PORTLAND – Local advertising agencies are hiring employees from some of the world’s leading ad firms in an ongoing effort to land major corporate clients and compete against big-city firms.

And executives say the new hires are coming to Portland eagerly, attracted by the city’s creative atmosphere.

“Clients are starting to figure out that (work) doesn’t have to happen in New York or Chicago,” said Don Fibich, creative director for Kemp Goldberg Partners in Portland. “We can do the same stuff here, faster.”

“When you are trying to be the best, you have to search the world (for employees),” said John Coleman, CEO of The VIA Agency in Portland. “You have to cast your net wide and hunt the world over.”

Executives say many of their employees come from Maine, but finding the most experienced executives often means searching outside the state.

Since late last year, Kemp Goldberg has hired four employees and moved to a larger office. It now has a staff of 38.

Some new staffers came from the Las Vegas office of R&R Partners (which coined the city’s “What Happens Here, Stays Here” tagline) and Austin’s GSD&M, which has worked for Southwest Airlines and AT&T, according to the website. Others came from firms in Miami, Detroit, Minneapolis, Chicago and Dallas.

Fibich, who joined Kemp Goldberg in 2009, has worked for major firms like BBDO Worldwide, Publicis and Doner. Derek LaVallee, the firm’s director of public relations and public affairs, worked at the White House and in the U.S. Department of Defense. VIA, which has a staff of 84 at its headquarters on Congress Street, just hired two new creative directors from the Sidney, Australia, office of the international ad firm Ogilvy & Mather, said Coleman.

Those employees, who will start in the coming weeks, will join roughly 10 staffers whom VIA recruited from across the country in the last year.

Brenda Garrand, CEO of the Garrand advertising firm in Portland, said her chief creative officer, Larry Vine, passed up an offer to lead Johnson & Johnson’s Far East advertising to join her about five years ago.

President Mary Baumgartner joined Garrand after working as vice president of digital initiatives for Home Box Office in Midtown Manhattan.

Garrand said Portland’s restaurants, shoreline, hospitals and proximity to major markets like New York make the city attractive to big-city execs.

Maine, she said, has increasingly become “a place where you find a pretty amazing combination of quality of life together with the ability to do well in your career.”

David Goldberg, a principal at Kemp Goldberg, said his new hires have been struck by the Old Port’s creative mood and Portland Harbor’s beauty.

Mark Kunert, Kemp Goldberg’s associate creative director, came to the firm in July 2010 from St. John & Partners in Jacksonville, Fla. Kunert, who also worked in Chicago and Minneapolis, had not been to Portland until he interviewed.

He found a walkable city with great restaurants and lots of activities, and said Portland reminded him of a “neighborhood of a big city.”

“I think this is the kind of town that can be a great advertising community,” Kunert said. “The kind of people that want to work at great agencies will like towns like this.”

Garrand said workers who come here often take salary cuts: ad executives who earn $300,000 to $700,000 a year in New York might make half that here, she said.

For the firms, other costs are less in Maine, including office space, which Goldberg estimates might cost five times as much in New York.

That translates into lower prices.

LaVallee said Kemp Goldberg’s prices can be 20 percent less than those of big-city firms.

Executives say the industry is changing, and to land national clients they need top employees.

“At end of day, it is a business of talent, experience and savvy. Those three things sometimes require external expertise,” said Garrand.

Goldberg said the quality of his workforce helped Kemp Goldberg land national clients like the Alzheimer’s Association, the National Academy of Public Administration, the Con-Way Inc. transportation company and the new U.S. Diplomacy Center in Washington, D.C.

Kemp Goldberg’s local clients include Sea Bags Inc., InterMed and Camden National Bank.

Coleman said smaller firms, like VIA, are known as experts in digital and interactive advertising, while some larger, “traditional” firms have failed to adapt to the digital age.

“Clients are coming to (firms) like us no matter where we are, whether Portland or Timbuktu,” said Coleman.

VIA’s major clients include Unilever, Samsung, Romano’s Macaroni Grill and Friendly Ice Cream Corp.

Goldberg said some out-of-state clients are initially hesitant to hire a Maine firm. (That’s one reason Kemp Goldberg plans to open a Washington, D.C., office this year.)

But he said clients who visit Portland often come around.

“They come to Maine to see us, and they walk the waterfront and they get that vibe and say, ‘OK, we get it,’” he said.

Staff Writer Jonathan Hemmerdinger can be reached at 791-6316 or at:

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