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Take Two

Advertising director Steve Wehrenberg joins SJMC faculty and coordinates graduate program
December 30, 2014
Steve Wehrenberg

Throughout Steve Wehrenberg’s life, there have been two consistent places that resonate. The first is Campbell Mithun, the Minneapolis-based advertising agency where Wehrenberg worked for more than thirty years. The second is the University of Minnesota School of Journalism & Mass Communication, where he joined the faculty in fall 2013. 

To explain, we must go back to the beginning. In 1976, Wehrenberg was an English major at Augsburg College, which neighbors the University of Minnesota. Here, he took an introductory course on advertising from SJMC alumnus Steve Gordon (B.A., ’70), who was an account executive at Campbell Mithun. “Steve was fascinating and would tell these stories about advertising and his clients, and took us on a tour of Campbell Mithun,” Wehrenberg recalls. “I thought Campbell Mithun was a really interesting environment.”

But upon graduation, Wehrenberg didn’t jump right into the ad world. “I was a journalist and storyteller at heart,” he said. So he went into public relations working on internal communications at Fairview Hospitals, but found the field and environment wasn’t for him.

He then began working as a copywriter at M.R. Bolin, but again found the job unsatisfying. “I wasn’t skilled at coming up with conceptual ideas really fast,” Wehrenberg said. “But I was a leader.” He was transitioned into account management and had to learn the ropes quickly. To do this, M.R. Bolin brought in a former employee to help Wehrenberg: John Purdy, a then-account executive at Campbell Mithun and 1970 graduate of SJMC. 

It was during his sessions with Purdy that Wehrenberg was told about an assistant account executive opening at Campbell Mithun. So began his career at the agency, where he received on-the-job training with peers, spending days with the media or research department to soak-up knowledge. “It was like getting paid to go to grad school.” 

Wehrenberg moved up the ladder and became an account executive on Depend®, a new product on the market at the time. It was on this account that Wehrenberg learned about rigor and what Campbell Mithun executives expected of him. “We needed to know more about the client’s competition than the client,” he said. “I learned a lot about taking business seriously and predicting client needs.” 

He continued on the account management track and worked on Land O’ Lakes, Toro and a number of national brands. 

Ten years into his time at Campbell Mithun, Wehrenberg began work on US West, a large telecommunications company in Phoenix. “In those days [early 1990s], it was like working for Google,” he said. “There was a lot of new technology and things moved really fast.” With this client, Wehrenberg found his niche and helped the agency grow. “We ended up doing some great creative stuff. I learned that you can achieve business objectives but do it in a fresh, creative way,” he said.

It was through this work with US West that Wehrenberg’s leadership talent became evident. He was put in charge of more clients and began focusing on new business initiatives, including winning the Air Touch Cellular (now Verizon Wireless) account and opening up offices in Seattle, Detroit and Irving, Calif. On top of that, Wehrenberg pulled in the Minnesota Wild, ShopNBC, H & R Block and others. “We had a great roll,” he said of the late 1990s. “Those were fantastic times.”

Following this streak, Wehrenberg transitioned to account planning and was named director of strategic planning and integration in 2003. It was around this time that his Campbell Mithun colleague, SJMC adjunct instructor and 1968 SJMC alumnus Howard Liszt informed him about a new program at the Univeristy of Minnesota: the Professional M.A. in Strategic Communication. “I said that if they ever need a teacher let me know, and a couple of years later I got the call,” Wehrenberg said.

Wehrenberg was tapped to help develop the program, which allows professionals to get their master’s degree in two years, and has taught a course in strategy creation since the beginning. “Coming to the U after a hard day at work to teach became my absolute favorite thing,” he recalls. “Leaving downtown [Minneapolis] to enter campus and the world of continuous learning really energized me.” 

In 2011, when then-program director Gordon Leighton retired, Wehrenberg was a natural fit to take over. He joined SJMC’s faculty full-time in fall 2013 as a teaching professor of strategic communication, serving as program director for the Professional M.A. in Strategic Communication program and teaching undergraduate courses in advertising strategy and creative development. “I have been impressed with the caliber of the students here,” Wehrenberg said. “The maturity, the thinking and ideas have just been exceptional.” 

And Wehrenberg has big ideas for the Professional M.A. program, from adding a summer special topics course to nationally recognized speakers at the program’s twice-annual forum events to developing more aggressive marketing methods. “This program is one-of-a-kind in the Twin Cities market,” Wehrenberg said. “This type of program is something I really needed when I was starting out in my career and felt a bit isolated. It’s rewarding to see the students grow and transform throughout the program.”