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Clutter Breakthrough

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  • | 9:33 a.m. May 21, 2010
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Person. Michael Peters
Industry. Advertising, marketing and video production
Key. Staying in step with tech and client demands

Throughout most of the 2000s, Spark Branding House in Tampa was considered an innovator among Gulf Coast advertising and marketing firms. It's still on the cutting edge, with new attention-grabbing TV commercials for local companies such as Lifestyle Family Fitness and Sweetbay Supermarkets.

However, it's getting tougher to meet client demands because phones are getting smarter and computers are as easy to carry around as, well, a notepad. Clients want to catch customers' attention in newer, quicker ways, and that invariably means trying to produce better online content.

“That's really the future of where we're going,” says Michael Peters, Spark founder and creative director. “People are spending so much time online now.”

Peters, one of Gulf Coast Business Review's 40 Under 40 last year (he's 39 now), is still working to harness bandwidth and digital imagery for a growing roster of clients. It's handling Web duties for national apparel maker David & Goliath and is the agency of record for Visit Florida's “Share a Little Sunshine” tourism campaign.

There never seems to be a dull moment at Spark, which has a ping-pong/pool table in the middle of its current small offices along Swann Avenue (because creative minds need breaks). In addition to the firm's advertising, interactive and video production segments, it recently launched Spark Mobile, which concentrates on phone applications such as Tour Wrist for Apple's iPhone.

Spark's next big move, literally, comes this summer when it relocates to a 6,900-square-foot renovated building on Platt Street near South Howard Avenue. Peters, who previously worked for ad agencies in Manhattan, says the local SoHo District remains a viable location for creative agencies.

“We want to be a major player in a market that isn't,” says Peters, a graduate of Plant High School and the University of Alabama. The following is an edited version of an interview with the Business Review.

Has the recession affected demand for the types of creative services Spark offers?
Our success over the last couple of years began to snowball and kept going even through some tough times. We're doing a lot more guerilla-type marketing and leveraging the walls our clients have to market to consumers instead of spending money on media placement, which is a great creative challenge that we really enjoy.

Because of the economy, a value message has definitely risen to the top. A lot of people want to talk about what you get for the cost. That has affected the creative work, but it's one more creative box that we get put in to come up with a solution.

Are more clients looking for a one-stop shop?
We're proving to our clients who are hesitant to buy into some of what we're saying sometimes that we provide way more value to them. We get so deep with their business that we are bringing them solutions constantly. That's really the business model that is working for us. Instead of 30 clients, we want 10 to 15 clients for whom we can get super deep with their business and provide solutions across the board. We can set up production, interactive and Spark Labs as well.

What are some new areas Spark is getting into? Social media or online advertising, for instance?
Interactive marketing is our newest division. Our strategic and account people know the online world. We brought in John Godinez (formerly with Fundamental eBusiness Inc. in Fort Lauderdale and New York) who has been doing that for 20-plus years.

Marketing is what we do. How we're going to execute the marketing depends on the client and the client's needs. Usually it's a combination of all of the above. For David & Goliath, we only handle their online marketing. For Sweetbay, we work with them across the board.

What advice do you have for other agencies about being multi-disciplined?
For us, it's critical when you have 15 clients and handle everything. For another agency, their particular niche may still work for them. A full-service agency has to get into the online world or they're going to be done. Clients today demand online capabilities. If you sit there and say we don't have that, I don't see how you can be successful.

Is there any particular client type Spark is targeting now?
We kind of break it up into three categories — high-profile local accounts; mid-level, small national to big regional accounts; and big national accounts. Right now we're focusing on Florida companies. For our size with one location, we believe it's just better to be able to get in a car and have that face-to-face time.

A lot of bigger companies in Florida have had to go out of state and use bigger firms in New York and other places. There are other smaller brands who feel like they have to go with a bigger agency elsewhere, but what typically happens, unless they are a humongous account, is they get the lower-level teams with the big agency. In those scenarios, they would be much better going with a smaller shop that can fully service their account.
We bring our clients into the process and do things that can't be done over a phone call. You need to be in their backyard, talking with them every day. We meet with Sweetbay three or four times a week.

We have this collaboration model where we sit down with our clients face to face and show them our thinking, and our expectation is to hear their thoughts and start to work through everything together. With that model and so many jobs, we've got to be able to connect with them, hear their feedback and work together.

That's not a typical model in the big-agency world, where they tell their clients to pay big bucks and give their clients a choice of either A, B or C.

Do you prefer to bring talent to this area or try to find it locally?
We combine both. We're taking young talent out of Ringling College of Art and Design (in Sarasota) and the University of Florida, and we're getting some of their best talent to stay here in Florida. We're having great success with that. We've also brought in more senior-level talent from out of state. There's no single formula that works, but growing our own talent is something we want to continue doing more and more.

What one thing makes Spark more competitive and sets your firm apart?
Our collaboration model sets us apart from others. We're really great at listening, and that's a big competitive advantage. We listen to our clients' needs and come up with creative solutions based on those conversations.

Which would be more favorable now -- a 30-second TV spot worthy of the Super Bowl, or something that catches on virally on the Internet?
This is an interesting time because the Super Bowl is the Holy Grail of our business, and the whole world is watching and paying attention. Now everybody wants the viral video, but the problem with the viral video is that it's got to be risky and something in which the sale is not so overt.

Businesses want a viral video that's going to go global and get over two million hits. Those corporations who have been successful at that have paid agencies lots and lots of money to make that happen. It's not like it happened by chance. The most successful viral videos aren't really selling anything.

We'd love to do it, but it's kind of like winning the lottery. That's where the more progressive firms are going. They're trying to learn how to do it or how to get better at it, and that's exactly what we're trying to do. There's a lot of work that goes into it and a pretty big price tag that goes with it.

There aren't a lot of clients that are going to say “go for it” because they want to protect their brand. We understand brands better than most agencies. We're not about doing wacky, creative things at the expense of the brand. The brand is the hero and we have to come up with something that breaks through the clutter.


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