But Indianapolis-based Young & Laramore needed more than the "I think I can" mantra of bedtime stories to make tracks for the big time. It needed a plan.
The four-part strategy was simple in concept, if challenging in execution: Attract the talent necessary to do national-caliber work, put it to good use, get results and earn widespread recognition.
"I'm a big believer in developing plans for growth and working hard at them," said Paul Knapp, a lawyer by training and agency helmsman by choice. "Then the magic happens."
Y&L has been pulling rabbits out of hats for years.
A series of successes raised the agency's national profile-it was hard to find a trade publication last summer that didn't include some mention of the shop-and the momentum hasn't slowed.
Now in the wake of a 46-percent annual jump in capitalized billings, Y&L is making some internal changes to keep it going.
Early this year, Knapp became the 22-year-old shop's first CEO, taking a step back from day-today operations to keep an eye on the big picture at Young & Laramore and sister companies 2nd Globe Studios and Echopoint Media.
Tom Denari moved into the president's job, where he'll continue to direct strategy for the agency. Ann Beriault was promoted to senior vice president and director of account services.
And this month, Creative Director Carolyn Hadlock joined Knapp, Denari and shop namesakes David Young and Jeff Laramore as partners in the firm.
"We've developed a really solid leadership team," Knapp said as the shuffling began. "We're making adjustments to get every player in the best role."
The agency's growth also has allowed its founders to spend more time on a particular passion of theirs: 3-D design.
Their interest in sculpture-not to mention their aptitude-gave rise to 2nd Globe about 10 years ago. And the attention they've been able to devote to it recently is giving that still-emerging business a boost.
2nd Globe had 16 projects in the works during 2004, more than twice as many as the year before. Among its accomplishments: a 52-foot piece three-dimensional mural outside Junior Achievement's Keystone Avenue headquarters and the 12-foot bronze "Firefighter" in front of Fire Station 14 on 30th Street.
Agency leaders try to keep the enterprises separate, but it's clear they're inextricably linked by a common purpose-communication. Young and Laramore were artists long before they were ad men, but they share a relatively unpopular view of their craft.
"Art needs to tell a story,"Young said simply. "It should connect with people, respect its audience."
Much like advertising
Indeed, 2nd Globe's motto, "merging art and commerce," could be the agency's slogan, too. Y&L's growing reputation in the industry is staked on its creative approach, observers said.
"They treat advertising like art," said Ernie Capobianco, president of Dallasbased Square One, an independent advertising agency about three times Y&L's size. "I don't think [sculpture] is a stretch for them. They want to motivate people to do something or feel something. ... It's just another way to express that."
Purists argue that art needn't have a purpose-or a point. Just ask New York artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude, who sent that message again and again this month in response to questions about "The Gates," their steel-and-fabric public art project in Central Park.
Others worry that artistic integrity is undermined by a commercial connection.
"If you're getting paid to do something, you automatically have predisposition to please the client," said Indianapolis painter Artur Silva. "You can't be as bold or edgy as you otherwise would be."
Young and Laramore are bold in their own way, drawing inspiration from the subject and surroundings as much as any inner muse.
In an early work for Ossip Optometry in Broad Ripple, for example, they used galvanized metal and junkyard finds to form a giant pair of eyeglasses that still peers down from a billboard nearby.
Young calls 2nd Globe's work indigenous.
"It grows out of the subject," he said, "the place it's in."
The same could be true for Y&L's advertising efforts.
Its creative process begins with something called the "unlearning curve," where staffers shrug off preconceived notions-theirs or the client's-and start from scratch. The new perspective makes a difference, said Charlie McTargett, senior marketing director for Indianapolis-based Delta Faucet Co.
"When I first heard about that, I laughed," he said. "But they live by it. And they get a pretty good handle on what motivates people. ... They're fresh, edgy. I would challenge our ads against almost anyone."
Delta looks to Y&L to market its high-end Brizo brand and entry-level Peerless faucet. It works with a Boston agency for its midlevel product.
McTargett is impressed with the local shop.
"I only have positive things to say," he gushed. "It's hard to put a finger on what the magic is. All the components come together to produce something that's reasonably unexpected in the Midwest."
Knapp credits the agency's all-or-nothing approach. It's not like some shops that super-specialize, representing only one kind of client or handling only one aspect of a campaign.
"That's just not us," he said. "We love the diversity of our work. We work with the brand in all manifestations, in every way it's going to touch a consumer."
Longtime client Steak n Shake is a good example, he said. Y&L does television commercials for the Indianapolis-based restaurant chain, but it also offers advice on everything from the ketchup packages to the placemats.
"For us, all that matters," Knapp said. "You either advance the brand or chip away at it."
Indeed, traditional media is not the only way to reach consumers. The glut of messages the average American has to endure each day, in fact, has increased the advertising industry's attention to alternative sources.
Y&L has long been "media-agnostic," Knapp said, hence the creation of 2nd Globe. The Ossip sculpture is one example of a joint project. A silo painted to look like a can of advertising client Red Gold's tomatoes is another.
"We break the mold again and again," Knapp said. "So much of our work is designed to not beat people over the head with advertising."
Industry veteran Patricia Fiske is a big fan.
"Watching them understand how to communicate with consumers has been a real treat," said Fiske, the recently retired president of World Wide Partners, a Coloradobased network of independent agencies. "They have ... I want to call it a meditative quality. Their culture is for them to be themselves. Isn't it wonderful?"
Agencies everywhere are trying to distinguish themselves, and Y&L is no exception, said New York Times advertising columnist Stuart Elliott.
"If you're trying to make it as an independent agency, you have to do a lot of different things to stand out," said Elliott, who met with Knapp and other agency leaders last fall. "It's challenging for agencies that size to stand out in the industry these days, as the advertising world continues to consolidate."
And 2nd Globe just might be Y&L's hook.
"It certainly makes more sense than doing the same old thing, hoping people want buggy whips again," Elliott said. "It's obviously meant to make a statement about the creative ability of the staff. It's a branding device for them."
Indianapolis competitor Tom Hirschauer agrees.
"If what this does for Young & Laramore is keep them creative, I think it's a wonderful thing for them," said Hirschauer, president of the local Publicis office. "These guys are highly creative. They're simply taking their skill sets to another dimension."