The Contender

John Coleman wants to make his surging Via Agency the next Wieden + Kennedy—in the other Portland

In November 2009, as John Coleman stood before the Maine College of Art's board of directors, about to propose something he knew was risky, even outlandish, he felt the old familiar tug of conflicting instincts.

His rational side told him to stay away from the Baxter Building, a run-down, late-19th-century monolith in downtown Portland that the school had been trying to offload for years. In this, almost everyone on the CEO's management team at The Via Agency agreed with him.

His emotional side wanted to move the agency into the building as soon as possible.

The reasons he was drawn to Baxter at all were likewise somewhat antithetical. On the one hand, he felt an intangible pull. For almost a century, until 1979, the building had been home to the Portland Public Library, and Coleman felt that an ad agency, with its attendant love of language, would be a kind of spiritual descendant and the perfect modern-day tenant.

Yet there were practical considerations, too. Via had spent 16 sometimes volatile years operating largely as a brand strategy and interactive firm. Now, it was pushing to become a nationally known ad agency. (It had won LoJack and Welch's, and wanted more.) Coleman knew clients would be impressed by a renovated Baxter Building—a Romanesque revival with a grand facade and cavernous interior spaces. Compared to Via's existing, nondescript warehouse space, it would be a huge selling point.

The countervailing forces in the Baxter decision—practical vs. emotional, left brain vs. right brain—were ones Coleman knew intimately. His own personality was curiously split between them. His training was in the sciences; his heart was in the humanities. And he was trying to grow his ad agency, molded in his image, by balancing the two. Via had always thrived at being strategic and analytical. To break through, it needed to get more creative.

And break through it has, to a degree. In 2010 and 2011, Via joined the rosters of Unilever (on Klondike) and Samsung and added a slew of other accounts, including Perdue chicken, Friendly's restaurants, Romano's Macaroni Grill, Prestige Brands and People's United Bank. It grew revenue by more than 20 percent in 2010 and 35 percent in 2011. This year, it's on the brink of its biggest coup yet—it's in the finals of the Mini Cooper review, which will be decided in May.

Via's positioning is simple: It claims to blend superior strategic thinking with superlative creative. And if it isn't quite there yet, particularly with the creative, it believes it can outthink and outperform the country's best shops. And it's committed to making the anachronism of being in "the other Portland" (not the one in Oregon) a non-factor.

"We want to be the first agency to truly bring exceptionally strategically driven work at the highest-quality creative levels," says Coleman, 49. "If you look at agencies over time, they're either one or the other. And the ones that say they're both are full of [it]."

Coleman is a promising man for the job. Cerebral yet gregarious, obsessed with the inner workings of the most mundane client business yet equally drawn to music, art and design, he embodies the duality his agency seeks to master.

In part, this is sheer genetics. Coleman's father was chief engineer for the Maine Department of Transportation, and built the state's highways. His mother, a homemaker who brought up John and his six siblings in a bustling home in Augusta, was the creative force in his early life. Initially, Coleman followed in his father's footsteps, earning a degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Maine and landing a job installing computer systems for ABB, the automation technology giant. But he soon realized he was drawn to the marketing side of the business.

"I wasn't going to be the best engineer in the world, but every time we gave a presentation I gave the best presentation," he says. He also realized he wanted to stay in Maine. He and his high-school sweetheart, Linda, had married while still in college and would soon have two girls and a boy. They wanted the same quality of life for their kids that they had known. An engineering career might take them all over the world.

In 1993, after earning his MBA, Coleman teamed up with a colleague, Rich Rico, creative director of ABB's internal agency, and hatched a brazen plan: They would start their own shop in Portland and ask ABB for its business. Somehow, it worked. "I woke up one day running an ad agency and had never stepped foot in one," Coleman says. "We were off to the races."

They called the agency Via, for "Vision. Instinct. Action." In its first decade, it landed projects for global tech companies such as Hewlett-Packard and Sun Microsystems—mainly brand positioning, website development and business-to-business campaigns. It had offices in New York, Silicon Valley and Zurich, Switzerland.

Then came the dot-com crash. Via lost three-quarters of its business, closed all its outposts but Portland, and almost didn't survive. But it would end up clawing its way back, finding a new purpose and a new cadence in its work. The rebirth would begin in earnest when Coleman met someone by chance at a clambake.

"There was this loudmouth talking like a Southie from Boston but quoting Emerson," Coleman recalls. "We sat down and talked for three hours about art, life, drugs, politics. The next morning I called up our mutual friend and said, 'Who was that guy?' "

He was Greg Smith, a Columbia graduate, writer and sometime actor who had started his own agency, Front Porch in New York. He had a strong reel, and he and his wife had just had a child and wanted to return to New England. Coleman got him to come to Via, where he is now chief creative officer.

"What I loved about the shop was that it was super strategic, but what I loved about John was that not only was he strategic, he loved creative," says Smith, 45. "John always had a vision—he just didn't know how to get there. And the vision was, we could be the first shop that was strategically driven but does the most innovative and surprising creative in the world."

David Burfeind, Via's chief knowledge officer, started at the agency around the same time and saw the same sweet spot. "A lot of agencies can be strategic but not be able to do much with it creatively to change someone's mind or behavior," says Burfeind, 51. "Or they may have incredibly clever, cool, gimmicky, quirky ideas, but they may not be the right ideas."

