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IHAVEANIDEA.ORG > articles >  Agency Profile: Venables Bell & Partners, San Francisco

Agency Profile: Venables Bell & Partners, San Francisco

Posted on March 29, 2010 and read 12,281 times

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mayacredit Agency Profile: Venables Bell & Partners, San FranciscoMaya Zaremba
Account Co-ordinator
ihaveanidea Correspondent

San Francisco is known for a lot of things: the iconic cable cars, the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz and Fisherman’s Wharf are just some of the many places to explore in this beautiful city. But sometimes after you’ve experienced the typical tourist fare, you may find yourself hoping for a more upscale souvenir and some money burning a hole in your pocket. And if that’s your goal, then Union Square is your place to be. This destination, which is popular amongst both locals and tourists, has been featured in classic films such as Hitchcock’s Vertigo and Coppola’s The Conversation. But more impressively, the 2.6 acre location is known for housing one of the Western United States’ largest collection of department stores, upscale boutiques, tourist trinket shops, art galleries and salons. And for those that consider shopping more of a nuisance than a sport, there are numerous luxurious hotels (or small inns for those looking for something more modest), off-Broadway and single-act theaters that surround the vicinity. The last thing you would expect to find within this shopping mecca is one of San Francisco’s few renowned independent ad agencies, but that is precisely where you will find hot shop Venables Bell & Partners.

It’s no surprise that this little corner of San Francisco is buzzing with energy, although many would argue that is has quieted down some due to recent economic struggles. It seems as though everyone has curbed their spending, and this also rings true to advertising, where clients slashed their advertising budgets considerably. San Francisco was certainly one of the harder-hit cities. Not only did many lose their jobs (California still owns one of the country’s highest unemployment rates), numerous big name accounts left the city, leaving many of the city’s creative shops quite shaken up. But from great loss comes new growth and opportunity. And this is precisely the case with VB&P, which opened their doors for business during the economic downturn of 2001.

It was a time where raising a new shop would certainly have raised some eyebrows. After all, numerous shops were being closed and the crash of the dot-com era was certainly inescapable. Yet somehow, the original trio composed of Paul Venables, Greg Bell and Bob Molineaux was able to prevail. And at a time when everyone around them seemed to be going under, they managed to land a major account, UltimateTV (which is backed by Microsoft), as their first client.

Following this difficult economic time, the agency grew in both size and stature.  Presently, the shop houses 150 workers (45 of which work as creatives) at its location on Post Street. It is responsible for the advertising of some of the largest brands out there, including Audi, Intel, Barclays and HBO, and in 2009, this independent shop was named one of the top-ten ad agencies by Ad Age. All very admirable achievements, considering the shop has yet to reach its tenth anniversary.

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Like its accomplishments, the space in which VB&P sits is also impressive. The four floors in which it resides are decorated in a beautiful, clean and modern fashion, illuminated by the light from the giant windows. It doesn’t take very much time to realize that there are very few physical walls in the building, adding to the clean aesthetic. However, co-founder Paul Venables thinks that the lack of dividing walls does more for his shop than just appeal to its aesthetics. “We are obviously very open, and it manifests itself physically in our space. There are very few solid walls in our building. There’s a sort of a cross-fertilization that happens- we’re packed in rather tightly and it becomes a crucible of energy and ideas that are shared because of that. I think it keeps everybody up to date with what’s going on. We pop across departments and accounts more freely here than I’ve ever seen in any agency I’ve ever worked at.”

When asked in what other manners does their “open policy” extend itself, Venables, and fellow agency partner Lucy Farey-Jones, director of brand strategy, are quick to explain how they’ve created a space to allow for open ideas. There is plenty of encouragement for anyone in the agency to come forward with an idea. It’s a custom that many agencies try to uphold, yet given the competitive nature of the creative business, few manage to put it into practice. Given Lucy’s explanation, it’s clear that things run a bit differently here. “We have 150 creatives. The genuine deal is that a good idea can come from anywhere. Now, not every person is going to write a script, but here, there is not a single person in the agency that cannot come up with a brilliant idea and bring it forward.” It’s a phenomenon that Paul describes as the “people with capital ‘C’ creative and people with lower case ‘c’ creative.”

If you’re starting to get the sense that VB&P does things a little differently from their peers, you’re right. And when it comes to the formation of creative teams, there are no exceptions. At Venables, gone are the days in which art directors are joined at the hip to copywriters while they work on the same account through every phase of its existence. At VB&P, creative teams are based according to project -which means that teams can be comprised of art director- copywriter, copywriter and motion graphics artist, interactive technologist, and designer or any combination of the above. And when it comes to the search for the perfect “ad-wife” partner pairings, it’s certainly not uncommon for creative partnerships to transcend through hierarchy -that is, senior creatives working together with juniors. For Venables, the pay-off of these pairings is two-fold. “Through working with a junior, the senior person learns to look at stuff in ways they wouldn’t have considered. The junior team member will learn the more high-level stuff by working with a more senior person.”

