Oct 28, 2021
Leeann Leahy is CEO at VIA, a full-service advertising agency/communications company and winner of AdAge’s 2019 Small Agency of the year. Via‘s 100 or so employees work their creative magic to unleash growth for such name brands as Arm & Hammer, Unilever (ice cream novelties Klondike, Good Humor, Popsicle), Perdue Chicken, and CarGurus. The agency has a few clients in Maine . . . a lot more nationally . . . and even some that are global.
Leeann says the agency makes small budgets work “much bigger and harder than they should” and runs on a critical balance of head and heart. In this interview, Leeann outlines the agency’s 5 responsive principles: “be curious,” “think like the audience,” “be on time,” “be on budget,” and “create respect,” and 5 artistic principles: “figure it out,” “find the magic,” “believe,” “do work that makes you proud,” and “honor the process.” It’s a formula that succeeds . . . as evidenced by the agency’s 28 years in the business.
In this interview, Leeann talks about VIA’s strategy for building two-way brand/consumer conversations and the magic of the “Aha! Moment,” when the mind jumps from “facts” to understanding. The process?
Leeann says, “It’s not just selling attributes, but selling utility and meaningfulness and relevancy.”
Six years ago, in order to streamline operations, the agency eliminated departmental siloes and set up interdisciplinary pods which are led by four equal partners:
Then, three years ago, the agency established VIAlocity, a remote pool of diverse (culturally, ethnically, life-stage-wise, and ability-wise) freelance consultants (who may or may not be in advertising). These journalists, painters, photographers, or stay-at-home moms, who are kept on retainer, can be tapped for projects for an additional fee to collaborate on VIA’s offerings. The program recently expanded to include some full-time remote workers.
Leeann can be found on her agency’s website at: https://theviaagency.com/.
ROB: Welcome to the Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast. I’m your host, Rob Kischuk, and I’m joined today by Leeann Leahy, CEO at VIA based in Portland, Maine. Welcome to the podcast, Leeann.
LEEANN: Hi. Thank you for having me.
ROB: Excellent to have you here. Why don’t you kick us off by telling us about VIA and what the agency’s superpowers are?
LEEANN: VIA is a magical place that operates out of Portland, Maine. We are a full-service advertising agency, although advertising is a narrow term. We’re really a communications company that helps unleash the growth potential of our clients’ brands. We’re about 100 people. I say we operate from Portland, Maine because that’s where we’re headquartered, but our clients actually are all over the country and indeed the globe. I used to say we don’t have any clients in Maine, but we do work with a couple now.
We’re on a quest to bring the fun back into our industry. I think our superpower is that we believe in magic. We believe in the power of magic. We have 10 principles, and they range from “be curious,” “think like the audience,” “be on time,” “be on budget,” and “create respect,” which are the responsive ones, to “figure it out,” “find the magic,” “believe,” “do work that makes you proud,” which are the artistic ones. There’s a really great balance between the head and the heart in those principles.
The heart side of it I think is our superpower because we do believe in magic. We believe that it can be found if you have a smart enough strategy, or indeed, the strategy itself could be magic if you can dig deep enough and find some insights that are revealing and unlocking a pathway to connect a consumer and a brand. We believe that creatively, the choices you make and the craft you construct and the way you engage consumers – there’s a lot of magic in that. And we believe all of this works to grow brands. We’ve seen it over and over again.
I guess the last thing I would say is in our own culture, we believe that joy and happiness and fearlessness lead to better creative work. That’s not just in the creative department; that’s across the whole agency. So we find the magic and we believe it’s possible. That’s our superpower. I think it sets us apart from other agencies, because as I said, we’re having fun where very few are.
ROB: Right, a little bit of magic, a little bit of joy, and just this pervasive sense of optimism over pure execution. The head and the heart, as you said. Pull us a little deeper and give us a picture. A typical client is not in Maine, apparently, for the most part, but what does a common client look like for you all? What size, what stage, what type of brand?
LEEANN: It really ranges. We’ve worked with Perdue Farms chicken for the last 10 years, and we’re their agency of record and the lead of their integrated agency team. We set all the strategy for them. We help them understand their brand portfolio, architecture. We dig deep on consumer insights. We help them manage their branded versus private label conundrum that they’re in in the marketplace. We create all the communications, whether it’s broadcast-based or digital. We generate lots of social assets. And then we work with all of their other agencies – shopper, marketing, promotional, etc. – to make sure everyone’s operating off the same strategy. That’s one kind of relationship.
