Let’s start by answering the two questions Fingerpaint founder Ed Mitzen is asked with maddening frequency: Yes, he fields calls “every week” from private equity types interested in snapping up his company. And no, he has no plans to sell.
“I grew up with my parents making maybe $30,000 a year apiece. The reality is that I love what I do and don’t need an exit strategy,” he says.
It’s easy to understand why Fingerpaint has become such a coveted asset. Over the course of five years, the agency has seen its revenue rise rapidly, from $20.3 million in 2014 to $44.8 million in 2018. The 2018 sum was up nearly 42% over 2017’s take of $31.6 million; Mitzen predicts Fingerpaint’s 2019 revenue will land in the $55 million-$60 million range.
Beyond the numbers, though, it’s clear that Fingerpaint has long since transcended the “little engine that could” rep that damns with faint praise any independent that starts to make some noise. “Five years ago, we were probably known, if we were known at all, as this small boutique that did nice work,” Mitzen says. “We just won business from Genentech and J&J. They didn’t know who we were three years ago.”
Other additions included Endo, Curium Pharma, Daiichi-Sankyo and Dynavax. Mitzen points to work done on behalf of new client Celularity, a CGI-intensive campaign for UltraMIST with what he calls “a sort of Game of Thrones feel to it,” as one of the year’s creative highlights.
Unlike many agency leaders, Mitzen remains an active participant in Fingerpaint’s new-business pushes. The hiring of finance and marketing/business development heads has freed him to convey his vision in person on a more regular basis. “There are times when having the owner in a meeting sends a message,” Mitzen says.
After opening its doors in New Jersey and moving to a bigger space in Phoenix, Fingerpaint now counts four sizable outposts to its name. Staff size hit 200 at the end of 2018, up from 185 the year before, and Mitzen expects that number to increase as the agency pursues further expansion.
He nonetheless cautions against “getting so hungry for growth that we screw up what we have.” So as much as Mitzen might want to open offices in Chicago, Atlanta or Boston, he realizes that doing so “involves lots of work that doesn’t fall in my lap. I’m like, ‘We’re going to Chicago, everybody!’ and then there are 50 people who want to punch me in the nose.”
Paired with Fingerprint’s almost unheard-of benefits — fully covered health insurance, an increase in the company’s 401(k) match and a student loan repayment program — that thoughtfulness has helped make the agency one of the healthcare marketing community’s preferred destinations. At the same time, Mitzen isn’t sure the industry needs to offer the type and volume of perks it once did.
“Twenty years ago, healthcare and pharma advertising was a place where creative people went to die,” Mitzen says. “The tides have turned. The creativity and innovation has brought in lots of people.”