By Sally Friedman
It took courage and spunk for two adventurous young men to launch an advertising agency in Detroit in 1929, when the country was teetering on the brink of the Great Depression.
Lawrence Michelson and Leonard Simons were fresh out of high school, with no clients and no experience. Advertising as we have come to know it was in its infancy.
Michelson and Simons' optimism paid off. The business they launched, now based in Troy, Mich., and called Simons-Michelson-Zieve Inc. (SMZ), is still going strong, three generations after its founding.
"My father definitely had something unique about him, and so did his partner, Leonard Simons," says the firm's chairman, Jim Michelson, 75, son of co-founder Lawrence Michelson. "These were two young guys who were ready to make their mark with just their personalities and creativity to sustain them."
Because Simons and Michelson had worked at a small company that dealt in trinkets, they seized on jewelry as an early advertising focus. They introduced a then-new concept: newspaper ads in different sizes that included pictures of the products they were promoting.
The young partners promoted themselves wisely. They gained the attention of jewelers across the country, and came to represent a trade association. Simons, a gifted artist, handled the visual side of the business; Michelson tapped into what his son describes as his considerable charm, organization and people skills. The synergy worked.
Jim Michelson would end up getting the formal business education his father never had. He attended the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and initially aspired to enter the investment world. But a talk with his father clarified everything.
As Jim recalls it, Lawrence Michelson was so smitten with the advertising business that he hated Friday afternoons and loved Monday mornings. "I had seen this all my life, and I also noted that my dad was never bored," Jim says. "He had so much to teach me, and he wanted to share it all with me."
Leonard Simons and Lawrence Michelson never officially retired; they served in emeritus roles at the agency until their health no longer permitted it. Simons passed away in 1995, Michelson in 1997.
Jim Michelson came to the firm in 1963. "It was the best decision I ever made, along with marrying my wife, Bonnie, who I was lucky enough to meet at Penn," Jim says.
Mort Zieve, the son-in-law of Leonard Simons, had joined the agency in 1961. Zieve had been a successful producer and director of local TV shows in Detroit, including Lunch with Soupy and The Soupy Sales Show. He was also a theater director and a musician; he composed jingles that were performed by Louis Armstrong, Ethel Merman, Rosemary Clooney and other stars.
In 1977, Jim Michelson and Mort Zieve bought the Simons-Michelson agency in a smooth transition from the firm's founders. The agency, renamed Simons-Michelson-Zieve, moved its headquarters from Detroit to Troy, Mich.
Jim Michelson says the lessons his father taught him have shaped the culture of the agency. "The message I got was always about building long-lasting relationships with clients, not rushing to get more, more, more," Jim says. "Working with my father was a day-by-day lesson in how to make that happen."
Jim's wife, Bonnie, affectionately known as "The Librarian," also became an integral part of the firm. In the days before the Internet, Bonnie was the agency's assiduous market researcher, studying trends and digging for information. She was a role model for her daughters, showing them that women could make a mark in the advertising world.
"Our mother was amazing, and she kind of forged the way for us," says Pam Michelson Renusch. Bonnie Michelson passed away in 2014 at age 72.
The third generation steps up
Pam, 49, and her sister Debbie Michelson Fuger, 46, both hold the title of executive vice president/group account director at SMZ.
Pam, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Michigan, joined the agency in 1989. She and her husband, Paul Renusch, have two children, ages 15 and 8.
Pam says she was determined to avoid the "boss's daughter" label. "I tried to work harder and longer than anyone else, taking nothing for granted," she says.
Today, she handles one of SMZ's key accounts, the Michigan Lottery. "It's definitely never dull," says Pam, who has created TV spots and developed other ways to promote the lottery. Her responsibilities include marketing, media and creative strategy development. She serves as agency liaison for the account service, creative, production, media and research departments. She also manages client budgets and oversees planning activities and client timetables.
Debbie is a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis. She started working at SMZ in 1996. Previously, she was a promotions director for a Michigan TV station, promotions and events manger for Journal Newspapers in Virginia and an associate media buyer at an advertising agency in New York.
"There was never any pressure to come here," Debbie says, "but it turned out to be the totally right move for me."
Debbie, the youngest third-generation member, was the athlete in the family. She now handles SMZ's sports clients, including the Detroit Tigers, the Detroit Red Wings and Fox Sports Detroit. She and her husband, Pierre, are the parents of 6-year-old twins.
"I think everyone in the agency appreciates that I have a pretty hectic life, and I'm surrounded by people who support that without question," Debbie says. "That makes me a very lucky mom, and so grateful that I can share my daily life with my family as well as other colleagues."
Jamie Michelson, 51, today is SMZ's president and CEO. Jamie attended his father's alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School; he graduated in 1987. Also like his dad, Jamie met his wife, Beth, in college.
From 1987 to 1991, the couple lived in New York City, where Jamie worked for the former Geer, DuBois ad agency as an account supervisor. "I was learning the business—how to work with different types of personalities—and meeting people," Jamie recalls. He learned from some major figures in the industry and worked on a variety of brands, including Jaguar, Barnes & Noble, BASF and Sony.
