The Sense of Place

Entrepreneurial genes and an affinity for design were the elements behind this Place

by Janet Essman Franz

Steve Crafts, Keri Piatek, and David SpeidelSteve Crafts (right) founded Place Creative in 2001 after several years of working for other agencies. His future wife, Keri Piatek, and his longtime colleague David Speidel joined him not long afterward. Together, they form the core of the Burlington branding, advertising, and design firm.

Steve Crafts discovered the value of graphic arts in high school, when he created a poster advertising a concert by the band for which he played guitar. Borrowing an idea from Michelangelo, the poster showed God reaching out to Adam. In the space where their fingers are about to touch, he put the band’s logo. His illustration caused controversy and attracted a large crowd to the concert. Crafts says the band was terrible and people told him the poster was better than the show, but the experience taught him a fundamental lesson about the power of art to sell a product.

He has since made a career from that concept.

Crafts, 37, is founder and creative director of Place Creative, a Burlington branding, advertising, and design firm. With his business partners — his wife and design director, Keri Piatek, and longtime colleague and marketing director, David Speidel — Crafts helps client companies define their brands and develop marketing strategies. Services include creating logos, designing packaging, crafting print and Internet advertisements, and finding the best ways to tie these modes of communication together.

Place Creative’s signature service, he says, is Brand Focus, a workshop that helps businesses articulate their products and messages. “It’s a way of gaining consensus on who they are as a company, pulling in everyone who is involved.” The process includes a client’s full range of personnel, from top management to marketing, human resources, and sales staff, “to get a real cross-section of the people who are living the brand. This makes the marketing package stronger and uncovers opportunities to connect with customers.”

Clients range from widely known companies such as Fischer Skis and Anichini to Vermont brands and start-ups like Darn Tough, Hammerhead Sleds, and Vermont Smoke and Cure. Place Creative also has a niche with alternative energy and arts organizations such as Way to Go, CarShare Vermont, and Vermont Arts Council.

Self-starters and freethinkers have always figured prominently in Crafts’ life. He grew up in Niskayuna, N.Y., where his father was an anesthesiologist in private practice. With two older sisters, he says, “I learned quickly to hold my own.”

Crafts experienced entrepreneurialism — in agriculture and business — as a way of family life: His great-grandfather and great-great-grandfather owned a general store in Ashfield, Mass., and his grandfather, uncle, and aunt were dairy farmers in Shelburne, Mass. “Getting a flavor for both of those worlds at an early age was a big influence,” he says. “Their work ethic was inspiring.”

As a child, he liked drawing and kept a sketchbook handy. His mother, a homemaker and nurse, encouraged him to follow his passions. Later, he worked for the school newspaper reviewing albums and illustrating.

During school breaks, Crafts worked for his father’s billing office, and one summer he negotiated payment plans. “This helped me gain people skills at a young age,” he says. “I learned how to reach consensus, and that it’s easier to work in the spirit of cooperation with people.”

He loved to downhill and cross-country ski and made frequent trips to Vermont, which led him to select St. Michael’s College. He raced on the college’s Nordic ski team while pursuing an “exploratory” major, for students undecided on a career focus. He knew he wanted to do something with art and communications, but he had trouble defining what that should be. On his mother’s suggestion, he spoke with his high school art teacher, who steered him toward advertising.

After his first year, Crafts transferred to Syracuse University to study communications design, where he learned to solve communications problems by “connecting with an audience in unique and original ways,” he says. At SU he ran track and cross-country and started a Nordic ski team.

Sara WursthornSince 2002, Place Creative has resided in the former Hood milk-processing factory at 187 South Winooski Ave. Sara Wursthorn is a designer.

During sophomore year he met Piatek, a Liberty, N.Y., native. He was three years her senior but in the same class year, same dormitory, and same major.

They dated and, upon graduating in 1996, went to New York City. Crafts worked for Revlon while Piatek joined Interbrand Schechter, a worldwide branding consultancy. She loved her job and lifestyle, but he was unsatisfied.

“I always found myself driving north on the weekends,” Crafts said. He went to the Adirondacks and Vermont to ski. “I wanted to stay where I was going.”

In 1997 he moved to Vermont without a job. First he freelanced with marketing firms in New York City, then joined Griffin Design Studio in Burlington developing corporate identities for UnPetroleum lip balm — then owned by Autumn Harp — and Firehouse Art Gallery. Griffin was a small shop, and provided Crafts an opportunity to see how such a business is run.

When Griffin left Vermont in 1999, Crafts went to work for Brick House Creative Co., a firm owned by Speidel.

A native of the Philadelphia area, Speidel had studied graphic design and illustration at Tyler School of Art, part of Temple University.

