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April 2008
Creative Visionaries
By Ellison Clary

     While Wray Ward celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2007, the energetic owners of the venerable Charlotte advertising agency want the next 30 years to shine even brighter. Arguably the largest shop in Charlotte, Wray Ward is on the cusp of becoming a regional leader, say co-owners Jennifer Appleby and Greg Campana.

     “Nobody,” is Appleby’s rifle-shot answer to what area agency is like Wray Ward.

     Since its founding in 1977, Wray Ward has evolved and grown, adding integrated services to its core of traditional advertising. Today, the firm offers many of the marketing communications disciplines essential to building brands, including strategic planning, account management, public relations, interactive and Web services, direct marketing, creative and production, and media planning and buying.

     While traditional advertising represents about 65 percent of the business, Appleby expects interactive will grow much larger than its current 12 percent share and that public relations will continue expanding.

     “More than 15 years ago we recognized that the communications world was   changing in fundamental ways, which led to a strategic decision to offer a comprehensive approach that included public relations, interactive and direct” she said. “We have built strong teams at Wray Ward in all of these disciplines, guided by a commitment to strategic planning.”

 

Breaking Through

     A breakthrough event happened about six years ago when the home textiles leader, Springs Industries, now Springs Global, awarded its business to Wray Ward.

     “We were given a huge opportunity to compete for the business against a number of agencies including the incumbent Ogilvy & Mather in New York,” Appleby said. “We worked hard to win Springs’ trust and have built a great relationship with them. They were looking for a local, hands-on resource with national-level creative and great service.”

     “Winning the Springs business was a tipping point for us,” she adds. “We were then able to go out and win other significant business.”

     The annual Charlotte Business Journal ranking of ad agencies reported that Wray Ward’s capitalized billings for 2007 were $72 million, up 44 percent from 2005. Wray Ward employs 70 in total, a 40 percent increase in the same two-year span. Over the past several years, it has ranked consistently as among the top three agencies in Charlotte.

     Will Wray Ward break out and become the region’s leader? “It’s very possible,” Campana says, “and I hope we can.”

     Then he adds a significant caveat, one that Appleby also holds dear.

     “We want to grow with the understanding that maintaining our corporate culture is very important,” Campana says. “As long as we’re able to maintain a culture of creativity, integrity, collaboration and client-focused service, then busting the glass ceiling as the region’s marquee agency will be terrific.”

     Campana and Appleby are firm believers in the importance of a shared corporate  culture. “Great ideas come from close collaboration,” Appleby says, “Teamwork is firmly rooted in our DNA.”

     Teamwork begins with the senior leadership cadre, she says during a conversation in her corner office. It faces the Charlotte skyline from Baxter Street on the fringe of Midtown.

     She’s flanked by offices for Campana and veteran Charlie Elberson, vice president of brand development. Other leaders are Kent Panther, Sue Tatge, Mark Brock and John Roberts, vice presidents of strategic planning, media, public relations and creative, respectively. Patricia Propst heads finance and operations and Judy Allison is controller.

 

Learning Your Business

     Wray Ward’s culture of creative excellence and close client collaboration have led to long-term relationships including the Sunbrella brand of performance fabrics, a client for more than 30 years.

     “What sets Wray Ward apart from a lot of other companies is they take time to learn about your business,” says Steve Ellington, general manager of Glen Raven Custom Fabrics—Global, which is headquartered in Glen Raven, N.C., and manufactures Sunbrella fabrics.

     Ellington credits the agency for playing an essential role in building Sunbrella into a leading global brand. “The collaboration between Glen Raven and Wray Ward has withstood the test of time. It speaks to shared values from the cultures of both companies.”

     Other easily recognizable Wray Ward clients include AAA, Crescent Resources, Gerber Childrenswear, Huber Engineered Woods, Hunter Douglas window fashions, VELUX skylights and WIX filters.

     Wray Ward clients benefit from an environment at the agency in which employees not only respect each others’ talents, but also enjoy spending time together, whether in the office or on the firm’s softball team. This close connection between Wray Ward staff members was most evident when Jennifer Bunich, an account supervisor and a 36-year-old mother, passed away unexpectedly from lung cancer in February.

     “As a leader you have to be prepared for anything and everything,” Appleby says, obviously still touched by memories of the lost colleague. “The shock and pain of her sudden death was the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to deal with.”

     “Watching our staff pull together, and give each other support, was nothing short of inspirational. We became a tighter family through the experience.”

      Anyone visiting Wray Ward’s new offices is immediately aware of the firm’s respect for its employees. A giant mural lines a wall of the reception area, created by Charlotte artist Paul Rousso who took more than 4,500 photos during the mural creation process.

      Near the center of the color montage are black and white pictures of the firm’s founders, Charlie Wray and Bob Ward, who were veterans of Cargill Wilson & Acree when they started Wray Ward in 1977. Later, Jim Laseter signed on and the firm became Wray Ward Laseter.