But the New York lifestyle didn't appeal to the young couple, and home seemed to beckon to Jamie. He joined SMZ in 1991. Building on the skills he had acquired in New York, he handled client accounts and got a feel for the family firm.
After several years, Jamie began to feel that he needed a change and some new challenges. "There was no issue, just my own quest to test myself in a setting other than a family business," Jamie says.
In 1996, he decided to explore new options while he and his family were still young. Jamie and Beth have two daughters, now both in their early 20s.
Jamie joined the prominent Doner agency and worked there for 10 years: five in Baltimore and five back in Michigan. Clients he served included PNC Bank, ADT Security, Old Country Buffet and Bally Total Fitness. The experience he gained at Doner was an important steppingstone, Jamie says. "It gave me confidence in my skills as a leader, and I was viewed as someone who could have an impact on the destiny of a client's business," he says. "Doner grew quickly in that era, and so did I while I worked there." He held the title of group account director at Doner.
In 2006, Jamie returned to SMZ. "I returned not as the result of a grand plan but, frankly, because it just felt right—the right time for the agency, and the right time for me," Jamie says. "As part of the third generation of SMZ, I realized that I actually felt a duty to guard the legacy of my father and grandfather and their partners."
Jim was happy to have his son back at the agency. "My hope and my expectation was that Jamie would come back and work with us," Jim says. "He and I always have had a close relationship, and I recognized his growth in the business, management and client services areas over the years."
When Jamie returned to SMZ in 2006, both Pam and Debbie were working there. Mort Zieve, who had been SMZ's chairman, had passed away a year earlier.
Was there fallout from the return of the prodigal son? "I don't want to make this sound like a fairy tale," Jamie says, "but the family was totally accepting and ready for this transition. My sisters have been gracious, welcoming and supportive. I'm grateful that this has never been about my being the oldest, and the only male sibling. It's about all of us doing what we seem best suited to do."
Pam says her brother's return felt altogether right. "It has never been a competition among us," she says. "We're family members working together to run a family business."
"We've all been supportive of each other's decisions and were glad that [Jamie] was making a move that he felt was right for him," says Debbie, who entered the family business shortly after Jamie left in 1996. "I was truly happy to have the opportunity to work together with my brother."
The patriarch, Jim, first began thinking about continuity after the death of his own father in 1997. Those stirrings returned upon the death of his partner Mort Zieve in 2005. "It's definitely a process; at least it was for me," Jim says. "You begin to look into the future with new eyes and, yes, a new mindset." Jim handed operational responsibilities to Jamie over time; today, Jim is semi-retired, but he still has ongoing client contact.
"Everything important has been reduced to writing, and my dad has been transferring shares to the third generation for the past several years as we continue to look and listen and learn from him," notes Jamie. Jim and the family members who work in the agency are the only voting shareholders.
Longtime clients have built meaningful relationships with all of the family employees. All family members usually meet new agency clients, whether they are the lead person on the account or not.
"I'm aware that while the family members are different in many ways, they also understand the fine art of collaboration, respect for clients, dedication to creativity and, yes, loyalty to one another," Jim says.
Jamie's wife, Beth, a math teacher, has taken on some tasks to support the agency over the years, such as when the firm moved offices in 2014; she also has worked on new business support and on implementing the agency's email marketing campaign.
One third-generation Michelson sibling does not work in the business: Laurie Michelson, who is Pam Michelson Renusch's identical twin. Laurie is United States District Judge for the Eastern District of Michigan, appointed by President Barack Obama in 2014.
"I knew that law was my path, and I think everyone in my family kind of knew it, too," Laurie says. After graduating from Northwestern University School of Law in 1992, she served as a law clerk to the Honorable Cornelia F. Kennedy of the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. She then joined the firm of Butzel Long, where she practiced in the areas of white-collar criminal defense and media/intellectual property law.
Laurie is a shareholder in SMZ, though she doesn't have voting rights. "I never had any doubts about my path, and while I so admire what my family does together, it just isn't the right fit for me," the judge says.
Looking toward the future
Although it's possible that a "cousin cohort" might emerge, currently none of the older fourth-generation members has expressed interest in joining the agency.
"I credit my late wife with helping to create the atmosphere here," says Jim. "We celebrate holidays together, even vacation together, and I hope what the grandchildren experience will eventually influence their own lives."
SMZ, which now has 40 employees, hopes to expand on its already wide-ranging client base. The firm has come a long way since the time when print was the dominant advertising medium; its capabilities include digital technology, social media and search, in addition to broadcast, print, outdoor and point-of-service.
Every Friday, there's an agency-wide ritual: Everyone indulges in treats, especially M&Ms. "It does create a nice end-of-the-week feeling," says Jamie.
Jamie occasionally is accompanied to work by Derby, his golden retriever—a continuation of a tradition started by his father, who brought the adored Michelson family dog, Webster the labradoodle, to the office.
"I'm aware that while family members are different in many ways, they also must understand the fine art of collaboration, respect for one another and, yes, loyalty to one another," says proud father Jim Michelson.
"I genuinely cherish the history and tradition of this company," says Jamie. "Yet I also feel the pressure to look forward—to look after what's been created as best I can, and in my own way."
Sally Friedman is a writer based in the Philadelphia area.
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