Focus Locus

These partners see themselves as makers for their clients

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

henhouse0117Following his video muse, Johnny Mendez (left) founded Hen House Media in 2002. In 2007, he was joined by Bryan Agran. As co-owners of the South Burlington creative agency, they produce promotional and training videos and marketing materials. The chicken, Fedder LePeque, is CEO.

“The magic is in the nuance.” That’s Johnny Mendez, founder and co-owner with Bryan Agran of Hen House Media in South Burlington. He’s discussing their approach to every project.

“Never let substance be overshadowed by flash,” Agran chimes in. “A lot of people do really brilliant things, but they have no staying power. If you can’t understand these details, I don’t know how you can create good campaigns.”

Hen House Media is a creative agency whose work, the partners say, is defined by strategy, story, and creative. Clients include national and local companies, from BioTek, Keurig Green Mountain, and Johnson & Johnson to the state of Vermont and The University of Vermont Medical Center.

The agency operates from a 1,000-square-foot industrial space featuring a loft and a bay next door to Let’s Pretend Catering, which is co-owned by Mendez’s wife, Liane.

Creativity and coffee — not necessarily in that order — give the space its identity, and the partners play off one another with humor and gravitas as they describe what they do. Agran calls their quarters “a garage with tons of coffee.”

“Tons” might be an underassessment. Three cabinets are filled with what looks like every variety of coffee Keurig Green Mountain produces, and Agran claims this situation existed before Keurig became a client. Three brewers — for K-Cups, Lavazza, and a cold drink–maker — hold sway in the loft.

Kristen Mercure, corporate communications manager at Keurig, confirms Agran’s story. On a visit soon after she joined the company in 2009, she assumed the coffee had been brought in for setting up a video they were producing. “They said, ‘Oh, no! We drink this!’

Hen House has produced “PR sizzle reels” for Keurig, including a 3-D one that Mercure says was “the best presentation at our sales meeting that year. But it’s not just video. They’ll look and say, ‘I don’t think you need a video. Maybe you need something more graphic, a communication plan.’ And they do it whether you have a contract with them right now — a very Vermonty thing to do.”

“We’re makers for our clients,” says Mendez, explaining their approach. “We’ve been known primarily, because of the way the company was founded, for the video work we’ve done for our clients, but that has quickly evolved. As their needs changed, the type of work we’re doing for them has changed.”

“And that’s the thing,” Agran says. “I think the reason we continue doing this is there are no boilerplates. You’ve got to listen to your clients first and foremost.”

Clients listen back. Since 2008, whenever BioTek launches a new product, Hen House is called to create a video to introduce it. “They do a great job of making the video process fun,” says Tara Vanderploeg, marketing specialist at BioTek. “You can see they have a culture of that. And being able to work in respect with other people — that’s what BioTek stands for as well.”

Images of chickens pepper the funky space, which is overseen by a large mural-like photo of Mendez’s grandmother with her own flock, taken in her native Dominican Republic.

“I’m a first-generation American born in New York City,” says Mendez, whose father was a janitor in the city hospital system, and his mother, a leather seamstress in the garment industry.

Mendez majored in media studies — “in filmmaking, video production, documentary filmmaking, all the concentrations” — at the State University of New York at Buffalo. “I had gone to school originally for architecture and found it really wasn’t a fit for me,” he says. He credits a guidance counselor with introducing him to the theater program.

Playing a pig in a staged production of Animal Farm in downtown Buffalo, Mendez was approached by three grad students who were doing a thesis on film. “They said I could fit one of the roles they had, and I agreed.”

He was so intrigued by the process he found himself showing up even when he wasn’t on the call sheet. “They let me look through the camera viewfinder one day, and I was hooked. And that got me into film.”

One of his first jobs after graduation was at the Buffalo CBS television affiliate running camera, working in the newsroom, “pretty much a very technical job,” he says. When Liane, whom he had met in college, decided to study at New England Culinary Institute, Mendez says, he fell in love with Vermont.

