Ad Agencies Grow Up

By Hannah Wallace May 31, 2005

How does Alinari at Rosemary Place distinguish itself from the other upscale condominium projects rising nearby in downtown Sarasota? Cleverly playing off Alinari's urban persona, its ad agency, Smith Advertising, developed a campaign last winter that gave away Vespas, Segways and iPods as realtor incentives.

"When the real estate market started growing, I think there was a lot of similarity in advertising," says Michelle Young, Smith's Florida vice president. But today, with luxury towers sprouting at every corner, developers demand that they stand apart from the crowd, and Smith knew it had to get creative.

Smith isn't the only ad agency to respond to a changing market. As more luxury developers and other companies enter a maturing Sarasota-Manatee region, they expect more sophisticated marketing strategies. And that is forcing the local advertising industry to evolve slowly from smaller one- and two-person firms to larger full-service ad agencies. This growth has also created a market for out-of-town firms and those with bigger budgets and experienced staffs, which compete with the smaller mom-and-pops.

"People are going for a full ad agency and not as much for a freelancer," says Dawn Klee, president of the Suncoast Ad Federation and herself a freelance designer who owns Creative Design Group in Sarasota. "Agencies are definitely picking up a lot more [clients]."

Angela Massaro-Fain, president of Grapevine Communications, is one of the relative newcomers who has benefited from the business boom. Grapevine's capitalized billings have grown from $2.865 million in 2002 to $5.72 million in 2004 at her 12-person firm. The agency added eight new clients in January and February alone, including The Tower Residences at the Ritz-Carlton, Pruett Builders, Heritage Development and Courtney Palms Condominiums in the real estate sector, and expanded into the healthcare sector with First Physician's Group and Lerner-Cohen Healthcare.

When Massaro-Fain moved to Sarasota from Montreal in 1998, she noticed that ad work in the region was largely being created by Ringling School of Art and Design graduates, for example, who would join together and call themselves an agency.

"A lot of 'agencies' here don't necessarily know what marketing is, don't know what strategic planning or long-term planning is," she says. In the past, if a customer headed to an agency looking for an ad, the firm would usually quote a price and create one, says Massaro-Fain.

By contrast, long-range planning entails meeting with the client to talk about the ultimate goal and to determine whether an ad, public relations program, event kickoff or a combination of things will deliver results.

"Consumers and business people are more educated now than they've ever been," Massaro-Fain says. Smith Advertising, which opened its Sarasota office in 1999 after working for many years with the Sarasota Convention and Visitors Bureau from its home office in Fayetteville, N.C., is taking advantage of the maturing market.

"It's really been overwhelming for our company. We realized when we first started there 16 years ago working with the tourism folks that there was a lot of potential," says chief executive and president Gary Smith.

Until 2003, only one person staffed the Sarasota office. Now the firm has four full-time employees and four associates who work out of their homes but are used on a full-time basis. The company's clients include The Concession, Meridian at the Oaks Preserve, Summer Cove on Siesta, Grand Mariner on Longboat Key and Alinari at Rosemary Place. The company's capitalized billings for all three offices, two in North Carolina and one in Sarasota, have exploded from $7 million in 2003 to $25 million last year, thanks to its work with high-end real estate clients in Sarasota. More than 50 percent of the total capitalized billings are generated in Sarasota; in 2003, $1 million to $2 million of its capitalized billings came out of Southwest Florida.

B-Squared, a Naples-based full-service agency with a reputation for cutting-edge creative work that has consistently won local, state and national awards, is another ad agency newcomer. Four years ago, when Robyn Bonaquist and Burl Seslar founded the agency, their intent was to attract as much business as possible in their back yard and, after saturating the marketplace, to spiral outward into new markets.

A natural move up the coast was Sarasota, and it happened in 2003 when Kraft Construction, which had worked with B-Squared in Naples, recommended the agency for the Plaza at Five Points, developed by Ersa Grae Corp. out of Houston, Texas.

B-Squared had only weeks to develop a marketing project for the mixed-use, 50-condo downtown high-rise before season ended. They used conventional tools such as an advertising campaign and direct mail program, designed the sales center and created brochures. A realtor promotion over the summer gave away a trip to The Plaza in New York City. By the time the project broke ground in October, only three units were unsold. As the Plaza at Five Points was downtown Sarasota's first mixed-use high-rise, Bonaquist says there was some nervousness about market acceptance, but the buyers came. "We tell everybody we worked ourselves out of a job there," she says.

Since this project, B-Squared is also doing work at Grande Oaks Preserve, a mid-rise off University Parkway, and has an ongoing relationship with Neal Communities. About 20 percent of its clients, on average, are in the Sarasota area; eventually Bonaquist hopes to have an office here or in Tampa.

