The Contender

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

Photos (except Baxter Building exterior) by David Wright.


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."

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