In fact, one of the things VB&P prides itself with is their ability to nurture raw creative talent. It’s certainly a noteworthy capability, given the fact that the advertising juniors constantly struggle between projects doled out according to creative hierarchy and reaching out to mentors who are often pressed for time themselves. This doesn’t seem to be an issue at Venables Bell & Partners. “We talk a lot about the premise of being a teaching hospital, and that’s really true in every aspect,” Lucy explains. “People should leave this place better than when they came in.” A lofty ambition for the agency’s many workers, but when days are packed with client meetings and leering deadlines, where does that leave opportunities for creative growth?

picture 15 Agency Profile: Venables Bell & Partners, San Francisco

picture 16 Agency Profile: Venables Bell & Partners, San Francisco

For starters, every one of Venables’ creatives is given direct feedback on every piece they have created. For Paul, this is imperative for allowing creatives to understand what works and what doesn’t and why. “In my time, I’ve sent scripts out the door and then two weeks later you hear something. No idea of what went into the meeting,” he explains. “That’s a horrible way to go about things. You’re not being armed to succeed. When I sit down with a creative and provide them with direct feedback, I’m really helping myself here. This person at a month or year down the road is going to be more self-sufficient and bring me ideas they know will work because they know what it takes.” In addition to the direct feedback, every art director who walks through the doors at VB&P takes part in the mandatory art director mentorship program: they must either have a mentor, or become a mentor to someone else.

With VB&P’s tendency to mix things up, you can be certain that they’ll extend the same courtesy when catering to their accounts. You see, VB&P likes to keep things fresh by allowing creatives to bounce around from one account to another on a regular basis. And we’re not just talking about the typical as Paul describes, “serving time on one client for a year and then moving on to something else.” Creatives are sought out on a project-by-project basis, which enables somebody to work on Audi one day, and be brought in on an HBO project the next day. According to Venables, “We have creative generals that become the creative lead and run their respective businesses. They are the ones who are tethered to their businesses. Everyone else is a free-form pool of creative talent.”

Since VB&P values keeping things fresh and nurturing young talent, you can be sure there are plenty of juicy opportunities for the juniors. “Everybody works on everything. I am absolutely unafraid to put the most junior person in the building on a big project. It’s part of the philosophy that anyone should handle anything.” Paul fondly recalls one junior whom had come to VB&P fresh out of school. By the time she had been at the agency for six months, she had already sold five TV spots.

It seems like an ideal creative culture, but it’s easy to become skeptical of Paul’s claims when you consider how the ad industry has always fed upon the frailty of the creative’s ego and created competition not only between different shops, but also within the shops themselves. However, VB&P is confident that they run a tight creative ship, and for Paul, the proof is in the pudding. For Venables, this means never having had to resolve an argument over award show credits. “I’ve never had to settle a ‘My name should be on it because I helped’ dispute/argument. It’s unheard of when people collaborate.” And all the time and energy VB&P has spent into nurturing their creatives has seemed to have really paid off, as Paul truly believes his creatives work seamlessly with one another. “I’ve never seen a creative department collaborate with no strings attached like this department -to the point where I’ve seen someone say, ‘I have to go out and shoot this television,’ and someone else responds, ‘Oh, I’ll go out and shoot your outdoor for you.’”

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When it really comes down to it, there are three things that VB&P values above everything else: Truth, Fire and Love. The truth aspect refers to being smart, honest and working intelligently; Fire refers to being passionate; and lastly, the Love aspect recognizes all the nurturing VB&P brings into the picture to encourage growth. The three values are not only creative’s direct feedback. The honesty policy also extends itself to the relationship VB&P has with its clients.

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Lucy recalls the beginning of Intel’s relationship with VB&P, and how the agency initially was skeptical of joining the pitch when they didn’t agree with the strategy behind the client-produced brief. The client was impressed with their honesty and the depth of research which the agency had performed, and thus began the relationship between VB&P and Intel. Likewise, VB&P has learned that not every client is so open to hearing the truth. “The clients who are attracted to us are the ones who really want to solve their marketing problems. But there are also a lot of clients who don’t want to solve their marketing problems, want to operate business as usual and don’t want to rock the boat. We’re not a good fit for those clients. We turn down clients regularly, and we say ‘no’ more than anyone else in the business.”

