StudioNorth turns 40: Constantly changing, learning and growing


April 2018

StudioNorth CEO Mark Mohr started a family about the same time he was assuming control of StudioNorth. Today, he and his wife have six kids. Two came into the family the biological way, two were adopted from Haiti and two were adopted from Chicago.

Is there a parallel between the two experiences?

He says, “I had to learn to be absolutely open-minded. As our kids got older, their curiosity led them to explore and embrace their cultures, so they have their own ideas about music, sports and politics. It’s a process of continuous learning. At the same time, it’s about knowing what your values are and sticking to them.”

Open-mindedness, continuous learning and steadfast values also happen to be three reasons StudioNorth is what it is today as we celebrate our 40th anniversary.

Open-minded to what our clients want

StudioNorth wasn’t always a full-service marketing agency. In fact, it wasn’t always StudioNorth.

Mark’s father Ray and a partner co-founded Image Design Systems in 1978 as a print production house. Seven years later, the partners split, and Ray renamed the business StudioNorth. Mark joined the company in 1988 two years out of Northern Illinois University and, working in client services, “immediately fell in love with the business.” He bought half the business from Ray in 1991 and the balance in 1993, shortly before Ray’s retirement.

The business was still just preparing material for print, with limited creative opportunities, but Mark was open to new directions. Desktop publishing was emerging as a marketing medium, and he decided to fully invest in the necessary technology.

The demand was there, and StudioNorth moved firmly into design. Meanwhile, “I knew of 20 companies within 20 miles of us who closed their doors because they didn’t adopt desktop publishing. Our strength has always been being agile and flexible and in alignment with the solutions our clients want.”

In the following years, StudioNorth evolved from a production house to a multi-media company to a full-service agency, adding content, video, digital development, social media, strategic planning and too many other offerings to name.

“We’re more flexible and agile and in-tune with what clients want and need, making investments into areas we feel are being embraced,” Mark says. “Today we’re adding tech integration and various automation offerings, and exploring artificial intelligence, machine learning and natural language processing.

“When you draw a hard line at what you won’t do, that’s the beginning of the end. Being closed-minded is the kiss of death.”

The hard lessons of continuous learning

Our clients don’t expect their markets or their audiences to stand still. We certainly don’t expect our clients to stand still. In our business, standing still really isn’t an option.

When Mark bought StudioNorth, 90% of its business was with one client, and most of that work was one-day turnaround. He also discovered that, while he was very good at securing work, he wasn’t great at overseeing it.

“One day I made a list of everything I was good at and everything I was bad at. The bad list was a lot longer—operations, processes, accountability. So I hired a guy to run operations, to be the ‘bad cop.’ He wasn’t popular, but he helped grow the Studio into a business.”

As the business grew, the people who worked here learned new roles. When clients demanded more creativity, production people became designers and account managers. A systems administrator became the agency’s first writer. A driver became an account director. Those transformations are surprising, but here’s the biggest surprise: all those people are still working at the Studio.

“The transition where values became strength”

During the lean years when StudioNorth was evolving from its production house roots, Mark realized a core value that he’s never forgotten. “I’ll admit, there were thoughts of failure, but I remember thinking I forever want to honor all of the money I owe to people, even if the Studio didn’t survive. I want to do the right thing.

“That was the transition where values became a strength.”

That strength was tested during the recessions in 2001 and 2008. Mark believes the agency survived and thrived because “Our clients have been with us for so many years, there is a core belief that StudioNorth will do the right thing by them.”

Today, as we plan our ridiculous, over-the-top 40th Anniversary Gala—in our newly renovated, wide-open, glass-everywhere headquarters on Green Bay Road across from the cemetery—Mark is asked what’s driven him all these years.

“Just providing the most effective creative solutions we can for our clients. Period,” he says. “That’s the drumbeat I desire to march to, and the people who stay here have the same drumbeat.”

We’ve worked with so many great people over the years! If you’re an old friend (or even a new-ish one), you can share your StudioNorth story here.

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