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Business Observer Thursday, Jun. 10, 2021 1 month ago

Ybor City ad agency finds being ready is what it takes to make it for more than 40 years

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Tampa ad agency ChappellRoberts survived the pandemic and is now welcoming a new generation of leadership. One core attribute? It always looks forward.
by: Louis Llovio Tampa Bay Editor

Amid the pandemic, as companies nationwide were at best barely surviving and at worst failing, it was mostly business as usual at an Ybor City advertising agency.

Sure, there were bumps. People ditched the office to work from home. A client needed an ad cut immediately. There were concerns about health and how long this all would last.

But considering a global pandemic had hit, upending the world’s economy and bringing normal life to a screeching halt, it was pretty much smooth sailing at ChappellRoberts. So much so that less than a year later —when vaccines were just starting to trickle out, an end date was still uncertain, masks were everywhere and anxiety was at peak level — the Tampa-based agency named Christine Turner its new president.

None of this was an accident. Nor a surprise.

“We were poised, not to just survive this pandemic but we were poised to thrive during it,” says Colleen Chappell, the agency’s CEO. “And that’s exactly what our team did.”

'A little bit of creative inspiration. A little bit of rock and roll. It’s the perfect environment.' Christine Turner, president, ChappellRoberts

Chappell credits the agency’s ability to get through difficult times to preparation and forward thinking.

She says the most difficult part, just like for many other businesses, was going entirely virtual in about 24 hours. Creating campaigns and managing clients? They didn’t miss a beat.

They were able to continue doing the work, including coming up with new ways to reach audiences with whole new set of worries. That was especially crucial for the firm's health care clients, who had patients that need reassurance.

The preparation side, what made it possible to continue operating with minimum disruption, was a business continuity plan activated within minutes of learning it'd have to shut down, Chappell says. “I’m not going to say it was easy, at times it was gut wrenching and frightening, but as you can look back, we were poised to insure the foundation was strong enough to not just weather this storm but to truly thrive from a crisis.”

The least surprising part of the entire ordeal, as Chappell retells it, is the agency’s leadership was prepared. Prepared is a word you hear a lot when Chappell and Turner speak about the agency’s past, present and future — a concept baked into the firm's culture. That's why Turner getting elevated when the world was in disarray was not surprising: it was part of a succession plan in the works for about five years.

In the beginning

ChappellRoberts got its start in Ybor City in 1978, when Deanne Dewey Roberts opened the public relations firm Roberts Communications. In the late 1980s she bought a local ad agency and merged the two. According to the agency’s official biography, Roberts "had some profound ideas on how to make the public relations/advertising/marketing landscape better.”

The agency did well in those early years, as Roberts grew it into a highly successful boutique agency. In 2002, she hired Chappell, who came with a background in the corporate world, first working in health care in Miami and then for seven years in branding for Verizon Wireless.

Chappell recalls Roberts, her mentor back in her corporate life, invited her to talk one day. Roberts was working on a 10-year succession plan. She asked Chappell if she’d ever be willing to leave the corporate world.

“I was at a perfect point in my life where the corporate burnout had hit,” she says. “I had young children, I’d just lost my sister. It was a time where I was really reflecting with, ‘What do I want to do with my life?’”

Roberts couldn’t match the money Chappell was making but told her if she brought what she’d learned to what was then a boutique agency, “this agency could be something fabulous.”

Chappell joined the firm, first as a vice president. She was named president and CEO in 2008 and the agency’s name changed to ChappellRoberts. Roberts died of cancer in 2012.

What Chappell brought to the agency when she first joined, she says now, was an ability to teach the team in place what the process looked like from the client's side, what the client’s needs were, what the client’s concerns were.

Chappell says being “on the other side of the table” allowed her to help develop brands and work with large, international ad agencies. Eventually, she moved over to the business sales side, an experience that taught her that “marketing and sales cannot be separated.”

