Taking what is considered a bold step, one of Baltimore's biggest advertising agencies will expand to Florida, seeking new business in a venture headed by an agency partner.
Graham Kirk, 53-year-old senior executive vice president of Gray Kirk/VanSant, will leave the Baltimore headquarters, where he has spent more than a decade building a reputation as a skilled marketing executive, to become president of a West Palm Beach office, the agency announced yesterday.
"It's a big challenge, not only geographically, but secondly, we have no clients we're going down there with," said Roger Gray, president and chief executive officer.
The agency, which won recognition this year for folksy radio spots for Utz Potato Chips, has looked into expanding into other areas based on population growth and economic development, Mr. Gray said.
The move is part of a five-year plan to grow through acquisitions and geographic expansions, he said.
In 1991, the former Gray Kirk acquired VanSant Dugdale and since then has increased billings from existing and new accounts by 50 percent, the agency said.
Gray Kirk, which counts tourism among its specialties and Choice Hotels International among its clients, was attracted to the concentration of travel and tourism businesses headquartered in Florida and had been contacted by potential clients based there, Mr. Gray said.
The agency considered a joint venture with a Florida agency, but those plans fell through. Gray Kirk decided to expand on its own after Mr. Kirk was married recently to a real estate agent from Florida, Mr. Gray said.
Venturing into uncharted geographic territory is nothing new for Mr. Kirk. The Missouri native and Harvard MBA graduate started in the industry writing advertising copy and managing accounts, before finding his real strength in understanding consumer markets.
Mr. Kirk was described by competitors as gracious and generous in sharing ideas about the industry, a solid advertising person with a strong sense of how to get a job done.
As assistant director of marketing for Cunningham & Walsh, he started an office in Los Angeles. And as a vice president with Ogilvy & Mather, he headed a new branch in San Franciso.
Mr. Kirk came to Baltimore in 1982, when Barry Smith of Smith Burke & Azzam brought him in as marketing director. He became recognized as the driving force behind that agency, which evolved into Gray Kirk & Evans.
In Florida, Mr. Kirk expects to work with clients in the travel, health care, and financial industries.
Gray Kirk's latest strategy for growth is an unusual one among Baltimore-based agencies, a step many in the industry are expected to watch closely.
Typically, an agency would move into another area only if work for a client takes them there, said Greg DesRoches, president of Cornerstone, an advertising and public relations agency, and president of the Advertising Association of Baltimore.
"Depending on the flavor of a city or an area, it may be difficult to break in," without being established or having name recognition, he said.
He noted that W.B. Doner and Co., the city's largest agency, which has headquarters in Baltimore and Detroit and nine other offices throughout the United States, Canada, Australia and Great Britain, has expanded successfully.
"It is a big challenge for anybody who seeks to do that," Mr. DesRoches said. But, "anytime an agency can establish itself away from Baltimore and continue to produce stellar products, it can only reflect well on those of us who ply the trade in the city," he said.