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Fifteen CEO Zack Schneider seeks a creative edge

Walk into Fifteen’s advertising and marketing agency on Delaware Avenue, and you’re greeted with the sight of a sculpture created from bright orange chairs, called “Orange You Glad,” by artist Scott Bye. It’s a sign that this is a different kind of workplace, which is just how Fifteen CEO Zack Schneider likes it.

Schneider and his business partner, Greg Neundorfer, have built Fifteen into a 25-employee firm generating $5 million a year in agency fees.

Back in 2009, they were just two former Crowley Webb employees, ready to start something new. Their agency, then known as 15 Fingers, moved into an office on Main Street before outgrowing the space.

In May, Fifteen relocated into the former U.S. Food and Drug Administration building in Allentown. It was redeveloped by Schneider Development, run by his father, Jake, but is separate from Zack’s firm.

Fifteen’s employees work in an open-format space. There’s also a full kitchen and a photo studio, suitable for preparing food and then photographing it. Down a hallway are small offices for other companies to lease. Some of them are securing business with each other, the kind of collaboration Schneider enjoys cultivating.

Fifteen has clients from inside the region, including Upstate Farms and Catholic Health, and others from outside the market. Schneider and Neundorfer are also investors in other companies such as Circuit Clinical, Piston, and Ru’s Pierogi, reflecting their passion for helping get businesses off the ground.

Schneider, a 36-year-old North Buffalo resident, talked about encouraging creativity by Fifteen’s employees, recruiting clients and the rise of startups in Buffalo:

Q: There are individual offices on your floor for other businesses to lease. What’s the thinking behind that?

A: There’s a lot of open co-working space right now, which totally fills a really great void that we had in the city previously. But there wasn’t a lot of single-office spaces where people could have the autonomy to do their own thing, and use the shared access and environment of a little bit higher-end office environment.

So that’s kind of the gap we tried to fill in the existing market. ... There are so many great companies that are up and coming right now that if we can help foster them, and give them a leg up and share our contacts, give them a space to foster the growth, that’s what we’re looking to do.

Employees work in a row of desks in an open space at Fifteen. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Q: What do you think of the startup in culture in Buffalo?

A: Just the fact you’re saying the startup culture in Buffalo is a great sign, because there wasn’t one, really, 10 years ago. I love what’s going on: the Innovation Center, dig, what they’re doing over at Z80 Labs. God, love Jordy Levy and everything that he’s contributing to the community. Because these are guys who could champion anyone that they want, and they keep championing Buffalo, and good on them for doing that.

Q: Where do you see you firm going, in terms of size?

A: We’re multidisciplined here. We’re full service, we have our own production now, we’ve put studios in the building, so that helps drastically. The production that I’ve seen the team execute on is world class. We’re going to meet with some pretty world-class directors in New York in a couple of weeks and just discuss partnership opportunities and bringing a lot of that production to Buffalo, at least in post-production.

My goal is to build a sustainable ad agency. The only way you do that is to build sustainable clients that feed into your ad agency. So we’re doing that, too. We’ve also had wonderful luck with just having wonderful clients here to begin with.

Q: Does your firm intentionally try to get a mix of local and national clients?

A: Right now, we’re a lot more local focused than we ever have been in the past. I think we really enjoyed having all the local work. But we’re making a concerted effort to grow our national base of clients, so we’re going out and bringing national work here.

There’s only so much work in Buffalo. I love everybody in this industry locally. They’re my friends. I want to make sure we can all put food on the table, and the last thing I want to do is poach food off their table. That’s important to me.

Do we go head to head on pitches? Yeah, we do. And sometimes we work collaboratively together. But I’d much rather see us work together and bring work from out of town to Buffalo and become a mecca for creative in town.

Zack Schneider, partner the creative agency, Fifteen, works in his office. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Q: How do you compete for clients against out-of-town firms with bigger names and more resources?

A: It’s relationships. Can you get someone out to dinner and get to know them, and can you convince them that you’re going to follow through and execute on what they need at the highest level? When you go outside of town, they’re not budget shopping. They’re looking at quality and they want the best.

Q: We’ve seen a lot of changes among local ad agencies, with some disappearing altogether. How do you make yours competitive?

A: A sustainable agency means growing your own clients, too, because clients are what make agencies stable. The more stable your client base is, the more stable you are as an agency. ... If you grow them from scratch, and you build them, and you build a damn good company and put your money where your mouth is, you’ll be around for a long time, because all the profits now, not just whatever they would normally pay an ad agency vendor, come right back to the agency and cover our overhead and make us whole.

Q: What do you look for in people you hire?

A: Passion and drive. Not just in their work environment, but in their family life, their homes. We have everyone here from people who have started their own companies in New York and grew them to be these big production houses, to screenplay writers, to people who hiked the Appalachian Trail, to people who have side companies who are entrepreneurial in their own efforts.

You need to be very self driven, and you need to be the best at what you do. ... I want to support their passions. If you want to make a short film, bring me the storyboard, pitch me on it, let’s make it, let’s create amazing stuff and foster your passions. You want to write music and be in a band? Great, let’s figure out how to get you out there and do that. I’m not opposed to that. ... People who love to create, love to create.

Don’t stop them from doing that.

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