When it comes to keeping the clients happy, VB&P certainly knows a thing or two. But in order to be able to produce great creative work, Truth Fire and Love aren’t enough. VB&P knows that in order to keep things interesting, they have to keep their creative teams inspired. And how do they achieve that? Well, for starters, there is no shortage of fun toys around the office that allow the creatives to blow off steam. We’re talking a ping-pong table, foosball table and even a company keg (which, no doubt, becomes very popular on a Friday afternoon).And let’s not forget that the agency is located within a busy center full of shopping and theater performances. VB&P even produces a company blog in which creative findings are passed around. But when it comes down to it, how do Paul and his partners ensure that their creatives are operating at their most innovative potential? “We encourage people to experience life. This isn’t work 24/7, although we work hard, and sometimes we have to work weekends. We generally encourage people to experience life – whether it’s family time or travel time, free time, museum time or movie time because – we know that is fire for great ideas.”

If you’ve been working in the ad game for a few years, you know that some agencies are more forgiving than others when it comes to the work-life balance equation. Luckily, VB&P happens to be one of those agencies. They will be the first to admit that, yes, there are times when plans will be canceled in favor of coming to the office on the weekend. However, the agency also recognizes the need and benefit to setting aside time to spend with loved ones. And for this agency, it means showing up in the morning (ideally in the 9:15-9:20 window, about the same time Paul arrives after taking care of his own children) and working hard until a reasonable hour early in the evening. Then people are encouraged to go home to spend time with their spouse, take care of their children and simply live their life outside of work. And if there were some loose ends from earlier on in the day that need to be tied up, it’s perfectly acceptable to take care of those things later on in the evening once the little ones have been put to bed. “We have young kids, so it’s when we’re going to be reviewing stuff anyways,” Lucy points out. Having said that, the partners mention that VB&P does not have an official “flexi-time” policy that allows people to come and go as they please. Instead, they base their working hours on productivity and outcome – regardless of whether this occurs in the office or at home.

Just because the agency takes their work and productivity very seriously, doesn’t mean that they don’t make allowance for time to kick back and let loose. In fact, VB&P manages to keep a very packed social calendar of things to do throughout the year. There’s Mustache March, a competition which has grown to be a quasi-talent show between participants who vie to win the title of “Best Moustache.” There’s also the company Cinco de Mayo and St. Patty’s Day parties (where serving margaritas with chips and salsa in lieu of green beer is not uncommon). And who can forget the annual family-inclusive company picnic, which commemorates the birth of Venables Bell & Partners on June 1st. Less raucous events include Pizza Fridays, a tradition that has been in the agency since the very beginning. “The first time we did it, three of us were sitting on a floor; we didn’t have any furniture,” recalls Paul. Today, Pizza Fridays tally up about 40 pies being brought in to feed the hungry agency workers. But for Paul, the ultimate company event is the annual Holiday party, which extends their invitations to include spouses and partners. “We steal your spouse all year round through work; we can throw a party to celebrate the success of our work with the support of your partner.”

Not only does the company regularly attempt to include family members at many of their different events, but they also pay tribute to their better halves by awarding a “Spouse of the Year” award. Along with paying homage to their families, VB&P regularly motivates their workers by giving out an “Ass Kicker” award to recognize workers who have gone above and beyond, awarding anyone from a loyal executive assistant to a hardworking creative. “Our fun is very organic – people bring it,” Paul explains of the culture. “We don’t get in the way of culture; we just let it happen.”

The creation of a unique corporate culture will almost always become the glue that keeps an agency together and allows them to create great work. Once an agency becomes recognized, it’s not long before they realize their true potential and create some new goals. For VB&P, the goal is simple. “We want to be the most respected creative agency in the country – and there’s no reason why we couldn’t be.” That’s not to say that it’s the only achievement they strive for, but Paul and his partners are content with looking at the basics. “What’s important is doing great work and being profitable on that work. Even if, heaven forbid, we shrunk, if we still did great work and were still profitable on it, that would fit what we are and what we’re trying to do.”

When pressed about questions regarding agency expansion, the partners are open to the idea but also point out that they have been able to cater to all their national clients from their one location -and would only expand out of necessity. “Agencies tend to hold fast to rules like ‘We’ll always be a little shop,’” Paul explains. “We don’t make those rules, we’re independent, and we get to decide what we want to do.” In the meantime, the VB&P team will continue to develop their unique culture. “As you grow and gain success and try to attract the right people, that culture is the thing to focus on. You get the culture, you attract the right people. Getting the right people allows you to produce the right work. It’s an absolute domino effect.”

Reflecting back on their busy social calendar, their recognition of life outside the office and the many ways in which they help to develop creative talent, it’s easy to see why many people get excited about Venables Bell & Partners. With all the achievements and recognitions they have gained in the relatively short time they have been open, it’s sure that VB&P will stay on our radar of hot agencies for years to come. And without a doubt, their very unique culture and creative approach will have us banging at their door and begging to be let in for as long as we work in advertising.

ihaveanidea would like to give a big thank-you to Paul Venables, Lucy Farey-Jones and Meredith Vellines, without whom all of this would not have been possible!




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