Another firm that entered the marketplace recently is Be Creative, whose headquarters are in Brighton, the United Kingdom's advertising capital. Jane Bennett, the firm's partner and director, moved here in 2002 based purely on lifestyle. She's discovered, however, that the market is a lucrative one.

The firm currently employs five in Sarasota, but Bennett expects to expand to eight employees by the end of the year and 10 to 12 in 2006, thanks to the success of its work with clients such as Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport, Doctors Hospital, Blake Medical Center and Shepherd Systems, a subsidiary of Cendant Corp.

She's seen a phenomenal change in the past 18 months to two years with companies, both established and new to the area, needing assistance with developing their identity and marketing their products.

Bennett says businesses are beginning to recognize they need proper professional assistance; they can't place ads at random without strategy and they can't rely on desktop publishing software to help elevate their identity.

"More are aware they need to use research, look at data, get more of a slant on the demographic of their client as opposed to blanket advertising and advertising without any foundation," Bennett says.

New approaches

As the region's number of ad agencies grows and the environment becomes more competitive, some ad firms are trying to find other markets. Clarke Advertising & Public Relations, the region's largest and one of its oldest firms, started 2005 with new ownership and a new strategy to target the older customer. The firm wants to become an expert in the area of affluent aging-and to provide research and market information to clients around the country who want to reach those consumers.

"Sarasota really is the epicenter for people of some wealth at various stages," says Patricia Courtois, chief operating officer of Clarke. "It's like being in a petri dish. We can go right out our front door and look at behavioral and buying purchase power of consumers here. Advertising is a very cluttered environment. If we can find that one way to get into their brain with a client's brand, we will be successful."

Agency founder Tim Clarke says Sarasota/Manatee has always been a tough market because of the large number of advertising and marketing professionals fighting to represent organizations with high-dollar budgets. "Every year agencies come and go; only a few with staying power remain in the market," he says.

With Massaro-Fain's early success in Sarasota and her love of the area's cosmopolitan feel, she plans for Grapevine to stand the test of time and the market.

"We're definitely going to make this a place to stay, help make it better," she says. "You couldn't get us out of here with a stick of dynamite."


How the little guys are surviving.

The need for sophisticated marketing strategies and creative ads that catch the attention of wealthy consumers doesn't necessarily mean the end to older, smaller firms and independent marketing professionals. A smaller advertising firm is much like any other small business-it can offer a niche perspective, says Mary Hilton, spokeswoman for the American Advertising Federation.

Operators of all sizes can also take comfort in the fact that advertising expenditures are rising-2004 posted a 9.8-percent increase over the previous year, to $141 billion, according to the AAF. Hilton says the election had an influence that year, but the organization anticipates that growth will continue in 2005.

Sarasota graphic designer Gigi Ortwein doesn't have an "us-versus-them" mentality when it comes to larger firms. The Ringling graduate started her one-person business, Origin Design, in 1999.

"I don't consider myself in competition with agencies because I can't offer market analysis and demographic surveys," says Ortwein, whose clients include agencies, arts organizations, and service-related and hospitality businesses. "I consider myself to be more of a design studio."

She credits her connections with former employers, such as SARASOTA Magazine, for helping generate clients as she branched out on her own. In the past six years, she says she's had more work than she can keep up with.

"There are a lot of people doing freelance or contract graphic design, but the growth in this area is so phenomenal that I don't think there's any lack of business for anyone who's willing to do the work," she says. "I have pretty much chosen to keep my business small. It's more important to me that I do good work for a small client base than to have a huge client base and feel like I'm not providing for them."

Smaller shops also can help businesses that simply need a logo or don't have the budget or need to work with a bigger agency. Some companies may have in-house marketing departments but use one- or two-person firms for more specific needs.

To remain competitive, more than 20 independent professionals have formed the Creative Marketing Alliance, a custom-built team of independent contractors to meet strategic marketing objectives for a client. That may include using graphic artists, copywriters, photographers, video technicians, strategic planning experts and Web site designers, depending on the company's needs.

"We can offer something in there for everybody," says Chuck Hamilton with Vista Business Communications, a one-person public relations and marketing firm, who came up with the idea for the alliance. He says they're in the process of establishing committees to handle compensation, standards and other important decisions.

The idea will take the support that some say is already there to the next level. "The design community in Sarasota is really a friendly community," Ortwein says. "Because there seems to be so much growth in the area and lots of work, more often than not, it's a matter of designers who know each other and respect each other's style of work making referrals to other designers as opposed to needing to drum up business."

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