MacVittie reviving Caldwell VanRiper agency

January 12, 2009

One of Indianapolis' most storied advertising agency names is coming back to the local market—and it's being ushered in by a familiar face.

Longtime local ad executive Paula MacVittie came out of retirement late last year to acquire Marc USA Indianapolis from its Pittsburgh-based parent company, the firm she sold majority control to in 1999. MacVittie, who closed the deal Dec. 31, promptly renamed the firm Caldwell VanRiper, a moniker it held from its founding in 1910 until Marc bought the agency.

MacVittie, 58, would not disclose financial details of the purchase.

Marc USA officials did not return calls seeking comment on the sale, but industry sources said Marc officials want to focus on large, national consumer accounts.

After spending the last five years living in South Carolina and North Carolina, MacVittie got a call late last year from her old partner in the firm, Darlene Muncy, saying Marc was looking to streamline and was interested in selling the local operation. MacVittie jumped at the chance.

"I missed the clients, and I missed the staff," she said.

Many of MacVittie's former clients missed her. "I was really surprised she came back," said former client Mike Lynam, director of strategic marketing and communications for Knauf Insulation in Shelbyville. "I kept waiting, but after a year of retirement, I thought she had settled in. I couldn't help feeling what a tremendous loss that was for the local advertising community."

Muncy, who had remained with the firm during MacVittie's absence, will stay on as chief operating officer and has a minority ownership stake in the new Caldwell VanRiper. She and MacVittie plan to have CVR certified as a women's business enterprise, which should help the firm win contracts on projects looking for minority- and women-owned business participation.

MacVittie has no doubt she will be able to grow the firm—despite a less-than-ideal economic climate.

"This is the fourth recession I've been through," MacVittie said. "We grew through the first three, and we expect to grow during this one."

MacVittie said there's no magic to surviving the downturns.

"We simply work very, very hard, and continue to invest in our clients to see them through this time," MacVittie said. "We also plan to aggressively diversify this firm."

Caldwell VanRiper will focus on the health care, building products, economic development, financial services and retail sectors, MacVittie said. And the firm is on the cusp of finalizing a deal with a large local health-care-related firm, she said. She hopes to close the deal within weeks.

"We plan to go after Indiana-based multinational companies," she said. "I think we'll turn some heads in this industry."

MacVittie was president and CEO of Caldwell VanRiper from 1987 to 1999. She remained with the firm—under the Marc moniker—until retiring in 2003.

It's considerably smaller now than it was before her departure.

CVR, which has 23 full-time employees, had 50 employees and $27 million in capitalized billings when Marc bought it. Generally, a firm's revenue is about one-third of its capitalized billings. MacVittie wouldn't disclose what the firm's capitalized billings are now.

"I expect in the next year, we'll be among the 10 biggest agencies in this market," MacVittie said. "But our primary goal is to be the best, not the biggest."

The market's top 10 firms in the most recent IBJ Book of Lists had capitalized billings ranging from $20 million to $90 million.

MacVittie said the firm has lost no workers or clients in the short time since she closed the deal. The firm's client list includes Carrier Corp., Dr. Tavel Vision Center, Conexus Indiana, and the Indianapolis International Airport.

Knauf's Lynam thinks MacVittie brings rare skills to the market.

"I have been working with Paula since the Caldwell VanRiper days in the early 1980s," Lynam said. "I have a tremendous amount of respect for Paula and her abilities. She has a very intelligent and dynamic marketing mind, and brings that to all the projects she works on."

Tom Hirons, Indianapolis AdClub president, said MacVittie will be a strong addition to the local ad industry.

"Paula is highly regarded as one of the most professional people in the business," said Hirons, who also is the president of locally based ad agency Hirons & Co. "The key to this is her strong reputation coupled with the outstanding legacy of Caldwell VanRiper. I think they will do very well and add to the overall strength of this market."

MacVittie will have her work cut out for her to meet growth goals. The industry is contracting, and some of the nation's largest agencies have spun off or sold some of their smaller, less-profitable operations, industry experts said. Several of central Indiana's largest ad agencies have reported a decline in business in 2008, and projections for 2009 are mixed at best. During the downturn, even local advertising pillars such as Pearson Partners and Young & Laramore have been forced to downsize in the face of lost accounts.

"Advertising is very sensitive to economic downturns," Hirons said. "There is no shortage of challenges ahead, but this is also a time when a well-managed firm can gain market share."

MacVittie said Marc's desire to sell off the local operation should not be seen as an indication of financial difficulties at her firm.

"I would characterize our business as highly profitable, stable, solid as a rock with a robust pipeline of new business," she said.

One thing that should help MacVittie grow CVR quickly, even in tough times, is her long list of contacts amassed during more than three decades in the business.

"She has already helped us organize and promote several statewide meetings, and her level of connectivity really is amazing," said Carol D'Amico, president of Conexus Indiana, an organization under the Central Indiana Corporate Partnership that promotes advanced manufacturing and logistics initiatives. "Paula also has an ability to think outside the box that truly is difficult to find. I have little doubt she will hit the ground running."

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