The Agency Game

Keeping up with rapid change is for the bright, the nimble, and the creative
From left to right: Chemistry’s campaign for Aruba Marriott Resort,“Save Maxo Vanka Campaign” by Blender, Inc., street performance part of MARC USA’s “Know No” campaign. From left to right: Chemistry’s campaign for Aruba Marriott Resort,“Save Maxo Vanka Campaign” by Blender, Inc., street performance part of MARC USA’s “Know No” campaign.
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Pipitone Group, an ad agency in Pittsburgh’s Observatory Hill neighborhood, counts Vitro Architectural Glass as one of its largest clients. For the Cheswick-​based company, which purchased PPG Flat Glass in 2016, Pipitone manages advertising and web strategy. Yet when Vitro wants to develop and implement a public relations initiative, it brings to the table another Pittsburgh agency, Push 7, for that piece of the plan. It’s an arrangement that doesn’t ruffle Scott Pipitone, founder, president and CEO for his shop.

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Full-​service agencies still exist, but sometimes a client integrates a team,” Pipitone says. “Some customers will silo us or silo other companies with whom they have good relationships,”

That’s the sort of teamwork — voluntary or otherwise — that characterizes the regional ad agency scene today. Collaborative work is more common than it used to be. Full-​service agencies may outsource work to specialists, particularly in the digital planning and buying discipline, and even “agencies of record” must share client business with other shops. In this dynamic new world, agencies find themselves competing for business one day, collaborating with their erstwhile competitors the next.

For all that, the agency sector here is robust, versatile and, as far as employees are concerned, perhaps more stable than it used to be.

Putting together a dream team

In the days when Fortune 500 companies dominated Pittsburgh’s economy, the ad agency scene reflected that. The leading players were huge and powerful. At its peak, for example, Ketchum employed a reported 1,100 people and enjoyed annual billings exceeding $1 billion. The big boys demanded, and usually got, “agency of record” status that assured they would get every nickel of their clients’ communications business. Moreover, they often were remunerated on a “retainer-​plus” basis that is, clients would pay thousands per month just to assure their agencies’ availability, then pay again for any actual work done.

It was a cushy time for ad agencies, yet there was a downside: if an agency lost a big account, it typically fired the staff who had serviced that client. Those junior ad men and women often became agency gypsies, following their accounts wherever they might land.

But the post-​industrial economy in the region is dramatically different, featuring more, smaller entities that emphasize speed, flexibility, efficiency and controlled costs. The ad agency sector has morphed to again reflect the economic landscape.

Two who noticed the emerging trends were Bill Garrison and Dave Hughes, each a mega-​agency veteran.

More and more clients were moving away from the agency of record model,” Garrison recalls. “They wanted to get the best ideas, no matter where they came from. Technology had a big impact on it. You could service a client, deliver ideas and work, through technology. You didn’t need to throw teams of people at a client. We were able to work with clients who got that.”

In 2003, with the law firm Reed Smith as its anchor client, the duo founded Garrison Hughes, a Downtown agency that developed a template for partnering with larger agencies.

In our first five years, I would say we worked with 23 of the top 25 ad agencies in town,” says Garrison, whose shop has grown to 53 employees. “We were so small we weren’t really a threat to them. It was good for all parties.”

Yet another force reshaping the sector was the explosion of digital media and the ever-​growing number of buying opportunities they present. In an earlier era, media buyers had only a handful of channels to consider — print, broadcast, billboards, direct mail and eventually cable. A daring buyer might try something really exotic, bus shelter benches, perhaps. Contrast that with today’s digital line-​up: websites, social media, search engine optimization, search engine marketing. Add research to help plan digital buys and analytics to help measure their impact and you have an area of advertising that cries out for specialists.

That’s the way Wendy Ann Clayton saw it. A veteran of two stints at Ketchum, Clayton in 2004 launched Splash Media to focus on media research, planning and buying. Splash is a three-​person shop in Whitehall that’s been able to thrive by helping clients navigate the tricky digital waters.

