Helping companies reach consumers in the pandemic lifts Santa Rosa marketing agency The Engine Is Red


Santa Rosa-based marketing agency The Engine Is Red has been both rocked by pullback from clients in industries still reeling from the pandemic and propelled by businesses looking to quickly shift their communications in this economic environment.

Despite a big revenue hit in March–April 2020 in the early weeks of the pandemic, the firm has seen a steady increase in business as companies shift their branding efforts and more large firms seek nimble boutique agencies, according to founder Christopher Denny.

“There have been opportunities for new thinking, and that’s when we get the call,” he said. “There’s demand for helping new clients and existing clients to reach consumers in fast-changing world.”

Account budgets for the agency from the hospitality industry largely still haven’t returned to pre-March 2020 levels as hotels and other venues struggle with staffing, he said.

But wine and other beverage alcohol companies have been looking to connect with consumers after longtime closures of on-premises imbibing venues were closed or had limited access for a good portion of the pandemic so far. And health care and life sciences clients have been shifting their communications to reach a public eager for health information.

Revenue ended 2020 up 81% from the year before, and 2017—2020 growth of 113% brought the agency back for a second time in five years to the Inc. 5000 national list of fast-growing companies, ranking at No. 3,230.

The agency has grown to a staff of 19, but the trajectory is leaning more toward the Minneapolis-area studio opened four years ago. The firm had been relocating recruits from that area to Sonoma County going back a decade because of the cluster of talent there.

“By end of this year, we’ll probably have more there than here,” Denny said. “But we’re not going anywhere. We’ll always have a studio in Santa Rosa.”

The company purchased a 5,900-square-foot building in Santa Rosa a year ago and a year before that acquired Vertical, a packaging design firm focused on the wine business.

Jeff Quackenbush covers wine, construction and real estate. Before the Business Journal, he wrote for Bay City News Service in San Francisco. He has a degree from Walla Walla University. Reach him at or 707-521-4256.

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