The Power of One

Still solo after all these years

by Keith Morrill

jamie_leopoldJamie Leopold, the owner of Able Advertising in Burlington, says he’s the longest-running one-man band of the Burlington advertising world, if not in all of Vermont. He’s pictured with Sailor, his Portuguese water dog.

Jamie Leopold is comfortable playing the role of captain, of coordinating crews whether they be on the deck of a ship or onboard a job. As a sailor and sailing enthusiast, he’s perhaps best known as the founder of the Regatta for Lake Champlain, the largest sailing event in Vermont. As a businessman and the brain behind Able Advertising, he’s spent the last 20 years helping Vermont businesses navigate the choppy waters of advertising.

Leopold says that he was probably conceived on a sailboat, and it’s hard to tell whether this is truth or just his wry sense of humor at work. What’s certain is that some of his earliest memories of growing up in Buffalo, N.Y., are of sailing on Lake Erie with his father and older brother.

When his family moved to Vermont in 1965 so his father, Jonathan, could take up the post of Vermont’s first commissioner of mental health, he suffered a bit of culture shock. He had traded urbanity for life on a Williston farm just in time to start his freshman year at Champlain Valley Union High School. It took some time to adjust to a life of beef cattle and Morgan horses, but fortunately a constant remained: sailing. As an able-bodied sailor, Leopold was often invited to join local crews for a day on the lake.

The son and grandson of doctors, it had seemed natural that he would follow suit, yet somehow he managed to complete his entire undergraduate degree in political science with only one science course — in geology. That’s why, the year after graduation from The University of Vermont in 1974, he began taking premed courses at UVM. At the time, some of his friends were running The Cynic, and they roped him into selling ads for the student paper.

“After a year of doing that,” says Leopold, “I was having more fun and doing better in the advertising business than I was in the premed business.”

He discontinued his premed studies and sold ads for a few weekly newspapers before deciding in ’77 to move to Boston and find work at an ad agency. He didn’t land an agency position, but an agency interview resulted in a job with one of its clients, Round Top Mountain in Killington.

After a season doing ads and public relations for Round Top, he spent the next few years traveling between Vermont, Boston, and New York City, working a variety of jobs, all connected to sailing or advertising — serving as branch manager for the Offshore Sailing School in New York City, a gig at the Boston Sailing Center, nearly two years as an account executive for the Boston ad agency Clarke Aronson Goward, work as advertising and sales manager for the Colonnade Hotel, and finally back to New York City to serve as director of marketing for a large food-processing company.

The last position, Leopold says, was a bad career move, and he was discontent. He spent a lot of time flying to Vermont regularly on People Express from Newark. In September of ’83, having returned to New York one Monday morning, he got off the plane, looked around, and asked, “What the hell am I doing?” The next day he gave his two weeks’ notice and moved back to Vermont with the intent of starting a sailing school.

He might have done that if not for a serious car accident a week after Thanksgiving, when he had been visiting his mother in Woodstock. He suffered a broken jaw, broken vertebrae, a dislocated hip, and a badly injured right knee. He spent the next two months in the hospital and the next year in recovery, trying to defy his doctor’s prediction that he would never walk normally again, and draining his savings to cover medical bills and living expenses.

Sailing was certainly not in his cards for the immediate future. The summer of 1984, Leopold moved in with his brother in Burlington and landed a job at Atkins Advertising.

After a few months, he knew he had to strike out on his own. Serendipity came to his aid when, about 10 days after he had left, one of the Atkins clients called him at home. “They said that I was the reason they had stayed with the agency and that they were going to leave, and if I wanted the business I could have it. And thus Able Advertising was launched.”

Now 30 years later, Leopold says he’s the longest-running one-man band of the Burlington advertising world, if not in all of Vermont. He admits doing so has probably been a limiting factor in his earning potential.

Although he is and has always been the only employee at Able Advertising, he still provides a full range of services to his clients, whether they’re looking to create a logo, write a catchy jingle, or produce ads for any media. He accomplishes this by using a fleet of talented freelancers and businesses. This gives him greater agility to meet a client’s need, he says. With a large stable of creative types to draw from, he can ensure that he picks a graphic artist or a copywriter whose skills and style are best suited for a certain project.  

Shadow Productions in Burlington is one of Leopold’s regular go-to’s, and for the past 30 years, has produced numerous radio and TV ads, jingles, websites, and more for Leopold’s clients. Copywriter and executive producer Matt Dugan of Shadow Productions explains that the longevity of that relationship is something rare in the advertising industry, which is often typified by quick partnerships.

“In my view, the best advertising plans — at least on the local level — come about as a result of really knowing your client, and giving your client the chance to know you,” explains Dugan. “This can only happen over time, with each of you seeing the other with your morning faces, figuring out solutions in tough times, hammering out compromises that work for everybody — all that really un-glamorous but valuable stuff.  Jamie’s relationships with his clients parallel his relationship with us. He’s worked with these folks for many years.”

Dugan adds, “I can’t emphasize how uncommon that is in this business.”

This versatility has allowed Leopold to serve a wide range of clientele over a long period, such as Lacey’s The Carpet Master, Lippa’s Jewelers, the commercial real estate firm Donahue & Associates, and Green Life (a Burlington store). Waitsfield and Champlain Valley Telecom has been a client for over 12 years. Kurt Gruendling, senior vice president at the company, speaks of how easy it is to work with Leopold.

“He certainly knows the media landscape in, certainly, Vermont and New England,” says Gruendling. “It’s been a great relationship for us and it makes my life easier in terms of handling some of the advertising placements for us.”

In all of his years in advertising, Leopold has hardly become a landlubber. With the number of boats he owns — nine, from kayaks to sailboats — he’s probably an honorary admiral in some circles. Over the years in Burlington, he’s kept his hand in the sailing community. He was involved in the MS Regatta from 1985, the year he started Able Advertising, until the event ceased in 1997. By way of coincidence, this was the same year, at the age of 46, that he married Candis Chase.

The two had met in 1990 at a business function and immediately bonded over a love of Morgan horses — Leopold’s parents had owned at least a dozen on their Williston farm. It wasn’t until several years later that the two became romantically involved.

In the winter of 2003, Leopold came up with the idea of a benefit for Lake Champlain, and with the help of his wife, put together a plan that gave rise to the Regatta for Lake Champlain, which celebrated its 12th year last summer and has grown, regularly registering 40 to 50 boats for the event. In all, the regatta has raised roughly $125,000, which has been donated to organizations promoting the health, well-being, sustainable use, and stewardship of Lake Champlain — for example, the Lake Champlain Committee, ECHO, the Lake Champlain Community Sailing Center, the Lake Champlain Land Trust, and the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum.

Listening to Leopold talk about the event, it’s clear how much it means to him. Part of it, he says, is pride and satisfaction that comes from being able to create an event that brings together the Vermont community for a single cause. The other part has to do with perpetuating the pastime that has stayed with him.

“I have sailed in races and regattas and organized sailing events since I was 4 years old,” he says. “For me to give that back to another generation of sailors is wonderful. The regatta has become a big part of who I am as an individual.” •