Jim Michelson, daughters Debbie Fuger and Pam Renusch, and son Jamie Michelson take a break in the lobby of the SMZ office in Troy March 28.

Jim Michelson, daughters Debbie Fuger and Pam Renusch, and son Jamie Michelson take a break in the lobby of the SMZ office in Troy March 28.

Photo by Deb Jacques

SMZ Advertising celebrates 90 years of family dynamics in Troy

By: Terry Oparka | Troy Times | Published April 3, 2019

 Lawrence Michelson, left, and Leonard Simons, seen here around 1988, founded the advertising agency in 1929.

Lawrence Michelson, left, and Leonard Simons, seen here around 1988, founded the advertising agency in 1929.

Photo by Deb Jacques


TROY — Lawrence Michelson and Leonard Simons met in high school.

In the midst of the Great Depression, the pair got the idea to use multisized newspaper ads with photos of the products they were selling — mostly jewelry.

That evolved into a business in advertising, and they set up shop in the Lafayette Building in downtown Detroit in January 1929.

In 1961, Simons’ son-in-law, Mort Zieve, who had been a producer and director in local Detroit television, joined the agency. Jim Michelson, a graduate of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, came on in 1963.

In 1977, Jim Michelson and Mort Zieve bought the agency, renamed Simons-Michelson-Zieve Inc., or SMZ, and moved its headquarters to 3250 W. Big Beaver Road, in Troy’s Sheffield Office Park.

Jim Michelson’s wife, Bonnie Michelson, later joined the agency as a market research director, and three of their four children are currently with SMZ.

About 15 years after first coming to Troy, the agency moved to offices on Wilshire Boulevard. Four years ago, it moved to an open office concept on Kirts Boulevard, with a staff of about 50 people.

“There were a lot of exciting things happening in Troy,” Jamie Michelson, the president and CEO of the company, said of SMZ’s move to its present office in the midst of the development and redevelopment happening in Troy.

Although, technically, Jamie Michelson has been with the family business his whole life, he has worked for other agencies, including Doner Co. in Southfield and Geer DuBois in New York City.

He also graduated from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.

SMZ’s client list includes Beaumont Health System, the Michigan Lottery, the Detroit Tigers, the Grand Hotel, CARite, the Detroit Red Wings, the Detroit Zoo, Guardian Alarm, the Woodward Dream Cruise and General RV.

“We get to work on different businesses all the time,” Jamie Michelson said. “I think that’s what keeps people fresh — the diversity of the clients we serve.”

He said that when he first started his career in advertising, there were seven major media outlets in the area.

“Now there are thousands, if not millions, of places to target a message and get attention and interest in that message.”

He’s most proud of “when we all come together to address a client business challenge, and we do it and do it well, so it translates into a measurable business result, and you know you’re part of that result.”


Working with family
When Jamie Michelson was younger, he said, family gatherings could evolve into board meetings.

“Some spouses who aren’t in the business are quick to eye-roll if it (the family event) turns into a board meeting.”

He said that while “not every day is perfectly balanced, I do think we have boundaries (between business and family) and enjoy each other. We’re better about that now.

“This is a company where everyone’s in it together,” he said. “We cherish the people who have grown up here and look forward to bringing new people in.”

Mary Bridget Gielow has been with SMZ for 30 years.

After she graduated from Michigan State University, she started at SMZ in the traffic department, the department that keeps tabs on the work and monitors it through its various stages.

Now the company’s vice president and management supervisor, she said she serves as the equivalent of a project manager, managing clients.

She met her husband, John Gielow, at SMZ, where he is a vice president.

The biggest change she’s seen in her 30 years is that “the digital world has exploded and changed advertising drastically, at a so-much-faster pace. Even outdoor boards are digital.

“I’ve worked with all three generations of the Michelson family,” she said. “I just love this place. It’s an atmosphere of collaboration. It’s a wonderful group to work with.”

Gielow noted that there are a number of long-term employees. “That speaks to this place,” she said.

“We do work hard and put in the hours,” she said. “There are days that are tough. We do work as a team to get it done. I feel they’re like family to me. It’s been wonderful.”

Pam Renusch, an account director, is a third-generation Michelson. She handles the Michigan Lottery account and has been with SMZ for 30 years.

“I did not think I’d go into the family business,” she said. She studied psychology and communications at the University of Michigan.


Looking back
Renusch started at SMZ in an entry-level job in the traffic department. She also met her husband at SMZ.

“I started from the bottom to learn the business,” she said, recalling a day when Leonard Simons threw her the keys to his huge Buick and said, “I need a car wash.”

On working with family members, she said, “We like each other. It’s a testament to my father (Chairman Jim Michelson). He’s a very warm, caring, loyal person — a great mentor. Our personalities and strengths complement each other.”

Renusch agrees that the “most profound change has been the advent of digital media. It’s just a great business. It keeps us on our toes.

“Surviving and thriving for 90 years — advertising is a tough business. We’ve maintained, grown and thrived for a long time. Being part of that is very rewarding,” she said.

To mark 90 years, SMZ will host a benefit for the Children’s Center of Detroit, create a company time capsule and celebrate with a summertime party.

The Children’s Center works to improve the lives of children and families, according to its website.

Any past employees who have company stories to share or something to add to the time capsule can contact SMZ at info@smz.com. The time capsule will include items covering the agency’s past as far back as possible through today, and it will be opened on the 100th anniversary.

“Throughout the years, we have moved with the industry as it has changed and grown while remaining steadfast in our beliefs and dedication to our clients and each other,” Jim Michelson, the firm’s chairman and the son of co-founder Lawrence Michelson, said in a prepared statement. “The longevity of SMZ is a testament to the ethics, inventiveness and hard work behind it, and I’m very pleased my children will carry on the family tradition.”