A creative collaboration that goes back 20 years continues to take Richmond ad firm Elevation to new heights.
The West Main Street firm’s dual creative directors and principals, Aaron Dotson and Frank Gilliam, have led Elevation from the two-man shop they founded in 2001 to the nearly 30-person agency that today produces work for such clients as Virginia Green Lawn Care, Duke’s Mayonnaise, Capital One and Virginia 529.
Local clients include LaDiff, The Valentine Museum and Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden, as well as Fortune 500 WestRock and Ukrop’s Homestyle Foods.
Dotson and Gilliam first started working together at local marketing firm Franklin Street. In starting their own company, they took their name from their stated mission: “To elevate the brands of our clients through creative and strategic excellence.”
That mission has resulted in national recognition, in the form of a silver ADDY Award in 2012 for a Jack Russell terrier-starring TV spot for Virginia Green. The firm was also part of the Venture Richmond branding campaign that resulted in the RVA logo and those ubiquitous bumper stickers.
One year shy of Elevation’s 15th anniversary, Dotson and Gilliam sat down with Richmond BizSense to discuss their creative process, their mutual love for Richmond and their self-described “blue-collar” approach.
Below is an edited transcript.
Richmond BizSense: How was it that you became collaborators? What brought you together to want to create Elevation?
Gilliam: We’re on the same wavelength. We just were paired together as a team on a project, and we started to understand that our discussions actually resulted in something cool. The creative process is people sitting down and talking about something, having conversations that lead to a bigger idea. We hit it off in that way.
Dotson: We care about the same things from a work standpoint. I think that’s what matters at the end of the day.
RBS: Tell us about your creative process. How do you and your staff get in the right mindset to come up with a campaign?
Gilliam: The initial immersion is the group process, and our account teams do a lot of research and really try to help bring the entire team up to speed on what the task is and more about the industry. From there, we tend to break off into smaller groups.
The creative process is a little bit of a personal process. Everybody has that assumption: ‘I came up with this great idea in the shower.’ Well, that’s true sometimes, because when you turn your mind off about the specific task and you’re not so focused on ‘I’ve got to figure this out right this second,’ something just in everyday life will pop up and go, ‘Oh, there’s the idea right there.’ Those things have to happen in the natural course of life.
RBS: You’ve branched out beyond Richmond to work for national and international clients. Is there not enough business in Richmond to go around? Does the number of local ad shops make the market too competitive?
Dotson: We’ve never had the feeling like it’s too competitive here in town. For us, it’s just been natural growth: When we do great work for smaller and medium-sized companies, a couple large companies start to take notice.
The fact is there is a smaller pool of really large companies in Richmond. That has changed over the years. So, more of those companies tend to be out of state. Or it’ll be that we have a lot of Richmond companies that we started with that have grown too, so as they have become larger and more national and international in scope, we’ve been able to grow with them.
RBS: Do you have a favorite campaign you’ve created?
Gilliam: The Virginia Green certainly gets a lot of attention around here. Everybody loves the dog, and we do, too. It’s been a really fun campaign, and just a great example of a category that I don’t think had a lot of advertising focus or impact before, and we turned it around and did something, we think, pretty cool with it and got some attention for our client, and hopefully have fed their success. I think that’s an important part of the equation.
Dotson: In a similar way we’re really proud of – and a piece people pay attention to – is the Tuition Monster work we do for Virginia 529. That’s a case of having a client that is very smart and actually got it, because that was a challenging idea when we first pitched it: This mascot that’s an anti-mascot, that kind of everybody hates, that reminds you of the anxiety that you have about how are you going to afford college, and then show Virginia 529 as the solution. It was risky, and they embraced it.
We’re four years into that campaign now, and it grows and it changes. As a matter of fact, we’re shooting a new round of Tuition Monster campaign work starting next week.
RBS: Do you have a personal hero? Someone who inspires you?
Dotson: I look to everyone for inspiration. And that’s part of the reason why, here in our office during the day, sometimes I just walk up front and drop by people’s desks. Everybody thinks I’m just chatting, but actually I’m thinking about something. Sometimes I just need to hear the people and talk to people and bounce stuff off.