Mark LeClerc, Matt Ganser and Jeff Morris started Foundry advertising agency in October 2004, with a five-figure bank loan and the promise of a lucrative account from an international mailorder retailer.
But when their Lands' End deal fell far short of expectations, the trio was forced into cold-call mode. Because of non-compete clauses with their former employers, Foundry suddenly found itself with no active clients.
"One of the first lessons we learned is that not everything promised to you comes through," Morris said. "So the first six months was pretty lean."
With no other employees, the Foundry founders began working 70 hours a week to jump-start their business.
The cold calling, seemingly endless networking with contacts new and old, and even a few instances of knocking on doors unannounced, paid off.
Last year, the firm inked a deal to help local marketing guru Ray Compton promote a Final Four-related event and several others.
That business led to a series of referrals until, eventually, the cold calling nearly stopped.
"These guys do some incredibly creative work," said Compton, whose company also put on the men's merchandise expo called Testostorama last November. "Their presentation kits helped open up some doors for us-and for themselves, too."
Eighteen months after its formation, the Fountain Square-based ad agency is one of the hottest small shops in town, with a growing cadre of clients and capitalized billings this year projected to be near $3.5 million.
While Foundry remains small compared with local giants such as Young & Laramore and Roman Brand Group, who have annual capitalized billings between $30 million and $60 million, the firm's billings place it near the market's top 25.
Foundry's client list now includes The Heart Center of Indiana, Ossip Optometry, HomeFederal Bank, Milto Cleaners and Kent State University.
The company is part of a local trend. After a period of consolidation through the 1990s, more big-shop talent is setting out on its own, and industry observers said, the flexibility and creativity of those small shops is more sought after than ever.
"I think they're an awesome talent," said Ben Carlson, Indianapolis Ad Club president and head of account and media services for local agency Bradley and Montgomery. "I think what they've achieved in a relatively short time speaks to their creative excellence."
As part of a campaign involving NCAA Final Four corporate partners, Foundry used a large high-top basketball shoe almost the size of a small car as the canvas for Heart Center of Indiana's ad campaign to make women more aware of heart disease.
After the shoe took part in a larger corporate sponsorship program produced by Compton's company, Heart Center officials were so pleased with the piece, they parked it in the lobby of their north-side building.
Foundry won three of Indianapolis Ad Club's top 10 awards in this year's Brass Ring competition.
The three-man shop is now considering doubling its 1,200-square-foot office off Shelby Street and adding three employees in the next few months.
"We think we'll comfortably double our revenue this year," Ganser said. "This is going to be a really good year."
But the trio stresses controlled, disciplined growth, which might seem unusual given all three come from the creative side of advertising. Ganser and Morris are experienced graphic designers in print, Web and television, while LeClerc is a writer.
Eighteen months ago, they had little account services experience and even less experience running a business.
"I got a B in accounting 20 years ago," said LeClerc, 44, who now handles business operations.
LuAnne Whewell, senior vice president of marketing for Columbus-based Home-Federal Bank, laughs at the notion of the company's being run by wacky creative types.
"They've come through on everything they've promised us," Whewell said.
Sitting in Foundry's neat second-story office, Ganser said, "I think we're three of the most organized creatives you're likely to come across."
"Sometimes the perception of creatives [is] guys sitting around smoking cigars and throwing darts at dart boards," Compton said. "These guys have an approach that is really systematic."
The system, said the trio, came after some adjustments. They quickly realized things would be different from their days working for large shops. All three previously worked for Publicis and Caldwell-VanRiper. Morris, 39, and Ganser, 34, also spent time at Young & Laramore.
"You realize how much you relied on other people in a larger agency," Morris said.
The trio quickly learned how to handle the most menial office tasks and took all their own calls. In the process, they learned to drop their own agendas and focus on clients.
"In a larger agency, it seems like you spend a lot of time putting forward your own views vs. others in the firm," Ganser said.
Their client-focused approach quickly comes through, said Elizabeth Cisco, vice president of marketing and development for Heart Center of Indiana.
"Foundry took what we were trying to do strategically and fleshed it out," Cisco said. "They were proactive and kept the campaign on track with our core strategies."
While the trio wants to grow, they want to stay small enough to stay hands-on with all the company's projects. At the same time, they want to be a full-service agency. Industry observers said staying small doesn't mean Foundry will lose traction with big-time clients.
"With new technology and the pace of marketing, a small shop can do amazing work," Ad Club's Carlson said. "If you have the quality work to show, big brands have little hesitancy in partnering with a small shop these days."