a more energising level of responsibility. Not a day goes by when we’re not thinking about new ways to stay relevant and sharpen our focus on what will give us a unique advantage over some of the best agencies in our industry. Whether it’s bolstering our mix of creators and creatives, strengthening our in-house proprietary media platforms, diversifying our social offerings, building more synergies between our crafts, or finding new ways to operate with agility — this has been a year of rethinking and rebuilding for our next big chapter.
As for ‘big moments’, I’d start by saying that we’ve made some strong senior hires, like Amy Merchant [head of account management] and Alex Helfers [head of connected experiences], and we promoted Katy Gajewicz to chief strategy officer, to round out one of the best leadership teams I’ve ever been around. Secondly, as a former account guy, I love staying in close touch with our clients and close to the work, and it’s been a dream to consistently hear how impressed they are with our teams across the roster. Thirdly, we reinvented our agency’s brand identity and positioning this year, which has really been inspiring for our team, and it’s resonating with prospective clients. And lastly, I’m proud to say that we’ve had a nice stretch of several new business wins this year with some amazing brands.
LBB> What were the main aims and ambitions laid out to you when you joined and how have you set about achieving them?
Anthony> It was clear to me right from the start that this was a house filled with a more diverse mix of talent than I had expected. So, the goal was to harness those superpowers, connect them to each other and to our new agency positioning in more intentional ways, and get us more focused and prepared for our next level of growth. And ‘focused’ doesn’t need to mean ‘fewer’, it just means each discipline needs to have a clear vision, and the instincts to make choices about what strengths to keep building on, and which facets of their crafts to de-prioritise, with a critical eye toward doing world-class, culture-defining work that works.
LBB> How would you define the agency, what it does best and what makes it unique within the US agency landscape?
Anthony> I love our new positioning - ‘We create brand experiences that Make it Personal’ - which is the perfect expression of what makes LC special. It’s such a simple, yet powerful statement that happens to not only convey the craft of what and how we do what we do, but also why we exist. It captures our belief that the most relevant, thriving brands today are ‘Personal Experience Brands’ — or PXBs — meaning purpose-driven, culturally connected, human-centred brands that invest in building deep personal connections that move people. To deliver on that, we put data, media and social at the centre of our creative process and work hard every day to break down old traditional silos and operate within new, more unconventional teaming models that help us get to better, smarter work, faster.
Secondly, our new positioning connects to our agency values, that each hits on some very personal themes like leading with our hearts, always being resilient, and creating meaningful change through our work.
LBB> Which achievements and/or pieces of work have you been most proud of during your tenure at Laughlin Constable?
Anthony> Our ‘Through Their Eyes’ work for the ASPCA is just so beautifully crafted. So, as a dog lover, I get a little choked up every time I watch that spot. Nothing about that work feels like advertising. It’s just raw, honest storytelling that also happens to nail the client’s brand and business goals. And I’m loving the work we’re doing for Vienna Beef, ever since taking over as their social and digital marketing AOR. In just a few short months, the impact on their brand and business has been significant. It’s also been an added little bonus to have other CPG brands see this work and proactively reach out wanting to partner with us. Beyond the business of thinking and making stuff, I’m incredibly proud of our ‘LC Gives Back’ programme and the work we do in the Chicago and Milwaukee communities. Whether it’s with our support services for the Boys & Girls Club of Chicago, or our work with various non-profits like the Kinship Community Food Center and the Interchange Food Pantry in Milwaukee, it’s just awesome to see our teams giving a ton of their time to causes that matter to us.
LBB> An effective leader is always seeking opportunities to learn. What are your favoured ways to soak up wisdom and information?
Anthony> Starting about 10 years ago, I was one of those people who followed the advice of assembling your own personal ‘board of directors’. Since then, mine has developed into a mix of two retired sage-like leaders from my past, a former marketing client, a few former colleagues from different crafts, and two close friends from industries outside my agency bubble. It’s pretty ad hoc, playing out as one-on-one breakfasts and lunches on me, or a random Zoom call, but I’ve worked hard to maintain it. Beyond that, of course, I can’t forget my three twenty-something daughters, who often remind me that there’s wisdom to be gained from every generation.
LBB> As CEO, how would you define your leadership style and values, and what factors have played the biggest influence on this?
Anthony> For me, I’ve realised it’s a mistake to box myself into one style. The leaders I’ve admired most over my career were the leaders who had the skill and flexibility to switch between multiple styles. What I work at every day is not trying to perfect a one-size-fits-all strategy, but instead one that’s fluid and dynamic, based on the needs, goals, difficulties and personalities involved. So, as I reflect on my own leadership trials and errors, my strike zone has been adaptability. And adaptability doesn’t mean vacillation, or uncertainty, or at the whim of happenstance. It’s having the instincts to zoom in and out, change direction, or see around corners and prepare for things that others may not see. It also means doing your part to help your culture find its balance between performance and empathy. In the past, I’ve inherited leadership roles in legacy cultures that leaned way too far to one extreme at the expense of the other, which never works for the agency or the leader.
That all said, I’ve come to believe that every good leader knows that they’re a ‘work in progress’. There’s not a day where I’m not learning something about myself, others, or the dynamics of our industry that helps me reflect and work harder to be a better leader. Self-awareness is everything. There are days where I just have some blind spots, or I know I’m off my game as the leader I want to be. And then there are days where I know I’m doing my part to create the space for someone to be the best version of themselves.
LBB? You're "a Midwesterner at heart", despite being born on the East Coast. What is it about the region that resonates with you?
Anthony> Yes, I’m a New Jersey guy, who married a Minnesota girl. So, I’ve spent more than half of my life travelling in and out of the Midwest, along with two different stints living in Minneapolis, and now living in Chicago. Although, you can never take the East Coast edge or sports fan out of me — Yankees, Jets, Celtics are my odd trio — I definitely subscribe to the cliché of ‘home is where the heart is’. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but I’ve just come to feel more at peace in the Midwest. Naturally, it wouldn’t be fair to make any blanket statements about the Midwest vs. Northeast culture, but I guess if I had to generalise my Midwest views, it’s a combination of a relatable work ethic, the incredible standard and cost of living, the relative simplicity of getting around, and the unexpected kindness and hospitality I’ve experienced. The overall pace and vibe just works for me. And what’s not to love about Lake Michigan?
LBB> How did you wind up in advertising in the first place?
Anthony> I’m a closet creative, who grew up going to art schools most of my life and attended NYU’s Studio Art programme as a freshman, before shifting to marketing my sophomore year there. I landed an internship in New York at the Columbia House Music and Video Clubs, through an organisation called the Direct Marketing Educational Foundation (DMEF), which led to my first job out of school, working for their main competitor, Bertelsmann Music Group. Both companies essentially functioned as in-house agencies across strategy, creative, production and analytics.
Our team was mostly filled with transplants from some of the biggest pioneering direct response shops in NYC at that time, like Wunderman Cato Johnson, Rapp Collins and Grey Direct, so the agency vibe was palpable. I guess you can say it was there where I fell in love with the rhythm of it all. That was followed by my first true integrated advertising agency experience at Carmichael Lynch in Minneapolis, where I was spoiled at that early part of my career to work on my childhood dream brands, Porsche and Harley-Davidson, to experience such a thriving culture, and witness our craft in action at its highest levels.
LBB> Outside of work, what do you do to decompress and what motivates you?
Anthony> Pickup basketball is my go-to decompression chamber, so I still try to get out on the court with other out-of-shape, former-athlete dads as much as I can each week. But when I can’t, it often gets replaced by some long walks with my wife and our Aussie Shepherd.