Agency Profile: Refinery

Any interactive agency that has logged nine straight years of revenue and profitable growth must be doing something right. Refinery does it by playing primarily in its own backyard, as the Philadelphia area agency likes to stick close to its customers.

"We want to build strong relationships with our clients and that means being able to visit with them and brainstorm with them. That's very important to us," says Andy Sullivan, Refinery's founder, chairman, and CEO.

Most of the agency's 30 or so clients, which include Campbell Soup Co., Motorola, Commerce Bank, and GlaxoSmithKline, are within a three-hour drive of Refinery's headquarters.

Sullivan started the agency in 1994 by cobbling together $20,000 from his own pocket and from two other investors. Based in suburban Hatboro, Pa., the agency works with a small, but influential roster of brands. Refinery reported revenue of about $15 million last year, up 50 percent over 2003.

Sullivan likes to refer to his crew as "user experience architects," who devote a lot of time to studying how people interact with a Web site. In the Internet's early days, he says a site's design might well have emerged from a geek-laden conversation around a boardroom table. Refinery has, well, refined the process to focus on actual prototypes that are tested by interactive focus groups in a usability lab.

A kid-focused project for Campbell's "SouperStar Castle" promotion went back to the drawing board early on after the architects figured out the target audience of 10-year-olds couldn't spell the term.

"We knew we had to come up with another name. That's one of the things you would only learn by talking to users," says Joel Gehman, Refinery's director of client services. The site was renamed

Gehman and Sullivan pay attention to their people. The agency offers amenities like a foosball table and weekly visits from an ice cream vendor. Sullivan says that kind of treatment gives Refinery a leg up in recruiting new staff, a good thing, since the agency has nearly doubled in size in the past year, from 78 employees at the end of 2003 to nearly 140 today. Still, finding good talent is tough.

"We are very particular about the people we bring in here," Sullivan says. "But if someone is looking to work with the top interactive agency and their focus is on the Pennsylvania area, they are probably going to want to work here."

Refinery may be ready to expand its footprint. Gehman says the search for new business will likely lead beyond its Pennsylvania/New Jersey/Delaware home base.

"If you look out the next couple of years, I think you will see Refinery in other geographic areas," he says. "But we are in no real hurry to get there."

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