Via Agency's Leeann Leahy on the 'moral renaissance,' coming back from the pandemic and disco balls
You can expect Leeann Leahy, CEO of the Portland, Maine-based Via Agency to flub something—or maybe several things—today.
That’s because June 11 is Make Mistakes Day, a holiday she dreamed up for her children many years ago, when they were ages 7, 4 and 1. The idea, she says, is to try something new intentionally that carries risk, to teach them that “you can’t be perfect and you learn the most from failure.” Now that her kids are 20, 17 and 14, it’s still a lasting lesson.
Leahy joined Ad Age's "Ad Lib" podcast from her home office during the pandemic and talked about everything from the current racial protests to directing a commercial with Jim Perdue remotely via iPhone, to how her Catholic school education has shaped her (like Dr. Anthony Fauci, she attended College of the Holy Cross) and why she has a disco ball hardwired in her home.
Via, which took big honors in last year's Ad Age Small Agency Awards last year, has been fortunate in that it has not had to lay off any staff due to COVID-19 and Leahy feels that being independent has played a part in that. “The founder and the executive team feel a moral obligation to put people before revenue, and I don’t think all the holding companies have the luxury of having that consideration,” she says. “That is the immeasurable benefit of being independent.”
That’s not to say it hasn’t been tough. Many of the agency’s clients, which include Lowe’s, Arm & Hammer and Klondike, have prospered while some others, like retailer L.L. Bean, are under great pressure. “We are in the extremely lucky position in that a lot of our clients are considered essential brands,” says Leahy. “I know how much pain our peer agencies have been suffering.”
The diversified roster is part of a purposeful “shrink to grow” strategy led by Leahy five years ago after Via resigned a client who represented 40 percent of its roster. “It was not a client that was nice to us, it was not a client that valued our strategy and it was not a client that allowed us to do work we were proud of and wanted to share widely to the world.” After parting ways, Via restructured its approach to business in a way that has led to a greater breadth of accounts.
Leahy spoke to "Ad Lib" right after concluding a meeting with the shop’s diversity and inclusion leaders as racial protests rocked the country and says she believes the nation is “offering us the opportunity for a moral renaissance,” and that the industry “must get in front of it and lead the way.” As we spoke, Via’s team was in the process of finding ways to apply its talent and resources to “incite action for the long term,” she says.
“It has become political but this is a human issue that is being politicized,” says Leahy. “As a human race we are harming each other, we are disregarding each other and that is not acceptable. It needs to be fixed and we [at Via] will do what we can to fix that.”
Advertising runs deep with Leahy, who at 6 months old was an Ivory Snow model and has acted and been in commercials and a few feature length films in her younger years. But it was a role she took in seventh grade in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” that helped shape her overall career.
Leahy recalls that after the performance she asked her mom how she did, and her mother responded, “Eh, it wasn’t your best.” Says Leahy, “people who I tell that story to say ‘that’s so mean,’” but it was true and the point was taken: When giving a compliment make sure it is real. “Honest feedback,” says Leahy, “is the most genuine gift you can give someone.”
Oh and as for the disco ball, you’ll just have to listen to find out why she has it, but we’ll tell you this: Leahy says “dancing is always a good choice, even if you are terrible at it.”
Make no mistake about that.
Ad Age's Small Agency Awards & Conference will be held virtually on August 3-5. Tickets go on sale next week here.