Right on target

For employees at Lisaius Marketing, getting ahead in the graphic design business means meeting the expectations of their clients and themselves.

by Jim Kelty

Several years ago, the Long Trail Brewing Co. asked Lisaius Marketing to design a label for a new seasonal beer called Hibernator. The label, still in use today, features the cartoon image of a bear relaxing in an easy chair in front of a fireplace. He's reading a book, smoking a pipe and enjoying a bottle of beer. Next to the fireplace is a stack of chopped wood. And on the wall, mounted as game trophies, are the heads of two humans a couple of hunters who apparently weren't as smart as they thought they were.

Joe Lisaius, president of Lisaius Marketing, spent the early years of his career in the advertising business in New York City. The Lisaius team on the porch of the College Street building that houses the firm. Built in 1871, the two-story house is listed by the Vermont Division of Historic Preservation as the single best example of Gothic Revival architecture in Burlington. From left: Joe Lisaius, Bret Murray, Victor Hall, Jennifer Raleigh, Justin Wolfe, Dana Murphy, Kelly Fitzgerald, Cristine Hammer, Stuart Birdsall, Peter Stark, David Brizendine (kneeling).

"It's a very Far Side-esque label," says Matt Quinlan, Long Trail's marketing manager. "When we first saw it, we thought it was incredibly creative. We just fell in love with it immediately, and we've been working with them ever since."

Long Trail, the micro brew company of Bridgewater Corners, Vt., has been a Lisaius (pronounced "lih-SY-us") customer since the mid-'90s, and during that span the company has seen a steady growth in the popularity of its products, one of which was recently named beer of the year by Malt Advocate magazine. According to Quinlan, Lisaius deserves a measure of credit for the company's growth.

"A lot of the success of our brands is in the packaging, and Lisaius is responsible for the imagery on the packaging," he says. "We get compliments on all of our labels all of the time. People are always asking us where the work was done. We're pretty proud that it's done right here in Vermont and that we were able to find such talent so close to home."

Located near downtown Burlington, Lisaius is a graphic design and marketing agency, a small company with big-time list of clients including Blockbuster, Showtime, The History Channel, A&E, Pioneer Home Entertainment, Fox Lorber/Winstar, IDX, Northern Power, Rossignol and ADT Security Systems.

"We've been very focused since the very beginning, with the belief that there are certain industries and certain companies within those industries that we're suited for. We've gone specifically after certain companies, and that has worked really well for us," says president and owner Joe Lisaius, who is picked by Graphic Design: USA magazine as one of 50 people to watch in 2001. "We travel regularly to New York, Los Angeles and other places to see our clients and talk to potential new ones that we think might be a good match."

Executive director Cristine Hammer has been with the firm since it started nine years ago. "There's a great deal of energy that goes into going out there and getting the business and keeping the business going," says executive director Cristine Hammer. "It's a very different type of energy than design, which is often very solitary."

About 60 percent of the business comes from the entertainment industry. Lisaius and his staff design cover art, posters, brochures, announcement kits and other materials used to market the release of films on videocassette. Recently the firm won a regional award from Print magazine for promotional materials used in the video release of Being John Malkovich.

"We wouldn't necessarily be a good pick for marketing the next Jurassic Park, but in the video industry there are certain levels of films that are very manageable for our size agency," explains Lisaius. "We try to match ourselves the size of our organization, our abilities with clients that we can really benefit. We work on a lot of foreign films for Fox Lorber/Winstar. We do about six or seven projects a year for the A&E channel those are more cultural or arthouse-type productions, which are the kinds of things we like to work on and that our designers really thrive on."

Occasionally the job requires Lisaius to travel to movie locations to photograph the actors in the films. In that capacity he has worked with celebrities such as David Bowie, James Earl Jones, Roseanna Arquette, Gary Busey, Nastassja Kinski, Christopher Plummer. His ties to the entertainment world stem from the early years of his career in New York City where he worked in advertising for RKO Video, a 32-outlet video-store chain. "RKO was, at the time, the largest video chain in the nation, and the video production and distribution companies all came to us with their hottest titles, asking us to do some kind of tie-in promotion with them," says Lisaius. "So I got to know a lot of people."

His move to Vermont came in 1986 when he was offered a job in Shelburne as vice president of marketing for now-defunct Academy Entertainment, an independent production and distribution company that bought the rights to movies at film festivals and brought them to market. "When I was offered the job, my brother was living up here and I just loved Vermont, so I jumped at the opportunity," says the 41-year-old New Jersey native. In the early '90s when Academy chose to relocate to Beverly Hills, Lisaius had a new house and a baby on the way, so he decided to stick around and try his hand as an entrepreneur. "When we started out, our clientele was almost entirely from the entertainment industry, through my contacts working in Manhattan for six or seven years," he recalls. Growth was gradual but steady as the firm added new clients from other industries.