      Laseter brought in Appleby as senior art director in 1993. She’d followed her father Roger Owens of IBM to Charlotte after finishing Penn State with a degree in graphic design. She has worked for several local firms including The Thompson Agency and Reimler Agency.

     Campana joined the firm in 1999 as director of account management. A native of Cleveland, Ohio, with a mass communications degree from Purdue, he’d been with McKinney & Silver in Raleigh and Ogilvy & Mather in Atlanta and then Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla., as account director in advertising.

     Laseter made Appleby and Campana minority partners in 2001. Then, in 2005, he sold the company to the pair and retired. Appleby owns 51 percent, Campana 49. Last year, they changed the name back to Wray Ward.

     Appleby, 45, and Campana, 46, put in long hours and are fortunate to have stay-at-home spouses. Campana’s wife Susan has suspended her advertising career to concentrate on daughter Lindsay, 15, and son Jackson, 14. Appleby’s husband Wayne left his financial services and logistics work to keep an eye on daughters Camille, 10, and Chloe, 7.

     “He’s the only reason I’m not in a padded cell,” laughs Appleby.

 

Thinking Big

     Appleby takes pride in her position at the helm of Wray Ward. “The fact that I come from a creative background and that I am a woman is unique in the advertising business,” she says. “Any time I’m given accolades for being a businesswoman, that’s extremely meaningful for me. I feel as if I am setting a precedent that will help other young professional women in the future.”

     Those who know Appleby well characterize her as an energetic leader who combines bravado with humility. While she has a natural ability to connect and nurture, she is also highly competitive, which is reflected in the firm’s aggressive new business program.

     “Greg and I want Wray Ward to be big enough to attract clients who appreciate great creative work and who want to form long-term relationships,” she says. “We also want to be big enough to attract great    talent. The growth of Charlotte is helping us do that.”

     Yet it can be frustrating to operate in the home of big banks and stock car racing. Wray Ward gets just a taste of NASCAR through work with WIX Filters, but behemoths Bank of America and Wachovia are hard to crack.

     “It absolutely drives me crazy,” Appleby says, “that some of the area’s biggest companies send their brand work out of the Charlotte market.

     “I want to change that,” she says determinedly. “We obviously could not handle Bank of America tomorrow, but we could certainly handle project work. We’ve got to better communicate that we’re here, we’re highly creative, and we share a commitment to our community.”

     Appleby is a strong proponent of civic work. “We enjoy making our creative talents accessible to the non-profit community,” she explains. “This community has been very good to Wray Ward for more than 30 years and we are proud to give back.” Wray Ward’s pro bono client list is long and growing—Arts & Science Council, United Way, Goodwill Industries, Junior Achievement and many others.

     “Jennifer Appleby is a fantastic leader and volunteer,” says Michael Smith, president of Charlotte Center City Partners, where Appleby serves on the executive committee and is helping with a North Tryon Vision Task Force. Smith mentions creativity and energy as he praises “her exceptional willingness to dig in and plug in places where she can really create value.”

     Creativity, energy and the ability to dig into a difficult task were essential during Wray Ward’s move late in 2007 from cramped quarters on Morehead Street to its current 20,000-square-foot inspirational new offices on Baxter Street. Skylights, high ceilings, wide expanses of glass and a variety of building materials have resulted in a space that clients enjoy visiting so much they often schedule staff retreats at Wray Ward headquarters. During tours, agency staff members are quick to point out how client products have been integrated throughout the building, from fabrics and door hardware to skylights and roller shades.

 

Core Consistency

     Appleby credits her creative work force for memorable campaigns she enjoys showing prospective clients, such as those for the Charlotte Bobcats, including “Okafor in 04” and “Get Closer” featuring Raymond Felton, Sean May and Emeka Okafor. Many people also know of the firm’s North Carolina Education Lottery television ads.

     “One way to go after new business is by targeting industries in which you have experience,” Appleby says. “For example, we’ve built a strong expertise in home and building products.” She mentions clients VELUX, Springs Global, Sunbrella and Huber. Wray Ward is also experienced in automotive, health care, retail and financial services, and is continually expanding into new industry segments based on its strategic communications approach.

     In five years, Appleby envisions even more national brands on the firm’s client list. In her view of the future, these brands will have been attracted to Wray Ward because of its ability to develop creative marketing communications programs based on the strategic integration of advertising, public relations, interactive and direct.

     And she’d like to place even more awards into already-prodigious trophy cases. A Clio, given in worldwide competition for advertising, design and interactive work, would be a nice addition, she thinks.

     Most of all she and Campana want Wray Ward to retain its unique culture that focuses on creativity and client service.

     “What I want people to understand is that it’s so rare in our industry to see an agency reach a 30-year milestone,” Campana says. “We have retained the best elements of our heritage, while evolving with the times. Our roots are here in Charlotte. The brand name and reputation of Wray Ward continue to live on.”

 

Ellison Clary is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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