Told to see the CBS affiliate in Burlington, he met with Marselis Parsons at WCAX, but there were no openings at the time, and Vermont is a small market. He worked a series of jobs: staffing banquets and weddings on weekends for NECI, and “for about a week,” he confesses, selling Kirby vacuum cleaners door-to-door.

“Fortunately for me, WWIN-TV came online in ’95 in the basement of the old Miller’s Landmark on Church Street.” Mendez worked there through its various incarnations, eventually becoming director of programming and promotions, until 2002, when the company was sold.

He found work with Resolution, which was starting a DVD duplication division. On the side, he launched Hen House Media as a part-time endeavor and was helping Liane found her catering business, which was first known as Market Fresh Catering before she bought Let’s Pretend from the late Barb Barden.

Says Mendez of his time at WWIN, “The people who came from that are still very much friends to this day.” Bryan Agran was one of those people.

Agran was born in Westchester County, New York, “and fled it,” he says. His father and grandfather ran a restaurant in New York City known as The President Restaurant, but New York was changing, “and they decided to get out of that in the early ’70s.”

When Agran was very young, his father went back to school and “kicked butt in a burgeoning new field — computers — and dominated it over the course of a summer. He was extremely smart — an artist, scientist, what I’d call a true Renaissance man.

He did a couple of stints in different sectors in programming, but ended up working for the city of Stamford, Connecticut, in their data-processing division and still had time for his art on the side. The man could chisel in stone, paint, build in wood, wire electrical circuits — my house was always filled with whimsical endeavors.”

His mother, originally a homemaker, returned to work and did “everything from working for a carnival supply company and, after a number of ambitious years, ran logistics for everything going on in the vice president’s office of a municipal bond insurance agency.”

While studying at The University of Vermont, he says, “I had a career track that would have set me on a path to launch a project in space. In high school, I had been selected to launch a project aboard the shuttle, but when I was in college studying that, the first shuttle explosion happened, and that sort of put me on a different path for a while.”

“I work with a rocket scientist!” quips Mendez, interrupting.

At UVM, realizing that Agran was disappointed, the head of the biology department suggested he also take classes in English and psychology, history and art. “I sort of laughed at him, and ended up finding out there was so much joy to be found in them,” he says.

Out of college, he did freelance copywriting for radio, and eventually found a job in the creative department at WPTZ, producing commercials, shooting, editing, scripting, meeting with clients — “I had the time of my life.”

Wooed by WWIN, Agran agreed to work as a consultant. After helping with some logistics, he was hired as the station’s marketing person.

Following the massive staff layoff, he did what he could to help his team land safely, then found work for Richard Branson at a Virgin-owned post-production facility, em@gine. There he interfaced with people at HBO and Nickelodeon doing post-production.

Engaged to a native Vermonter, Agran came to Vermont to weigh his options and found work with WFFF in Plattsburgh, New York. After three years, he connected with WCAX, where he helped set up its online service and produce “more featury” content, and help develop the company’s Web presence “to get the eternal staff buy-in and getting clients to sign on.”

Periodically, Mendez would call suggesting that he join Hen House Media (“Every other day!” Mendez quips). After three years at WCAX, he gave his notice and took the plunge in 2007.

Agran also returned to school for a master’s degree in small market communications, doing a distance-learning partnership with Vermont College and an advisor at St. Michael’s. He has taught at Champlain College for 16 years.

Balancing these endeavors with family is a priority for Agran, who’s divorced and raising two daughters, ages 11 and 13. “They are my hobby,” he says. “I was raised by a father Rube Goldberg–style, playing with a chemistry set, learning how the world works. From baking to art to photo exploration out in the woods, the intent is there with my kids, and I am able to help them retain their balance.”

“That idea of family and our children is at the center of our universe,” echoes Mendez, “and that’s important for our employees.” Employees number four full-timers and two part time, but a search is underway to add three to four more this year.

“The one thing is the constant evolution,” says Mendez, “being able to see where your shortcomings might be, to continuously grow and strengthen them; seeing where the marketplace is going. We’re looking for very specific people who are not complacent, who are seeking to turn over things to see how they work.” •