By the mid-2000s, the agency had a solid regional reel and decided to make a run at national accounts. A major turning point came in 2005, when Via beat out major New York agencies for a marquee assignment from Larry Silverstein to create the branding campaign for 7 World Trade Center—the last building to come down on 9/11 and the first to go back up. It was a great American marketing challenge of the new millennium: bringing business back to Ground Zero. "To leaders with vision, your office is ready," the ads declared. The building soon began to fill up, affirming Silverstein's belief that lower Manhattan could again be a major business hub.

"That's when I knew we could do the impossible," says Coleman. "We might not be known by anybody. But what we do, who we have, how we do it, our culture, we can solve any problem. Because that was the impossible."

The momentum would continue. Via called a search consultant, Boston's Pile & Co., and started getting in pitches. In 2007, it won LoJack. In 2008, it won Welch's—the first brand on its roster that consumers truly knew and loved. Despite the economic downturn, the years since have been a time of steady growth, as regional clients like Friendly's and Macaroni Grill, national ones like Perdue, and multinationals like Unilever and Samsung have come knocking.

In 2011, Via helped Samsung launch the Galaxy Tab with a mostly digital campaign focused on mobility, an area where it could compete with the iPad. "They've been very good at framing up, strategically, the spaces we can own," says Samsung CMO Ralph Santana. "And they have smart, witty creative that goes along with that." (Via has also done work for Samsung home appliances.)

What makes Via unique, Santana adds, "is what I would call a big-agency feel with small-agency qualities. They're very responsive, and they listen to their clients. The creative is smart, and they're fast, which in the tech industry is critical. But they've also got the strategic resources you need. A lot of people there have worked at big agencies on big clients. It's not like they never left Portland."

That responsiveness is key in waging war on larger shops. "We service our clients better. And then we deliver better," says Teddy Stoecklein, 41, Via's group creative director, who arrived in 2008 from BBDO in New York. "We're friendlier, we're attentive. Every big client who uses us for a project feels like, 'I wish my agency of record treated me like this.' "

It's also about coming up with the right idea, not necessarily the big idea, says Brandon Coleman, CMO of Macaroni Grill. "It's not about winning awards or doing crazy creative that doesn't drive people into the restaurant," he says.

In 2010, Via helped to crowdsource ideas to refresh the classic "What would you do for a Klondike bar?" campaign for Unilever, eventually producing "5 Seconds to Glory," which gave Klondike challenges a time limit that was easily exploited across channels. "They really brought fresh ideas to the table that could work beyond TV," says Unilever's Alberto Di Leo, global vp for ice cream.

Another key Via asset, says Di Leo, is Coleman himself. "John is a very, very bright businessman, and he's very good at building client relationships," he says. "I consider John a friend of mine, which is not something I would say of many partners I've worked with."

Coleman's formidable networking skills include hosting periodic "salon" talks in Portland and New York, where he invites friends, clients and sometimes prospects to discuss art, philosophy, culture and other non-marketing topics. Coleman says the talks are not a new-business tool—"I know it's good for our brand, but it's not how we get business," he says—though of course, they don't hurt. Santana attended one when he still worked at Pepsi, and says it was a factor when he later hired Via for Samsung.

Today, the agency is deeply immersed in two more pieces of business. Its first work for Perdue—inspired by sites like Pinterest and moms' eternal hunt for recipes—will break this summer. Then, there is the quest for Mini. Incumbent Butler, Shine, Stern & Partners is the agency to beat—Mini sales were up 26 percent in 2011, and the review was mandated by policies at parent BMW. Still, Via has brought all its strategic resources to bear on the pitch, and a win would give it a creative canvas unlike any it has known. (The Baxter Building, which Via did indeed move into in October 2010, did its job—the Mini clients reportedly took pictures like tourists on their visit in March.)

A win like Mini would help mitigate another problem for Via—luring top talent to Portland. The agency employs about 100 people, many of whom arrived from major markets seeking a better quality of life. But it would like to get people to join Via in spite of its location, not because of it. "We're starting to hire people now because it's a step in their career. And if they're here just for a few years, great," says Coleman, who also hopes to reopen offices in New York and on the West Coast, though not imminently. (He envisions eventually doubling, even tripling his staff.)

Whether it's for Mini or not, a breakthrough creative campaign is the crucial next step for Via—something that would truly raise its profile in the industry. "It's a campaign everybody talks about; every year, there's a handful," Coleman says. "It's a little bit of lightning in a bottle. You need the right client, the right circumstance, the right budget, the right product, the right situation. We are at that point, and capable and ready."

Smith is more blunt. "If we don't do that, we've failed," he says. "Then all we've done is say we're a strategically driven shop that does some of the best creative in the world. We haven't done that yet. We need to do that. We know that every single day."

Coleman does have a model in mind, and it's an iconic one.

"The agency I most admire is Wieden + Kennedy," he says. "I can see us, in the other Portland, being a smaller version of them. Frankly, we'll never achieve their legendary status—the work they did for Nike alone cemented that. We didn't have a Nike, but I do aspire to be a more strategic version of Wieden. They might cringe at that. I think their work is brilliantly creative, always. But I would go up against them any time in solving a hard problem creatively. I think we would do very well."