Launching a brand-new print magazine — in 2008, no less, while the Great Recession weighed heavily on other publications and companies — took a special kind ofvision and, well, insight.
When Insight’s co-publishers Margaret LeBrun and Brian Rasmussen set out to create the publication 10 years ago, they intended to make it unlike anything regional businesses had seen. Insight would be a magazine, yes, but also something more.
“Our vision was to create a publication that would be new, fresh and different from anything that was out there,” LeBrun says. “It would serve all of Northeast Wisconsin, and it would be a way to connect people and businesses that should know about each other.”
“We talked about having some significant events, meaningful events,” says Rasmussen. “The timing was extremely right for us because we connected with the mission of New North to bring the entire region together.”
Since its inception, Insight has published 120-plus issues of its eponymous monthly magazine, scores of issues of Insight on Manufacturing and other niche publications such as the annual New North report, the United Way Fox Cities annual campaign booklet and the twice-annual magazine for the Wisconsin State Council Society for Human Resource Management.
The Insight team, from left: Beth Nelson, events and special projects coordinator; Deb Toll, sales and office coordinator; Margaret LeBrun, co-founder and executive editor; Jessica Thiel, staff writer; Sean P. Johnson, senior associate editor; Brian Rasmussen, co-founder and director of sales and marketing; Wendy Gilbert, account executive; Bryan Aschenbrenner, graphic designer; and Diane Verhagen, account executive.
It is the creator or catalyst of key business connection events including Manufacturing First, InDevelopment and THINC! (as well as a karaoke party or two), and it won the Fox Cities Chamber’s Rising Star Award in 2011.
Tom Wiltzius, who’s served on Insight’s editorial advisory board since its inception, says Insight created a sense of unity among communities that were all competing for talent.
“We really needed to have one positive affirming voice for businesses and organizations in our region,” says Wiltzius, president of Wiltzius Associates and enVision Performance Solutions. “When Insight was established and publications started coming out, it became obvious there was somebody that was addressing that need, and addressing it in a very professional, polished and affirming manner. That really contributed to the idea of us being one region.”
During an interview at the Insight Publications office, 400 N. Richmond St., Appleton, where Insight located in 2014 after vacating its original offices in the Zuelke Building in downtown Appleton, LeBrun and Rasmussen recounted the magazine’s early days and building on those opportunities for connection.
“It always has come from people saying, ‘Here’s where the need is,’ and us responding in meaningful ways in print, online and in person,” LeBrun says.
The first InDevelopment conference, held in 2010, was constructed out of regional companies’ desires to grow talent — as well as seeking ways to keep construction and economic development going in the recession. The event brought together leaders in construction, commercial real estate and economic development. The success of that event led to the idea for a similar conference for manufacturers.
“We talked about it a lot because there was a real need for (manufacturers) to meet face to face,” LeBrun says. First Business Bank leaders proposed an event called Manufacturing First, which they wanted to launch that fall — and it was already July.
LeBrun said sure, Insight would love to — the next year. “Somehow we pulled it off,” she says.
Manufacturing First was a natural next step for everyone involved — First Business wanted to build relationships with manufacturers, the NEW Manufacturing Alliance wanted a way to connect more local companies and Insight was already publishing Insight on Manufacturing magazine.
The conference and expo, now expanded to two days and including a major national keynote, has continued to grow.
“When I first approached our board, a few of them said, ‘No one’s going to come to a thing like that,” says Ann Franz, director of NEWMA. “The past few years, we’ve had over 1,000 attend the event. Without Insight, it doesn’t happen,” she says.
Insight on Manufacturing
Similarly, IOM converged under the right set of desires, needs and circumstances, kicking off the beginning of Insight’s decade of publications.
“When we first started the NEW Manufacturing Alliance (in 2006), we were working with companies that had so many awesome stories,” Franz said. “I thought, well, maybe I need to write a little newsletter.”
At the same time, LeBrun and Rasmussen kept hearing from so many companies that were worried about the skills gap.
“They continually said, ‘People don’t know there’s a skills gap. People don’t know what great jobs there are in manufacturing,’” LeBrun says.
Light bulbs went off, and it was the start of Insight on Manufacturing, now IOM, which was the company’s first publication — about half the size of the monthly magazine and printed now every other month.
“It was very different than anything anywhere, really,” LeBrun says. “No one had done a manufacturing magazine like this. It was a good way for us to launch.”
Collaborating with New North Inc.