The biggest item in a company’s marketing budget typically is media,” Clayton notes. “Clients started to scrutinize that. They had to get smarter about their dollars.”

To be sure, Pittsburgh still boasts a healthy share of full-​service agencies. Jeff Lizik, president and CEO of the Downtown agency Z Brand Group with 13 employees, finds that can be a strength to pitch to prospects.

Large national agencies have gone by the wayside,” Lizik says, “but there’s still something to be said for having everything under one roof. Clients appreciate having one point of contact. It’s easier to have everything consolidated.”

Alan Boarts, founder, CEO and chief creative director of A to Z Communications, a 10-​person shop Downtown, has observed much the same phenomenon.

If we’re working on a print campaign, they like that it can be transitioned to a broadcast or web campaign without having to leave our shop,” Boarts says. Yet even A to Z finds itself outsourcing work in the digital area. “If we had one or two programmers in house, I’d be overloaded. I can outsource and keep moving at a better pace.”

Still, even full-​service shops find themselves at times sharing clients, if not partnering outright. In fact, Ned Show, CEO of Chemistry, a full-​service agency of 90 people in Pittsburgh and Atlanta, considers it his duty to bring on outsource partners when the situation calls for it.

About 20 percent of the time, clients may be trying to reach targeted, nuanced audiences,” Show says. “We might look throughout the country to find a niche marketer who understands that market very well. That can be a more efficient way for us to use a client’s money than to spend six months to get up to speed. We try to be agnostic about the tactic and spend the client’s money in the way that returns the greatest value. That’s the way you build trust with clients.”

Some full-​service agencies develop their own specialties to make themselves more attractive as outsource partners. That’s the case at 321Blink, a 26-​person shop in Aspinwall, which has built a particularly robust video production capability. Says Tim McLaughlin, one of the agency’s two founders and presidents (along with Tripp Clarke):

Sometimes an agency will call us and say, ‘We saw this cool thing you guys did. Can you do that for our client?’ The trust level is at an all-​time high. That sounds kind of corny, but we recognize we can’t have every piece of business in town. We’re not threatened by others, and we love working with them. We can’t offer the creative services that some of the bigger agencies can, but they can’t offer the production services that we can. It’s worked out nicely, but you wouldn’t have seen it four or five years ago.”

Brunner, one of the region’s larger agencies with 155 employees in Pittsburgh and Atlanta, has developed an unusual specialty, as Partner/​President Scott Morgan explains: “In the mid-​nineties, we invested in digital in a big way, even though websites then were mostly brochure ware. We bought an interactive firm we were dealing with and evolved that into an Innovation Lab. We’ve created technology products there, such as a trading platform for major financial institutions. It’s very different from what we did 20 or 25 years ago.”

Still other agencies focus on certain industries or markets — “verticals,” as they’re known in the biz. Bynums Marketing & Communications, Inc. is a small Downtown shop that has succeeded for about 30 years by serving niche markets and sticking to them. “We specialize in reaching out to the minority community — that goes beyond technology,” says agency President Russell L. Bynum. “There has to be a thought process that isn’t based on numbers and analytics. You know the community you’re trying to reach because you’re part of it. Technology won’t tell you that.”

Pipitone Group and its 35 employees also emphasize a vertical — architectural building products — which, according to Scott Pipitone, accounts for more than 35 percent of company revenue. “We have about eight customers in that space, and we have a full-​blown strategy of growing in that space. We have a strategic director of architectural building products, and we’ve developed good contacts with editors at the leading magazines in the industry. Once you get customers in that space, they’re very loyal. Some have been with us for a decade.”

Whether they consider themselves full service or specialists, agencies can expect their clients to work with multiple providers. Says Clayton: “It’s a new way to put together a dream team.”

Fewer large, predictable revenue sources

One aspect of the contemporary agency landscape that may not be quite as dreamy is compensation. As clients divvy up business among multiple agencies, those accounts aren’t the large, predictable revenue sources they once were.

