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Former journalists write a success story

Lauren Dixon and Michael Schwabl:
Former journalists write a success story

Lauren Dixon began Dixon Schwabl Advertising Inc. in her son’s bedroom, which was lined with duck wallpaper.
Just 48 hours after its incorporation, the agency, then known as Lauren Dixon Advertising Inc., had grabbed three clients: Hoselton Enterprises, the Metro Real Estate Organization and Roberts Wesleyan College.
Thirteen years later, Dixon Schwabl has 78 clients.
As president, Dixon leads the accounts group, interacting with clients regularly. Her husband, Michael Schwabl, oversees the creative department as vice president/creative director.
The agency more than doubled its business in 1999, with billings escalating to $49 million from $22 million.
Next March, Dixon Schwabl plans to move out of its current location on Pittsford-Victor Road in Perinton to a larger building nearby. Roughly seven people will be added to its staff of 32 by the end of the year.
“We expect to see a growth rate of 26 percent in billings for 2000 over 1999,” Dixon says.
Despite her success, Dixon never planned to own a business. She graduated from Kent State University in 1976 with a bachelor’s degree in telecommunications.
During college she displayed determination, completing a four-year program in three years. That same grit would help her run the agency.
Dixon’s first job, as a reporter at WOKR-TV 13, the local ABC affiliate, gave her an opportunity to dabble in investigative reporting in addition to general assignments.
“Everyone still talks about the great car repair rip-off,” she says. “I went undercover for four months, wore a wig and a wireless microphone. It was a neat experience.”
The story about auto dealerships resulted in dealers canceling $100,000 worth of advertising with the station.
Dixon’s work on a documentary on the Monroe County Special Olympics won the station awards from United Press International and the Associated Press.
Her five-year stint at WOKR included being the 11 p.m. news anchor and working on “PM Magazine,” a popular news magazine show.
“It was the thing to do then. It was a high-profile job. I traveled all over the world,” she says.
When Dixon’s former manager, who had moved to competitor WHEC-TV 10, invited her to join the sales team, she took up the challenge.
“I never wanted to be in sales, but when I began doing it, I began to love it,” she says.
She figured the next logical step was to start an advertising agency.
“I wanted to combine what I was doing before and then incorporate that with what I love doing, which was meeting the client,” Dixon says.
Schwabl, her future husband and partner, graduated from the SUNY at Buffalo in 1982 with a bachelor’s degree in communications and public relations. He began his career by working for Easter Seal Society as a special events coordinator.
“I did everything from working with corporate sponsors to shuffling beer around,” he says.
The society needed a photographer for press releases, prompting Schwabl to return to school for photography lessons.
His next job, at the Metro Community News in Buffalo, taught him to churn out feature stories as well as snap pictures for the paper. Schwabl stayed in community journalism for two years.
The Buffalo Business Journal and the Rochester Business Journal beckoned. Schwabl traveled between the two cities on photo assignments.
In late 1986, both papers were bought by American City Business Journals Inc., leaving the young photojournalist unemployed.
Schwabl decided to try his hand at freelance photography. His firm was named Focal Point Photography.
Things were not looking bright until he replied to a classified ad placed by a Rochester-based advertising agency needing creative help-Dixon’s agency.
In 1989, after a quick courtship, Schwabl married his boss, and Lauren Dixon Advertising was renamed Dixon Schwabl Advertising.
Unlike most advertising agencies, Dixon Schwabl does not believe in signing a contract, unless the client insists. The relationship continues on a project-by-project basis.
“We don’t date. We get married to our clients,” Schwabl says.
The agency’s first five clients continue to use its services.
The growth of Dixon Schwabl’s clients has helped the firm increase its billings. Citizens Communications Co., which last month agreed to acquire Frontier Telephone of Rochester Inc. and other local-telephone companies from Global Crossing Ltd., represents an important part of its business.
“They are a can-do type of group that fits with the footprint of our company. They consider themselves as a partner,” says Gene Booher, marketing communications manager at Citizens Communications.
Wilson Farms Neighborhood Food Stores is another client that found success working with Dixon Schwabl. The agency created a campaign to promote Wilson Farms Gourmet Coffee that resulted in sales shooting from 2.25 million cups to more than 12 million cups over a five-year period.
The phrase “We can make it happen,” commonly used by Dixon Schwabl employees, now easily rolls off clients’ tongues as well.
The company does not perceive other local agencies as competition, though it runs into Buck & Pulleyn Inc., Jay Advertising Inc., Eric Mower and Associates Inc. and others at business pitches.
“Our growth has been very deliberate and strategic. We are invited to a lot of pitches, but we don’t go to all of them,” Dixon says. “I don’t want to be one of 10 agencies. I want to be one of one or one of two.”
The agency would rather compete with a smaller group than be part of a large number of firms vying for an account.
At the end of each year, Dixon Schwabl employees meet and discuss potential clients for whom the agency would be a good fit.
In the advertising industry, the agency is known for its fast turnaround and housing some of the most talented women in the profession.
Account supervisors and managers are known to have long-term relationships with their clients that involve frequent contacts.
If a relationships sours, however, the firm is not afraid to drop a client, Dixon says. Over the past two years, the agency bid farewell to two clients.
Dixon Schwabl continually analyzes its abilities to perform better. It recognizes the need to acknowledge the influx of technology.
“We are constantly scanning ourselves under the microscope,” Dixon says.
