Inside Track: Wassink’s wild ride is nowhere near its end
Chicago’s cutthroat advertising world and a little advice from Jeff Foxworthy resulted in Kantorwassink co-founder’s arrival in Grand Rapids.
Despite heading up a major account at one of the largest advertising firms in the world, Wendy Wassink was frustrated.
She was sick of the lack of collaboration, of sitting in a boardroom biting her tongue because it wasn’t her place to make a suggestion. So, in 2006, Wassink and her longtime creative partner, Dave Kantor, built their own boardroom — with a little push from Jeff Foxworthy.
Wassink and Kantor had met on the way up as they ripped through Chicago’s advertising world, moving from one top agency to another and working together at each stop along the way. The two friends both happened to be watching “Late Night With David Letterman” from their living rooms on a night when Foxworthy was scheduled to appear as Letterman’s guest.
As it so happened, during his interview with Letterman, the popular “here’s your sign” comedian delivered a sign of his own.
“Letterman asked Foxworthy how he knew it was time to go full time with standup,” Wassink said. “And he said, ‘You reach a point that you call the ‘plug your nose’ point — and you have to absolutely just plug your nose and jump right in.’
“And we laugh about it now because I guess my best business advice came from Jeff Foxworthy.”
Wassink, who was living in Grand Rapids, working in Chicago and often commuting to meet with clients in Detroit, decided it was time for her to jump in, too, and so Kantorwassink was born.
But the transition wasn’t without its hurdles. It meant Wassink needed to make a leap of faith, leaving behind a well-paying job at Leo Burnett in Chicago to set off on her own and no certainty of a paycheck. And, it just so happened, her departure from Leo Burnett came just before the start of the Great Recession.
“I knew that I could apply the business experience that I had in Chicago, here, in a way that maybe provided a bit of a new perspective,” she said.
“So I never — and probably somewhat foolishly, in hindsight — was nervous or scared about it. I kind of went running into opening a business like a big dumb Labrador retriever — and Grand Rapids didn’t let me down.”
A native of Des Moines, Iowa, Wassink didn’t know much about Grand Rapids or West Michigan until she met her future husband, Mark, a Holland native, at a summer music festival in Milwaukee. When it came time to settle down and start a new venture, a mid-sized city like Grand Rapids seemed like the perfect place.
“I think the cultural mindset for business here was just a recipe for success,” she said.
“People are really open to hearing different ways of thinking and looking for new resources. And I guess that’s exactly why Grand Rapids itself is such a thriving success when other parts of the country have gone the other direction.”
Wassink saw an opportunity and pounced on it. Just in the time since she had met Mark, she’d seen the transformation Grand Rapids was undergoing and decided she wanted in.
“I just knew that Grand Rapids was on the cusp of something kind of exciting,” she said.
As Grand Rapids grew, so did Kantorwassink, from a cramped office space into its current offices on Market Avenue. Wassink likes to draw a parallel between her firm’s expansion and the accelerated growth of her adopted town.
She credits the firm’s success to Kantor’s and her previous experience working at large firms in Chicago, learning the whole way.
“You just learn from the school of hard knocks,” she said. “Working on big clients like McDonald’s and Budweiser and Miller Brewing Co., you learn how to think and how to think in a really smart business way.”
While at J. Walter Thompson, Kantor and Wassink learned about the strategic side of advertising, applying analytics and methodology to their planning and supplementing their creative work.
At Leo Burnett, they had the opportunity to continue working on major advertising campaigns, including Cadillac’s “breakthrough” campaign, with its soundtrack of Led Zeppelin’s driving song “Rock and Roll.”
When they came to Grand Rapids, they brought that experience and their unique perspective along with them.
“When we started the business, we didn’t know what it would be,” she said. “Dave and I both had different experience: He had agricultural advertising background, I had business-to-business promotional experience, and then we had done all the mainstream advertising.
“We really thought, ‘Well, let’s hang a shingle and see where the niche is in Grand Rapids. We didn’t set out to build a full agency. We kind of thought maybe it would just be the two of us, but then things kind of took off.”
Of course, it didn’t hurt that their first client was a major player in the industry — nor does it hurt that Amway has been with them ever since. It also doesn’t hurt that Wassink, who has a degree in journalism from the University of Iowa, happens to love nearly every aspect of what she does.
When she first began working her way up through the advertising world in Chicago, Wassink had no idea where she’d end up. In fact, she had wanted to move to Kansas City. And at first she thought she’d end up writing copy or working in public relations, but as it turned out, she slid right into a career in art direction and fell in love.
“I loved the culture of Chicago, the culture of advertising, the problem-solving aspect of it — even the long hours,” Wassink said. “It’s a culture in and of itself. My whole world was in advertising — all my friends, the people I hung out with were all in advertising. And so you work hard and you play hard with the same group of people,” she said.
“At the time, I didn’t really realize how much I was learning along the way,” she added. “I just mostly felt like I was working hard but also having a good time and loving my career.”
Wassink still loves her career, and that leap of faith to become her own boss might be the biggest reason. She describes those first few years at Kantorwassink like riding a runaway freight train — it’s a wild ride that’s nowhere near its end.
As Kantorwassink approaches its 10-year milestone, Wassink and Kantor are still just as determined to bring quality creative work to West Michigan — or, as Wassink puts it, they are “maniacal workaholics who are obsessed with what we do and who can’t put the pencil down until it’s up to our standards.”
As someone who understands her business better than anyone, Wassink knows exactly how she and Kantorwassink got to where they are today. It’s actually a simple formula.
“For the most part, you have to make your own breaks, so a lot of it’s just been through hard work, tenacity and toughness. But it’s a creative business, so part of the job is that it’s not always easy to rationalize or judge in a way that’s data driven.
“You really are, in every way, opening yourself up to criticism and critique, and a lot of it is just developing a really thick skin and continuing to work through it.”