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Power Couple

Lauren Dixon and Mike Schwabl: A Romantic Story of Success

By Ernst Lamothe Jr.

Lauren Dixon and Mike SchwablWhile great ideas may sprout overnight, successful execution of those ideas takes time, diligence, determination, luck, creativity and will.

It’s the ingredients that many businesses have tried to establish, but failed to correctly achieve the recipe. Then there’s Dixon Schwabl, a Victor-based full-service advertising, public relations and digital media agency that continues to be ranked among the best small and medium workplaces for 12 consecutive years.

This past year marked the company’s 30th anniversary along with the 28th year wedding anniversary of co-owners Lauren Dixon and Mike Schwabl. Forget about the phrase “don’t mix business with family” — the couple thrives because of it.

“When we look back on everything we have accomplished and where we started from, the journey has really been incredible. And we are not even close to being done,” said Schwabl, 57, of Canandaigua, president of the company.

They have brought the company from a small two-person firm to an integrated agency with more than 120 employees and more than 100 clients nationally. Last year, the agency generated nearly $76 million in revenue.

Humble beginnings

When Dixon started Lauren Dixon Advertising in 1987, she put out an ad in The Buffalo News for a writer and photographer. She filled the spot with Schwabl.

With Dixon having a background in front of the camera as part of a real estate showcase, Schwabl was behind the camera shooting and developing slides for the show. The business relationship soon turned into a fast friendship. They got to know each other very well, but it was nothing but professional even though friends on both sides were in their ears saying otherwise.

“We would have long drives while we were working and we were so busy working we didn’t have time to see anyone else other than each other,” said Schwabl. “Everyone kept telling me that I should ask her out, but my first thought is that, ‘I could never ask my boss to go out on a date.’”

They continued to keep everything friendly, even going to a comedy club one night.

“That was a big mistake for a few reasons. Number one, we sat in the front row which you should never do,” added Schwabl. “Secondly, the comedian thought we were a couple and started making jokes about us, so that was a little awkward.”

For Dixon, she has the same feelings when people automatically assumed the pair should be an item.

“I just kept thinking that I would not break my golden rule which is dating someone at work,” she said. “I thought the rule made sense and it just wouldn’t work out. Plus, I had been divorced for a year and hadn’t dated anyone in that time.”

Then about six months into working together, they figured they would blow off some steam from working hard and see a movie. While they were driving toward Canandaigua, suddenly, a strong snowy blizzard met them strongly in their path. A few unfortunate series of events followed. They decided that day to drive Dixon’s sports car, which wasn’t handling the weather well. It made them stop for wine on Main Street in Canandaigua to hopefully wait out the storm.

When Lauren Dixon started Lauren Dixon Advertising in 1987, she put out an ad in The Buffalo News for a writer and photographer. She filled the spot with Mike Schwabl. They would later marry and grow the business from a two-person team to a staff of 120 people.

“First, it hit me that, ‘Wait, am I on a date?’,” she said.  “Then as I am getting out of my car, I immediately realized that I locked my keys in my car and that it was likely an official first date.”

Dixon Schwabl employees dress up for Hawaiian Day at the office.
Dixon Schwabl employees dress up for Hawaiian Day at the office.

Bumpy beginnings turned into lasting love. Two years later, they were married.

And then there is the question they get asked all the time: How is it working with your spouse? Schwabl said forget the idea that distance makes the heart grow fonder.

“I love that I get to work with my wife every day. It is amazing,” he added. “In the early days, running a company takes a lot of effort and hours. We worked as a team. We both had to travel but we were both working toward the same goals.”

It is not surprising they have succeeded in their almost three-decade relationship. They are both extroverts, but they have slight differences in their personality. Schwabl leads the organization more from a feeling perspective, while Dixon does it from a pragmatic approach.

“My gift is that I am a thinker and logical. Mike does a good job not only having a great sense of humor, but in caring about everyone’s feelings. When we make a decision, we look at it from both sides, and it helps us make good decisions,” she said.

Family affair

In the beginning of the business, their schedules rarely overlapped. She would leave for work at 4 a.m., while he got the kids ready for school, even sketching out drawings on their paper bag lunches. Then she would be home and make dinner for their four children while Schwabl worked at night.

“We were always a team and that is why the marriage and business worked so well together,” said Dixon. “Mike would put the girls’ hair in a ponytail and get them ready for the day. I remember my dad saying four kids is not going to be easy, so just always have a Plan B with any of your plans just in case things don’t work out. And he was right because when anything ever went sideways, we didn’t freak out.”

