Travis Bort in the late 1990s.
Not Your Typical Agency
The idea of being exclusively based on the idea represents more than a philosophy at Syracuse’s ABC Creative Group. In fact, it’s even more than a practice. It’s more than the tagline they created to differentiate the agency from all the others.
It’s the idea that a photography and design studio can become an effective ad agency and that an advertising shop can evolve into a full-service creative group. It’s the idea that marketing means more than making big media buys or moving products off the shelf.
The idea gets the priority at ABC, a mid-size firm that prides itself in its creative abilities; an agency that always puts the idea first and well ahead of media placement or digital strategy. Always.
The approach routinely achieves success for clients ranging from credit unions to vacation destinations, from nonprofits to retail businesses. The team here generates ideas that fuel bottom line growth for trash companies and cemeteries alike.
They once inspired music star Kenny Loggins to contribute to a national suicide prevention campaign and grew a statewide organization of only 9,000 members to nearly 50,000 in just a decade.
ABC sees 5-, 10- and even 20-year relationships as the norm.
The agency backs this with consistent creativity appreciated by an unusually high number of long-term clients. In an industry that typically sees marketing partners terminate or sunset contracts every two or three years, ABC sees five-, 10- and even 20-year relationships as the norm.
Even the disastrous economic downturn of the late 2000s couldn’t sever the support of clients, who, in essence, become part of the team as time goes on. Some might even call it a family, a major part of the culture developed by Owner and Creative Director Travis Bort over the past 18 years as a partner-turned-principal.
But, unlike actual family, Travis has had the fortune and freedom (since buying the business in 2005) of choosing the folks who live under his roof. His idea?
Recruit for talent, not training. Hire for chemistry, not the résumé. Pay for performance, not tenure.
Travis has been rewarded with a passionate collective dedicated to the cause: the belief that, at some level, marketing makes a difference in people’s lives. Marketing isn’t an exercise in manipulation. Marketing isn’t even about the money.
Here, Marketing Is About Movement.
Marketing is about identifying a problem, understanding the audience and coming up with the concept – the idea – that will bring people and organizations together for mutual benefit.
That simplified version of the idea-based process requires extensive research, relentless idea generation and superior communication to establish influential engagement with the public that inspires them to act.
Therein lies the mission of every ad agency since the very dawn of ad agencies. But, over the decades since this relatively recent era began, an agency model developed and solidified.
People go to school to be marketers. Many stake their education to the agency life with its certain structure and expectations. This model’s been around long enough to become standard and maybe even a little stale despite success.
Travis doesn’t care for that setup. In fact, he’s gone out of his way to ignore it, which was admittedly scary when he took over day-to-day operations at age 33.
ABC started with the idea that a marketing agency can be successful without looking or even acting like one. Most employees and alumni didn’t set out to be marketers; marketing found them.
A graphic designer builds, but a visual artist illustrates. A copywriter types up taglines, but a journalist tells a story. A videographer shoots commercials, but a filmmaker creates cinema. An account executive manages clients, but a brand advocate guides them.
He considers this team of non-agency types to be the catalyst for ABC’s success.
It may seem risky to make a fresh-from-commencement communications major a project manager, but it’s just one of many things that’s working for Travis.
The hierarchy is nearly invisible, with collaboration a natural activity among folks that would usually be filed into silos based on title at a normal agency.
On a typical day, people start trickling into their offices around 8-ish and by midmorning, ABC buzzes. Impromptu meetings produce some of the best ideas and funniest jokes. From production to account management, creativity is a part of everyone’s job description.
It’s not unusual for the account executive to come up with a television spot or the Web guy to conceptualize the next print campaign. These are the agency outsiders, who like Travis himself became professional marketers by accident.
Travis is an idea guy. The generation of many successful concepts over the past couple decades are built on the cornerstone idea-based philosophy that he developed.
But, back in those days, he was a photographer and production coordinator. Travis worked directly with clients on their projects, which soon led to pitching his ideas.
It was the birth of the idea-based philosophy: Getting to know the client inside out, learning about the successes and failures, then spinning that into an idea that could build a better outcome.
It’s what keeps the agency perpetually adding services, growing staff and moving forward.
Travis’ work became less about the imagery and more about how art and copy could be used to broadcast a message – and determining what that message would be.
The pursuit of that message – the idea – became Travis’ MO and eventually that of the company. Catalogs, brochures and direct mail became print, radio and TV. ABC even dabbled in content development before “content” was a thing when they started producing a magazine.
On the strategy side, ABC added services quickly to accommodate a growing list of clients, building a digital portfolio as fast as the dial-up would let them. Big ideas, forward thinking and adventurous clients willing to put up with uncommon concepts pushed ABC forward.
This atypical group of brand champions constantly churns out “A material.” They want to market, they want to develop and communicate the message that makes the difference. It’s what keeps the agency perpetually adding services, growing staff and moving forward. What a great idea.