Four years ago, the agency decided to use a diagnostic tool called Companies Are People Too, developed by a marketing-consulting firm based in Columbus, Ohio.
“They were a very dynamic company at that time, known for delivering quickly. They were referred to as the drive-through agency,” says Sandy Fekete, president of Fekete + Co., which created the diagnostic program.
Companies Are People Too treats companies as individuals with personalities. Dixon-Schwabl went through a personality change as a result of using the tool.
“Once you identify the personality, it is so easy to make decisions,” says Dixon. “We were so focused on the deadline. We are still very deadline-focused, but there is a far better balance than there was at one time.”
The agency’s personality is named Jaz. Both Dixon and Schwabl feel that Jaz has helped the company make several business decisions, and also adds the fun element in the work atmosphere.
Each month the Jaz team organizes an event, aptly called a Jaz event. The firm has taken trips to different cities, gone horseback riding and tried its hand at splatball.
The Companies Are People Too program also suggested people at the agency wear different hats denoting their responsibilities to help understand each other’s jobs.
“The experience has shown us that everyone has an equal say,” Dixon says.
Dixon Schwabl adopts a hands-off approach with its employees. The entire team meets every morning to exchange ideas and get updates on various projects.
“If one does not love autonomy, then they would hate it here,” Dixon says.
Staffers make use of the flexible work hours. It is not uncommon for the art director to work nights and take a day off during the week to play golf.
“We give them a lot of freedom to do their own thing. We would rather have someone take the day off and be creative,” Schwabl adds.
Around the office, Dixon is known for doing fun, spontaneous things. She has a squirt gun tucked away in the top drawer of her desk, and Dixon Schwabl staffers have been easy targets.
The wild and funky office decor, with art from different parts of the world, is her brainchild. Large ornate chairs in the reception area add to the picture.
Dixon is excited about designing the company’s new office space. Her plans include a spiral slide coming down from the second floor to the first.
“She is like a popcorn popper,” says Dede Colwell, account supervisor at Dixon Schwabl. “She has a strong, upbeat personality.”
Colleagues describe Schwabl as the sensitive, calming force at the agency. His desire for perfection and bringing a sense of reality helps the organization keep tabs on details.
“They maintain a good balance. They are a great example for other companies,” Fekete says.
Barbara Pierce, director of public relations at the agency, recalls Schwabl fixing a colleague’s chair that was set at an unsafe angle.
“Mike is personable above and beyond what you would expect. He has a good eye on our needs and is very interested in the person,” Pierce says.
A horror story that employees recount often involves the blizzard last March. The roof of the building had caved in, shutting down the office. Employees managed to rescue the company’s server and rented a small office space at CrossKeys Office Park.
“It is a great example of how this team pulls together,” Schwabl says.
The agency worked out of a makeshift office for nearly two months, and did not pitch for any business during that time.
“I felt like I had 13 years ago, going down supermarket aisles picking up the basics, like paper clips and stationery. We only had our servers,” recalls Dixon.
“All we did was pray and hope that we wouldn’t skip a beat with our current client base.”
Despite the near-disaster, Dixon Schwabl doubled its billings that year.
Most of its business has come via word of mouth.
“When we go into a pitch, we don’t talk about ourselves; we talk about them. (The clients) want to know what we can do for them,” Schwabl says.
He recalls when the agency met with Connecticut-based Citizens Communications, Dixon Schwabl invited an existing client to the presentation, to give the prospective client a firsthand account of the agency’s work.
“We told them, ‘You don’t know us, so you probably have some questions,’ and we got up and left the room,” Schwabl says. “The looks on their faces were funny. They had never seen anything like it.”
Though the agency has won a few Telly awards and some print awards, Dixon Schwabl does not believe in working toward winning them in large numbers. Instead, it prefers clocking more hours in charity efforts.
“I think many agencies get caught up in doing work for the industry as opposed to the client. What is important is whether the campaign achieved the sales goal,” Dixon says.
Last year, the firm logged 1,984 hours of pro bono work for 16 non-profit agencies.
Dixon has served on the boards of an array of area organization, including the Finger Lakes Community College Foundation and the Heart of Gold Foundation. She also is an advisory board member at Roberts Wesleyan College.
When not running the agency, the couple spend their time at home with their children, Courtney, 17, Jordan, 14, Connor, 10 and Madison, 6.
“We are focused on trying to have a normal family life,” Dixon says.
For example, the family always eats Friday dinner at home in Canandaigua. The Dixon Schwabl residence-equipped with water trampolines and other fun games-is open to all their children’s friends.
“We try to set up a place where they can have a blast,” Dixon says. “On Fridays, it’s like Woodstock. Sometimes there are 14 kids at a time.”
Her idea of a perfect day is spending several hours with a book and some coffee by Canandaigua Lake. An avid snow skier, Dixon also enjoys tooling about the lake on a Jet Ski.
Schwabl is a Buffalo Bills fan. He coaches his children’s soccer teams, and also enjoys skiing and bowling.
“Most advertising executives golf. I don’t golf, I bowl,” he says.
Industry observers note that Dixon and Schwabl complement each other.
“It is hard enough being married. Being married and working together is difficult,” Fekete says. “You don’t have to make big plans to grow; you have to have a favorable team.”
So far, Dixon Schwabl has grown rapidly each year. The husband-and-wife team is focusing on retaining its clients and maintaining a feverish pace.
“If it is a slow week, I feel guilty,” Dixon says.

8/4/00

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