Their kids grew up around the business, so it is not surprising that three out of four work there and the fourth is also in marketing. Their eldest daughter, Courtney, 34, is director of marketing and communications at Allendale Columbia School in Rochester. Next up is Jordan, 32, who works as director of strategic workflow at Dixon Schwabl. Then there is Connor, 28, who works as a studio manager, and Madison, 23, who is an executive assistant.

Schwabl said he remembers taking Connor to work with him while he was doing audio-visual work, so it warms his heart to see his son taking over that part of the business. They said Jordan — with his great organizational skills — is well suited to make sure everything runs smoothly with projects and Madison running their schedules.

“It’s so funny that Madison, the person we used to be in charge of, is now in charge of scheduling us,” said Schwabl. “And our daughter, Courtney, has an incredible driven spirit.”

Building a brand

After previous workplace experiences, they sought to create a different atmosphere at the firm that would create productivity while empowering employees to thrive.

Their approach is multi-faceted. The culture starts inside their Victor headquarters, which combines a high level of fun, creativity and productivity. Executives believe those who enjoy where they work, who they work with and what they do help create the best environment to succeed.

They believe great ideas come from everywhere, not simply from the top down, along with the philosophy that any strategy must be integrated at all levels. They’re not exclusively a public relations, advertising or social media firm; they are all of those and more.

In an age when reaction time and speed are critical, having everything under one roof is essential.

“We knew the importance of bringing in different departments under one operation, so we could keep an eye on our clients’ needs while also looking for innovative trends and ideas to make their businesses better,” said Dixon, the company’s chief executive officer. “We are calculated risk takers, so we can give people what they want in the most cost-effective ways.”

It became part of their core value pillars: respect, integrity, teamwork, community, innovation, and fun.

Fortune magazine ranked Dixon Schwabl the No. 1 marketing firm to work for in America in 2016, and PR News named it one of the “Top Places to Work” in public relations in 2010 and from 2012-2016.

“It’s great to be on the list but what really makes us happy is the consistency of being on the list year after year,” said Dixon. “Our culture is that everyone takes it upon themselves to be the ultimate brand ambassadors and to make sure we advance that culture every day. We empower people to come up with big ideas and implement them because that is how you have more job satisfaction.”

Lauren Dixon and Mike Schwabl discuss a marketing campaign with the staff.
Lauren Dixon and Mike Schwabl discuss a marketing campaign with the staff.

They said the ideal company embraces teamwork, creativity, passion and fun so when they interview people, they ask them questions like; “What do you like to do at night or during the weekend?”

“People might think those are strange questions, but whether the answer is playing video games, hanging out at the mall for hours or volunteering, if you have our six core values, then it is going to show up in your work,” said Schwabl. “We are anything but stereotypical.”

The company even highlights its employees’ interests on their website page.

It shows employees fishing, playing hockey, sitting by the pool, playing with their kids, taking photographs, golfing, biking, eating, shopping, playing music, running, kayaking, baking, gardening, exercising, working on cars, and playing chess.

Each year, the company conducts a two-day all-staff team-building exercise led by an outside facilitator. They are also committed to preparing young people to enter the workforce.

In 30 years, they’ve had more than 800 interns. On Thursdays from May to Labor Day, employees go outdoors to enjoy ice cream and to socialize with co-workers. The company also offers employees profit sharing.

The company reported that in 2008 and 2010, its job application rate grew by more than 242 percent. They currently receive 300 applicants for every job posted.

“I was speaking in California at a conference about our success and people couldn’t believe it,” said Dixon. “They saw all the initiatives we did and thought we were spending too much money. They just don’t understand that you can be very profitable if your business is productive and your staff values the work they are doing.”

You can’t be a high-functioning organization without high-functioning people. Dixon Schwabl officials say they combine remarkable, talented brains with big hearts to produce outstanding results.

To the power couple, culture truly matters.

“Our success without a doubt comes from the people who work here,” said Schwabl. “We have a good track record of finding the best people in our field who truly want to be creative and put together something amazing. We walk down the halls and we can talk directly to our staff and make real connections instead of just a conference call. If you attract and retain great candidates, then you will have a successful company.”

Having sustained success starts with being adaptable. They started looking at the way they did business differently around 2010. Focusing more on research, data metrics and result-focused information, they created a necessary infrastructure for the future.

It might have sounded insane at the time, but they did their due diligence. Almost eight years ago, it was revolutionary for the company to shift into this new mindset. Today, it’s now commonplace to have analytics in everything.

“I tell people that this is the most exciting time in marketing history,” said Schwabl. “You look at how things were back then in the age of ‘Mad Men’ and see where things are going now; it is just incredible. Things are moving at such a fast pace and advanced analytics are here to stay.”