The business opened with only one other full-time staff member Cristine Hammer, a former co-worker at Academy with a background in both design and marketing. "We learned early on that you always have to be looking for new business," says Hammer, the agency's executive director, who coordinates much of the day-to-day running of the operation. "We've never been fired that I can think of, but sometimes people go out of business or companies get new marketing directors who have a design agency that they've been using for years and so they don't really want to use you any more. It's easy to get very comfortable with your client list and forget that these things happen. You need to always be looking down the road and it takes an incredible amount of energy to do that."

The agency's informal tag line is "marketing-driven design," which is one of the keys to keeping customers, says Lisaius. "Design on its own can be beautiful, and also a failure," he explains. "Marketing-driven design is what really creates success in a design. Something may look real cool, but the question is always, Does it achieve the client's goals? Is it getting the main points across?"

"There's a perception that a lot of people come to Vermont for the lifestyle and that means taking off to go skiing or fishing in the middle of the afternoon," he says. "That's not the case at all with our company. In fact, I often say that we have to work harder than the people we're up against in New York and Los Angeles that are going after the exact same accounts that we are because they're right down the street from those accounts. There are lots of agencies in those places that would love to be doing the work that we're doing. We get that work, because we're good at what we do and we do it better and faster than they can. And that means working harder than they do."

"I see the business continuing to grow ... but I don't want to become so large that we really can't take an individual look at every project."— Joe Lisaius

One of the agency's clients is USA Home Entertainment, a video production and distribution company in New York. Stacy Lowe, senior director of marketing for USA, describes Lisaius as an extremely efficient and professional agency whose designs always hit the mark. "There are literally hundreds of design firms in the New York area and countless others nationally," says Lowe. "We keep a rotating bullpen of designers that we call on for various jobs. But Lisaius is always one of our starting pitchers."

Jennifer Raleigh, the agency's art director, says staff designers have to always stay on the edge of what's new and exciting in the design world, but at the same time realize that trends are temporary and shouldn't always be followed.

"If you're working on a video cover that may only be in hot circulation for six months or so, you can afford to follow the trends," says Raleigh. "But if you're working on a corporate identity, that identity needs to stand for years. So it's important to do the research and try to really get a good concept with any piece that you're working on. It's also important to stay technologically advanced."

Lisaius now employs seven designers, a creative services manager, a bookkeeper, a junior account executive and a receptionist. He admits he was unaware of the staggering complexities of running a business when he started out. "As I look back, to be honest I don't know if I would have gone into business for myself if I knew then what I know now," he says. "I'm glad I did, because I love having my own place. But there's a real labyrinth of tax laws and legal requirements, especially when you start hiring people, that are so complicated and so involved, and really drain so much time and energy, especially in the early going. Now I have a bookkeeper, an accountant, a lawyer, and it makes things easier. But it's much harder when you're getting going."

In 1999, the company moved to its present location on College Street: a handsome, 1871 Gothic Revival two-story obtained when Lisaius merged with Brick House Creative Co., a three-person design firm. The merger expanded his client list bringing Rossignol, Landmark College and Smith, Bell & Thompson into the fold as well as his payroll. Designers Ann Kiley and Stuart Birdsall are former Brick House employees.

The upside of owning a business is the freedom to choose the people you work with, Lisaius says. "I've always wanted to set up a company the way that I would want to be treated, and I try to do that here," he says. "We have a tremendous group, and I try to give them a great environment to work in, really good equipment, good support emotionally and financially. It's very rewarding to be able to do that."

Lisaius who has a warm, youthful presence is a family man. He and his wife, Josie, have an 8-year-old son. He is also an avid fisherman. In fact his son's name is Brook, and his company logo is a simple fish hook. (The logo was designed by his identical twin brother, Fred, a professional illustrator in Seattle.)

The grandson of Lithuanian immigrants, Lisaius grew up in West Caldwell, N.J., and attended Florida State University where he majored in advertising. "I've always loved design," he says. "But I wasn't sure I could make a living in it, and I was raised to be practical in that way. So in college I decided that advertising was an area where I could really make a living. I found as I got into that world that I always gravitated to the graphic design department, and always found myself in charge of it."

Lisaius says growth for the company at this point depends on continually improving the quality of the work. "I see the business continuing to grow in the type of clients and projects that we work with, but I don't want to become so large that we really can't take an individual look at every project," he explains. "We won't take someone on unless we can give them our all. That's just the way we approach it. And the decision is not necessarily based on their size. Sometimes we see the potential in a company and we're very excited about it, and we want to work with them just because it's a great project."

Lisaius who also possesses a great sense of humor encourages his employees to do their homework and get to know the products they're working on, which often means watching movies on nights and weekends. Regularly, on late Friday afternoons, the staff breaks open the company supply of Long Trail. "We do design for a beer company, and we do design for video companies," Lisaius says with a smile. "If we could just get a pizza company, we'd be totally set." •

Originally published in March 2001 Business People-Vermont