He landed a job with Anderson Trout, a Philadelphia ad agency. While he was there, he reconnected with Karen McNulty, a high school orchestra colleague. “The day we got married, we left Philadelphia and, after a long honeymoon — we ran out of money — we ended up in Boston,” he says with a laugh.

His first job there was with the Metropolitan Area Planning Council — “the ones who originally came up with the Big Dig concept,” he says.

After two years, the Reagan era EPA funding cuts led to job cuts, and Speidel went to work for the Media Center in Boston for three years.

When Melissa Montgomery, a co-worker, moved to Burlington and persuaded him to come north and start an agency with her, he jumped at the chance. They started Brick House in 1984, and when she eventually moved on with her husband, Speidel bought her out of the partnership.

Speidel designed product graphics and ads for Rossignol, Nordica, Anichini, and Smith Bell & Thompson, says Crafts, “and I really wanted to work there with him. Being able to work on skis was a dream come true for me. I had no idea that David and I would one day become business partners.”

Just as Crafts was coming on board, Speidel sold Brick House to Lisaius Marketing. Speidel continued to work for Lisaius, then left to join JDK Design.

Piatek, meanwhile, continued working in New York. She joined the Walker Group as director of graphic design, and traveled worldwide to meet with clients. She and Crafts maintained a long-distance romance. “I knew we would get married and end up working together and living someplace fun like Burlington,” she says. “I planned my trips so I would be back in Vermont on Friday to be with Steve.” Long days and extensive travel took its toll, and in 2001, Piatek gave up her job in the city, moved to Vermont, and joined Kelliher Samets Volk as senior art director.

Jeff FazekasPlace Creative handpicks freelancers for individual jobs rather than hiring employees and letting them go when projects are completed. Jeff Fazekas is an intern from Champlain College.

That year, Crafts left Lisaius to strike out on his own. Piatek and Speidel soon joined him. Crafts and Piatek married that fall. Their daughter, Samantha, is 3 years old.

Although the firm’s full name is Place Creative Co., the partners call it simply “Place.” “We wanted a one-word name,” says Piatek. “Steve suggested ‘Place,’ because it describes what we do. We help companies define where they belong and find their place in the market. When we incorporated we added ‘Creative Company.’”

They opened a small studio on Cherry Street. In 2002 they moved to the former Hood milk-processing factory in Burlington. They refurbished their space, maintaining an industrial feel with brick walls, knotty wood floors, salvaged doors and windows, and shed roofing rigged into wall screens.

The reclaimed, downtown industrial setting aligns with the company’s mission, Crafts says, in that it emphasizes the company’s commitment to keeping businesses thriving in Vermont. “We help Vermont brands get to the next level. Emerging and established brands don’t have to go out of state for design and advertising.”

Crafts lives near the studio and enjoys his short trek to work. “I run, bike, and ski home from work. The bike trail is my commute,” Crafts says. “Just by living in town I’ve gotten much healthier.”

Each partner brings individual talents and skills to the business. “I’m mostly the brand strategist here,” says Crafts, noting his continued fascination with using art to solve business problems. “Dave is our financial guy.” He manages the funds, develops client proposals, and keeps projects on budget.

Piatek is the “big idea” person, Crafts continues. “She’s worked with some of the biggest brands on the planet, from Walt Disney to Seagram’s.” A fourth employee, Sara Wursthorn, is a designer.

The firm has stayed small “for quality’s sake,” says Crafts. “We wanted to cut through the big agency red tape and ‘whispering down the line,’ where the CEO talks to the art director who talks to the designer … and the client works with an account director and junior designer.” By contrast, Place Creative’s partners work directly with clients “up front, so information isn’t lost. That makes for a better product.”

Staying small facilitates a full workload, says Crafts. “A boutique shop like ours can be very nimble, much more so than a large agency. The fun of being a small shop is that we’re all big idea people and all detail people, too.” Place handpicks freelancers for individual jobs when needed. Similarly, clients are directed toward cost-effective marketing. “In this economy, we’re not encouraging companies to spend frivolously on ads that aren’t focused on results.”

Crafts’ calculated approach to marketing attracts clients to Place Creative. “I’ve always found Steve to be very cost-effective because his work addresses long-term needs,” says longtime client Paul Ralston, the owner of Vermont Coffee Company and former president of Autumn Harp. “Steve has a good sense of what’s meaningful to people and can organize it into something that works for branding. Few designers have that strategic outlook on design.”

Place Creative’s portfolio is growing steadily despite the slow economy. “We’ve done really well. We currently have six potential clients talking about doing more marketing and branding work,” says Speidel. “It seems like a smart thing to up the ante during a recession. If you can have a strong brand during a recession, you will really stand out.”

Although Crafts still plays guitar in the privacy of his home, he finds his true creative outlet at work, especially in branding for nonprofits and arts organizations. “It’s fun to see how the arts bring people, community, and businesses together.” •