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This Ad Agency Bets on Vets

By Published on .

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For most ad agency staffers, Memorial Day is celebrated with a day off, marching bands, retail discounts and perhaps fireworks. But at one New York shop, it's decidedly quieter.

Sherry Russell
Sherry Russell Credit: Morgan Russell Photography

"Memorial Day is very personal for everyone around here," said Sherry Russell, co-founder and chief creative officer of Ayni Brigade. "We are low-key in our observation – we allow our staff the space and time to observe [or] serve in a way that is most meaningful to them." This year the agency plans to post a brief essay by an employee—an Army veteran—on its social media pages about the significance of the day for its staff.

And the day does have special signficance for the agency, which by design is heavily staffed mainly by military vets.

The idea to hire U.S. vets came from a surprising place -- Peru. While on hiking trip in the Andes Mountains in 2011 with her husband, Russell wondered why the villagers remained at the mercy of the inclement weather, with their thatched-roof homes constantly ravaged by rain and winds.

A local guide told them about a principle called "Ayni" — a principle of mutual reciprocity, "where everybody looks out for one another," Russell said. "When it's time to thatch the roofs, they know the whole village is going to pitch in and help," she said. "The loose translation is, 'For you, today. For me, tomorrow,' meaning that you can always count on each other, because you have each other's back. We were really struck by that."

When the family returned stateside, the couple tried to figure out how they could put the concept in practice in their own lives. They considered the high unemployment rate, which was especially high among veterans, and in 2013, Ayni Brigade was born. "Our goal is to hire military veterans because there aren't very many in our industry, and train them and teach them to do what we do," said Russell, who with her husband sold their first agency to Eric Mower & Associates in 2008.

Russell leads the creative, digital boutique part of the business; Her husband Mark, who is CEO, heads up the marketing strategy and business consulting side. Their third co-founder and the company's chief operating officer is Brian Hollyfield, a Marine Corps veteran. They three have drawn clients including SAP, St. Joseph's Health and Eaton's Ephesus Lighting, a few of which sought out the firm because of its investment in veteran hiring, Russell said.

Though she believes veterans have exactly the kinds of skills an agency would want -- among them discipline and strategic thinking--Russell said businesses can have a tough time knowing how to translate military skills into an agency setting, and said veterans themselves have to battle misconceptions that might make them seem at odds with a creative job.

"They're not people with brush cuts and collars and buttoned-up and always standing at attention. Not at all. They're people with depth and personality," she said. "Once they start a task, they're laser-focused on it and stay on the path and see it all the way through to completion. They tend to have very high integrity. They're very trustworthy."

The firm, which now employs 17 full-time staff including 10 veterans, makes hires that might not have all the traditional skills, but want to learn.

"We're set up to be kind of a learning institution," Russell said. "There are five of us that have been in the business over 30 years, all in different areas of the business, so we kind of serve as mentors and teachers and actually collaboratively work on all projects together."

Chris Cravens, national director of candidate acquisition at Cincinnati, Ohio-based recruiting company RecruitMilitary, said unlike areas like engineering or nursing, vets or agencies might not know how to translate that military background for a potential career in the ad industry, even if some had marketing experience while serving.

"There's not a true one-for-one" in advertising, he said. "That makes a lot of people hesitant because they can't really, truly articulate that they did this in the military."

Russell says the firm doesn't receive any tax credits or other incentives since it tends to hire veterans who are either just graduating from college programs or employed elsewhere.

Jamie Arnold, marketing and communications officer for St. Joseph's Health, a Syracuse-based health care system, said it enlisted Ayni Brigade for branding work because it was impressed by the intelligence-gathering roots of the firm's staffers.

"Their ability to apply that same level of strategic thinking and research in the marketing space to get us the data so we can be successful with our campaigns … those services are invaluable," Arnold said. "Those skills are something that means a lot to us and they're really good at it. All the more meaningful when it's with a team of veterans."

Ayni Brigade has roughly doubled in headcount each year since it started, with capitalized billings in 2016 at $13.6 million and a projected 2017 total of $22 million. Russell said she hopes the company will double in revenue again next year. And though she wants to continue seeking out veterans, she said she wants the company to be known for its work, not just its hiring practices.

"It's a thing we do, but it's not who we are," she said. "We want people to think of us as a marketing consultancy with a creative boutique, not a veteran company."

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