WHO ARE THESE GUYS?;BIG ADVERTISERS SHOW FAITH OF LEAP

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You ask most agencies what they're about-particularly small, younger start-ups-and they're likely to start hawking their work. Chances are by the time you've worked your way through the portfolio you'll have come across a couple of gut-wrenching pro bono ads, a few in-your-face executions for videogames or other high tech accounts and a smattering of outrageous posters for fringe clients like local coffeehouses or condom shops.

But you ask the guys at the Leap Partnership-partners George Gier, 35; Joe Sciarrotta, 33; Fred Smith, 41; and Rick Lutterbach, 45-what they're about and you're likely to get an impassioned polemic about the questionable value of traditional full-service agencies, along with a very professional-looking brochure that, when it's not sounding like some kind of a B-school case study, above all comes off as being very serious.

And of course, instead of the local erotic baker, Leap just happens to include on its client list quirky little companies like Nike and Miller Brewing Co.

Clearly, wild and crazy these guys are not.

Which suits this quartet of forward thinkers just fine. More than any other agency start-up in recent memory, Chicago-based Leap has staked out a terrain all its own: This is the shop that claims to marry strategic thinking and creative, and does so without the help of account execs.

At Leap, what the founders would like you to think you've encountered is a new, hybrid breed of agency person: not pure creative, not all nuts and bolts strategy, but rather one who's conversant in the often warring gestalt of both.

"People have been hearing the term `creative only' about us, and I think that scares them," says Gier, a copywriter in his former agency life. "That scares clients, it scares everybody. It gives them the impression of a band of renegade creatives running amok. But for us it's a misnomer."

Rather, what Gier says Leap has done is take idea development and strategic thinking and combine them in one accountable entity-unlike at traditional agencies, where he claims creative is usually divorced from the strategic process.

"Our whole mission is to drive sales," Gier says, "and to do whatever it takes. There's no ability to say, `That's not my department.' Here there's no one down the hall to point fingers at."

To boot, the Leap position holds that these guys, by dint of their experience, talent and commitment, can do this faster, better and more efficiently than your average bloated multinational. And make no mistake, that's who these guys see as their competition, not Big Bob's Ad Ranch.

This approach has made the Leap Partnership, which recently celebrated its second anniversary, a source of great curiosity in the agency world. Heightening that attention is Leap's landing of clients like Miller, for which it handles the Lite Ice brand, and Nike, for which it will create advertising for the Niketown chain of retail stores.

The agency was formed when Gier, Sciarrotta and Smith, all veterans of big agencies, came to the joint realization that in this post Creative Artists Agency world, clients were opening up to the idea of working with non-traditional agency structures.

The three left DDB Needham Worldwide, where they'd worked on the Bud Light "Yes I Am!" campaign, to form a shop that would from the start have a very different unique selling proposition.

Lutterbach joined within months, and if anyone is an odd man out in this quartet, he is. A self-made millionaire, Lutterbach hails from the business world and has no background or experience in advertising agencies.

He is, however, a close friend of Smith and a guy who prides himself on having a nose for growth opportunities. When Smith told him in 1993 that he was quitting his DDB Needham job to co-found Leap, Lutterbach decided to sign on as well, becoming a full partner.

(According to Gier, Lutterbach hasn't bankrolled the agency's start-up costs but has helped steer the fledgling shop to lines of credit as well as providing much-needed financial guidance and business acumen.)

Asked to define Leap's role at Miller, Scott Barnum, franchise director-premium brands, says: "We call them an idea factory. We don't see them as a creative-only place. They're idea generators across the board, [providing] promotional, tactical and packaging ideas that are well-grounded strategically. And that's a valuable resource to have."

By and large, Leap is well-regarded in the local ad community, though there also exists about them a sense of mystery.

"I have no idea what they're doing there, or who they're working for," says one local adman who's on top of the scene.

Again, this suits the Leapers just fine. They're almost obsessive about privacy, and even declined to provide a billings figure for the agency, as well as personal info about where they live or their families. (Leap works on a fee structure and places no media; estimates of the equivalent in billings runs upwards of $50 million.)

As befits a shop that sees the development of sound brand strategies as its primary function, the Leap portfolio isn't exactly what you'd call cutting edge.

Its work for Miller Lite Ice, while carefully skewed toward a younger male demographic, has a somewhat tame Gen X feel to it. More rewarding was Leap's "Zelig"-inspired Miller Lite spot featuring fictional football hero Elmer Bruker (digitally superimposed into old game footage), which ran on the last Super Bowl.

While a campaign the agency did earlier on a project basis for Boston Market that compared the chain's food with home-cooked meals had a sanitized, big agency feel, its new print campaign for Tommy Armour Golf mixes elegant art direction with clever headlines.

If the work looks mainstream, the agency is hardly apologetic.

Says Gier of zany creative ideas that win awards and look good in portfolios but don't do much else: "This is not what advertising is about. It's not about showing how clever you are; it's about solving real world marketing problems in a creative way, so you can communicate with consumers."

At the same time, Leap has taken on the very modern trappings of new media practitioners; Leap is equipped with both a random access editing system and a T-1 phone line on site, and it uses both in the development of multimedia projects.

Currently, Smith says, they're busy designing Web pages and CD-ROMs for clients, among them the University of Notre Dame (not a pro bono account, it's worth noting).

When the Leap Partnership first opened, Gier and Sciarrotta said they thought they could have a staff of 100 and billings close to $100 million.

So far, Sciarrotta now says, "we feel like we're right on schedule. We're sticking to our business plan, and we haven't had to zig or zag to compensate for things not working out."

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