They’re not committing to an agency of record as much as they used to,” Bynum confirms. “Clients aren’t making five-​to six-​year commitments.”

With the number of retainer-​based clients on the wane, agencies willingly pursue smaller accounts, even chunks of accounts, to stay busy.

We used to have five or six big accounts that were our anchors,” CEO Boarts says. “Now, we probably have one or two of those but 10 or 15 smaller accounts to keep everything healthy.”

Oddly enough, clients may be more receptive to retainers when they’re engaging agencies for digital media, shape-​shifting though those media may be.

Digital makes retainers a lot easier,” Lizik says. “We can put together a plan for a year based on what data are telling us rather than a campaign someone wants to throw out there.”

To help in the area of compensation, Brunner pioneered an incentive system based on metrics the agency developed in its Innovation Lab. “We focus on results and measure and track them through data analytics,” Morgan says. “We can tell our clients where they’re being effective and where not. If we move the business needle, we get a performance bonus. We have that with about 25 percent of clients.”

However much agencies may mourn the decline of the agency of record model, the workforce is more stable in the new configuration. Agencies need to be more versatile, so they’re hiring, training and retaining staff who can contribute across a number of specialties and verticals. The phenomenon of agency gypsies has all but vanished.

We all wear multiple hats,” Boarts says, “so if we lose an account or it goes quiet, I don’t have to lay people off. They can do other things for me.”

Chemistry’s Show agrees: “We’re able to be more invested in young people and have them stay on board. Even if we don’t have anything going on in their vertical, we have them pitch in on something else. They enjoy it. They’re learning more about the business and making themselves more marketable.”

Creativity is back

It’s fair to say that the agency sector locally has been reshaped, and it may not gel into permanent alignment anytime soon, thanks to the dizzying digital phenomenon.

Keeping up to date on digital marketing is critical,” ZBrand’s Lizik says. “I spend four or five hours each Saturday catching up with industry blogs so that I can pick up on trends before they become trends.”

Speed is the watchword in digital, and agencies will be pressed to keep up.

The biggest challenge will continue to be creating content that plays across all the platforms,” observes 321Blink’s McLaughlin. “In today’s digital world, speed trumps perfection. You have to look good and be good, but now that there are deadlines every minute, you have to be nimble and responsive. I see that trend continuing.”

Moreover, digital has pretty much overpowered the quaint notion of “flights” — a three-​month campaign, say, followed by a similar quiet period. Thanks to digital, agencies must harvest impressions on all platforms, all the time.

Interrupted advertising is gone and never coming back,” says Show. “Younger people won’t allow you to interrupt what you’re doing with their messages. You have to integrate the brand into what they want to see and do. You need a feel for that culture. The ‘flighting’ of media — not many folks live in that world today.”

Yet in this quicksilver new environment, Pittsburgh’s ad agencies are well positioned to thrive because ideas — their most admired product — are more critical than ever. It’s content that can lift an ad up from the clutter. Apologies to Marshall McLuhan, but the medium might not be the message after all. The message still might be the message.

In the beginning [of digital], as long as you were on the Internet with a banner ad and a Facebook page, you were good,” Garrison says. “Now, it’s not just about being there. Creativity is back. The best idea wins.”

Pittsburgh’s ad agencies: Best of show

The region’s ad agencies long have been known for the originality and boldness of their work, a reputation that has helped them build an impressive roster of regional and national clients. Over the years, the sector has changed dramatically. Local shops have gone smaller and nimbler, even as they’re forced by cost-​conscious clients to share business with other agencies. The one constant has been first-​rate creative output.

You’ll get a taste of that creativity in the sampler below. The work spans traditional and digital advertising, brand building, public relations, collateral material, even street performances. Enjoy this “Best of Show” from Pittsburgh’s agencies.


Video production; graphic design; web design; media strategy and buying; digital marketing and social media; marketing communications consulting. 26 employees. Tim McLaughlin, president, Tripp Clarke, president.

