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Dimpled agency president Jonathan Duffy has a penchant for walking around his lime- and purple-walled agency with a Louisville slugger inscribed with his name. And Duffy & Shanley prides itself on its sports marketing expertise. But its staffers don't have much luck on the field.

In a softball league with local businesses, the team has a 2-5 record. That's including its first defeat of the season, in extra innings, against manufacturing company Textron, whose team happens to include Jonathan's wife, Julie. The agency lost a subsequent game 21-1.

Duffy & Shanley tends to fare better with its sports clients. They include Fox Sports Net New England, ESPN (the shop does X-Games promotions, among other projects), the Big East Conference, Schwinn and golf manufacturer Pinnacle. Other major clients include the Rhode Island Economic Development Corp. and Providence-based Citizens Bank.

When Dave Duffy opened the shop in 1973, it was a two-man public relations operation whose clients were mainly politicians. Adver tising was added later in the '70s, making Duffy & Shanley one of more than 20 agencies that could be found between New York and Boston at the time. Since the '80s, a host of local shops have shut down as companies left Rhode Island or were bought by larger regional or national concerns.

Twenty-nine years after its founding, Duffy & Shanley is a full-service agency that's one of only three major shops left in the area, along with RDW Group and Trion Communications.

Dave Duffy, 62, stepped down in 1999 (he retains the title of chairman), and his son Jonathan, CEO Bob Newbert and chief creative officer Peter Marcionetti bought the agency. Another member of the Duffy family, Jonathan's brother Jeremy, runs its sports marketing division. The agency claims billings of $30 million and revenue of $3.7 million ("If we were in New York, we'd be one account," Dave Duffy says with a laugh).

While Providence is just an hour from Boston and three from New York, there is no doubt Duffy & Shanley retains its small-town charm. For one, the hours are decidedly better than what you'd find in a Manhattan agency. "We're not here at 1 a.m.," says creative director Michael Silvia, heir apparent to Marcionetti. "No one is in here after 8, and most are out at 6. People want to go home. When you live 10 minutes from the water, you want to get the hell out."

One of the first things a visitor notices is the agency's family focus. Children can often be found wandering the hallways of the office, located in Providence's downtown jewelry district. And staffers' kids are at the forefront of any conversation. Talk to anyone long enough about the perks of working at Duffy & Shanley, and they'll eventually point out the annual Christmas party for kids or the fact they can bring their kids into the office, or leave to attend to them.

"You can go do a lunch hour at school and come back," says account supervisor Rae Mancini, 40, who has been at the shop 15 years and has a 12-year-old daughter. "It's so important to be respected for the work you do, and not be denigrated if you leave to go to a dentist appointment. Other places will let you go, but they'll notice."

His two young daughters were the main reason Jonathan Duffy, 37, moved back home from Los Angeles several years ago. "I wanted my kids to grow up with a big back yard and go to public school," he says.

Silvia, 36, says one of the reasons he hasn't been tempted to move on to a bigger agency is the amount of time he gets to spend with his toddler, Ben. Plus, he can ride his mountain bike to work. And just because Providence isn't an advertising hub, he says, doesn't mean he needs to downsize his creative ambitions.

"I don't want to get lost in a big agency," says Silvia, who was previously a copywriter at Boston's Phoenix Media Group. "Everyone wants to go to Goodby or Wieden + Kennedy. Why not stay here and make this place Crispin Porter + Bogusky? Those guys have stayed in one place their whole lives."

Recruits, however, don't always see it that way. "It's not hard to find talent, to find good people, but they tend to move on," says Marcionetti, 53, a New Jersey native with cropped grey-white hair and a dreamy air about him. "One day they come in, close the door, sit down and say, 'I've got a job at Arnold,' or Goodby. When you find someone you like, you keep your fingers crossed and hope they make a lifestyle choice."

Marcionetti himself has been at the agency since 1984, and that kind of longevity is not uncommon. Partners Robert Hart, 55, the CFO, and Steve Maurano, 46, svp of the public relations unit, have also been at the shop since the mid-'80s. Media director Karen Shuster, 43, also a partner, has worked there for eight years.

For those who do choose to stay in Providence (population 173,618), it's difficult to imagine they've made the wrong choice. Its eight colleges and universities—including Brown, the Rhode Island School of Design and culinary school Johnson & Wales University—lend the town an air of sophistication, and there is an abundance of good restaurants and a burgeoning theater community. The downtown has been transformed during the past quarter-century as railroad tracks running through the center of town were relocated, two rivers were uncovered, and Providence Place, a mall housing movie theaters and several restaurants, was built.

But some worry that Providence's provincialism may bother prospective clients. After meeting with executives from Zyr, a vodka brand hoping to launch in New York later this year, senior designer Astrid Rude, 34, thinks the client seemed a bit aloof. "I'm not sure whether we were cool enough for them," she says. "But that's what I like about the agency—nobody is cool. We're all just ourselves."

(As it stands, Zyr tentatively plans to work with the agency barring complications with its launch.)

Rude, originally from Germany, has a 13-month-old and says having a child changed the way she thought about Providence. "Before I had a son, I probably could have given a list of things [that Providence lacks]," she says, "but now, no."

And in her three years at the agency, she has found a lot to like. "Laughter fills the hallway," she says. "It's a good bunch of people, very casual but very dedicated. We're passionate about what we do."

Executives at the agency have offices with glass doors that are usually open, and people yell from office to office. Two "creative piazzas," with leather couches and coffee tables, are spaces for impromptu meetings (or places to crash). The walls serve as a gallery for Rhode Island School of Design students, and sports equipment is scattered everywhere, from an old lacrosse stick and basketball in Jeremy's office to vintage Schwinn bicycles in the hallway.

