"Ah, here it is." He produces an oversize flow chart, and what a doozy it is. A cross between the schematic for a Cray supercomputer and a New York City subway map, it's agog with overlapping boxes, lines and titles. "Here's a way to visualize why we started our own company," he explains. "This is how work went through the agency we were at before."
He pauses for a moment, then delivers the punch line: "Our approach was a chart that said `problem' in one box and a single line leading to another that said `ad."'
If the affable Saffel looks just a tad smug, maybe it's with good reason. While Cole & Weber, the agency that came up with this Jackson Pollock knock-off, has continued to build on its growing national reputation, the more minimalist effort created by Saffel and partner Fred Hammerquist has nonetheless attracted its own following. Since leaving Cole & Weber to open Hammerquist & Saffel Creative Services in Seattle almost three years ago, the former two-man shop has grown to a staff of 11, handling the equivalent of $8.2 million in annual billings.
Primarily a creative service, the agency also provides clients with media planning and account services. And while still Lilliputian by New York standards-even in Seattle they rank a mere15th in size-Hammerquist & Saffel is quietly building a reputation as experts in the hot and increasingly sweaty field of sports and recreation equipment.
The agency comes by its specialization naturally, given the robust avocations of its outdoorsy principals (both of whom appear to have extremely low resting pulse rates). Further, for more than seven years Hammerquist and Saffel worked on K2 Skis, both at Cole & Weber and then at their own shop. In fact, according to Director of Client Services Sally Bjornsen, a former Nike marketing executive and another outdoor habitue, the agency is one of the better known sports and recreation experts in the Pacific Northwest, after, of course, a certain notorious Portland shop.
In their laid back but no-nonsense style, they firmly believe that working for their list of small but national clients-well-known brands like Raleigh bikes and the North Face, an outdoor equipment and apparel marketer-beats trying to build their agency by doing quirky ads for tiny local clients that might win them more awards (and publicity) than it wins the clients customers.
"Our perspective on doing that kind of work just to win awards is that this isn't an ad school, where you try to do clever wordplays," Saffel says. "Our advertising should solve business problems."
They have plenty of incentive to do so, aside from the usual motivation of keeping the business. The Hammerquist & Saffel credo holds that the agency owns the client's problems, a philosophy they came to while developing a close relationship with K2. As they tell it, over the years at Cole & Weber the account groups changed while they remained the one constant, leading to a point, Hammerquist says, where "the client felt the creative connection owned their problems."
Since then, they've applied this outlook to all their other accounts. Asked to define what it means, they say it's more than just looking to do an ad-in spite of what their stripped down flow chart might suggest.
"I think a lot of agencies are trying to get an ad out of the mix, and they'll walk away from the stuff that doesn't complete the whole marketing assignment," Hammerquist says.
Indeed, several of the agency's clients say the Hammerquist & Saffel approach has caused them to change the way they perceive their own set of marketing challenges. Leslie Fleming, creative services director at Berkeley, Calif.-based North Face, says the agency showed her that "they understood our needs, not only with consumers but with dealers. They also pushed us to think long term."
Jeff Scully, marketing manager at Raleigh USA Bicycles, echoes the sentiments: "They were sensitive to the category, they did a lot of research, and demonstrated an understanding of how to deal with both retailers and consumers. They were also sensitive to our need for a complete package," not just advertising but a broader vision of product marketing tools for the sales staff to use.
Hammerquist and Saffel are basically a couple of conservative guys when it comes to their outlook on the business, but the seemingly crazy decision to start their own shop in the recession-weary days of 1991 was one that the partners thought made total sense. Clients were looking for less expensive alternatives to the kinds of costs associated with Cole & Weber's complex flow chart, and the duo wanted to streamline the process for them.
Within a month of opening, K2 followed them, and within a year they'd added Raleigh.
When it came time last November to fill the account services side of the equation, they went looking not so much on the agency side but on the client side, where they found Bjornsen. Hired by Nike to help start its Side 1 apparel and footwear line, she moved from marketing manager to national sales manager, prompting her to start looking for something more entrepreneurial.
That the agency settled into its recreational niche was a combination of serendipity and strategy.
"It was an area we had some experience in, but I think early on the advertising we did showed that we understood the consumer in that niche, and that's what made us an easy sell to a lot of clients," Saffel says.
Their work, which often mixes informal style with close attention to detail, is an interesting reflection of their own corporate personality. This trait is best reflected in the Nishiki bike campaign, a combination
of funky but still easily readable layouts that mix irreverent headlines and trendy fonts with hard-core technical info on the products. Raleigh,
on the other hand, is less a techie sell than it is an experience. These ads give the product a simple, feel-good treatment in which the bike
itself is barely visible, accompanied by a single, nostalgic headline and no body copy.
For North Face, the agency changes tack and takes a more formal approach, one that's still design-driven. Using strong headlines interlaced with product information, product shots, inspirational copy and small but forbidding shots of the kinds of terrain these products are made for, the campaign demonstrates Hammerquist's talent for mixing diverse visual elements, a popular approach in print these days.
Quickie is another client that seems to match the agency's can-do demeanor. It was founded by a woman injured in a hang-gliding accident who asked some friends who build hang-gliders to fabricate a wheelchair for her. Their whole philosophy, Bjornsen says, is to "design products that will let people go out and experience life." The positioning Hammerquist
& Saffel devised is built around the line "Get out there," which is fast becoming Quickie's version of "Just do it."
While print is its primary medium, the agency has also done two TV spots for Boise, Idaho-based Trus Joist McMillan, one of a handful of accounts not in the sports and recreational niche. One spot demonstrates the Silent Floor product (an I-shaped floor beam that keeps floors from creaking) by showing a cutaway floor with an elephant walking on it.
The agency has doubled in size in the past six months, a direction that, while encouraging, also has its downside. For this gang, the ability to practice what they preach about the outdoor lifestyle is a big part of
what makes them attractive to clients. That the Hammerquist & Saffelers actually bike, climb, hike and ski isn't just a matter of keeping fit; it keeps them in touch with their clients' constituencies while keeping them on top of the products-a kind of aerobic research. One thing they don't want to become is too busy to stay in touch with that side of their lives.
"I think that's why we've turned down some business in the past,"
Saffel says. "Just to be busy or run some more money through here is not
a big idea for us. We'll grow because clients are asking us to grow."
Bjornsen says they're hoping "The way we looked at it, we don't know what this can become, while we know what that side of the fence looks like," Saffel says. "Even if we
create an agency that ends up being a lot like other agencies, we'll have
gotten there on our own."
This is the fourth agency to be spotlighted in this monthly feature,
where Advertising Age focuses on relatively young (and small) shops that
appear to be on the road to fame and fortune through their fresh creative
work. Senior Editor Gary Levin, in our New York Bureau, supervises the
"Who Are These Guys?" feature. Anthony Vagnoni, editor of Creativity,
AA's monthly review of the creative process, participates in the selection
process with Mr. Levin and other AA editors.