Originally published in Business Digest, June 1998

Shark-Infested Quarters

by Julia Lynam

There's a shark lurking in a basement on Battery Street! It's been there some time, and its influence is reaching international circles.

From very small and totally unplanned beginnings, Shark Communications in Burlington has grown into an advertising agency employing more than a dozen people and billing more than $5 million annually. In 1986 Peter Jacobs started the agency in one room in Shelburne. "It was so small I remember one client coming to see me and standing there with his arms by his sides because there was no room to move!" says Jacobs.

A sociology and psychology graduate of Hobart College in New York, Jacobs had returned to his passion, skiing, after leaving college. He moved to Woodstock -- to ski, of course, but also to finish up some research he was doing at Dartmouth College before heading to Penn State to earn a Ph.D. That never happened.

"I ended up bartending, skiing and modeling," he says, "and that led into film making." The film, "How to Ski the Moguls," was made in Killington with Warren Miller's film crew and won an award at the International Ski Film Festival in 1985. It shifted Jacobs into the media world, where he found himself at home. He enjoyed a brief career as a "poster boy," he says, his photograph appearing on billboards and point-of-sale material at airports throughout the U.S. as part of an Avis snow country promotion.

Peter Jacobs
"We bring together the power of creativity and mesh it with smart strategic planning," says Peter Jacobs, creative director of Shark Communications in Burlington. The company has grown from the small fish tank of a tiny one-room office to the vast ocean of Internet commerce. (Photo: Jeff Clarke)

In 1986 he headed north to Burlington to join the Duncan Jager agency, run by Charles Duncan and Michael Jager, now of Burlington design agency Jager Di Paola Kemp. "Peter always had great marketing intuition," says Jager, recalling those long-ago days: "In a high- stress world he had charisma and a real sense of humor, which I hope he's managed to keep."

After just a few months with Duncan Jager, Jacobs decided to set up his own business. From his tiny office in Shelburne, with not enough room to swing a shark, he began to develop advertising concepts for a number of clients. "I worked with several marketing directors from Killington (Ski Resort)," he recalled: "We'd meet once a week in a bar in Middlebury" -- the college town provided a convenient mid- point between Killington and Burlington -- "and work on a TV spot or other ad.

"I kept the jobs in little piles on the floor," Jacobs says. "I didn't even know about filing them."

Within a year he recruited his first staff member: Amy Radcliffe joined the young Shark as artistic director. With experience gained at a Boston advertising agency, Radcliffe, who now runs Gotham City design agency with Stephanie Salmon in Burlington, helped Jacobs put flesh on the bones of his ideas. "He'd have a little bit of copy scribbled on the top of a piece of paper with a space for the graphic," she recalls. "Or he'd come up with a headline and draw a black box and some squiggles, and I'd take it away to make it look good, to put in the typefaces and give it the feel it needed.

"His ideas were always pretty clever. Peter is a concept person -- a word concept person, and good at word and visual tie-ins. I tried to supplement the visual aspects."

Jacobs has been tuned in to the Vermont advertising and design scene for a long time and has watched the sector develop in volume and sophistication. "There are two camps in the design business in Vermont," he says. "There's a very strong design community, people who are very good at utilizing the power of design to create brand personality; and there are the marketing driven agencies who are good at analysis, research, consultation and planning.

"We bring together the power of creativity and mesh it with smart strategic planning."

There's more than a little psychology mixed into Jacobs' approach. He aims not just to produce eye-catching advertising, but also to help his clients build structure into their marketing programs. That's not always easy, he says: "We have a lot of large clients. And to get marketing really goal-directed you have to diffuse personal opinion and get everybody going in the same direction."

This means involving the client in strategic discussions. Under the cavernous low ceilings and exposed pipe-work of the walk-out basement on Burlington's waterfront that is the Shark studio, Jacobs leads his clients through a step-by-step process of brainstorming and honing ideas. It can take time. "This was a war room for six months," he says of a tiny office, walls plastered with rough visuals and slices of copy. It's where he, his staff and the client developed ideas for an international advertising campaign for Logic, a White River Junction company that provides management information systems for the printing industry.