Campaign/​Project: During the summer of 2017, Herrington & Company, an interactive consultant, reached out to 321Blink for video production support for their long-​time client, Songer Services, an industrial contractor based in Washington, Pa. Songer was performing a delicate vent stack demolition project at the National Historic Landmark Carrie Furnace in Braddock and decided a video documentary was the perfect storytelling device to share Songer’s 40-​year connection with Western Pennsylvania and Big Steel.

Herrington drove the creative vision and turned to 321’s diverse production resources to help make that vision a reality. Over the course of two months, 321 shot industrial drone footage, on-​site interviews, documentary footage, still photography and, most notably, time-​lapse footage of the entire demolition using GoPro cameras that had to be managed daily during construction, rain or shine. The agencies collaborated on editorial supervision, voice casting, graphic development, music selection — all the special seasoning a unique video needs to stand out.

The result: a compelling long-​form and teaser video for the Songer project that Herrington deployed and marketed successfully as a dynamic landing page and storytelling device for an industrial contractor on the rise.

A to Z Communications

A to Z is a full-​service branding, marketing and advertising agency that molds strategy, design and digital capabilities. The agency’s mix of integrated marketing expertise includes advertising, PR and online campaigns, assuring continuity across all media. 10 employees. Alan Boarts, CEO, founder and chief creative director.

Campaign/​Project: After a six-​month media blitz to promote the live-​stream announcement of the Steelers-​wrapped F-​150 winner, Neighborhood Ford Store needed a new agency to pick up the ball. With just three weeks until show time, A to Z teamed up with the 81-​dealer association to execute the highly anticipated New Year’s Eve event. A to Z choreographed and scripted the event logistics at Heinz Field, hired a pro camera crew and shot B roll to spice up the live feed. A to Z secured key film footage from Ford in Detroit, branded graphics from their national agency of record, plus worked with the Steelers organization to display Ford’s logo on the stadium scoreboard.

Tackling frigid temps at Heinz Field, A to Z live-​streamed the Facebook event to more than 1,200 viewers. In less than a week, the stats had almost doubled.

Apple Box Studios

Apple Box is a full-​service agency specializing in integrated marketing solutions that include branding, traditional and digital campaigns, website design, social media and video production. 14 employees. Michael Wertz, CEO.

Campaign/​Project: Gateway Rehab is at the epicenter of our region’s fight against substance abuse and the opiate epidemic. It is recognized as an Opioid Use Disorder Center of Excellence by the state and is currently expanding services into Westmoreland County and eastern Ohio. To define and clearly communicate Gateway Rehab’s new brand image as a leading addiction recovery program, Apple Box was tasked with creating a high-​impact campaign on a limited budget.

Under the tagline “Bring yourself to life,” the campaign speaks to the courage of recovery with life-​affirming images and copy. Audiences are encouraged to bring their true selves to life by conquering their dependencies and replacing them with self-​awareness, self-​determination and self-​esteem.

Blender, Inc.

Blender, Inc. is an integrated marketing agency with a creative boutique at its core. A women-​owned business, Blender was founded 13 years ago by veteran creative directors determined to bring big-​agency ideas to clients with smaller budgets. Seven employees. Kris Knieriem, president.

Campaign/​Project: A small Croatian Catholic church high above Millvale hosts one of the region’s hidden treasures — murals. Painted by immigrant artist Maxo Vanka in two sessions in 1939 and 1942, the murals tell the story of immigration, social justice, war and religion. The murals are crumbling off the walls due to age and weather, so the Society to Preserve the Millvale Murals of Maxo Vanka engaged Blender to alert the community to the plight of the murals and create a rallying cry that would unite supporters.

In response, Blender developed the “Save Maxo Vanka Campaign.” Launched earlier this year, the multifaceted initiative includes boulevard banners along Millvale’s streets as well as t-​shirts and pint glasses emblazoned with Maxo Vanka logos. All these elements have combined to build momentum for preservation of a Pittsburgh treasure for the next generation.


