Leeann Leahy was hired as the VIA Agency’s president and general manager last fall and was named one of 24 “Women to Watch” by Advertising Age magazine last month. After working at agencies in New York, she moved to Portland — which she said is “an off-off-market” in the advertising world — to lead the VIA Agency, which has 13 major clients ranging from Samsung and Klondike bars to Welch’s juice and Perdue chicken. VIA, headquartered in the former Baxter Library building on Congress Street, has 118 employees and annual revenues of $15 million to $20 million. Leahy declined to disclose profits or executives’ compensation.
Q. What’s your background in advertising?
A. I’ve been at VIA eight months, and I was in New York for 23 years and worked at a number of agencies, big and small, most recently as president of an agency called Translation and before that (as chief strategy officer) at Lowe Worldwide.
Q. What attracted you to VIA?
A. I think that the agency does a really good job of solving some of marketing’s most complicated challenges with creative answers. The energy is fantastic, and the culture is not caught up in the navel-gazing of the industry. The opportunity to be creative is always there and being in Portland, we can march to the beat of a different drummer.
Q. Is it difficult attracting either clients or employees, being away from the advertising industry’s center in New York?
A. Advertising is not as New York- and L.A.-centric as it once was because of the emergence of technology and being able to connect with clients in different ways. Off-markets have popped up, and being in Portland certainly is a bit of a challenge because we’re off-off-market. But we compete on a national stage, and we have to be that much better than anyone else. We are constantly refining our craft. Our strategy and creative teams are some of the best. It’s not always the easiest for them to physically get to, but we’ve had some good luck recently in attracting some really top talent from away.
Q. How has advertising changed since you started your career?
A. The biggest change that we’ve seen — I could answer technology, I could answer the social stratosphere, or the levels of the media hierarchy — but what we’re really seeing is a shift from storytelling about brands to story creation. Back in the days of “Mad Men,” advertisers were talking at consumers, and as it got more sophisticated it was telling you parts of the story, but now the end user is involved in the creation of the brand. We are co-creating with the customers, and we use every medium at our fingertips and some that have yet to be invented yet. In today’s world, with access to social media and technology, marketers don’t have complete and exclusive control over the brand story. In the best of instances, they define the brand and set it on course, but there is space for the consumer to participate in how the brand’s story unfolds. They can comment, create content of their own and share perspectives that make the brand story more interesting, dynamic and rich.
Q. Can you provide an example?
A. One of the finest examples is our recent launch for Republic Wireless. It’s breaking into the most cluttered and overspent category (cellphone service) there is. There are well-entrenched brands because the product they provide is a lifeline for most of us, and it’s very hard to move people around in that category. Imagine coming in and having a fraction of (the budget) they have. If we had tried to pour all our money into television, we would have been overwhelmed, so we created video assets that live on the web, live on direct (response) television, and we have Vine videos (short videos for smart phones and tablets). There’s a whole presence, and we created a character (H. Bud Chadwickson) who’s on a mission to save America and Americans from the wireless industry. He is as real as you or I, he has a Facebook page, a Twitter feed and Vine videos, and he also happens to do direct-response television and he will continue to roll out every place that you live your life. The media strategy is very inside out — it’s, let’s create a character and let him live across a bevy of platforms.
Q. How do you reach your target audience in a fragmented media universe?
A. We are seeing shifting formats. Television, in terms of three networks, has certainly deteriorated. Now, 230 channels come in a basic (cable) package, but video is more important than ever before, because it gets deployed across multiple channels and is still a way to create an emotional connection and a way to create that story together. All of the social platforms are there to create an open conversation with consumers. A lot of brands are still in television and print, but they’re augmenting that with non-traditional media that allows them to be in an open dialogue with the consumer.
Q. Is the latest trend in advertising to be over-the-top — to make advertising almost a send-up of advertising?
A. Not necessarily. To go back to Republic Wireless, this particular brand is a brand that’s all about the democratization of the smart phone and he’s trying to save us from the injustice of the wireless industry. I think that’s the characteristic of this particular brand. And certainly Perdue, which is another recent win for us, is a category leader and they are trying to lead the category to a new place — to help Moms understand that not all chicken is created equally and (challenge) the rest of the category to step up. That’s not subversive at all, and the engaging way we present it will make it more successful.
Q. With the near-constant change, where does the advertising industry go from here?
A. I think that the pace of change is increasing, and there are great opportunities in that, but we have to know how to keep moving and keep evolving. I do know that the need for an agency is to take a role in helping clients create strategic platforms. I think that there’s more and more clients can execute on their own, but the objectivity and the outsider’s perspective that an agency can provide around strategy and ideation, in particular, is very important.
Q. What’s your favorite all-time ad — not one you were involved with?
A. There are so many ads that have resonated with me over the years. From my childhood, I have vivid images of campaigns like Tootsie Pop’s iconic “how many licks,” Crest’s animated cavities chanting “we make holes in teeth,” Coke’s “I’d like to buy the world a Coke” and Enjoli perfume’s feminist anthem, “I can bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan…” But over the years and my involvement in the business, I have admired a lot of brands for their breakthrough work. One of my favorites spots is Nike’s “if you let me play sports” because it is powerful and inspirational and simple. Another is the “Snapple Letters” campaign where Wendy the Snapple Lady read fan letters and they were answered. I worked on that campaign, so it might be a cheat, but the fact is it resonated me with and with so many because it was the world’s most loving and fan-centric soft drink.
Staff Writer Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at: