VIA Studio executives and clients will gather Friday night at Actors Theatre of Louisville to celebrate VIA’s 15 years in the frothiest, most kinetic business category on the planet.
VIA Studio founder and CEO Kelly McKnight will toast the Internet marketing revolution, which he surely helped pioneer.
Then, McKnight will toast the end of his career and the beginning of VIA’s new phase under designated successor Jason Clark, now president.
“I’m phasing myself out,” said McKnight, who’s 62 years old. “I don’t have another revolution in me.”
VIA Studio is a Louisville-based interactive advertising agency that builds marketing websites and web/mobile apps for a number of large customers including Stock Yards Bank & Trust Co. and Floyd Memorial Hospital.
VIA’s notable business mile marker aside, McKnight has taken from all the changes and tumult industry insights and lessons relevant to every go-for-it entrepreneur, lessons few are willing to discuss as candidly and compellingly as McKnight.
McKnight did what very, very few other ad execs have done … he jumped on the Internet wave in 1996 in design and marketing, surviving a wild, wild industry ride (barely) that left mostly wreckage in its wake across the United States.
The fact he’s celebrating with VIA Studio when so many Internet companies from that era are toast is a testament to his resilience, vision and ability to get more right than wrong.
“He had the foresight to see (the Internet) was the next new medium, and he was right” said Jason Clark, VIA president and co-owner with McKnight.
“It was visionary in 1996. And he’s definitely the only one still around since then.”
But Clark is the first to say that when he joined VIA Studio in 2003, he walked in to a smoking ruin.
Here’s VIA Studio’s “built it, wrecked it and saved it” story.
More than 15 years ago, McKnight realized you, the consumer, would get most of your news, entertainment and, yes, product messages via the Internet rather than from print and other conventional media.
Fifteen years later, he knows your smart phone increasingly is the way to reach you.
He’s been through essentially two careers – conventional advertising, then the Web.
He’s seen three on-line revolutions – early static Web pages evolving into active sites with sophisticated data bases and now, the emergence of the smart phone as an increasingly important information and entertainment appliance.
“I survived two dot.com bubbles … 1996 and then 2001. Sometimes I feel like the last man standing,” McKnight said.
VIA Studio was born because McKnight attended a 1995 seminar in Phoenix, a seminar featuring a visionary Coca-Cola marketing exec whose name McKnight has long since forgotten.
The Coke exec had built a national reputation as someone who’d broken through the rigid advertising conventions. But that day in Arizona, “the guy didn’t talk about Coke,” McKnight said. “All he wanted to talk about was the Internet.
“At the time, I’d never even heard of the Internet.”
Here’s this guy talking about how the advertising world was moving from mass marketing to brand conversations with a market of one as consumers got more information “over a wire,” rather than from books and newspapers, McKnight said.
“I heard this guy and I said, ‘Holy shit, I’m out of a job.’ Because I’m in mass marketing for 20 years!”
At the time, McKnight was working for a large Louisville firm he declined to identify. (Yes, it ended badly.) But he’d done earlier stints with two national giants including what are now Bozell Worldwide and D’arcy & Partners, working on American Airlines, Anheuser-Busch and Wendy’s advertising campaigns.
After the Phoenix epiphany, he goes back to Louisville to work up a major web project for Cummins Engine.
McKnight said he figured the Columbus, Ind.-based heavy equipment maker would want a company history, fulfillment capability and all its brochures on the site.
But when he talked to the top executive at the time, “he says, ‘I want to be able to e-mail my daughter in college.’ ”
The CEO got a lot more, with the Cummins website chosen by the Wall Street Journal as one of the five-best in the nation along with Ford, United Airlines, Transamerica Bank and MGM, according to McKnight.
But McKnight figures out his partners at the unnamed firm weren’t nearly as excited as he was about the Internet. So he leaves and starts VIA Studio.
VIA’s first big clients were Food Services Associates, a restaurant marketing firm, and Thomas Industries, the holding company for a number of operations including lighting manufacturers.
And VIA grew quickly.
The reason was because so many competitors didn’t adjust to New Media, McKnight said:
Most of the agencies did the same damn thing. Instead of hiring smart programmers, designers and marketers, they went to the “one-guru answer.” They went to one guy and said, “Hey, be my Internet marketing department.” Even then, you needed three key players: a designer, a marketer and a programmer. Now, you need a (search-engine optimization) person and a social media person. So now you need five. A lot of these guys didn’t get it, and a lot of them don’t get it now.
Trouble was, as so many companies do, VIA Studio grew itself into a jam.
He declined to identify the client, but in 2002, VIA Studio took on a huge project to build a data base for retail fulfillment, an ambitious project that was doomed from the start, McKnight said.
By 2003, after the project went wildly wrong, his company had dropped to a two-person staff from 15 people, and was left with $250,000 in debt.
Enter Jason Clark, who’d worked at VIA Studio client Power Creative, a full-service, Louisville based advertising firm.
Clark remembers walking into a company with big problems
“It was sketchy when I first joined the company in 2003,” he said. “There was a lot of debt and a pretty good chance VIA wasn’t going to make it.”
While McKnight had mastered marketing, advertising and networking,VIA Studio lacked project management, business development and budgeting talent, Clark said.
“Kelly knew how to get the business,” Clark said. “He had the contacts. But at the time, there weren’t enough people with the expertise to see big projects through from start to finish.”
Clark and McKnight agree the advertising business now is so sophisticated firms need marketing, SEO, design, programming and e-commerce talent along with project managers.
After cutting all the debt and adding the required talent to satisfy clients, VIA Studio is in the black after seven years “and is profitable and growing,” Clark says.
McKnight is not stingy with the praise, calling Clark “savior to this company. I’m his partner. He owns 50 percent, and at the time, I literally gave it to him.
“It was worth nothing, and we’ve built this thing back.”
VIA Studio is back in the game just as the mobile marketing revolution hits.
“It’s going to change everything,” he said. McKnight saw the business go from desktops to laptops “and now the phone is going to change everything again.”
He’ll will work as a consultant for VIA Studio, but the handover to Clark already is in progress.
“This business is starting to pass me by. This one,” McKnight said, “is going by me.”
The company: VIA Studio is at 1201 Story Avenue in the Butchertown Market complex. For more information, call 502-498-8470
The party: VIA Studios is hosting a “birthday party” Friday, July 22 to mark the company’s 15th year. The party will be at Actor’s Theatre from 5:30 p.m/ toi 8:30 p.m. Catering will be by Mayan Cafe and entertainment by J. K. McKnight, Forecastle Festival founder and Kelly McKnight’s son.