Unorthodox. Unconventional. Unexpected. There are a lot of ways to describe Mike Voss’s unlikely path to becoming one of the most respected and influential leaders in Wisconsin advertising history. Not only did this avid outdoorsman not fit the mold of a traditional adman, neither did his approach to running one.
A product of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he served not only as editor of both student newspapers but also as a stringer for the New York Times, Voss’ incredible work ethic was established early on.
And after stints in the marketing departments of AT&T and Mark Travel, he got the advertising bug, seeing an opportunity to build a different kind of ad agency. One without all the egos or bureaucracy. Where people had autonomy and freedom. And where co-workers felt like family.
So in 1984, with the help of business partner Don Birdsall, Voss founded Birdsall-Voss & Associates and opened a small office in Mequon. Armed with a single client, Funjet Vacations, Voss doubled as Creative Director, immediately established the tiny upstart agency’s reputation for doing great creative. But it was the way he went about building what is now one of the state’s largest ad agencies that made him unique.
Instead of hiring away talented ad pros from competing ad agencies, Voss uncovered talent in college or hidden away in corporate, in-house marketing departments. His I.T. director was the agency’s former data entry clerk in accounting. His head of account service never worked in an agency. And his lead creative team came from an ag shop.
But if his talent choices seemed risky, his choice of accounts on which to build a powerhouse creative shop was an even bigger gamble. Rather than pursue sexy national consumer goods clients that would attract top talent, Voss opted for challenging and often conservative categories: regional healthcare, higher education, financial service, tourism and business-to-business.
The gamble paid off. And along with some well-timed mergers with smaller agencies, BVK quickly grew into one of the country’s Top 25 Independent agencies – eventually opening offices in Fort Myers, Miami, San Diego and Tampa. And while it grew in size and stature, soon topping over 200 people, its reputation for doing arresting work also grew. Regional and national clients from all over the country came to Milwaukee for their advertising. BVK piled up more national creative honors than they had wall space to put them. And it was all led by the unassuming, blue-jeans-wearing leader, who had the ability to bring out the genius, the intuition and the courage in the people he worked with.
As if all that weren’t enough, Voss set himself apart from his peers in yet another way: his generosity. Since starting Serve, the agency’s non-profit arm, in 2002, Voss and his staff have donated over $15 million in time and services to help shine a light on underserved non-profit causes in Milwaukee and cities around the country.
Want further proof of his unconventional success strategy? Even when his employees leave, they often come back to work at BVK. A lot. Turns out all they ever had to do was click the heels of their Doc Martens, Allen Edmonds or Toms together three times and repeat: There’s no place like BVK.
And, indisputably, no one like Mike Voss.