Another one is we work with the ice cream novelties portfolio of North America for Unilever, so Klondike, Good Humor, Popsicle. In that instance, we’re really unleashing a lot of work the client has done strategically and we’re setting it free creatively. We come back with creative solutions that take what are sometimes considered small budgets competitively, and we make them work much bigger and harder than they should. They punch above their weight.
We work with Church & Dwight. Arm & Hammer is one of our clients. They exist, believe it or not, in about 17 categories in the grocery store. You think of it as baking soda, but actually it’s everything from baking soda to laundry detergent to kitty litter to toothpaste to deodorant to licensing agreements with Hefty and other garbage bags and things like that. It is a really wide range. For them, again, we’re thinking through everything, from the customer experience on those brands and where we can hit touchpoints to creating the advertising itself to putting it in the market to doing the analytics.
So we really have varied relationships with our different clients, and that’s what I think keeps it fun for us. I’ve always loved being in advertising and on the agency side because we go deep, deep, deep on very different categories. I can be talking about baking soda for hours one day, and the next day I’m talking about people buying cars online with CarGurus, or I’m talking about modern commerce with another client, or I’m talking about financial services. We really run the gamut. Check into financial services. You can’t get bored.
ROB: You’re talking about digging into that customer experience, and it seems like that’s where some of the magic can come from. When you’re talking about novelty ice cream, you’re not selling features. For a lot of people, you are thinking through to an experience, an emotional attachment, a different season in their life, even, perhaps. You just can’t get there if you’re sitting up in an ivory tower, thinking creatively by yourself.
LEEANN: Absolutely. We do a lot of deep digging and consumer research and ethnographies and anthropological digging into our consumers and our prospects, and we try to talk about them as if they’re family members or friends. We don’t describe targets as 18- to 24-year-old white men who play these following sports and believe these five things. That’s not going to help us. We really need to think of them as maybe people who seriously don’t take life that seriously. That would be a way you want to talk about the target.
We try to get to the mindset, because that’s where the magic happens. It’s not that there’s not a lot of rigor to get to that mindset; there is. But there’s a difference between a fact and an insight, and too often, I think people confuse them, or companies confuse them. They do the research, they get the answers, they have a bunch of facts, and then they say, “This is what we need to talk to.” Facts are important, but they are really just stimulus from which you can find and articulate the insight, because the insight has to be much deeper and more meaningful.
The way I like to think about it, you know you have an insight when somebody says it when you’re describing a consumer or their mindset or their need state or something, and you go, “Oh my God, that is so smart and also so completely obvious.” It’s like, “Why didn’t I see that before?” That to me is an insight. I think we spend a lot of time differentiating between facts and insights, and that helps us to get to a richer understanding of who we’re talking to. Once you have that richer understanding, you can create work that really hits that nerve dead-on.
And when it hits that nerve, it becomes an engaging two-way conversation because now you’ve filled into my life as a brand in a way that’s useful, practical, and meaningful to me, not just talking at me.
ROB: That’s really grounded, really human. Leeann, if we rewind a little bit, talk about the origin story of VIA. How did the agency come to be in the first place?
LEEANN: The agency was founded 28 years ago by John Coleman and a couple of other founders and partners. Specifically, John Coleman and Rich Rico were working at a big software company together. Rich was in charge of the design of marketing materials and John was a salesman. As any good salesman does in an internal marketing organization, they call up and complain about the materials they’re given and have rich conversations about how they can be better, which I’m sure came very, very happily across the phone lines. [laughs]
But the two struck up a relationship where they really could trust each other and rely on each other and understand how they could make materials even to sell these multimillion dollar programs in a more meaningful way. It was, again, by digging into those insights and being different strategically and not just selling attributes, but selling utility and meaningfulness and relevancy.
The two of them spun out and started with one division of that company, which was called ABB. By the end of that year, they had 12 divisions of ABB as clients. So the agency was born doing B2B work to support sales teams. Over the years, it evolved many, many times. We have a saying at VIA: Born in 1993, reborn every year since.