Brand management advertising; cross-​channel digital performance marketing; social media and content marketing; emerging technology and innovation; digital + content activation; data analytics; strategy + insights; public relations. 150 employees in Pittsburgh. Michael Brunner, CEO.

Campaign/​Project: In the construction industry, where half the labor force left following the housing crash and the other half is nearing retirement age, 84 Lumber was finding it nearly impossible to staff its 250 stores and meet customer demand, especially with their planned goal of expanding in the West. To elevate the company’s recognition, Brunner created a 90-​second commercial for Super Bowl LI that focused on a journey of sacrifice and commitment… through the lens of an issue on everyone’s front burner: immigration.

The Journey” anchored an integrated campaign. Other elements included: the full story of “The Journey” as a 5:45 online film; sponsorship of a Super Bowl green room; broadcast partnerships with ESPN, FOX and FOX Deportes; pre– and post-​game public relations efforts; a dedicated microsite; digital display ads; social media, community management and targeted paid ads; comprehensive SEO/​SEM campaigns.

Ongoing recruitment messaging in the months after the Super Bowl leveraged a similar tonality as part of the “I Am 84 Material” campaign to keep the conversation going. The campaign produced greater than 14,000 media placements that were shared more than 147,000 times, more than 17 million cumulative video views and the No. 1 trending video on YouTube. Perhaps most importantly, 84 Lumber has since received more than 92,000 applications, and more than 135,000 people have opted into the 84 Lumber talent network.

Bynums Marketing & Communications, Inc.

Bynums provides marketing, advertising and public relations services to a broad variety of clients, with particular strength among business professionals; families; children and youth; churches/​faith-​based organizations; senior citizens; urban communities; ethno-​centric markets; low-​to moderate-​income residents; affluent individuals. 310 employees. Russell L. Bynum, President.

Campaign/​Project: Bynums created a report for the Pittsburgh Public Schools to highlight the progress of the annual “Take a Father to School” initiative. Services included project coordination, copyediting, graphic design and finished art.


Chemistry is a full-​service agency offering advertising, branding, digital, social media and mobile marketing services. 94 employees. Ned Show, CEO.

Campaign/​Project: On a destination island loaded with amazing hotel properties, how do you stand out and create consumer engagement without breaking the bank? For one of those properties, Aruba Marriott Resort, Chemistry created an inspirational social campaign around the “universal language of travel.” The result is a campaign that feels more like organic content than paid advertising. Thanks to the campaign, engagement for the resort through Facebook and Instagram is up 150 percent, and the number of people sharing the content is 12 times higher than seen in previous campaigns.

Garrison Hughes

Garrison Hughes is a full-​service agency offering media, creative, research and interactive capabilities. 53 employees. Bill Garrison, partner; Dave Hughes, partner.

Campaign/​project: A major study conducted by The Heinz Endowments revealed that misperceptions about veterans were affecting their ability to find employment and other opportunities. That drove Garrison Hughes to develop a compelling campaign that brought this issue to the forefront and shed a positive light on returning soldiers.

Through interviews and video testimonials with local veterans, the agency learned that veterans don’t want to be “thanked” for their service. Rather, they want to be treated like everyone else and judged on their skills and job performance. Based on these findings, Garrison Hughes launched a two-​week teaser campaign to grab the attention of business executives and employers, followed up with ways to help veterans. Also included was a website featuring stories and stats that supported the premise. The campaign received strong print media coverage and caught fire on social media, eliciting a call from The American Legion to “see this campaign go national.”


Full-​service marketing strategy and communications, including: research/​brand strategy; customer journey mapping; digital experience; creative; production; media planning/​buying; public relations; social/​influencer marketing; content marketing; multicultural marketing; business innovation consulting. 270 employees. Michele Fabrizi, president & CEO.

