Kansas City’s Top Company 2013: VML

The top Kansas City digital marketing firm challenges itself and celebrates its success.

VML’s toughest critic might just be VML. That’s because the Kansas City-based digital marketing agency takes client service and satisfaction very seriously – all in an effort to be a client’s most important partner.

Using a series of detailed, self-assessment tools, VML often has a good understanding of how the firm rates among its extensive list of global clients. Quarterly surveys, in-person feedback meetings with VML’s executive leadership and ongoing dialogue with client stakeholders, for example, help the firm identify “pain points” and deliver premium service.

L to R: Eric Campbell, Chief Engagement Officer; Debbie Vandeven, Chief Creative Officer; Chuck Searle, Executive Director of Client Services.

“We have built our entire company and capability to put us in the best position to be our clients’ most important partner,” says VML President and CEO Jon Cook. “We don’t need to be the biggest partner or the only partner. We simply want to be the most important to each of our clients…the ones they turn to when it really matters. VML has been built on 20 years of those types of relationships.”

VML assesses such criteria as strategic contribution, innovation and creativity, media services and relations, professionalism and quality of personnel, overall relationships, delivery and execution, business value, integration performance, and technical and systems integration. Clients like Colgate-Palmolive, Dell, Ford, Hill’s Pet Nutrition, Microsoft and SAP have all been on the receiving end of the company’s service assessments. VML says the process has resulted in “year-over-year overall business growth and strengthened relationships.”

One such success story is VML’s work with Gatorade. Specifically, its “Everything to Prove” campaign was a winner not only with the client, but within the advertising world as well. The campaign earned numerous awards, including Cannes Lions, the Webby Awards, London International Awards, IAB MIXX and OMMA.

In the last 18 months, VML has experienced unprecedented growth in terms of global expansion, including six new office locations, employee headcount and double-digit revenue growth. Through organic growth, acquisitions and new global offices, VML is poised for its strongest year yet. The most recent office addition, VML Tokyo, launched earlier this year with further global expansion planned in 2013 in both Europe and China. One of the agency’s most significant account wins in 2012 was as Digital Agency of Record for Wendy’s. Other new clients joining the VML roster in 2012 included Coors/Coors Light, Boehringer Ingelheim, Darden and the City of Nashville. The firm’s Channel Activation Team, which leads social and mobile marketing initiatives, is its fastest-growing department.

Much of VML’s appeal, of course, stems from its innovative thinking and ability to identify emerging trends and develop unique marketing solutions for its clients. Often, the Kansas City firm forms strategic partnerships with start-ups to combine creativity and technology. VML is a corporate partner of Digital Sandbox KC, the Innovation Center at the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s initiative to combine the expertise of private companies, universities, entrepreneurial support organizations and government agencies across the Kansas City region.

VML’s Legacy of Superstar Service

VML President and CEO Jon Cook

The company’s innovative thinking touches its industry and local community as well. Since 2009, VML has been the presenting sponsor and curator of TEDxKC programming. Likewise, the firm routinely hosts events and roundtables that bring together industry leaders and clients to discuss a variety of challenges and trends facing the digital marketing industry. Participants often include leaders from iconic corporate giants like Microsoft, Facebook and Google Fiber, among others.

“VML started in Kansas City more than 20 years ago and has grown into a global advertising network,” Cook says. “Through it all, Kansas City has remained our headquarters and the heart and soul of our company. In fact, as we’ve expanded internationally, our Midwest culture, drive and advertising expertise have become increasingly important to our global network.

“Every VML office aspires to emulate the solutions-oriented approach, and significant community partnerships and pro bono services, we’ve been providing in Kansas City since the agency was founded,” Cook adds.

The firm’s non-profit VML Foundation supports a wide array of charitable and community outreach initiatives in Kansas City, New York and Seattle, the site of its larger operations. Nearly 75 percent of VML employees contribute to the VML Foundation through payroll deduction, and every VML employee is provided two paid days annually to volunteer in the community. In 2012, the foundation funded nearly $200,000 charitable organizations, and by the spring of this year, the foundation had surpassed the $1 million mark in cumulative, unrestricted grants.

Certainly, VML is the first to recognize its employees in the growth and success the company has enjoyed. Calling it a “white board culture,” VML characterizes its corporate culture as a collaborative environment – a place where everyone is encouraged to take marker in hand and share ideas. Open floor plans and workspaces, as well as creative design elements help foster a collaborative work environment. Additionally, hard work is rewarded with such perks as an on-site workout center, free organic fruit and free soft drinks in all VML offices.

Knowing its employees are the agency’s primary assets and most important point of differentiation, VML provides opportunities for ongoing education, training and professional development. New employees undergo an extensive orientation program, while the firm hosts weekly all-agency meetings to share the latest developments in the industry.

This year, VML and Rockhurst University developed a partnership to help VML employees further their education through an Executive MBA program. The agency also sponsors a variety of Lunch & Learn sharing sessions with industry experts.