Rick Redding: John Birnsteel is Homecoming King at Doe-Anderson
Remember your first job out of college? You know, the paltry wages, long hours and demeaning chores, all while nursing hangovers, driving a beat-up car and living in that crappy apartment?
After a few years of that, you left town for bigger and better things – acquiring more pay, better titles, professional respect, along with a family and some nice things.
Now wouldn’t it be great to go back to your first place of employment as a conquering hero, a leader in your industry, a respected international professional, to have “chief” something or other in your new title and be the boss to a few dozen underlings?
Well, meet John Birnsteel, 41, who’s living that dream two months into his new gig as Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer at Doe-Anderson.
“It was perfect timing,” said Birnsteel, who joins the 98-year-old marketing firm for the second time at, we can assume, a considerably higher salary than the $19,000 he made in 1993. “I know (Doe CEO) Todd Spencer, who was an account manager when I was here before, and he made a role for me here. We’ve got new business, new staff. I hope to bring discipline to brand definition and strategy.”
There are still several staff members, and a few clients, who were here when he set sail for Cambridge in 1997, after three years as a junior staffer in the public relations division. Birnsteel grew up in the East End, attending Kentucky Country Day, before leaving for Connecticut College. When he earned his degree, he turned up at his parents’ house and started looking for a job. It took several months before he landed at Doe.
Spencer said he and Birnsteel started new jobs at Doe within a month of each other in the fall of 1993. While Spencer never left, ascending the corporate ladder at Doe, Birnsteel was racking up international branding experience.
“He’s a lot smarter than me, I guess,” Spencer said. “He’s got tons of experience with really big clients, global brands, but the great thing is he understands the Doe culture. It can be difficult to come to a smaller agency. Plus, he’s got instant credibility here. They know him.”
Birnsteel’s rock-star career in branding included three post-grad school stops in London, the last at FutureBrand, as Head of Strategy. He’s traveled the world, he said, building brands in such diverse environments as mining companies in South Africa, beverages in South America, financial organizations in Australia and automotive firms in Asia.
“There’s an adjustment to working in the U.S. again. In Europe, branding is focused on getting consensus, but in the U.S. it’s more of a top-down approach,” he said.
Birnsteel has a full plate at Doe. He had nine meetings on his calendar on a February Wednesday, including this one with me, a day that began in the office at 7 a.m.
Brinsteel has three general goals – to manage Doe’s account services team and the 20 people reporting directly to him, assure that Doe’s efforts for its clients are strategically sound, and work with Spencer to set strategy.
Spencer said Birnsteel brings “strategic discipline” to the agency that earned a 24.9 percent increase in billings last year, while adding 22 staff members. Among the new clients on board are Bluegrass Cellular, Pinnacle Entertainment and BDI Furniture.
“I’ve got a long to-do list, but I’ve been here two months, and I’m feeling fulfilled,” Birnsteel said.
After 16 years in London, there’s some adjusting to American life. He said his wife Lindsey, a Texan he met on a Cayman Islands vacation, have two young children, a fact that served as motivation in making the move to Doe. He said Lindsey approves of Louisville and its culture, saying the city has “exceeded expectations.”