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Agency Profile: VML

Posted on March 8, 2012 and read 9,627 times

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brianna Agency Profile: VMLBrianna Graves

I know what you’re thinking when I say “Kansas City.” Or I at least have a very good guess. Was it Dorothy? Tornados? Ruby red slippers and “there’s no place like home?” The Scarecrow, the Tinman, the Wicked Witch of the West or the Wizard?

Fair enough. But first of all, there’s much more to Kansas City than the lore of “The Wizard of Oz.” And secondly, I wasn’t in Kansas at all. I was in Missouri.

Kansas City straddles two states, with one half of the city in Kansas and the other in Missouri. It certainly has no discernable affect on a visit, but the fact is true nonetheless.

A charming old-Midwest-meets-new contrast cloaks Kansas City. Thanks to an increasing art presence across Kansas City, it is experiencing a rebirth that is attracting young professionals back to the area and those rooted in the city to stay. Old industrial areas are filling with new loft and residential spaces, as well as commercial artist spaces and businesses. I remarked at the well-maintained cleanliness of the vintage urban buildings and smooth streets. The Sprint Center (recently host to Jay-Z and Kanye’s “Watch the Throne” tour and soon to host Madonna) and the new Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts ensure that modern culture and arts are represented here. First Friday art walks inspire local artistry and exploration of the Crossroads Arts District, where VML’s downtown Kansas City office is located. The River Market district enjoys farmers markets on the weekends, while the Plaza maintains the upscale dining and shopping experience it has offered the city for many years. The city has an “up and coming” energy to it, which was palpable even on a mid-winter Wednesday night. There is a bit of something for everyone and certainly far more than I anticipated I would find in Kansas City, Missouri.


Not far from downtown, just over a short bridge in the downtown airport sits VML’s Global Headquarters. You read that correctly, the agency is located within (and has taken over the majority of) an airport. Not the Kansas International Airport, which is a mere fifteen minutes away, but a smaller public downtown airport, which still accommodates small planes and VIP landings (you know, folks like Michelle Obama, Garth Brooks, professional sports teams and Nascar drivers – after all, the Kansas Speedway is located on the Kansas side of Kansas City).

The structure of the old airport within the agency remains intact. For instance, the Channel Activation and Strategic Planning groups work from the old airport “Gate 1,” while the old ticket check-in counters each house a small private workroom (now called “fish bowls”). The building itself is huge, with long hallways that provide a venue for impromptu sprint training (done by the later mentioned Gatorade team), though the in-house gym would also fulfill any need for physical exertion. There are more than 500 people at the VML Global Headquarters but despite the size of the buildings and the number of people within, the agency felt surprisingly intimate. I was struck by how at home the staff was in the physical space. Individual cubicles were full of books, photos, personal, client and local university paraphernalia – it looked like they were moved in for good (or at least a long haul), and many are.

Personalized Workspace Agency Profile: VML

This is not a place where the teams turn over every two years. Not only are there few other comparable agency options in Kansas City, but its professionals seem to want to build a career at VML, not just stop and visit for a short while.

Heck, VML even has its own coffee shop and café within the airport agency, appropriately called The Filling Station, complete with every imaginable caffeine fix, and both breakfast and lunch options. Being slightly removed from downtown Kansas City, The Filling Station provides the only onsite option for caffeination and hunger pangs (but reportedly— thankfully— with delicious options).

As I watched planes take off and land in the picture window overlooking the tarmac, a mix of VML’s Chief Executive team and newer members of the agency family shared the VML story over some Kansas City barbeque (yes, it is as mouthwateringly amazing as it is rumored to be).

The first thing I noticed is that while many agencies claim to be “a family,” VML truly exudes the sentiment. Most of VML’s senior team has worked together for at least ten years, some closer to twenty, and yet none of them are older than 45 years old. They are a young, yet tenured and motivated group who are all willing to climb into the trenches when necessary, which helps the culture and levels the hierarchy at VML. The senior team speaks to each other with reverential familiarity, finishing each other’s sentences and anticipating the sentence to follow. They were collectively and individually kind and welcoming, open and collaborative, and fiercely proud of what the agency has accomplished in the past 20 years since it was founded. After all, VML has grown from a local Midwest agency to a global, yet somehow still undiscovered, digital powerhouse that became a part of the WPP and Y&R Group network in 2001.

One topic over which I bonded with the senior VML team was the accumulation of air skymiles. With five offices having opened up in the past year, VML’ers are no strangers to the sky. Until recently, VML had offices in Kansas City (the Global Headquarters and the Downtown Arts District Office), New York, Seattle and London, among others. But in 2011 alone, VML offices opened in São Paulo, Singapore, Sydney and Mumbai and Prague —totaling 18 VML offices and about 1,000 employees worldwide. The expansion is not only due to client growth, but also for reputation’s sake. They don’t want to have a pseudo-presence in the markets where they claim to do business; they truly want to be present in each location, and their partners worldwide truly want to be a part of the VML network. StudioCom and IconMobile are also a part of the total VML network, enhancing their mobile and digital capabilities globally.