But in the end, storytelling remains king.

“We can make all the changes in the world to technology, but at the start we have to be able to craft an interesting story for our clients to take with them to their clients,” added Dixon.

Successful partnerships

Dixon Schwabl has been involved in some of the biggest campaigns in the Rochester area during the past decade. The PGA of America asked the company to manage public relations and social media efforts for the 95th PGA Championship at Rochester’s Oak Hill Country Club in August 2013.

Lauren Dixon  poses for “DS all-star playing cards” shots as part of a promotional campaign.
Lauren Dixon  poses for “DS all-star playing cards” shots as part of a promotional campaign.

The PGA wanted to sell out tickets and corporate hospitality, fill its 3,800 volunteer positions, raise general awareness and secure media coverage within a 300-mile radius of the club.

The firm created a steady stream of PGA Championship news through press releases, media alerts, photos, PR stunts, and a strong social media presence that listened to and engaged with fans daily. The first included a regional media tour of New York state and Ontario, Canada, and “Golf Balls on Parade, which features fiberglass golf balls that are painted by local artists and sold to area businesses.

They also put on media and tourism receptions in Toronto, a PGA history exhibit featuring rare artifacts at the Rochester Museum & Science Center, and media day with defending champion Rory McIlroy.

“There were some doubters of our social media plan and our tactics, but we were confident in ourselves and we had great success because we pushed the boundaries and created something memorable,” said Schwabl.

United Way of Greater Rochester needed a new powerful message to help with its fundraising. They wanted a brand refresh and a powerful marketing campaign that would be simple yet still generate an emotional appeal. Dixon Schwabl came up with a strong two-word message: “Changing Lives.”

Through video, public relations and marketing efforts, the campaign helped reinvigorate the community’s connection with the long-time organization.

United Way President and CEO Fran Weisberg has known Dixon for years in many different capacities and has a deep respect for her and her organization.

“Every step of the way, she has been here to help and support me,” said Weisberg. “What I admire about Lauren is that she is so involved in the community. She really cares and that makes her a dynamic person, a dynamic leader and someone who is truly special.”

Weisberg also said Schwabl inspires women in the community as a shining example leading a nationally recognized company.

“It is not an accident that Dixon-Schwabl is known as a great place to work because Lauren and Mike are incredible people who are dedicated to their clients and the people who work with them,” added Weisberg. “They have built something from the ground up.”

About two years ago, Roberts Wesleyan College asked Dixon Schwabl for a brand campaign to establish a consistent brand position in the marketplace and with internal audiences. The campaign needed to be good to go in four weeks.

The company embarked on a strategy that undertook an in-depth market analysis and key consideration factors such as academics, religious affiliations, tuition, size, and athletic standing among other competitive universities.

Through a campaign called “Higher Learning,” they captured Roberts’ essential mission, which was higher education serving a higher purpose. The campaign included public relations, marketing, direct mail and other methods to increase the college’s brand identity. The college and Dixon Schwabl have had a relationship since the start with Roberts being their second-ever client.

“Their team does extremely excellent work and we have nothing but complete faith in everything they do for us. They helped us find a stronger voice in the community for people to truly understand the mission and work of our college,” said Donna McLaren, associate vice president of brand and marketing communications.

It has been an incredible shift to see the ways the company can help its clients from 30 years ago to now.

“I jokingly look at our jobs 15 years ago and I think, ‘Man, it was so darn easy compared to now,” joked Dixon. “It was mostly billboards, direct mail, radio and television. Now the opportunity to tell stories is so varied.”

Helping community

Along with working with each other, three of their children are on the Dixon Schwabl team and the fourth is a client. The company is extremely philanthropic and always encourages its team to give back to the community. Just this year, Dixon Schwabl served as event coordinators for the American Heart Association’s Rochester Heart Walk & Run, helping lead the event to a $780,000 fundraising total. They also continue to do work with United Way.

“It’s no wonder that when she leads the United Way campaign as co-chair, we raised more than $25 million,” Weisberg said.

“That is the great thing about Lauren and Mike is that this is more than just a partnership. It has turned into a friendship,” added McLaren. “Almost every day in my job, I talk to someone from their team. And I consider Lauren a great friend and mentor that I have learned so much from. They are both leaders in the community and examples of the kind of businesses we want in our community.”

Even with success comes learning from obstacles. Schwabl said he learned to make tough decisions quicker, which wasn’t always the case in the early going. Dixon said she learned that all the big ideas don’t always have to come from the top. But in the end, their three decades of hard work has turned out to be more incredible than they could have ever imaged.