LeBrun attended early branding committee meetings of New North Inc., which formed in 2005. While Insight is independent of New North, it covers the same 18-county footprint in Northeast Wisconsin and shares many of the same missions and values.
“We spent a good amount of time with Jerry Murphy as well as Kathi Seifert and Bob DeKoch helping to communicate the six initiatives of New North,” LeBrun says.
To tell the stories connected with those initiatives, she and Rasmussen proposed an annual New North report, which Insight publishes each year in time for the New North Summit in December.
Seifert, president/owner of Katapult, LLC and past co-chair for New North, says that branding help was vital to creating a unified message for the region, something seen in larger markets and needed here as well.
“The conception of Insight magazine also was so timely and so deeply appreciated, because Margaret and the team could start to showcase these fantastic companies that we have right here in the region, and also showcase talent at all different levels,” Seifert says.
Insight’s work on the New North Summit and the mid-year and annual reports ensured the organization’s key priorities and initiatives received the focus they deserved, she says.
“We are viewed by others throughout the state as the most collaborative region,” Seifert says. “I think that the partnership between New North and Insight is a fabulous example of that kind of a collaboration that is helping us to make progress happen.”
Both the publication and its sponsored events have consistently touched on the strategic imperatives of the New North, such as talent development, business and entrepreneurial development and regional branding, says Murphy, New North executive director.
“The magazine has been a great channel to highlight successes, challenges and opportunities in these strategic areas,” he says.
With the annual summit held in December each year, Rasmussen recalls talking with Murphy about another way for New North investors to connect in the summer. The now-annual New North investors event was kicked off with a Foxy Lady Day Cruise in Green Bay.
“What better way than putting everybody on a boat?” Rasmussen says.
That special something
In the same spirit of connecting, highlighting and celebrating the strong companies in the New North region, Insight wanted to ensure a professional — national — look to the magazine. That’s where the partnership with A2Z Design and Image Studios came in (see related stories following this article).
“One of the best decisions we made early on was to partner with A2Z Design and Jeff Amstutz,” LeBrun says, then turns to Brian and asks, “Should we tell about when we met him and you had blood on your hands?”
“No,” Rasmussen says with a laugh, but then tells the story about when they met Amstutz, principal and creative director at A2Z Design, at Starbucks late on a Saturday afternoon after Rasmussen had gone deer hunting with his son.
“Noah got a deer, and I’m looking at the deer, looking at Noah, looking at my watch, going, oh my gosh, we have a meeting with this designer who I think is just going to be crazy good for us,” Rasmussen says.
Amstutz had grown up on a farm and was amused by the hunting story. Insight Publications and A2Z Design had a literally close relationship as they were both, for several years, located in the Zuelke Building.
“We gave the elevator a workout,” LeBrun says.
Then Image Studios President Donna Gehl connected Insight to photographer Shane Van Boxtel. “Shane has shot every single cover from the very beginning,” LeBrun says. “He’s brilliant. We call him the portrait whisperer.”
From the first Insight photo shoot, Amstutz and Van Boxtel hit it off, and the two have since collaborated on numerous other projects.
The A2Z-Image team brought a level of creativity and sophistication that Insight sought, “and we ended up doing such a nice six-page cover spread with no ads, which was kind of unheard of,” Rasmussen says. “One media buyer said to his salesperson, ‘Well, are you guys struggling — you don’t even have ads in the cover story.’ But that was almost like, doggone it, that’s what we’re going to do. And it has worked out so well.”
Insight is also proud of its editorial integrity. Some B-to-B publications allow pay-for-play, meaning you get a story if you buy an ad.
“We just don’t do that, because we believe that the stories will be much better and have a lot more clout,” LeBrun says. “So we’ve always been very strict about keeping that journalistic wall.”
From launch … to new beginnings
Insight Publications launched right about the same time as the Great Recession did. It also was the time when businesses really needed to forge connections. They knew they needed to keep the idea of economic development and construction moving forward, Rasmussen says. “We filled the gap by creating InDevelopment and getting all those people together.”
Insight also focused on highlighting the movers and shakers in the region, both on the covers and in the Face Time feature, which first showcased Green Bay Packers President and CEO Mark Murphy, and later Stephanie Streeter, who was on the U.S. Olympic Committee, LeBrun says. “We had a series of really great people. People took it seriously and knew where to turn if they wanted to find out who was who.”
In this 10th anniversary issue, Insight is debuting a redesign, keeping some original features and adding some new ones, with a new look. LeBrun and Rasmussen have been talking internally for a while about a succession plan.
