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."