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Business Observer Friday, Dec. 3, 2010 10 years ago

Reversed Course

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A Gulf Coast ad firm discovered a partnership with a larger firm wasn't as stellar as it hoped. It has found new life in being independent, again.
by: Mark Gordon Managing Editor

Good thing the creative folks at Clarke Advertising & Public Relations are the sentimental types.


Indeed, the firm's 10 employees saved business cards, coasters and magnets with Clarke's familiar orange circle logo when it merged with Syracuse, N.Y.-based Eric Mower and Associates in early 2008. And when the marriage between the two firms ended earlier this fall those chotskies came out of the closet.


The firm, founded in 1987 by Sarasota entrepreneur Tim Clarke, is now officially back to being Clarke. The agency, with more than $2.5 million in annual revenues by 2006, was one of the largest in the Sarasota-Bradenton market in clients and annual billings when it merged with EMA.


“This has been both exciting and humbling for us,” says Patricia Courtois, one of the firm's two principals. “We've had to start this firm again. We are like a startup.”


The arrangement between the two firms began to dissolve over the summer and by October it was over. Clarke was able to retain all the clients it brought to EMA, including national accounts like ClosetMaid and Remington. (See Business Review, Jan. 15.)


While the split was pending, Courtois and co-principal Bill Pierson also contemplated several changes, including the agency's name. They ultimately decided to go back to Clarke — and not only because the staff hoarded the agency-emblazoned marketing materials.


The executives also believe the Clarke name carries considerable brand recognition in the fragmented local advertising and public relations market, where there are few large-scale firms. The new Clarke is slimmer than the pre-EMA version; its 10 employees are half of what it had in 2007, with the departures mostly in places the firm can outsource, like bookkeeping and IT.


Moreover, the process of reintroducing Clarke presents the firm with an opportunity to right what Pierson says is a misconception in the business community: A stigma that the firm only works with national clients. “It wasn't true,” says Pierson, “but now we have a second chance.”


The company took some small steps in that direction when it acquired several prominent local clients over the past month. The list includes the Sarasota Yacht Club and the State College of Florida Foundation.


While Pierson and Courtois look optimistically to the future, feelings still linger over what could have been. EMA, with seven offices nationwide and $220 million in 2010 billings, didn't have a Sunshine State presence before the deal. Both sides were confident the partnership would lead to growth, both locally and statewide.


“At the time, everyone was excited about it,” says Pierson. “We did it with the best of intentions.”


But Pierson and Courtois were soon unwitting lead players in a cautionary tale many other entrepreneurs have starred in, where they gave up creative freedom to merge with a larger partner. For example, decisions they previously could make on their own, quickly, were tied up in committees and boardrooms.


“They were trying to cookie-cutter us,” Courtois says. “It made it difficult to conduct local business.”

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