Aaron Smith and Lisa Harmon are regulars at MediaPost's Email Insider Summit, where they appeared again this past December. But this time, they found themselves more in the limelight and receiving a few more huzzahs than usual.
Just a few weeks before, their agency specializing in email marketing was acquired by Responsys in
an undisclosed cash-and-equity arrangement. Smith-Harmon, founded six years ago, has annual revenues of about $2 million.
The deal gives the well-established Responsys, with its focus on the technology backbone of email marketing, a link to Smith-Harmon's acclaimed creative and design capabilities. While it looks to position both for the cross-channel movement, where campaigns may have email at the locus but increasingly include social media, mobile marketing and online video.
"I really see the future as what I would call digital direct marketing," said Smith.
Smith and Harmon, co-founders of their Seattle-based agency, will now oversee a joint creative services unit with about 40 employees. The deal melds 15 Responsys staffers in San Francisco, New York and Chicago, with Smith-Harmon's 25.
Smith-Harmon will keep its name (for now), though be known as "A Responsys Company" and remain in the Emerald City. Smith said a corporate parent hasn't affected the agency's culture and "we're managing it the same" as before.
Smith and Harmon focus on different realms. She's design and creative strategy, he execution and technical acumen. They've taken on new titles at Responsys - as director of creative technologies (Smith) and director of creative services (Harmon).
Both report to Ed Henrich, vice president of professional services at Responsys, which has been around 11 years in Silicon Valley. The seeds of the acquisition were laid in the spring when Responsys CEO Dan Springer and Henrich had conversations about moving the email service provider deeper into strategy and content production.
"I personally only knew (Smith-Harmon) by reputation," Springer said. Henrich, for his part, kept hearing more and more about them. Talks heated up in August in advance of the fall deal.
Neither side would comment on terms. Presumably, if privately held Responsys were to go public, Smith and Harmon stand to benefit handsomely.
Smith-Harmon is expected to have a role in new-business pitches, but mostly work with existing customers. The firms share a run of clients, including Williams-Sonoma, Verizon Wireless, Orbitz, and Disney.
Smith and Harmon are married. When the duo moderated a panel at the aforementioned MediaPost Summit their differing personalities were on display - Smith is more deliberate, Harmon a live wire - he perhaps the yin to her yang.
Smith-Harmon started as a general digital marketing operation doing Web site design and other services six years ago. A "mini-Razorfish," Smith said. But four years ago, it began to zero in on email marketing as a core competency, believing it was a largely untapped opportunity. "We saw that it was an underserved market," Smith said. "There was nobody saying this is our specialty."
Before launching their firm, Smith was a senior software developer in finance, working on foreign exchange systems. Harmon, with a creative arts degree from Columbia, did design work for retailers. Her roots could be behind a passion to turn email marketing - which many associate with hyperbolic text that screams "Once-in-a-Lifetime Sale!" - into something that can be "an engaging form of creative work" and even, in her words, "poetry."