Downtown Digs: How a Local Marketing Company Is Making a Splash in Augusta
A new mural just inside the entrance of 668 Broad Street bursts with vibrant colors and images from Augusta’s storied past and increasingly appealing present, a stark contrast to a side of Broad Street whose duller storefronts don’t yet match the hype that downtown has garnered over the last few years. The mural’s epic, joyful portrayal of the city doesn’t downplay its pride in this gritty, southern town. When the surrounding real estate eventually becomes filled with new businesses and weekend bustle to match the other end of Broad Street, its new tenant will have a front row seat. Then again, that would imply a sense of passivity. “Driver’s seat” might be more appropriate. A place from which one can enjoy the twists and turns of a beautiful landscape while also blazing a new trail.
In 2010, the South Company (it merged with the Alison Group in 2016) was comprised of a small table in a virtual closet in Aiken and two people trying to break into the local marketing world. Now you’ll find Alison South Marketing Group in the hippest new digs on Broad Street, albeit in a different spot than some might expect. While locals clamor to get a slice of the quickly disappearing pie of the west side of downtown, the east side, nicknamed “SoBro” (south of James Brown Boulevard) by some, remains largely undeveloped. It was an intentionally bold investment into the rough-around-the-edges side of town, a move that summed up the agency’s desire to join the Miller Theater in investing in the area’s economy. Alison South had done just that in Aiken. Eight years and 22 full-time employees after its launch, they’re doing it on a larger scale in the heart of Augusta.
Augusta is nothing news for the company; it’s has been serving clients in Augusta since its inception. But now they’ve got skin in the downtown game and a world of opportunity that comes with it. We sat down with four of the agency’s leaders—president Cynthia South, CEO Mike Thomas, branding vice president Ron Turner and partner and vice president of account services Kate Sanders—to talk about what a presence in downtown Augusta means for a homegrown—and still growing—marketing company.
Tell me a little bit about how this company got started.
Thomas: So Cynthia and I started back in 2010 in Aiken. We kind of just started with a couple of clients that first year in a small office space and had just met a lot of businesses that were in need of marketing services. We just kind of built it from the ground up, really. We really started to grow heavily when Ron came on board and became a partner with us in 2015. And then our team really started to develop. We probably didn’t have a full-time person until like 2014. So that first three years was pretty much myself and Cynthia with some part time people.
South: Our Augusta accounts were growing, so it only made sense that we invest in Augusta and have a presence here. We did that with Aiken. We bought a building in downtown Aiken and wanted to be part of that revitalization. Because that’s what we were doing—contributing to the economy of Aiken by helping the business grow. We’re doing the same thing in Augusta, helping businesses grow and contributing to the local economy. And so we wanted to have a downtown presence and be part of this downtown revitalization.
What does this new presence in downtown Augusta really mean for you?
Turner: I guess it’s our statement. We’ve always had a presence here, we’ve always had clients. But being out of Aiken, everybody looked at us like we were an Aiken agency only that just happened to have a couple clients over here. But this is really our fort that we’re building over here. And we were very intentional with the space that we chose because everybody wants to be on Broad Street, on upper Broad between 10th and 13th. They kind of wanted to be in that area that’s been developed. And we want to partner with the Miller and other places to come down here to what I was told was dubbed “SoBro,” to be part of the new development. Cynthia was very adamant about finding the right space, but we chose this end of Broad because that end of Broad is established. They’re part of a great group to keep that vital heartbeat going over there, but we wanted to be the nuance down here. We wanted to be kind of the Greenwich Village of Augusta. We’re really excited to be on this block.
South: And this building is so unique. This mural is going to be a conversation piece and a destination.
Turner: This building’s been around since the 1880s. It’s been a lot of different things, but we’re so happy to help preserve part of the feel and the continuity of the building itself. We wanted to help preserve that, and we wanted to add a modern flare to the building itself, so when you walk in, you feel that creative flow.
But then in the building itself on the back wall, we have something that Kate had come up with. “We’re ink slingers, idea, bringers, scribblers and strategists.” It goes on to say that if you’re not up late at night thinking about the next design, we are. (Mike) is up until 2-3 in the morning emailing us. You’ll notice the huge cowbell above the kitchen sink. We don’t stop at the predictable. We try to take things as far as we can take them. We bring more cowbell to it. We try to bring the noise with all of them. One of the things we’re know for are our billboards; a mouth drinking out of a 40-foot straw or a 65-foot nail on a billboard, those are probably us. We try to tell a good story with everything. Anybody can do great design, but it’s the story behind what you’re doing that really develops that connection with the community.
What is one of the integral parts of your creative process that you think is unique?
Thomas: Our philosophy is very different. We’re the full-service approach to marketing. You have to have the strategy to figure out the brand, and then we help manage the business’s day-to-day marketing needs. We buy their media, we handle their web development in-house. We do their social media in-house. We can help them with an event need if they need us to staff a booth. Everything is done in-house.
Turner: I’ve worked in huge agencies. I’ve worked in small agencies. But one thing I’ve never seen—and it kind of stunned me when I started—was everybody pitches in, everybody works for an idea. We’ll have a front desk person throwing out ideas. We put meaning behind everything we do with it. You can’t get your feelings hurt as a designer in this industry, period. It’s hard to subdue ego. (Mike) will always throw something back at you. He’s like, “You can do better than that.” And I’ll get mad and go back and try harder. It’s that constant networking within our office behind the scenes before anybody ever sees how far we’re taking it.
South: The diversity in our staff that you can get, that richness in ideas and perspective…we have women, men, primarily young. Some in the middle range and some on the upper range. Straight people, gay people.
Sanders: People from all different places.
Turner: Black and white. I think it’s part of the success of who we are, our culture. We’ve gone on kayaking trips together, we do escape rooms together, we have Friday happy hours in the office, creative dash. We have so many things that we offer.
Does this new building open up new opportunities for you?
Sanders: I think it comes with some real opportunities but also obstacles. I think it gives us a lot of opportunities for additional clients in Augusta, people who are downtown that for different reasons maybe have heard of us, but they don’t know exactly what we do. And so now that we’re down here, they’re going to see our logo, they’re going to see our name. So there’s some opportunity there for new business. But then internally, we’ll be in different buildings. So there’s going to be growing pains in that regard, where we have our team in different spaces, so we just have to get used to that. I think the opportunities certainly outweigh the obstacles. I’m a born-and-raised Augustan out of the group, so I’m very excited about it.
South: In Aiken we renovated a building that hadn’t been touched since 1958. So we really made an improvement in downtown Aiken. We are working in Augusta, we represent Augusta, we want downtown to be successful, so we’re here. What we’ve done with the space represents our creativity. None of us really have an office. I think that’s different than most company cultures.
Turner: I actually live in Aiken now and love it. But I started out in North Augusta for 12 years and was very active in the arts here in Augusta. And so this is kind of coming home to Augusta. I’ve always wanted an office on Broad Street. We kind of joke that our next office is just going to be a pod that we can drop into a location, because it’s been a lot of work. Coordinating all the efforts…it’s a lot. It’s a deadline-driven industry. And it’s stressful, and there’s not one person in this agency who really doesn’t put in 110 percent. I have friends who are like, “I don’t want go to work tomorrow.” I’m like, “I do!”