Trustee Profile: His Own Brand

Geoffrey Gage '97 M.B.C. was encouraged to pursue work he could be passionate about beyond the family business

Geoffrey Gage had a great job in 1999 as director of corporate communications for the Gage Marketing Group. He worked for his dad, who had founded the firm, he liked his co-workers, and he knew he always would have a home there.

But something wasn’t quite right. A piece was missing. As Gage thought about it, he realized he missed the advertising business, where he had started his career as a copywriter. His dad didn’t expect the company would develop an advertising specialty, and that left Gage to explore whether he should leave and join an established agency to practice his first love.

“All of a sudden, when dad asked one day, ‘Well, what are you going to do?’ I realized that I wanted to be an entrepreneur,” Gage said. “I saw a need and an opportunity, so I decided to put together a small team and do it.”

“It” was his own agency, and he did “it” from scratch. His goal was simple: “find a handful of talented people who would work with their clients and help them build their brands and their businesses.”

Ten years later, Gage sits in a small conference room in an Excelsior office building overlooking Lake Minnetonka and reflects on his decade in business. His agency – Geoffrey Carlson Gage Brand Solutions – still is small, and he wouldn’t have it any other way. He enjoys working side-by-side with clients and making sure he can meet every one of their needs.

“It’s being able to think of branding as a whole,” he said. “As I believe our new positioning line accurately reflects, we help clients… ‘Look better. Sound better. Stand out. And inspire!’”

Gage has stood out for a long time.  As the son and grandson of two business icons – Edwin “Skip” Gage and the late Curtis Carlson, founder of the Carlson Companies – some people expected that he would follow in their footsteps and spend his career in one of the family businesses.

“I was lucky,” Gage said. “Growing up, when I talked to my dad about what I might do, he was honest: ‘Everyone has his own gifts and talents, and you’ll have to find out what yours are.’ He always said, ‘The company is here. If you want to work here, great.’”

Gage became interested in advertising as a student at Augsburg College, selling ads for the student newspaper and landing an internship at Grant and Palombo, a small agency.

After graduating in 1989 with a communications degree, Gage worked at Campbell Mithun Esty for three years but grew restless and feared that “I would be pigeonholed as a writer. I wanted to look more strategically at communications – to step back from the creative process and see what else I could do for a client.”

He talked with several agencies but found the right opportunity at Gage Marketing. He handled a number of accounts, including the River Road record label, before managing the corporate communications area. “I looked around and realized nobody was advertising Gage – that there wasn’t enough of a Gage brand,” he said. “What’s our message?Who are we?”

He again grew restless, which didn’t surprise his dad.

“It was quite clear Geoff was more into the creative and advertising side of marketing than the sales promotion side, which was our area of expertise,” Skip Gage said. “I didn’t think we’d ever get to the point of being a traditional advertising agency, so I told him, ‘If that’s what you want, maybe you should look around.’”

Gage did more than look. He founded his own business, landed Gage Marketing as his first client and spent a year in the Minneapolis warehouse district before moving to Excelsior. Early promotional efforts promised “a traditional advertising agency with an Internet twist.”

Those were the days, remember, when theWorld WideWeb was just beginning to flourish, and traditional print and broadcast media still dominated communications. Gage respected that but also realized he needed to embrace ever-changing technology.

“I’m not sure people understood the potential of e-communications when it came to branding an organization,” he said, and “it’s not an either/or. You can talk in more than one voice. At one moment, you might be looking at the Internet and in the next, at a print piece. You always have to step back and ask why. You have to figure out your objective and the best way to go about it.”

Gage’s approach intrigued early clients like Greg Hoyt, whose start-up company sold coffee to restaurants. Hoyt’s partner was a CivilWar buff, and they brainstormed with Gage on a name for the company. The result: Bull Run Roasting. Their slogan: “Finding great coffee is no longer a battle.”

“Geoff did a great job conceptualizing what it would look like,” Hoyt said. “He directed us: ‘So what do we do with Bull Run?’ He encouraged us to stay with the words and to create a logo. It’s almost a brand in itself. He helped us come up with something that wasn’t trendy, that wasn’t 2001, that would last. And it has lasted.”

That kind of vision attracted Lorinda Hanson to leave a stable job at another agency in 2000 and work for Gage. She worried about taking a risk but was impressed by her new boss’ character.

“His strength is his passion for what we do,” said Hanson, vice president and creative director. “It’s what sells our customers. Geoff knows good creative work when he sees it, and he is great at identifying a client’s needs and how we can help.”

Gage likes to talk about passion, too. The word finds its way into almost every statement he makes – passion for advertising, passion for creativity, passion for clients, passion for their products and even passion about the size of his six-person company.

“I’m passionate about being a small agency because I want to focus on our clients and meet their needs,” he said. “We could get bigger for the right reason, but I would want to make sure I’m still involved with everyone.”

Gage finds it hard to believe he’s been in business for 10 years. He has a greater appreciation every day for what his dad and grandfather did in establishing their own companies, and he cherishes the day-today interaction with clients who look for help in building their identities.

“I love what I’m doing,” he said. “It’s as simple as that.”

Geoffrey Gage and St. Thomas

- Joined the Board of Trustees in 2007 and serves on the Institutional Advancement and Student Affairs committees.

- Graduate from St. Thomas in 1997 with a Master of Business Communications degree. His wife, Kelly, has a Master of Arts degree in history from St. Thomas and teaches at St. Catherine University. (They have two sets of twins, including five-year-olds adopted from Russia.)

- With his wife has endowed a St. Thomas scholarship.  He sees that, along with his work on the board, as "an opportunity to give back and make sure others can have the same experience I did."

- Believes St. Thomas' biggest challenge is to "continue to do the right thing."  He recalls what Padraig Hayes, former CEO of Waterford Crystal, told his graduate commencement exercise in 1997: "Do what's right and be the best at it." Thaty may sound simple, Gage says, "but it's profound - for me and for St. Thomas.  We must do what's right time after time."

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