“In time, we came to realize that although we had the same vision and standards going for Insight, our personal goals were different,” LeBrun says.
At the end of 2017, LeBrun sold her shares of Insight Publications to Rasmussen. LeBrun, who has stayed with the company in a consulting role, will leave Insight in July, though she’ll continue to serve on Insight’s editorial advisory board. Taking a step back is “a little like seeing your kid off to college,” she says.
Insight — and the region — has come a long way since the co-founders began meeting at LeBrun’s home with their contracted business manager, real estate developer Dave Allen (LeBrun’s husband), and in McDonald’s restaurants the first several months after incorporating.
Rasmussen says the Insight team feels that sense of impact and responsibility for helping to forge key connections. It’s an implementation of the company’s core values: FIERCE, or Fun, Integrity, Entrepreneurial, Resourceful, Creative, Engaged with its partners and community.
“We have people on the team who love being engaged with other people in the community,” Rasmussen says. “I know Wendy Gilbert (account executive) said she can have a challenging day, but when she goes to one of our networking events, or if we have a trade show booth at one of our business expos, that’s where we really find our energy.
“We find our energy through other people who we know are on this journey with us.”
The A2Z Design team, from left: Designer Brittney Peters, Senior Designer Karen Schneider, President Jeff Amstutz, Project Manager Karla Funk and Senior Designer Michael Miller.
Jeff Amstutz hung his shingle to launch A2Z Design in Appleton not long before he was approached by the co-founders of Insight Publications to design a new business-to-business magazine for Northeast Wisconsin.
“Insight for A2Z was a huge platform to be able to showcase our ability to do excellent design and tell stories,” Amstutz says. “It was our first, most significant client.”
Amstutz, an Indiana native who studied journalism and marketing at Ball State University and began his career specializing in magazine design, came to Appleton by way of Charlottesville, Va., where he had been working for an ad agency. He joined his husband, Chad Hershner, who was recruited from Virginia to become the vice president of advancement at the Fox Cities Performing Arts Center in 2007. The Insight partnership allowed Amstutz to recruit his first boss and long-time colleague, Michael Miller, from Virginia to help produce the magazine.
A2Z Design developed the Insight brand, color scheme (compatible with the New North Inc. brand), and for many years handled all design for Insight Publications. As Insight grew and hired its own in-house designer, A2Z has continued to produce all Insight magazine covers and handle the cover story design, including creative direction for cover photo shoots in partnership with Shane Van Boxtel of Image Studios (see related story). A2Z Design, which now employs five people, has won more than two dozen ADDY Awards from the Fox River Advertising Club, with 10 representing work for Insight.
A2Z Design was recently nominated for the 2018 Corporate Citizen/Leadership Award from the Fox Cities Chamber of Commerce.
Amstutz says through his partnership with Insight, A2Z Design has developed long-term client relationships with many companies and nonprofit organizations, including United Way Fox Cities, the Community Foundation for the Fox Valley Region and Fox Valley Hematology & Oncology.
Most recently, A2Z Design won an ADDY for its Insight cover story design on Great Northern Corp. Mark Van Pay, vice president of marketing at Great Northern (and early on, an independent marketing consultant who partnered with Amstutz), credits Amstutz for his ability to help his clients with holistic marketing goals.
“Jeff and his team have an interesting combination of creative design skills with a touch of strategic thinking,” Van Pay says. “A2Z isn’t just our agency for design, they are a thought partner.”
Among its many community projects, A2Z Design developed branding for Neuroscience Group, Fox Valley Symphony Orchestra and recently the City of Appleton for the new Fox Cities Exhibition Center.
“We were looking to develop a logo and branding that would be unique and have the ability to market the FCEC,” says Dean Gazza, director of parks, recreation and facilities management for the City of Appleton. “They hit it out of the park. I was extremely impressed with their process to seek ideas and input from numerous stakeholders and then turn those into concepts that met everyone’s goals.”
Amstutz served on the board of the Sexual Assault Crisis Center-Fox Cities for several terms. He served as president of the Fox Valley Symphony Orchestra from 2015 to 2017 and continues to serve on the Orchestra’s board.
Amstutz credits his team for helping his company’s success, including senior designer Miller.
“Michael is your consummate design artist,” Amstutz says. “His career has touched so many different brands, whether it’s been publication or branding. He has a very unique talent. We are always pushing each other — we’ve done it for so long. We’re very simpatico.”