Because John was an engineer by education, they were very at the forefront of the digital era and did a lot of big technology website strategy as the internet emerged in the late ’90s, early 2000s. Then pivoted again after the dot-com bust of the early 2000s. Pivoted again to do a lot of design and corporate work, really built on the strategic consultancy background they had. They were doing really deep strategic projects for clients, and then also design components and nomenclature and visual vocabularies for clients. All sorts of things. Then evolved again to be more focused on some B2C, direct-to-consumer work, but on a more regional basis, and then evolved again to be nationally recognized, national brands targeting primarily towards consumers.
Now, I would say we’re the best of all of those bits because we understand the digital landscape in a way that many don’t, which is why we work with Chick-fil-A as their social and digital AOR. We understand big business and complications, which is why we work with some B2B clients and we take very, very complicated stories and make them very simple and digestible and important, and why we have these very, very powerful consumer brands like a Perdue or a Popsicle or Golden Corral. These are clients that have real meaning and bring real emotion to the table with consumers.
We get to do all of those things every day, and that’s, as I say, the best bits of all parts of our history.
ROB: It’s quite a path to navigate, too, because a lot of people crashed on the rocks. They got fat and happy from the late ’90s, the era of the million-dollar website. I’m sure some things were almost like shooting fish in a barrel for people who were digitally savvy. We kind of went through that again with social for a season, where people were splashing similar budgets. But it’s kind of matured in. It doesn’t feel like there’s as much of that splash, and now it has to be substance. Go ahead, it sounds like you’ve got something to drop in.
LEEANN: I agree with you. I think what people were doing was saying, “Ooh, I have to be on social because that’s where my consumer is” – again, a fact but not necessarily an insight. Just because they’re there, doesn’t mean you have to be there. They would just create content and, as we say, “spray and pray.” Just throw it out on the social channels and figure, “Oh, that’s good. People will want to engage with me.” And that busted.
I think what we’re seeing is now the brands that are most successful in the social sphere are the ones who are understanding their place in the conversation and maintaining that place in the consumer’s heart and mind and being respectful of the conversation they’re entering, but also offering and being additive to it. Maybe it’s utilitarian. Maybe it’s something that is a little bit of shared brand custody, as we call it, when you want the consumer to take ownership of some of the brand elements.
I think it requires deep strategy and a lot of thoughtfulness. It’s not just, “I had a television ad and I made a shorter version of it and threw it all over Facebook and Instagram,” because that’s not how those platforms work.
ROB: Let’s look at the intersection of VIA and its origin story with you. How did you come into the business and then end up in such a position of ultimate trust? What did that journey look like?
LEEANN: I started in the business as a planner, at the time called an account planner. In my days as a planner, I was an account planner, a brand planner, a strategic planner. I wore every single version of that title. But I grew up in this world of consumer insights and understanding that the agency role could be to be the conscience or the therapist, really, between the consumer and the brand – connecting and listening to both and connecting the dots: being the conscience of the brand so they didn’t overstep, and being the conscience of the consumer so they didn’t turn away or block out the brand.
So I grew up in planning. I was Chief Strategy Officer on a global level at an agency, and then at a more local level at an agency, I worked on blue chip brands like JPMorgan Chase, the NFL, AT&T, and Johnson & Johnson, all those good things. Then I transitioned in about 2012 to general agency management. That was because I had a relationship with someone who ran an agency called Translation in New York, and he was looking to make it go from just a project-based consultancy to a full-service agency. He and I had a friendship and relationship and really respected one another’s intellects and points of view on how to turn brands on.
So I joined him and I was there for a couple of years. The agency was exploding. We were doing great things. But in that time, I actually met John Coleman, our founder, and we had a lunch that struck me because we shared a lot of the same values. We talked a lot about what the business could be and what we wanted it to be and the kind of work we wanted to do. Honestly, again, it goes back to we find magic and we believe, and that’s that optimism. We felt like we could do work that would not only move people, but maybe even leave the world a better place.
We had a great talk, a couple hours, and we walked away friends. It occurred to me after that conversation that I was laughing a lot, and I realized – thanks to my husband actually pointing it out – that in my role as president of that other agency, I was having a lot of success, but I wasn’t really having any fun. I went into this business because I thought it would be fun and magical and creative, and that was the part that was being stifled.
