Ben Lee and Paola Schifino founded their Tampa-based advertising and branding firm, Schifino Lee, 25 years ago.

Ad agency thrives on innovate or die strategy

Schifino Lee soars to the top of its field after overcoming a fire — and the recession. More growth is projected in the next quarter-century.
By: 
Aug. 10, 2018

When the New York Yankees moved spring training operations to Tampa in the 1990s, it was a big deal not only for the city but also for a fledgling advertising and branding agency based there.

That’s because the baseball powerhouse hired Schifino Lee, ranked No. 384 on this year's Business Observer  Top 500, to develop a strategy to advertise its Tampa-based spring season.

That allowed company co-founders Paola Schifino and Ben Lee to hire the company’s first employee, and their 10-year relationship with the Yankees led to even bigger growth. “Once you have the Yankees on your portfolio of clients, it really helps propel your business,” says Schifino, 53.

There are still plenty of opportunities for smart agencies like ours to do very well — as long as you keep pushing the envelope.” Ben Lee, Schifino Lee

The two business school grads and former marketing directors started the company 25 years ago after noticing a gap in the local market. “We felt at the time that there were really no local agencies that served small to mid-market businesses in strategic creative services,” says Schifino.

Landing the Yankees led to another big get: AT&T’s global business solutions division. Schifino Lee worked with that client for 12 years, introducing them to the hot new digital advertising strategies of the late 1990s and early 2000s. Some of the bigger agencies out there, the business partners noticed, were hesitant to take large clients down this new path. “But we were small and had nothing to lose,” says Lee, 56.

More staff growth followed, and other major clients came on board, including Tampa-based WellCare. Today Schifino Lee has 22 full-time employees and posted revenue of more than $8 million in 2017. That’s about double what revenue was five years ago.

“Our core philosophy has always been innovation,” says Schifino. “Our theme this year is ‘innovate or die.’”

Innovation, specifically, has become a necessity in branding and marketing, where big and small players fight for the same work many times. “In our business the margins are compressing, and it’s getting more and more competitive,” says Lee. “But there are still plenty of opportunities for smart agencies like ours to do very well — as long as you keep pushing the envelope.”

To that point, for starters, the firm’s founders and employees are constantly getting educated on what’s new and changing in their field. Lunch-and-learns are frequent in their office.

“And we support and pay for anyone who wants to do anything online to learn in their professional capabilities,” says Lee. “If [our employees] aren’t continually innovating in their own careers and in what they’re learning, they’re not going to advance in our field of advertising.”

Building custom solutions for each client has created confidence in the firm’s abilities and plenty of repeat business. Schifino Lee takes clients’ specific goals and creates a plan to meet them. “That’s why they trust us and increase their budgets year over year,” says Schifino. “Be wary of competitors that sell what they do best as opposed to selling the right solution that solves a particular problem the client has.”

A recent focus for the firm? Helping companies reach millennials. It’s created a plan for Tampa-based Alessi Foods, for example, that includes advertising on Instacart, because that’s how millennials are shopping for groceries these days.

“Millennials live in the moment, so they kind of break the customer journey chain that was more traditional,” says Schifino. “They’re shopping online, so you have to intercept them in those moments.”

The organic growth of their longtime clients has also proved beneficial to Schifino Lee’s own bottom line. WellCare, for example, has seen its own strong revenue increases and grown to more than 4 million members. “Many of our clients have been very successful and as a result have given us more business,” says Lee.

New revenue streams are also important. Schifino Lee started a social media department a few years ago, for one.

There have been plenty of bumps along the way. About 10 years ago, the business suffered a devastating fire that destroyed its physical space and equipment. But because it was working with AT&T, it had stored a lot of files in the cloud before it was commonplace.

“The business was up and running in less than 24 hours,” says Lee. “Psychologically, it really forged our team together; we had one of our best years ever after the fire.”

The recession was also a challenging time for the company. Real estate made up about 25% of the firm’s business. That segment went to zero in 60 days.

“What really kept us alive was our philosophy of innovation,” says Lee. “We had to deliver a different kind of branding package for startups and different industries. We had to be open minded and not stuck in the past.”

A strong internship program helps the company source new talent, and a focus on company culture encourages good employees to stick around. That includes things like flex time and referral bonuses.

“In today’s world young employees expect company culture; it’s a huge determinant in who they work for,” says Lee. “You have to provide a fun and dynamic workplace and constantly offer purpose and meaningfulness to the jobs they’re doing.”

For the company’s 25th anniversary, Schifino and Lee are treating the firm like a client and creating a campaign that includes radio, digital, and direct-mail advertising to highlight its strengths and specialties. More than half of its business comes from outside Florida, so the company needs to market itself nationally.

“New business is the lifeblood of an advertising agency, and that’s not going to change in the next 25 years,” says Lee. “So we’re going after those niche areas as well as developing new products and services based on what the market is demanding.”