Agency Profile: Leapfrog Advertising

Advertising has its own version of the "bait and switch" scam. It happens when a senior-level executive sits in on a client pitch and waxes eloquent about the agency's work and the reputation of its top leaders. Once the account is won, the senior-level exec often disappears, turning the account over to underlings who do the bulk of the work.

Hank Stromberg scoffs at such arrogance. Sure, he's seen it. Maybe even done some of it in his past. Stromberg is a former executive creative director and partner at Bozell Worldwide and Ogilvy & Mather. But nowadays, he and partner Tom Attea are singing a different song, and it sounds a lot like "ribbit."

As managing partners of Leapfrog Advertising, an upstart New York agency, Stromberg and Attea are peddling their creativity and experience to a whole new province of clientele Ñ the little guys.

Spurning the mega-accounts coveted by the mega-shops, Stromberg hunts for gold among smaller firms with annual advertising budgets ranging from a few million dollars to about $50 million.

"One of the things that Tom and I felt was missing in the advertising world was a full-service agency that just focuses on small and medium-sized companies. We thought we could probably do well with that focus," Stromberg says.

When Stromberg promises senior-level involvement, he means it. With Leapfrog's staff of seven, just about everybody at the agency qualifies. Because they work with a few small clients, they can remain closer to the customer, meet with them regularly, and adjust campaigns on the fly if need be. "I am an entrepreneur myself, and I have run big agencies. That's what we bring to the table, a combination of the ideals of the entrepreneur with the understanding of how a big agency works," Stromberg says.

Smaller Is Better
The battle for smaller clients has become heated in recent months. As bigger agencies seek new revenue sources to help keep the lights on and avoid layoffs, they have begun to pitch accounts they would not have bothered with before. So far, it has not hindered Leapfrog's growth.

Now entering its third year in business, Leapfrog boasts nearly $10 million in annual billings. Revenue grew nearly 70% last year, at a time when many larger firms were struggling. Stromberg and company did it by working with clients like Huntington Learning Centers, medical equipment manufacturer Fonar Corp., and mustard maker Grey Poupon. The agency was recently chosen to develop a branding campaign for The New York Sun.

A Creative Sampler
The Huntington campaign presented the challenge of branding one of the nation's largest private childhood education providers without creating the stigma of the "kid in crisis." The creative instead plays on a couple of classic clichŽs. In one ad, a child is shown walking down a hallway of open doors. One by one, the doors close as the child approaches. Later, after working with Huntington, the child walks down the same hallway, where the doors are now open with bright sunlight shining through.

Another Huntington ad shows a child running into a brick wall. Again after going to Huntington, a ladder appears and the child easily scales the obstacle. The campaign will run nationwide in print and on television.

Stromberg and Attea have developed some rigid criteria to define the type of customers they take on. One question that must be answered early on is whether the client is really serious about advertising. That, Stromberg says, involves weeding out potential clients who cling to what he calls "emotional money." "If they start to wonder whether they should take their ad budget and spend it on a vacation in the Hamptons or on a new car for the kids, we don't go after that kind of business," he says.

Recession Resistant
Leapfrog hopped right through the ad recession, almost as if it didn't exist. Because its client base tends to be more entrepreneurial in nature and more willing to take risks during a downturn, they continued to spend money on advertising when many larger enterprises reined in their spending.

Stromberg expects the ad market to continue to gain strength throughout the year. One key indicator he cites is a developing shortage of freelance talent. A year ago, he notes, agencies could hire freelancers on short notice. Today, it's much harder to find good people. But freelancers have not yet been able to raise their prices much, Stromberg adds, an indication of lingering market weakness.

Even when the market turns, Stromberg says, Leapfrog will stick with its "small is better" philosophy.

"We don't need the whole pie, just a part of it. We don't have to be the biggest agency, we just want to be profitable and do outstanding work," he says. "We are developing a pretty good reputation."

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