Over the course of like six months, John and I became friends; he offered me the opportunity to come up to Maine. I was like, “I can’t believe we’re moving from New York.” I was born and raised in the New York area. But we moved ourselves to Maine, and I have not looked back once. I absolutely love it, and we do feel like we tend to put people before profits. We tend to have a lot of fun. We enjoy each other. John has since stepped out of the day-to-day of the business, but the management team and the associates – everybody here, really – we strive to create an environment where people enjoy each other because it creates a baseline of collaboration and inspiration that leads us to better work.
Kind of a roundabout answer to your question, but I started out on the insight side. I’ve always really been invested in the creative aspect of what we do. I think the culture in which we do that really feeds the creative, so VIA gives an opportunity to do all of those things: really, really smart strategic consultancy background, really important focus on culture, and now we’ve also brought in a Chief Creative Officer who has fabulous expertise in crafting. His name’s Bobby Hershfield, and he’s amazing at crafting ideas so that the way they’re presented and put out into the world really engages the consumer in a very intimate way.
ROB: What a journey. You’ve mentioned a couple of times this AOR, agency of record designation. You’ve probably seen that phrase change meaning a few times. What does it mean now versus what it used to mean, and how should ambitious agencies that are chasing that designation think about it?
LEEANN: There was a time when all we wanted was to be AOR. We couldn’t be bothered with projects. Not VIA “we”; I mean “we,” the industry. We kind of shunned the idea that we could pop in and be experts on a project, or consultants. I think that’s not true anymore. There are lots of amazing, interesting projects out there that you can work with really interesting partner agencies on, and partner clients. We do a combination of AOR and project work.
But I think when you are AOR, it is a lot more than just “we set the campaign and everybody else executes it.” That is not what it is at all. I think it really is about understanding deeply the business that the client has, how it sits within the competitive marketplace, what their operational realities are, what the political realities are, how that business can grow, identifying that growth opportunity, and then unleashing creative to optimize it and to really go out and get that growth.
That means thinking through everything, understanding the consumer experience and the customer journey and where the brand can plug into it and where it shouldn’t, and then concepting ideas that go through that journey with the customer. That means way more than “I’m making an advertising campaign around a single idea and then everyone’s executing it.” Now it’s “I’m understanding the business. I’m understanding the consumer. I’m bringing those two together in a thoughtful way, and I’m going to create an idea that hits at different points in different ways so that the effect is not redundant, but it is in fact cumulative.
ROB: That would seem probably more channel-specific, which is why some of the AOR designations have gone more channel, do you think?
LEEANN: Yeah, possibly. But I think it’s also because we’re in a business now where we’re competing not just with other people who do the same thing we’re doing, but we’re competing with agencies that do different things than we do. You might have a client who goes, “I have a traditional agency of record and then I have a digital agency of record.” But in fact, that’s just false silos. If you have somebody who truly understands your business, they’re thinking of it as how the consumer is experiencing this, not just what channel it’s going to be on. The channels are very secondary to the story you’re trying to tell and how you want the consumer to experience that story.
ROB: Right. The brand still has to live somewhere. You can’t just have a bunch of fractured brands.
LEEANN: Yeah, exactly.
ROB: Leeann, as you reflect on your time in leading VIA, and even before that maybe, in the industry, what are some things you’ve learned along the way that you might do a little bit differently if you were going back and giving yourself some advice?
LEEANN: I kind of had a feeling a long time ago, well before I was even in a managerial role in an agency at large – I was in a managerial role in my discipline of planning, but not at the agency at large, and as a planner, I didn’t have to know the business of our business. That’s one piece of advice. I don’t care what level you are or what discipline you are; you should understand how this industry makes money. I got away with living in la-la land as a planner for a good portion of my career, not really ever even understanding how we billed clients. You can get bogged down by it, but I think it’s also important to understand. There’s a balance.
But I had this intuitive sense that there was a lot of waste in agencies. A lot of wasted hours, a lot of wasted discussion, a lot of wasted time, and we weren’t getting to the meat. We were passing a baton around the agency in the hopes that somebody would stop and hold the baton and be like, “Okay, now I’m going to work on this.”