“At the end of the day, you are advertising and marketing and branding to bring consumers to you and ultimately build a relationship with them,” she says.

A member of that team, listening to and learning from the new boss, was Christine Turner.

New generation

Turner knew exactly what she wanted.

She was going to be a journalist. She would go to New York City and get a job writing for Rolling Stone magazine. She was going to be at center of world of arts and politics and rock and roll.

But, she says, “for a host of reasons, that didn’t work out.”

What she did instead was change her major to public relations at the University of South Florida. But the desire for a bit of “that rock and roll experience” didn’t go away, and she figured the best way to quench it was to work for an ad agency.

'There’s an important message for business owners out there, prepare. Build a plan. Work the plan. Because ultimately, the very best candidate will always rise to that occasion. And that’s exactly what happened to us.' Colleen Chappell, CEO of ChappellRoberts

For her, agency work meant every day was different, that you would have a lot of opportunities, that you wouldn’t be selling the same product for 15, 20 years, that you would get to have a host of experiences. “That’s what I thought it would be like.”

Turner got a job with Roberts and says “it has turned out to be exactly that. A little bit of creative inspiration. A little bit of rock and roll. It’s the perfect environment.”

More than 20 years later, she’s the agency’s president. Discussions about  succession and moving her in to the new role began in 2017.

That time to adjust, grow and the learn job has been invaluable, Turner says. Unlike being thrust in the new role or starting with a new company, she says having a plan in place meant she got the benefit of training, experience and mentorship before taking on the position.

And, both she and Chappell credit the five-person senior leadership team for making the transition easy — despite the pandemic.

“Our goal was always to make sure that the next transition, as was mine with Deanne, was seamless and natural,” Chappell says. “That was kind of our mantra. Seamless and natural so that when we ultimately made an announcement the only thing we would focus on is everyone’s excitement.”

The work

As with any ad agency, how good you are boils down to the work and the response clients get.

ChappellRoberts, which has 39 employees and did $18.8 million in revenue in 2020, up 32% over $14.24 million in 2018, has a roster of clients that includes AdventHealth and Florida Cancer Specialists. It's also worked in tourism, real estate and manufacturing.

Chappell and Turner say their work is strategic and guided by data, analytics that allow them to break down what consumers look for and to find ways for clients to reach those people. Chappell says their job is to be truth-tellers and the most difficult thing they do is finding “what we call at our agency, one simple truth.”

“Our goal then,” she says, “is boiling down the truth into something that we can then take and express creatively so it resonates with the audiences we’re trying to reach.”

Pam Parisi, vice president of marketing for homebuilder Newland, says what ChappellRoberts does is become an extension of a company’s marketing departments. That’s invaluable, she says, because it allows both the clients and creatives to be of a single mind and purpose.

ChappellRoberts has worked with Newland for about 10 years, starting on special projects and is now the agency of record for four developments — two in Tampa and one each in Atlanta and Wilmington, North Carolina. 

Parisi says the agency is always bringing new ideas to the table and that’s helpful because the real estate industry is so cyclical it would be easy to sit back when times were good. “Chappell Roberts wouldn’t dream of doing that,” says Parisi. 

“Instead, we use times like now to test new strategies, invest in new research, develop new assets and leverage their learnings from the multiple other industries they work with," Parisi adds, "so that when things slow down in our real estate world, we have new tools and thinking to leverage.”

As Turner begins her work as the agency’s president, her goal is to grow the agency beyond what Chappell did in taking it from a boutique agency to one with a national reach.

But growth to Turner doesn’t necessarily mean adding more people or clients or space. What it means is doing good work and finding ways to better the agency. “We are trying to grow smart. We are trying to find the best match for ourselves," Turner says. "We are trying to recruit the best talent and maintain…the employees we have and make sure they are feeling fulfilled.”  

(Story was updated to reflect that Colleen Chappell had young children when she joined the agency)

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