VML itself is a digital agency and it is for that ability that the greater Y&R Group network taps in to their expertise. Many of VML’s client relationships have been long-term – such as the more than ten-year partnership with Colgate – while other relationships, such as an agency of record relationship with Gatorade, are newer.

Consistently partnered with and supported by Forrester Research, VML was ranked a strong performer in the Forrester Wave™: US Digital Agencies — Mobile Marketing Strategy And Execution, Q1 2012 report, ahead of AKQA, iCrossing, Ogilvy, Possible Worldwide, Razorfish, Rosetta, SapientNitro and TribalDDB on collaboration.


Well, consider its work and belief that anything is possible. In addition to Gatorade and Colgate, VML clients include Quizno’s, Southwest, Xerox, Microsoft, Dell, Copia, Kashi, Kellogg’s, Ford, Tom’s of Maine and Carlson. VML work has earned hardware at the One Show, Webby Awards, IAC, OMMA and Spark Awards and a spot as an Effie finalist (stay tuned for final results on that one…).

VML was proud to earn the Digital Agency of Record for Gatorade in January 2010 and they are noticeably and deservedly proud of the work they’ve done for the brand since. The development of “Mission Control,” with other agency partners, allowed VML to stay one step ahead. Mission Control monitors and guides Gatorade’s online social conversation around the clock, and helps VML leverage all of its services for the Gatorade brand. They’ve done a notable job. Social is a big piece of the Gatorade brand strategy puzzle. In 2011, VML developed the “Everything to Prove” campaign. Designed to help consumers establish an understanding of what is happening in their bodies, the Gatorade team set out to develop multiple layers of nutrition and performance education content. “Everything to Prove” followed fifteen rookies’ stories and challenges as they prepared to compete in the NFL draft. The first season is now complete and has captured hearts with some of the rookie’s stories, like Mark Herzlich, who beat cancer to go on to join the Giants and win the 2012 Super Bowl. None of the brand assets were provided by Gatorade to be repurposed; all shoots and video were originally imagined, captured and edited by VML and NFL Films.

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VML also launched the G Series FIT product, working to differentiate it from the well-known Gatorade product and to reach a new audience. With a homepage takeover banner, it transformed frequently visited workout homepages into treadmills. These takeovers helped spike the awareness of G Series FIT and garnered click-through rates far above industry average.

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When Quizno’s came to VML and said they needed to raise awareness around its Lobster and Seafood Salad Sub coupon promotion, VML came out of the gate with its claws blasting. Ironically, in order to increase downloads of the coupon at, VML decided to start a movement to save the lobsters. The more coupons that were downloaded and therefore the more subs that were consumed, the more lobsters VML rescued from life in a tank-turned-boiling-pot-of-water for the cool seas from whence they came. Seems backwards, but it worked and four lobsters, named Larry, Lucky, Lenny and Lainey (named by popular vote and request on social media) trekked from a Midwest grocery store 1,500 miles back to the open waters of Portland, Maine. Viewers could watch the lobsters’ journey to freedom live via a webcam and VML’ers accompanied the lobsters the entire way. Even PETA checked in on the promotion to ensure the lobsters would make it safely back to the sea… which, of course, they did.

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The VML crew works in “Alignment Teams,” and has for more than ten years, beginning the practice with the Colgate account. Each Alignment Team represents leads across all disciplines who are collectively responsible for each account.

A heavy dose of the Midwest welcoming, considerate and polite demeanor sets the tone of the culture at VML, and I heard more than once that the “Type A” personality is well represented. There is a company club team for every sport, and they compete in the Corporate League Challenge around Kansas City. The VML Foundation, Foundation Month (September) and more specifically, Foundation Day (a day of service where the agency shuts down and heads out in teams to help many of Kansas City’s need-based programs) all work to raise funds for worthy community causes deemed worthy by employees and leadership. VMWell encourages and rewards employees for paying attention and taking action to improve their personal health. The many tentacles of the Ministry of Fun (responsible for Art Uncorked, the ever-creative Halloween Party and International Beer Day) dictate activities intended to allow VML’ers to let loose. The staff is encouraged to express themselves, blending professional expertise with the personal passion. For instance, one talented employee performed stand-up comedy at this year’s Annual Meeting, kicking the event off to a great start. VML also has the TEDX Kansas City license, further tapping them into the community that surrounds them and enabling it to bring inspiration to its home city.

How VML has flown under the radar for so long is a question left unanswered. As proud as each employee I met was to work at VML, none were particularly good at boasting. VML’s growth has been deliberate, slow and patient, but after 2011, it seems no radar will be able to cover them much longer.

Add world-class agency to your picture of Kansas City, right next to barbeque and tornado-inspired cinematography. And start noting how often you hear “VML” come up in industry buzz.

  • Mike Bayfield

    Great portrait of what sounds like a great agency. I’d never heard of them before, but I’m sure we’ll all be hearing a lot more of them as they grow their European and global presence.




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