Sip & Share: Tunheim

sip_share_logo_finalLast month my colleague Chuck Tanowitz and I had the opportunity to visit our friends at Tunheim in Minneapolis. We toured their beautiful office, enjoyed appetizers and cocktails, learned more about each agency and discussed industry trends. After our visit, Liz Tunheim Sheets and I reconnected to continue our conversation.

HB Agency: What’s life like at Tunheim?

Liz Tunheim Sheets: Tunheim is a communications consultancy. We have 20 full-time employees with at least that many of what we call ACEs – affiliated consultants and experts – and on any given day some semblance of our employees and ACEs are working in our office. When we renovated in 2013, we aimed to make our space open and modular so our talent can work however helps them be most productive. We also have a very open policy on remote working and continually remind staff that it is about getting work done and not whether they are present at their desk. That probably doesn’t work for everyone, but I think for our team it shows that leadership trusts staff to make good decisions and that not everyone gets work done the same way. I personally think it is a great thing about our culture because it really promotes getting the work done.

Tunheim is a very familial environment. It is a place where people feel empowered, trusted by their colleagues and generally like working and being together. Simple example: We built a large harvest table in our kitchen because our team likes to eat lunch together and we often do potlucks and happy hours here. After people leave, we hear that they miss the Tunheim “family.” It is why our Twitter handle is @TeamTunheim.


We live by and promote a talent philosophy we call “Collective Best.” Led by Kathy Tunheim and her many years of experience as a Honeywell executive, we don’t feel the need to own all our talent, but we want access to the right talent when their expertise is essential to our client needs. This is part of why we joined IPREX. We always want our clients to feel like Tunheim delivered on their needs.

HB: Can you tell me a little more about your role at the agency?

LTS: My role has shifted since I joined Tunheim in 2012. I was brought to Tunheim to lead and build out our digital and social offering. At first that meant I was solely focused on digital and social work, but client needs have shifted and we really believe clients should have an integrated communications approach so our digital and social media work is usually integrated with our other service offerings. Not always, but that is the advice we bring to our clients. Our digital team—three of us—is typically pulled in when there is any digital implication to consider. We do a lot of the work in-house because we have a strong talent bench in the space, but we often partner with other firms or freelancers when additional expertise or skills will amplify our product. Sheets2-533x800

HB: Who is Tunheim’s target client? What kind of organizations do you work with?

LTS: We work with all kinds of clients. We’ve moved away from industry focuses because our value proposition is really more impactful in what the client is facing. The world is changing faster than fast and Tunheim helps its clients rethink. Whether the client is navigating complex change, wanting to take responsibility for being understood by its stakeholders or earn the reputation it deserves, we partner with our clients to bring the insight and strategy they need to make impactful decisions for their business. We know clients make good decisions when they have the right information and so we aim to give critical and honest advice. We still do a lot of execution – content creation, media relations, social media relations, etc. – for our clients, but how projects start has shifted in the last few years.

We work with a lot of corporations and foundations/non-profits. We do also have a large public affairs team and have built a strong specialty navigating the complex intersection of public policy, stakeholders, media and decision-makers, including coalition building.

HB: Talk about your transition from a “traditional communications agency” to a strategic consulting firm. How has your business changed since the transition?

LTS: Tunheim began as a communications consultancy 25 years ago. Our work has shifted over the years based on client needs, but we’ve organically seen the work we’re doing shift back to consulting. Clients come to Tunheim for all kinds of communications help, but when we’re honest about our core capabilities, we know our team has the experience and expertise to help our clients rethink and solve business problems.

With this shift we’ve moved toward more large projects and less retainers. We’ve collapsed our hierarchy and adjusted our roles and responsibilities to create less hierarchy and more autonomy for our team.

We also no longer have managers but rather coaches, which is intended to empower employees to make decisions and increase their ability to think critically.

In 2014 we re-worked our roles and responsibilities to have only two levels for full-time staff: Consultant and senior consultant. There are a few people with additional responsibilities, like Kathy Tunheim (CEO + Principal), Pat Milan (Chief Creative Officer, sometimes called our Chief Destruction Officer) and Lindsay Treichel (Chief Transformation Officer). The level change has taken some getting used to I think but represents a change in how we approach our work. No longer do we see ourselves as an agency to execute client projects, but rather as consultants who help our client rethink and solve problems.

HB: One of your offerings is sports marketing which I don’t think many IPREX partners offer. Can you talk more about that service and what makes it unique?

LTS: We have a long, long history in this space and in a lot of different ways. We’ve worked in a lot of sports from racing to baseball to soccer to stadiums to football – you name it, someone on our team has worked on it. The type of work ranges too from business consulting to publicity to sponsorship activation, to grassroots campaigns for stadium support to what we’re doing a lot of right now which is bid management. Minnesota has a few beautiful, new stadiums, including the new U.S. Bank Stadium, which is currently still under construction. We’ve partnered with the bid committees here to bring the bids to life for the Super Bowl, NCAA Final Four and College Football Championships, mostly led by one of our ACEs who has incredible experience in the space. And we just announced that we’ve been selected by Copper Peak to help the U.S. secure international ski competitions.

HB: Can you tell us a little more about the ACE Program?

LTS: Back to the “collective best” model mentioned above, we enacted ACEs early on so we could have access to the best talent all the time – many times really specialized or experienced talent that we don’t have projects for all the time but who bring a unique point of view to the work we do for clients. We have quite a few ACEs who are highly respected, have their own consulting practices and who are proud to be part of the greater Tunheim team. We also have ACEs who bring our team skills that we need, but they get the flexibility to work on projects outside our walls, too. It is a win-win. Our roster of past ACEs is really impressive and it connects Tunheim to another sphere of talent that we can access for our clients.

HB: In honor of this series, what’s your go-to beverage in the evening as you’re wrapping up the day in the office and mingling with colleagues?

LTS: Definitely wine. We have four seasons here so my go-to choice changes based on our weather, but my current go-to are dry French rosés.



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