I refer to it as the “See below” email. You may have gotten one of these from someone once upon a time. I consider these evil. Someone gets an email from someone else requesting something, and they just pass it along to someone who works with them and say, “See below” – which they might as well have said, “I didn’t bother to read this. I’m making it your problem.” The person under them very often sends it to a person under them, and it just continues from there. That’s what I mean by passing the baton and not really stopping and thinking.
About six years ago at VIA, we got rid of all of the department silos within the agency and got rid of the gatekeeper mentality that perpetuated that baton passing. We rebuilt the agency from the bottom up to be much more agile, to be much more collaborative, and to have much more fun together.
We created these interdisciplinary pods that work around clients, and each pod is led by four equal partners and leaders. There’s a client strategy lead who’s responsible for understanding what’s being asked of us and, more importantly, why. There’s a planning lead who helps us to honor insights and market trends and opportunities to have a strategic pathway. So they’re responsible for the way. We have a creative lead who’s responsible for the “wow,” whatever that means, whether it’s inventing a new product or doing an advertisement or producing a show. It’s all under the “wow.” Then we have the project management lead, who’s responsible for the how and the when, which is really about resourcing, time management, budgets, scopes, all of that.
When we put them all on equal footing, something really wonderful happened. They started acting like real partners. They started understanding that they were mutually accountable for this client’s growth and that they were all part of the same sentence. Longer than a sentence; it would be a run-on. But you get what I’m saying. [laughs] You couldn’t just have a client call one of them and ask a question and necessarily get the “Yes, you can have that Tuesday at 3:00,” because they’re not responsible for that. They have to go, “Wait, are you asking the right question? Why are you asking that? Let’s think about that strategically. Let’s see if there’s a different creative response. And oh, by the way, I have to go check with somebody else to see how our resources go.”
It became honestly faster, which is sort of counterintuitive, but it’s faster to get things done. It’s inherently more collaborative. And as a result of it being more collaborative, everybody feels included and they can see their fingerprints on the work, and that makes it more fun.
I would’ve done that a lot sooner. I kind of had that specced out in my brain I want to say almost 20 years ago, and we wrote it up and then I didn’t do anything with it. It took a long time, but six years ago we did it, and it has helped shape our agency. It’s helped get to better work. It gets to better insights. We have deeper client relationships. As I said, we have a happier populace all around because everyone feels included. And frankly, as everyone else is complaining that procurement is out there squeezing the profitability out of agencies, I feel like we regained our ability to be profitable because we eliminated the fat. So I would’ve done that sooner.
ROB: Certainly less layers. Some of that seems to also come along with the evolution of communication channels that are available. Maybe this is more relevant to – it sounds like your org is largely in Portland, even if your clients are elsewhere. But even on distributed teams, you almost get stuck in the “See below” thing; when your choices are “Am I going to call someone, am I going to text them, or am I going to email them?”, you fall into email. But now we have some tighter lines on messaging. People will hop in a quick chat now, even online, even on a Zoom or a Slack group chat.
LEEANN: Absolutely. Listen, dispersed teams are the reality of the future. We at VIA do believe that we are better when we are together in person as much as possible, so we really do try to do that, and we’re being very thoughtful about how to do that safely. We did go back to the office in July. But we also really appreciate that some people have certain tasks or certain roles that are just more productive when they’re working as individuals and remotely. So we have a hybrid model, and it really boils down to what task you have and what role you’re playing on a given day.
But you’re right. We’ve retrained everyone, because now I know I have to consider others as thoughts pop into my head. I can’t just sit there and do my own work. Even if I am remote, I’ve got to reach out to my partners. So I’m going to jump on Slack, I’m going to jump on Zoom, I’m going to pick up the phone, I’m going to even shoot them a text. But the conversation is much more free-flowing, and I think it gets to better solutions.
Then to your other point, the channels that are available to us are changing so much. We took that model that we used at the top of every piece of business and we then applied it in the creative department. Like, why do we always just have our directors and copywriters concepting? That doesn’t make sense. Maybe there’s a product design person or maybe a technologist or a promotional person who should be in those concepting phases.
So we actually work in creative roundtables where it’s not just a two-person team; we assemble the right team for each assignment and we draw from all different areas of expertise, and it’s the same kind of collaboration. You’re all mutually responsible for the concept, so whatever concept we have is born able to fit all those different places.
