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Lockport native rebuilds former Wolf ad agency 126-employee Rochester-based company expands beyond traditional advertising

In the five years since Lockport-native Sharon Napier helped close the Buffalo office of the Wolf advertising firm -- where a dozen were fired -- she bought the flailing agency and, from Rochester, nurtured a new incarnation of the company that some say is unusual.

It has an open, collaborative approach to business. Members of her Partners Napier ad team of 126 in Atlanta and Rochester don't specialize in mass ads for TV, magazine or Web ads, as some do. Rather, they work on media of all kinds: from grocery shelf designs for Robert Mondavi wine to a comic film of a Kodak executive that now has more than 300,000 hits on YouTube.

The firm, in a converted printing plant with vaulted brick ceilings and the motto "Courage, Ingenuity, Family" etched in wall-mounted metal circles, is led by a slim 48-year-old who wears her hair in tiers of effusive curls with their own, natural lift.

"In today's world, the world truly is flat, so you have to create a model," Napier said of her propensity to veer away from old ad agency standards.

"We're in the midst of the biggest change we've ever been in," she said of her trade. "I'd like to lead it."

A dramatic shift to the "all-purpose" ad agency has been egged on by the Internet. Companies, under information-age pressure to perform, want ad messages to pay off and relate to each other, wherever they appear -- Web sites, doctors offices, and TV.

A University at Buffalo professor of marketing says such comprehensive strategies are a trend. "Those old days are gone when ad agencies will do only creative work," Arun Jain said.

Media options are now so diffuse that a new luxury soap won't succeed on a single ad campaign. "This is simply a gradual transition of business in general," said Jain.

In Buffalo, too, ad agencies have their extended reaches, many with Wolf alumni. Crowley Webb handles mail and Web work for a Tennessee cli
ent that manages clinical drug trials. Cenergy in East Aurora produces Oxy acne lotion ads for commercials on MTV and on men's room posters for teen baseball camps.

Bausch & Lomb turned to Napier's firm for help creating eye-care education on the Web when its contact lens solution was in the news, linked to an eye fungus. "They have other bigger agencies," she said, "but they came to us."

Partners Napier has $15 million in revenues and a ranking in the top 100 medium-sized agencies.

To better compete, she has partnerships with other agencies: Partners Jeary in New York and Partners Edell in Toronto, independent firms that can assist on media buying strategy, for example. Napier has also joined a network of independent firms, with international members, which helped when a university client wanted to recruit students in Moscow.

Her style appealed to Frederick Bouisset, the new CEO of Sorrento Lactalis USA, who relocated to the Buffalo headquarters from the corporate home in France. He and his staff reviewed pitches from 25 ad agencies before choosing Partners Napier for the way it could create ads and work with stores to, say, get cheese placed temptingly next to fruit.

Lactalis, the world's second largest cheesemaker, awarded Partners Napier not just Sorrento, but all of the North American work for President brie, Rondele spreadable cheese and some 20 other kinds.

"We wanted a more cohesive approach than what we've done in the past," said Joni Sahhar-McCagg, manager of business development for Sorrento, the South Buffalo brand bought by Lactalis in 1992.

Napier and her staff seemed to understand a cheese problem in need of solving: People can think of it as a commodity and not as a distinct brand. Sahhar-McCagg remembered her boss saying this about Napier: "She just gets it. She just gets our business. She understands what we're up against."

Napier got her first career break soon after graduating from St. John Fisher College in 1981. The sociology-marketing major worked on a district attorney's election and the campaign manager, owner of the Idea Factory ad agency, complimented her skill at coordinating events and offered her a job.

In 1996, Napier was 37 and hired as president of Wolf's Rochester office. By 2002, the agency with six offices including Buffalo, was in the midst of crisis: Its biggest client, HSBC Bank USA, switched to a bigger firm with offices in New York and London.

A review of remaining Wolf revenues found 76 percent coming from the Rochester and Atlanta offices. A dozen Buffalo people were fired. "I did have to help shut down the office, which wasn't fun," Napier said.

To think of it now, she said, staff had been handicapped by the Toronto-based owner who made strategic decisions instead of locals. As president and CEO of her own company, she makes a point of surveying clients annually about agency performance.

To Kim Diamond, a former Wolf employee and now a senior vice president at Partners Napier, Napier's 2003 decision to join with two others and buy the Rochester and Atlanta offices was courageous and the best example of why she still works for her. When Napier announced the buyout, the crew of about 75 clapped and cheered. Diamond said her boss's passion still infects the Rochester staff, now at 101.

"It makes it fun and exciting every day," Diamond said. She commutes from Buffalo four times a week for the chance to work on projects, such as a fashion show featuring models in vinyl photo-paper dresses and memory-card skirts for Kodak's appearance in a German trade show.

For the last six years, Scott Allen's experience has been similar. His projects, such as the Kodak film he helped produce and write the script for, are fun.

The four-minute movie, created as part of an introduction at the D4 electronics conference, was an effort to change the perception of Kodak as stodgy. At first the people hesitated about the idea of poking fun at that reputation.

But in a move that is part of why Allen likes Napier, and what has kept him from taking other job offers, they went ahead and sold the idea. In film, an actor "executive" goes on about the company's history capturing poignant "Kodak moments." He seems to come unglued in his excitement at all the high-tech change that has happened since. "She loves it when we do great work," said Allen, a creative group supervisor.

Erie County Court Judge Sheila DiTullio, Napier's sister, attributes Napier's success to growing up in Lockport with parents who were trying to make a success of the A&A Beauty Supply company their two sons now run.

Their mother went to work every morning in the 1960s when having a mother with a job outside the house was not the norm. Her example led to independent, ambitious daughters, said DiTullio. Their older sister is a psychologist and professor in Syracuse.

e-mail: mkearns@buffnews.com

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