Miller says he finds inspiration for design “everywhere, in a puddle on the ground, in a twig on the street.” Working at A2Z and with Amstutz is like working with family,” he says. “We know what each other is thinking and we have similar styles — so it’s pretty flawless, and seamless, to work together.”
Amstutz, who recently developed a three- to five-year strategic plan, hopes to double the size of his company in the next few years. “We’re pushing really hard towards that, making great forays into a broader corporate market,” he says. “We have big opportunities in front of us.”
The Image Studios creative and leadership team, from left: Photographers Shane Van Boxtel, Scott Ehlers, Michael Leschisin, President Donna Gehl and Photographer Bill Kapinski. Image Studios employs 25, including account managers and production and photography assistants.
Ask Image Studios President Donna Gehl what distinguishes Image Studios from its competitors, and she’ll tell you it’s all about partnerships.
“I often tell people that what has contributed to our success all these years has been the long-term relationships we’ve had,” Gehl says. “It’s so important to our business to understand what a good customer fit is for us. We look to our core values to seek new relationships — it’s never a one-and-done type of production.”
Image Studios has worked with Kimberly-Clark Corp., Mills Fleet Farm, JanSport, Waupaca Foundry, KI Furniture, Ariens, Kohler, Pierce and Oshkosh Defense, to name just a few. Staff photographers travel nationwide and globally to get the best shots, from St. Andrews in Scotland for Kohler to the Mojave Desert in California for Oshkosh Defense.
“At Image Studios, you get the honesty and trust of a small, intimate studio but with big-city results,” says Michael Sifuentes, creative director for Milwaukee-based national advertising and marketing agency Hoffman York, which has partnered with Image for 18 years.
For the past 10 years, Image has partnered with Insight Publications to execute its Insight cover photo shoots.
“It’s been a fun opportunity to partner with everyone at Insight, to see the journey they’ve been on over the last 10 years, to see their success and what they’ve done in this community, to connect all the dots and to educate people on what’s happening and who’s coming up with new ideas,” Gehl says. Staff Photographer Shane Van Boxtel has taken every cover photo since the first issue, April 2008.
“As with anything I love to do, I dive in 110 percent, and I devote everything to it,” Van Boxtel says. “With Insight, I have the opportunity to bring such interesting people to light, and it’s my duty to show them in the most positive way that I can.
“Even though they are incredibly powerful, they are very vulnerable when they’re in my world,” in front of his camera, he says. “I feel a responsibility to show the pride that they put into their work, and they rely on me to have pride in my work — and show the world who they are in a great way.”
Image Studios has seen a lot of change since it was founded as a commercial photography studio in 1965 by Ron Bricco and Curt Knoke, Gehl says. When she joined the company in 1989 as a production assistant, Image Studios employed about 40. They worked mainly with corporate marketing groups and advertising agencies. In the mid-1990s, the company gradually transitioned from film and the darkroom to all digital.
In 2003, Gehl and photographers Scott Ehlers and Michael Leschisin bought the company. Five years later, the Great Recession hit the advertising and marketing industries hard. In two waves of layoffs, the staff was reduced from 33 to 15.
“It was a really tough time,” Gehl says. They turned to long-time partners such as Kohler, which used the downturn to rebuild its website with 20,000 fresh photographs and 150 videos. Image Studios invested in video equipment specifically for the Kohler work. “They inspired us and gave us confidence that if we invested in video, that the need was going to be there. After the recession, video took off.”
In 2012, the studio began handling all the TV and radio commercials for Mills Fleet Farm.
Ehlers, who has been with Image Studios for 28 years, says their team makes it all fun. “It’s easier if you really enjoy the people you work with. And like anything in the creative field, every day is different.”
Collaborating with clients to help them achieve their goals drives the whole team, Leschisin says.
“I love solving their problems, helping them to advance their marketing, to advance their vision.” Gehl agrees. “I tell all our 25 employees that our success is equal to the success of our customers.”
Mission: Connecting minds, creating insights
Vision: To be the trusted source for information that drives business growth, shares inspirational ideas and celebrates success.
Core business: Insight on Business and Insight on Manufacturing magazines
• New North Mid-Year Report and Annual Report to the Community
• Bravo! playbill for the Weidner Center
• WI SHRM forwardHR (twice-annual magazine for the Wisconsin Society for Human Resource Management)
• United Way Fox Cities annual campaign book
• Executive Invite (by invitation only)
• THINC! Technology & Human Innovation Networking Conference (May)
• Manufacturing First Expo & Conference (October)
• InDevelopment Conference (March)
> On the web: insightonbusiness.com