ROB: There’s a lot to pull on there as well, but I want to be mindful of our time here. What is coming up, Leeann? What’s coming up for VIA and the industry as a whole that you’re excited about?
LEEANN: I think it’s a great time to be in advertising, honestly. I’m excited that our competitive set changes every day. I’m excited that sometimes we’re competing with media companies and other times with creative boutiques and other times with consultants. I think that’s really interesting. I’m excited that the smartest and best agencies can get deeper in with the C-suite and not just the marketing department or the CMO.
I’m excited for how we utilize remote workforces and invite more diverse populations into our agencies and into our industry as a result of that opportunity, because we can reach further afield. I think that fundamentally changes the experiences and thoughts that come to the table. Of course, if you want to really have a great brainstorm and great creative, bring together two completely disparate things and throw them into a room and see what explodes out of it. People who are together, people who are dispersed, people of different backgrounds, people at different life stages – it’s all an opportunity for us to think more broadly.
And because clients are starting to see that they need more partners in helping them think – even in-house agencies. I don’t see that as a threat. I see that as an opportunity, because we can get in there and help them think through things strategically and stop them from navel-gazing, but also leverage them for their expertise that we don’t have from being in the four walls.
So I think the most exciting thing is how our competitive sets are changing and how that opens up creative opportunities for us. And in order to get there, I think we need to – well, I know, and we all know, but we’re actively working to diversify our workforce so we can come to the table with different ideas that catapult businesses forward.
ROB: That’s a whole other area where distributed helps tremendously.
LEEANN: It definitely does.
ROB: Different circumstances, different places. You can tap a lot broader pool of people to come together.
LEEANN: Yeah, we have a program called VIAlocity that we started three years ago, before COVID, if there was a before COVID. [laughs] We hired talent from all over the world who were different from us, whether they were different culturally, ethnically, life stage-wise, ability-wise.
We hired them into this collective and put them on a retainer. They were mostly freelancers who worked in different fields all around, or people who weren’t traditionally in advertising. They were journalists or painters or photographers or stay-at-home moms. We put them in this collective so that we could tap into them. The retainer bought us the right to have them engaged in our email system and assigned to a pod so they knew what was going on, and then when we activate them on a project, we pay them a project fee on top of that. They’re able to work for other people as well, but it gave us access to a much bigger pool.
And that was fully remote, with the idea that we asked VIAlocity participants to be in Maine five days out of each quarter. They didn’t have to be five consecutive days, but five days, just so that we could get that chemistry and get to know each other. Now, post-COVID, we’ve actually expanded VIAlocity to not just be our fractional workers who are on retainer and get project fees, but we have a couple of full-time remote workers who are part of VIAlocity also. If you’re full-time remote, you have to be at the headquarters for 10 days out of each quarter. Obviously, the health situation, dependent on that. But so far, so good.
ROB: Assuming they can get back into their home country. We have a guy who’s out of country and he hasn’t been able to come see us because he’s not sure he can get back in. He’s a U.S. citizen living elsewhere. It makes it interesting. But I think we’re getting closer, is what I can say.
LEEANN: I think so. We’re getting better at working together in different ways, and that’s great. I still think there’s nothing like a good old-fashioned collaboration when you’re in person because you just can’t interrupt each other or build on each other’s ideas on Zoom the way you can naturally in a room. The energy’s just not there the way it is physically. But if you can combine the best of the physical togetherness with the best of the remote work and what it gives you, then there’s magic to be found.
ROB: Magic. Right back where we started with the magic. Magic here at VIA. Thank you so much for coming on the podcast, Leeann.
LEEANN: My pleasure. Thank you for having me.
ROB: And for sharing your experience, your wisdom. You’ve got it very well-formed and very well-communicated. Glad to have you.
LEEANN: Thank you. Sometimes I just nerd out on it, though, so that’s a little weird too. [laughs]
ROB: [laughs] All good. Wonderful, Leeann. Be well. Bye.
LEEANN: Great. Thank you, Rob.
ROB: Thank you for listening. The Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast is presented by Converge. Converge helps digital marketing agencies and brands automate their reporting so they can be more profitable, accurate, and responsive. To learn more about how Converge can automate your marketing reporting, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit us on the web at convergehq.com.