"We're very brand directed," Jacobs continues, "When we organize the marketing around a brand there's a lot of efficiency and a lot of success." He was brandishing a bottle of beer from the Franklin County Brewery's Railroad City Ale -- not for refreshment but to demonstrate the difference between the old label, a classic design featuring a steam train, and the slick new label designed by Shark specifically to appeal to the sophisticated profile that research had shown was the primary market for the brand.

Bennett Dawson, president and brewmaster at Franklin County, found the Shark way of working very much to his liking. And sales of Railroad City Ale have soared in the few weeks since the new Shark- designed bottle and six-pack labels were introduced. "There's been an incredible difference," a delighted Dawson enthuses: "We didn't expect such a dramatic change. Our previous labels were substandard, but this one causes the product to jump off the shelf. We're easily going to double six-pack sales because of the label."

It was Dawson's first experience of using an advertising agency for his brewery; previous labeling had been designed in-house. "Shark was perfect to work with," he says. "Peter didn't just come up with something that would set our products apart from our competition. He really captured the feel of the product and its railroad associations.

"I considered three or four other Burlington agencies before I picked Shark," he continues. "Then we had several meetings before we even got going on the design. They were finding out about the company rather than trying to force something to fit, and we've ended up with something that appeals very strongly to our primary and secondary markets, and to tertiary markets, too.

"He might not be for everyone but he matched me real well. I'm a maverick and Peter is, too, in the best sense of the word." An unlikely venture into retailing has the adrenaline running high at Shark this spring. In partnership with New York City based Tip-Top stores, Jacobs has launched Urbanwhere (www.urbanwhere.com), a company that operates an interactive website selling hip-hop clothing. The styles are drawn from the youth culture of the Big Apple and effective marketing to such a specialized slice of population includes learning the jargon to meet the customers on their own ground. So a hip-hop dictionary hangs on the wall above the computer, which is the hub of Urbanwhere. Rather than "look at the T- shirts" or "earn respect" you're invited to "peep the T's" or "get the daps." Email messages begin, "Yo, what's up?," not "Dear Customer."

Twenty-three-year-old Matt Geary is president of Urbanwhere. "Well, I'm the only one working on it," says the 1998 UVM business administration graduate who took a summer job at Shark last year and suddenly found himself becoming an expert on website building and hip-hop clothing. Now he's staying on to continue his career with Shark instead of returning to his family's brewing business in Portland, Maine.

"When I came here the idea for the site was roughed out. I did the grunt work to make it look commercial," Geary explains. "The home page changes a lot. It's updated every week, because there's a high turn around of products."

Urbanwhere was launched in May and took its first $500 order the first day. Shark maintains the site, takes orders and handles payment, while Tip-Top takes care of fulfillment and shipping. All communication is via email and customers are coming in from around the world -- throughout the U.S., of course, but also from Scandinavia, Malaysia and Russia, attracted by the bright and busy presentation and the chance to buy ugly T-shirts called "Ironic Hustle" and "Ironic Creepin."

Geary's working on getting the site to come up in the top 10 when a potential customer searches the Web. It's tough. Different search engines have different requirements, so, although Urbanwhere pops up first if you search Alta Vista Search for "hip hop clothes," it's not yet even in the top 10 if you search with Yahoo!.

Shark's website expertise is not confined to its own ventures. The agency has designed sites for clients including Chittenden Bank, Dartmouth College Alumni Fund, Mount Snow Ski Resort, Marble Island Resort and Burlington-based Music Contact International.

The Shark basement, beside the Dockside Restaurant, is cool in both senses of the word. Evidence of the agency's success abound, from little models of re-designed Chittenden Bank offices to various odd awards tucked behind stacks of books. A table tennis set-up occupies center stage, "Because you need to take a break sometimes." "This place gets used 24 hours a day, seven days a week," says Jacobs. "But ideas don't spring up around here. A day here is spent tearing around and managing accounts."

So where do the ideas spring up? On the slopes, that's for sure, when Jacobs goes skiing with his son, Ben, 7, and 3-year-old daughter, Evy -- or when he's working around the 30-acre home in Monkton he shares with his wife, Kim, children and four Montedale sheep.

Would he think about a move away from Vermont? Why stay here when the work can be done over the Net from anyplace?

The answer's simple: "I ski. Perhaps when I finally take that one fall and don't get up again, then it'll be time to move south." Until then Shark will continue to prowl the waters of Burlington and surf the Internet in search of inspiration.