Small Agency of the Year, Gold: Via
The Via Agency is housed in the Baxter building, built in 1888 as the public library of Portland, Maine. The imposing peaks and gables of the stone facade and wooden beam-studded high-ceiling interior led one Via client to dub the building the "Hogwarts of Advertising."
And if the building is Hogwarts, then CEO and founder John Coleman is its Harry Potter. With similar rounded black-framed glasses, an affable charm and wide-eyed curiosity about everything, Mr. Coleman even seems to have Master Potter's magic touch -- in the advertising industry at least.
Via, Ad Age's Small Agency of the Year for 2011, this year alone signed on Friendly's, Romano's Macaroni Grill, and People's United Bank, as well as debuted major campaigns for both Samsung's Galaxy tablet and its home appliance brands, Unilever's Klondike and Popsicle brands and Prestige Brand's PediaCare.
Even Mr. Coleman is a bit in awe of what has happened with his agency over the past few years.
"I've asked myself why are we gaining more and more momentum now? Because I've been doing this for a long time," said Mr. Coleman, who founded the agency 18 years ago. "In some ways, the worse the economy got, the better we did. ... I think the problems became so acute by last year that we benefited from the fact that larger agencies are not handling this very well, and clients are looking outside for innovation, ideas and results. This really is the time for small agencies to prosper."
Of course, simple economics aren't the only reason for Via's rise. Employees cite the creative and challenging environment at Via, along with plenty of ex-big-league agency talent that all keep the level of work high caliber, including Chief Creative Officer Greg Smith (12 years at Via) and Chief Operating Officer Ann Morton (nine months).
Ms. Morton, who joined from McGarryBowen, New York, jumped at the chance to leave big-agency and big-city life for what she calls the industry's "best-kept secret."
"I think we are realists -- we say 'new traditionalists,'" Ms. Morton said. "We want to be creative and do so in a meaningful way, but at the end of the day we understand what we're here to do, and that is to help our clients sell products and services."
Their marketing clients cite not only the caliber of talent, but also Via's almost old-world savviness in client relationships combined with new-world thinking and digital expertise.
For example, when Via found out the Samsung team was coming in for an unexpected visit last year, they did a quick brand check on their flat screens and were relieved to find that eight out of 10 were Samsung models. But that wasn't good enough for them. At 10 p.m., they drove across state lines and bought several more and finished installing them just as the Samsung team arrived.
Ralph Santana, the chief marketing officer of Samsung who first met Mr. Coleman and his agency when Mr. Santana was heading marketing at Pepsi, said, "They're a small agency doing big-agency stuff. ... They are really good listeners and they look to partner, not just push this creative or that creative. They tie creative to metrics." That's undoubtedly a key point for a marketer that was putting its new tablet up against Apple's iPad.
Brandon Coleman, CMO of Romano's Macaroni Grill, said that while he first found Via because it was runner-up in last year's Ad Age small agency list, it was John Coleman and Ms. Morton and CEO Norman Abdallah who won over him. Macaroni Grill gave Via its business without a review after just one meeting.
"They're more about solving the problem and addressing the challenge than they are about creating something fun that everyone wants to watch," said Romano's Mr. Coleman.
Via employees, now numbering more than 85, are also said to be "nice." The word cropped up again and again through interviews internally and externally.
Unilever Global VP-Ice Cream, Kids Alberto Di Leo hired Via for Klondike and said, "They shot an ad with my team and I only went to the last meeting and I felt like it was a meeting among friends. ... Everyone on my team said they had never worked with people who were so much fun and so passionate and energized."
And last but not least, some of Via's mojo may come from that big Hogwarts-like building set in a small town. "To live in a smaller town and to go to baseball games and do the grocery shopping and all of that , helps in understanding the broad spectrum of different kinds of people, but I truly believe that what it really does is afford us the opportunity to think," Mr. Coleman said. "I love New York, but I feel blessed to live in a place like Portland."