Campaign/​project: MARC USA launched the “Know No” movement to build awareness and understanding of sexual consent — especially on campuses — with the goal of changing behavior and fostering support for victims. Created well before the current intense national dialogue about sexual assaults and harassment, the Know No movement includes a video (www​.youtube​.com/​w​a​t​c​h​?​v​=​7​o​a​I​x​o​l​B​4​D​g​&​a​m​p​;​f​e​a​t​u​r​e​=​y​o​u​t​u​.​b​e), experiential public events, website (www​.knowno​.us), online resource kit and social media. The campaign portrays seemingly unconscious young men and women on a bed or couch in highly public locations with a poster saying “If I can’t say yes, I can’t say no.” MARC videoed the street events to create shareable content for social media.

The campaign has resonated widely. Lady Gaga found the Know No video so compelling that she donated the use of her song “’Til It Happens to You” as the soundtrack. Know No has been adopted as a key educational tool on campuses across the country and recognized for effectiveness by leading public health professionals. The video was accepted by the Upworthy media platform and has been viewed more than 1 million times while Instagram and Twitter posts of campus events have been shared more than 100,000 times. In addition, the Black Women’s Health Imperative forged a formal partnership to bring Know No to the campuses served by the organization’s My Sister’s Keeper program.

Splash Media

Media planning and buying in all facets of media, from traditional to digital; media research; media analysis; media strategy; trafficking; media reconciliation and billing; competitive research; consultation. Three employees. Wendy Ann Clayton, owner & president.

Campaign/​project: “Love Your Library” was a first-​of-​its-​kind countywide campaign developed by the Allegheny County Library Association (ACLA) and Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh to encourage investment in local libraries. Donations were eligible for a match from the Jack Buncher Foundation, with up to $125,000 in matching funds to be split among ACLA member libraries.

For the 2017 campaign, Splash planned a media buy that featured these percentage allocations: radio — 41; print — 10; digital — 27; out of home — 17; collateral — 5. The campaign raised nearly $100,000 more than the previous year’s total. The number of donors increased by 25 percent, the number of new donors by 29 percent.

West Media Group

West has considerable experience in political campaigns. By its count, the agency has managed 183 such campaigns and won 135 of them, or 73.8 percent. Five employees. Jim Wasylik, president.

Campaign/​project: Because of the controversy surrounding gun ownership and use, the development and implementation of a campaign for A&S Indoor Pistol Range of Youngwood brought a number of challenges, including working within the strong anti-​gun positions of Google and Facebook. West’s creative strategy was to utilize young, attractive (but not overly so) females “pointing a gun at you” in photographic images proportionately large relative to the end product’s dimensions. The goals were to make audiences identify with the models and understand A&S offers classes and/​or personal instruction in safe gun handling.

For the campaign, West used billboards; digital display advertising and Facebook ads; newspapers (both print and online); radio; contests to build an email database, and internal eblasts. Thanks to the success of the campaign, A&S classes are booked months in advance, and the company has launched construction of new classroom space to meet increased demand.

Z Brand Group

For its clients, Z Brand Group uses a mix of traditional and digital media to engage potential customers and develop brands. 13 employees. Jeff Lizik, CEO.

Campaign/​project: GNC International engaged Z Brand to find ways to improve the company’s social media strategy and presence with their international partners, who were struggling to identify content that they were authorized to share on social media. There was also a lack of consistency in how international partners were representing the GNC brand on social media.

Z Brand’s solution started with the documentation of a detailed social media guidelines handbook for distribution to GNC’s international partners. The guidelines cover topics such as profile name standards, brand voice and personality, key brand messages, social channel strategies and general social media best practices. Z Brand and GNC International also developed a bi-​monthly system for distributing original content — including custom-​made social media graphics and posts — to GNC’s international partners. With these innovations, GNC’s brand is now better represented internationally, and GNC’s international partners are growing their social media results.

Evan Pattak

Evan Pattak is a Pittsburgh freelance writer and publicist. His work appears regularly in TEQ, Pennsylvania Manufacturer, Pop City and Pittsburgh Quarterly Magazine.

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