The friendly, familial vibe makes layoffs particularly difficult. 2001 was the worst year almost everyone at the agency can remember, with a revenue drop of 22 percent. With the dot-com crash came the loss of several high-tech clients, including Roadsmith.com and Metiom, and the need to let six staffers go.

"It's a difficult thing to do in any firm, but it's especially difficult in a smaller firm," says Newbert, 54, who joined the shop nine months after it opened and is a close friend of Dave Duffy's. One of those laid off had been at the agency for 20 years.

The agency credits its ability to make it through the lean years to its tech-savvy, diversified offerings. "We have to re-engineer change all the time," says Dave Duffy. "That's one of the reasons we've been able to survive."

Jonathan says the agency surprised the vodka client by adding a viral-marketing concept—an e-mail screen saver incorporating the brand's logo—to a traditional ad campaign. "They were expecting just ads," he says. "For an agency of this size, we're very technologically advanced. I want us to be an agency with a great creative reputation, and then bring clients technology that they don't have."

Duffy & Shanley has worked out deals with tech companies in the area that let the agency serve as a beta client and, in turn, offer the technology to clients. The cheery face of the interactive department is Suzanne Valliere, 26, one of the youngest people at the agency. She came to the shop three years ago from Smart Money in Boston. Self-composed and petite with tousled blond hair, Valliere wouldn't be out of place in SoHo but has thrived at Duffy & Shanley. She's at the forefront of most every meeting, describing how well a video pop-up e-mail worked for Fox Sports Net or showing ESPN how a banner ad might look on a site.

"I came here to get good agency experience and move to New York," she admits. "But now I can't leave. It's nice to have quality of life, a good job and good friends all in one."

It was old-fashioned creativity and doggedness, not tech skills, that won the agency Fox Sports Net New England. Jeremy Duffy and Silvia called and e-mailed the client once or twice a month for two years asking for a project. Eventually they sent over a CD-ROM featuring footage of the shop's 39 staffers each with black stripes under their eyes like athletes wear and copy explaining that the shop would do anything to work for Fox.

"It got us. We thought, 'Wow, this is good,' " says Ryan Donovan, manager of marketing and communications at Fox Sports Net New England. The client previously relied on Fox's national advertising.

A recent campaign for Fox by Marcionetti and Silvia consists of TV spots featuring interviews with people who know a fictional "airhorn guy"—the fan with the obnoxiously loud siren at hockey games. The ads won a Northeast regional Emmy and three Telly awards, which honor non-network and cable commercials.

"In this day and age, a lot of people go into meetings thinking they have the solution in their back pocket," says a longtime client, Providence Journal director of promotion Barbara Nauman. "Duffy & Shanley is the type of agency that sits and listens to things and rethinks the ordinary way of doing business. They find some new creative approaches, new ways of getting things done."

Several years ago, Nauman says, the agency refocused the newspaper's ads to address specific segments of its audience, and current radio ads are targeted toward different types of readers. An older print ad aimed at readers of the high school sports section features a teen boy with a 'T' painted on his bare chest and the copy, "This game is a fickle mistress. … Like a jayvee cheerleader."

Dave Duffy started out in politics, working a stint in Nelson Rocke feller's administration and in the office of the secretary of transportation in Washington, and came home (he grew up in neighboring Pawtucket) to do PR for a state gubernatorial campaign. The candidate lost, but Duffy decided to stay.

He took free basement space offered by his first client, an apartment complex, and stole the office manager of the failed campaign. In less than a year, Joe Shanley, who had become disgruntled at local agency Bo Bernstein, came aboard, and Duffy & Shanley was born. (Shanley retired in 1987 and died last year at age 78.)

Over time, Duffy's roster expanded beyond political clients. Direct marketing was added in the '80s, and the interactive division launched in 1997. The shop also has a firmly entrenched sports marketing division and still offers public relations services.

Jonathan started out as an account manager at the agency after graduating from Georgetown, then moved to L.A. for nine years, working for the Times Mirror Co. and PSP Sports Marketing.

His father relinquished control of the agency shortly after his arrival. "I moved back here hoping to work with my father, but he was really on his way out," Jonathan says. "He shocked me with his ability to just go."

After graduating from Providence College, Jeremy, now 32, started a sports marketing company with Dan Gavitt, the son of Dave Gavitt, who founded one of Duffy & Shanley's first clients, the Big East Conference. But Dan left to coach basketball, and Jeremy decided to join Duffy & Shanley as well.

With both brothers now working for the agency, there is some familial tension, though Jeremy insists there's no sibling rivalry. "We put that away in our teens," he says.

"The good news is [the sports marketing section] he runs is fairly autonomous," says Jonathan. "That's healthy for him and me. I try to stay out of my brother's way. I don't look at him as someone who reports to me."

Though his two sons have ended up at the business he founded, Dave says he wouldn't describe Duffy & Shanley as a family shop. "Peter Marcionetti might very well be the soul of the agency in many ways. And Bob Newbert has been here for 20 years," he says. "Jeremy is in a different situation altogether—he's building a business within a business."

The partners each have dreams of seeing the agency grow modestly. "I'd like to be not necessarily the largest agency in America, but one of the best," says Newbert. "We could double in size, but if you reach a point beyond that, it's hard to keep it special."

Adds Jonathan: "I never want to get beyond where I don't know someone's husband or wife's name, or I can't tell you what they do outside the agency."

Dave is enjoying semi-retirement by augmenting his time in Providence and Florida, where he recently bought a house, with jaunts to Europe. "This is not about me. I'm just sitting in the grandstand, watching the ball game," he says. "And they're winning."