ST. JOSEPH — It’s been 50 years since Don Johnson took a chance and opened an advertising agency in his basement.

The agency, which is now referred to as JohnsonRauhoff, has since grown and kept its family roots as Johnson’s children run the business that he spent decades building.

“He decided from that point that he wanted to run an honest business,” said Jackie Huie, Johnson’s daughter and current CEO/chairman of the company. “His mantra was to help his client succeed.”

JohnsonRauhoff has grown from a solo operation in 1969 to about 80 employees in 2019.

The company is based out of St. Joseph, but has several facilities across Berrien County. With the main office in St. Joseph, the ad agency has a studio in Benton Harbor, “the hanger” building and a satellite office in Atlanta that will be moved to Boston.

“We started out as a content agency. My dad was all about providing communication tools to clients. It wasn’t about entertainment,” said Huie. “Today we are still a content agency. But we call it content strategy because marketing has taken on a new meaning. There are so many different touch points.”

The company’s first client was Whirlpool Corp., which remains in business with JohnsonRauhoff 50 years later. JR has worked with more than 200 brands, while its client partnerships last an average of 21 years.

Along the way, JohnsonRauhoff added Meijer, Sur La Table, Newell brands and Colson Group as clients. Their portfolio ranges from retailers to manufacturers.

When it began in 1969, the advertising agency was first called Don Johnson Art & Design. It has changed names several times over the years as it added partners and employees. It’s name changed to Grose, Johnson and Reed in 1977, only to change to Grose, Johnson & Associates a year later.

It became Johnson-Rauhoff Inc. in 1988 and slowly dropped the hyphen and incorporation from its name.

As the company’s patriarch and founder, Johnson at one point worked at Whirlpool as an in-house graphic designer. Following a stint in the U.S. Army, from 1958-60, Johnson would bounce around to several Southwest Michigan and Northern Indiana agencies before he tried to run a company of his own.

According to Huie, her father started his own business in an effort to “be his own man.” She said it was also considered a big risk as her parents were raising three children at the time.

“It was scary at the time. I remember my mom crying,” she said. “She was worried. They started the company from money my mom got from a car accident. My dad and mom grew up poor. They came from nothing. They learned to work hard and do whatever it takes.”

In a way, the agency has always been a family business. While Johnson worked ungodly hours, his wife, Audrey, handled account services and accounting.

On trips where she brought work examples to clients, she would bring her 2-year-old son, Mason, along with her.

In 1977, Johnson moved operations out of the basement and into various office spaces. He took on partners, which included Dick Grose and Steve Reed. Reed would leave a year later to form his own agency.

The third partner would leave in 1988, when Grose transferred full ownership to Johnson. Shortly after that, Johnson would bring on David Rauhoff as a partner. Together, they renamed the company to what it is known as today. Rauhoff would retire in 1992, when Johnson bought him out to become majority shareholder.

After a brief stint as an intern in the 1970s, Jackie joined JohnsonRauhoff as a corporate creative director. She held several titles over the years until becoming CEO and chairman in 2017.

One of the company’s biggest moments came in 1997, when JohnsonRauhoff was ranked No. 8 in the PROMO 100. The ranking followed major ad campaigns for Bayer and Alka Seltzer.

Jackie said the company’s pursuit of innovation was driven by their dedication to their clients.

“Our company was founded on driving results for our clients and helping them succeed,” she said. “This was the genesis of our first mission statement which was to earn long and mutually rewarding partnerships by delivering unsurpassed service, quality and value.”

Moving forward

Michael Huie, Jackie’s husband and president of JohnsonRauhoff, joined the agency in 2016. He spent 27 years with Whirlpool, where the last 10 were spent as the global marketing director for KitchenAid.

Michael said its a big accomplishment for the company to hit 50 years.

“If you’ve studied what’s gone down in the last 20 years with creative agencies, 50 years is a huge milestone,” Michael said. “There are lots and lots of agencies that have gone under since there was a switch to a digital platform. On social media and mobile advertising, it’s shifted the focus between technology, content and dollars.

“If an agency didn’t see these things coming and diversified their work, they disappeared.”

Michael said the agency is very customer centric – down to the photographers and account services team.

Throughout June and July, JohnsonRauhoff will be celebrating its 50th anniversary. Outside of a special presentation of the company’s history at a Rotary Club, they’ll celebrate it at their “marties,” otherwise known as meeting parties.

In the next five or 10 years, Michael Huie said the plan is to look into voice activation and virtual reality when it comes to pushing content.

“Our vision is to be the ultimate strategic partner for brands,” he said. “We want to position ourselves to build the ability to help our clients execute communication channels. That could mean anything from managing their websites, e-commerce or doing social media for them.”

Contact: twittkowski@TheHP.com, 932-0358, Twitter: @TonyWittkowski