WS Journal: The Variable Moves to Innovation Quarter

Fran Daniel

Local advertising agency’s growth spurs need for new space in Plant 64

Employees call The Variable a “reformed ad agency.”

The Variable is small — about 35 employees — but has recently won several high-profile advertising awards. Company officials say they wouldn’t want to be bigger than 55.

“We worked at big agencies and learned lots of great things, but we also learned things that we feel like are fundamentally broken about how big agencies approach work,” said David Mullen, The Variable’s director of account management. “So we’ve brought all of that great experience and what we believe are better ways of doing things together.”

The agency moved in mid-August to new offices in a renovated tobacco building in the downtown Wake Forest Innovation Quarter. Its approach to business emphasizes entrepreneurship and collaboration, with sometimes an unconventional twist. Clients visiting the agency might see an employee riding around on a CyBoard, a self-balancing (no handles), two-wheeled scooter. A drum set has a home in the loft, where the agency has space to expand in the future.

The front part of the building is designed to feel like a home with comfortable chairs, a widescreen TV and a break area with bistro chairs made by local furniture-maker Andrew Viatore.

Probably the most unconventional feature is the lettering on the wall in The Variable’s entrance area. It advises people to “Give a s—!”

The agency’s senior team wanted to make a statement about what it believes, Mullen explained.

The design is discreet enough to allow for different readings of the letters: An open hallway takes the space of one full letter and half of another.

“That’s intentional,” he said. “Between the 30-some-odd of us that are here, among us we have 24 kids who are 14 and under. So my kids believe that says, ‘Give A Shout.’ ”

The message is twofold, meant for both employees and clients.

“We want to do the best work for our clients every single day and every single time,” Mullen said. “To do that, you’ve got to care. You’ve got to care a lot.”

They also want to remind clients that they need to care.

“Our mission is to fight consumer indifference wherever it exists,” he said. “At the end of the day we talk a lot about other businesses in our categories as business people. And that’s good. That is your competition as well, but we overlook what we believe is the fiercest, most unrelenting competitor, which is consumer indifference.”

Mullen said that 90 percent of consumers only care about a handful of brands, and 73 percent of them say that the brands they buy daily are interchangeable.

“So if people, for the most part, don’t give a damn about brands, then brands need to give a damn about people,” he said.

The agency

Keith Vest, a partner and the president of The Variable, and Joe Parrish, a partner and the agency’s chief creative officer, opened the agency in 2011. Prior to forming The Variable, Vest ran a design agency called PAVE Creative Group, which was based in Winston-Salem, and Parrish was associate creative director and vice president for McKinney, based in Durham.

The Variable moved in mid-August into 10,000 square feet on East Fourth Street in Plant 64 in the Wake Forest Innovation Quarter. The agency had simply outgrown its former 5,000-square-foot location in the West End area of Winston-Salem.

“We looked at probably six or seven different areas downtown,” Mullen said. “We just looked downtown. We felt like for our culture, we wanted to be where stuff’s happening.”

Mullen said it was important to incorporate elements of Plant 64’s history as a former R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. building, including exposed brick and wooden beams, and big caster wheels used to push tobacco on the factory floor, “with the fun work we’re trying to bring to it today.”

Arrowhead, a company based in Durham, built a custom desk for The Variable that offers a steel top with a railroad tie-inspired base.

In a conference room up front, there’s a custom table that was also made by Arrowhead. Instead of a wide boardroom conference table, The Variable has a table that is a bit narrow and aimed at bringing people together for collaboration.

The Variable’s primary work space is a mixture of open work space and some areas for privacy, including offices with doors.

“We wanted to create spaces that could be collaboration areas but also that would spark what we call intentional serendipity,” Mullen said. “We want people to run into each other. We want people to overhear conversations.”

He said that a lot of agencies talk about being entrepreneurial in spirit but The Variable focuses on being entrepreneurial in action.

For example, employees of The Variable created a “pick me up” drink called Sunshine that has sold 150,000 cans over the past two years across eight states. Sunshine is stored primarily in a warehouse in Winston-Salem.

“So when a client talks about distribution challenges or inventory management, I feel their pain,” Mullen said. “I’m not the agency guy sitting across from them nodding, ‘Yeah, I know what you’re talking about.’ I know what you’re talking about.”

He has found that clients like The Variable’s approach because its employees think like entrepreneurs and understand operational challenges.

He also said the entrepreneurial-in-action approach frees up employees to take a truly fresh approach in what they do so they can bring what they believe is the right solution to the table for a client.

“The answer to every marketing challenge isn’t always another adlike object or an applike experience,” Mullen said. “It might be new product development. It might be a new service model. It might be a customer service idea. It might be new product development ideas. And it might be advertising.”

He said the size of the new space is perfect because “we don’t want to be an agency of 150 people.”

He said that at some point — and he’s not exactly sure of when — an agency can get too big to hold on to what makes it special.

In 2013, The Variable had 10 employees. Today, it has 32 people and four open positions.

The agency’s senior team has decided that 55 employees is its “line in the sand.”

“As we develop and grow and get to 55, we’ll look at ways we can take on additional work that don’t necessarily require adding a lot of people,” Mullen said.

The Variable’s offerings include brand strategy, creative platforms, ideas, tactics, and integrated media planning and buying. Its clients include local and international companies, including Lowes Foods, based in Winston-Salem; Spin Master, of Toronto, Canada, which is the fifth largest toy company in the world and the maker of Air Hogs toys; Duke Health in Durham; and Interface, an international carpet and tile manufacturer based in Atlanta.

Vest said the primary reason for The Variable’s growth is its people, culture and approach.

Agency officials declined to give sales information but said business continues to be good and the company is planning for more growth.

“Our fresh approach to overcoming indifference and broad definition of problem solving has resonated with current clients and potential clients, fueling our growth,” Vest said. “We’re continually bringing our current clients brilliant ideas that push their businesses forward and impressing new clients who want fresh thinking for their brands.”

Winning praise

The Variable is the agency of record for Lowes Foods for strategy, branding and advertising. It is the agency of record for Spin Master for strategic planning, creative and integrated planning.

In March, the agency won Best in Show and two Gold awards in the American Advertising Awards for its work with Lowes Foods.

In July, the agency was named the silver Southeast Small Agency of the Year by Advertising Age.


Read more at Winston-Salem Journal.