Indie Influence: Partners + Napier puts Rochester on the map through partnerships and challenger mentality

Partners + Napier

Welcome to Indie Influence, a weekly series that spotlights the work, perspectives and inspirations behind independent agencies across the country. This week we're featuring Partners + Napier, an agency from Rochester, NY, owned by Project Worldwide, an independent network in service of creativity.

“Where we live is who we are.” – Sharon Napier

That statement could be said about plenty of people in a number of places, but for Partners + Napier, Rochester, New York is the place that makes the agency what it is. And in the agency’s name is the other reason for its continually growing success over the last 14 years: Partners.

Partners + Napier grew out of an agency holding company called Wolf Group Integrated Communications. When founder and chief executive officer Sharon Napier decided that Wolf Group wasn’t doing well for their Rochester office in 2004, she decided to buy out Wolf and create her own independent agency with 40 employees who came with her, whom she calls the 'Brave 40'. Napier and her founding partners cashed in savings, used houses as collateral and generally decided that they were going to make a go and be successful, even if it meant leveraging everything they had.

“We were reminded of our fierce independence,” said Napier, who added that those Brave 40 had something to prove. And prove they have, as the agency has grown to 125 people, with offices in Rochester, New York City and San Francisco, and high-profile clients ranging from tech and finance to travel and media, plus their main focus categories – food and drink, and health and wellness. Clients include Rochester-based giants like Bausch & Lomb, Xerox and Excellus BlueCross BlueShield along with regional clients like Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield and Friendship Dairies.

P+N also boasts international clients like BMW Financial Services, Delta Vacations and its biggest client, Constellation Brands.

Rochester based, not Rochester bound

Sharon Napier started Partners + Napier in Rochester as a regional agency with plans to make it national and global. The Buffalo native chose Rochester because, like Napier, the “city had something to prove.” Napier noted that Rochester became a boom town for the Industrial Revolution in the 1830s after the opening of the Erie Canal, with the city becoming a hotbed for the abolitionist movement with Frederick Douglass and women’s suffrage with Susan B. Anthony leading the charge. It later became known for its innovative companies, like Eastman Kodak, Bausch + Lomb and Xerox, before falling on hard times, like many Northeast industrial towns.

After decades of decline, Napier saw a new renaissance coming to the city on the Genesee River, and Partners + Napier took a chance on an old box warehouse with barrel ceilings in the High Falls neighborhood downtown. There were no other tenants at the time, and the neighborhood was a bit gritty. But that blue collar grit was something that got into the mentality of P+N and gave them a challenger mentality to succeed.

“We’re excited to be a part of it and help fuel it,” said Napier.

The shell of the building became a backdrop for creativity throughout. The three floors the agency occupies are filled with brick walls covered in artwork of all kinds, from inspirational murals to work from The Brick Awards, an internal award given to whomever comes up with the best ideas and campaigns in the building.

Sometimes it’s future award-winning work from the creative groups, other times it can be great ideas from anyone else, because often ideas come from brainstorms and interactions that involve more than just creatives.

“The agency is the creative department,” said Mike Baron, senior vice president, group creative director. “The best idea is always going to win.”

The ideas even bleed over into the men's room, where employees get to pin up work and inspiration, along with playing their own jukebox of tunes as a bathroom soundtrack.

That collaboration between groups within the building makes for a congenial atmosphere, one where, while there is a competitive nature, there is plenty of sharing to make it so that this agency on the opposite side of New York state has a welcoming cohesion.

Partners in business and across agencies

The Partners name first came about because of the original Brave 40, but it also represents the way the agency partners with its clients.

“We like to develop long, deep relationships,” said Napier, who added that quite a few clients on their roster end up being with them long term. Partnerships extend through the agency’s inclusion as part of Project Worldwide – an independent network of 13 agencies started in 2011 with offices around the globe. Unlike with holding groups, these are independent agencies who combine efforts when necessary to grab and create better work.

“We all have the same DNA…it’s an anti-holding company,” said Napier. “We’re about collaboration, not competition. Culturally, it’s a good fit of 13 agencies. We have a deep bench we can pull from.”

Added executive creative director Pete VonDerLinn: “It’s been a pleasant surprise. It’s built on collaboration – fun collaborations that have driven the most interesting work. We get to play in a network, with creative talents of all types, while remaining independent.”

‘Effectivity’

Partners + Napier has coined its own term for how it works – ‘effectivity.’ The term combines effectiveness and creativity, and it speaks to how the agency is able to have an effect through its creative process.

“You have to do what’s right for the brand and consumer…it always has to drive to an action…think about the consumer journey. Consumers need help making purchase decisions,” said VonDerLinn, who added that the agency has become expert with shopper brands over the years, which is why their brands are winning on the store shelves – what they call the ‘last nine inches’ between consumer and purchase.

“We’ve embraced tactics for brands and retailers. Effectivity is helping us. Don’t forget about the last nine inches at the supermarket,” he said.

The collaborations and ‘effectivity’ have landed the agency plenty of awards, from Effies to Obies, but it has also led them to have a dedicated in-house design agency to deal with their biggest client – Constellation Brands. The Fortune 500 company is an international producer and marketer of beer, wine and spirits, with such prominent brands as Mondavi and Ravenswood wines, Corona beer and Svedka vodka. Internally, P+N’s Vine Creative Studios handles the business, and employs over 40 people to do everything from concepting and PR to event planning and lots of design, covering some 50 projects per week.

Community steers the global ship

While Partners + Napier is a globally-recognized agency with clients and partners around the world, the scrappy indie from Rochester is still evident, and it embraces the community it calls home.

The company works with Fashion Week Rochester, and even used homeless youth in the city as models to call attention to the problems in the city. On the same page, P+N also worked with the Rochester City School District – the fifth poorest in the US – to bring awareness to chronic absence and help keep kids in school.

Ultimately, having great partners is a big part of why this small city agency continues to thrive.

“Our ability to partner and collaborate – bringing the best teams together is our strength – the power of the way we work. We have something to prove. It’s easy in a big city to hop to someplace else. It’s very easy not to be all in. But everyone here has that ‘something to prove’ attitude,” concluded Napier.

Indie Influence is supported by Choozle, an independent digital advertising platform.

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Kyle O'Brien

I am a reporter for The Drum covering a wide array of topics but always trying to tell the best stories possible. I am a former west coaster from California and Portland, Oregon, now living in Pennsylvania — with time spent in NYC each week.

I also play saxophone professionally.

All by Kyle