The pace is fast and furious at Strong LLC, with a mix of youthful energy, technology, and creativity that is a recipe for success for the ad agency’s auto dealer clients.
Written by Bill Mylius
Photography by Beau Gustafson
With dual computer monitors and a single sheet of paper, John Paul Strong’s modern glass-topped desk seems far too uncluttered for the owner of a fast-growing automotive advertising agency. But it’s really all about focus.
That single sheet of paper — his “to do” list — has 42 separate and highly-detailed items that will demand his attention during his normal 12-hour work day at Strong LLC.
At 32, John Paul has a drive and a passion for his chosen field. He has an agency with almost 90 dealership clients in markets that extend to mid-America and span the eastern seaboard from New York to Miami.
And he has a name that is considered a brand in the industry.
His father is Mike Strong, who opened an agency in Birmingham in 1977, soon discovered automotive advertising to be his niche and found success helping dealerships find the same. Along the way, he infected his son with his self-described “innate love of advertising” and, specifically, his automotive expertise. Mike took a hiatus from advertising while John Paul learned the ropes and sharpened his skills. Maybe it was pre-ordained, but in 2004, the two united and Strong LLC is the result.
Mixing the energy of youth with the wisdom of age was obviously a good recipe for success, even during a period of historic economic downturn. Today, John Paul leads an agency that offers every potential promotional tool a dealership might need, starting with in-depth research that often dictates a creative approach and media mix to help ensure success. The agency’s sprawling, multi-level Mountain Brook Office Park location provides clients with a state-of-the-art one-stop shop for design, production and dissemination of broadcast and print advertisements, direct mail, point-of-purchase displays, and interactive campaigns.
This means not only convenience for the agency and its clients, but high productivity as well. Last year, the agency’s monthly output averaged 135 commercials, 167,000 pieces of direct mail, and 200 media buys. That’s each and every month. That level of workload demands people — talented people. The agency has grown from an initial eight employees to its current 46, spread among creative, service, and administrative areas.
There’s been a corresponding growth in the bottom line, of course. And given that in the past four years, Strong LLC has increased billing by 50 percent each year, it seems appropriate that the corporate color is a bright, vivid green.
But as with any successful service-oriented venture, it’s the people involved — on both sides of the equation — that make the difference.
“If there’s a secret to our success,” John Paul says, “it’s selecting really good clients and really great employees.”
Automotive advertising and promotional budgets can be substantial, so any potential client often interviews a number of agencies before selecting the one it believes will provide the best results for the investment. At the same time, according to John Paul, Strong LLC interviews potential clients to help ensure a good fit and a successful relationship.
“We do as much background checking on a potential client as they do on us…maybe more…so we know who we will be working with,” Strong said. “The end result is that we like our clients, and they like us. There’s mutual respect and trust, and that’s important. That’s what makes this place fun.”
It also makes for long-term client relationships. While new dealerships are added to the client list on a monthly basis, a large number have been with Strong LLC since its inception, and others are what John Paul calls “generational” clients who have been associated with the Strong brand since his father helped pioneer automotive as an area of advertising specialty.
Jack Griffis, Partner and Bill Marefka Vice Presidents and Senior Account Manager at Strong LLC. both have extensive and impressive resumes associated with the advertising, promotional, and communication demands of the automotive industry. They see the success of Strong LLC as the ability to deliver the right product at the right time.
“We’re focused on the client…that’s where every resource is directed,” Jack says. “And since we specialize only in automotive, we have an excellent knowledge base that is very valuable to our clients.”
Bill tallies those resources as “our people, our technology, and even the design of our offices,” and adds: “At the really large agencies, a lot of time is spent just getting things done, but here things get done, period. They get done fast; they get done right, and that makes for happy clients.”
The resource of “office design” is sleek and modern with a layout promoting both comfort and work flow. The resource of “technology” is production based and includes surround sound, high definition, wire frame rendering, 3D graphics and animation, and sonic branding to name a few. But it’s the resource of “people” that is the recurring theme of pride throughout the agency.
Mike Strong, a founder, says “I tell people we have only three goals at this agency. One, to have the best service and systems for generating traffic in the retail automobile industry. Two, to have a great place for people to work and grow. And three, to make a profit. If we are successful at doing one and two, then three will follow naturally.”
He believes in the strength of a unified vision and ensuring an agency-wide recognition that “everyone else may have different tasks and different challenges, but they’re still working toward the same goal.” Combine that with John Paul’s philosophy of “empowering everyone to do their job” and the corporate culture of Strong LLC begins to emerge.
Natalie Rodgers, Art Director, sees that empowerment linked to the “expectations our leadership has of every employee…they expect the best, and that pushes everyone to give their best.” Sheila Grandy, Media Director, echoes a similar sentiment. She notes the care with which talent is recruited resulting in new employees who “re-ignite the passions in this place.” She says her five-member department, charged with negotiating and buying commercial airtime and advertising space for clients, is “a unified team” with “a lot of trust and respect for each other,” and as such mirrors the agency as a whole.
In truth, whether talking to Interactive Director Gayle Rogers, or Editor and Sound Designer Al Martin, or Media Buyer Casey Quattlebaum, or virtually any other member of the Strong LLC “team,” the theme of the culture is consistent: qualified and talented individuals who are empowered to do their jobs and contribute to meeting the needs of their clients.
The result is what John Paul considers the best thing about his business: “We put a plan together, we tailor it, the entire team executes it, and everyone gets to see how it has helped the client. That’s very, very rewarding.”
And the worst thing?
“When you do all of that and it doesn’t work,” he says, then smiles and adds: “It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, you have to hold on to the confidence in your system, in your team, and in yourself. And keep going.”