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After the 2001 ADDY awards ceremony in Indianapolis, a group of Young & Laramore staffers walked to their parking lot. Carrying 81 awards, more than all participating agencies combined could claim, they arrived to find the tires of their cars—and only their cars—deflated. Since Y&L had dominated the local show for sixteen years, coincidence seemed a deficient explanation. But vandalism, like jealousy, can be an unexpected form of flattery. In this case, it was a dramatic confirmation of Y&L’s role as a creative powerhouse, one that neatly corresponded with a conclusion the agency had made independently about its goal for the future. That year, Y&L focused all its energies on expanding an already growing presence in the national arena. Today, its national client base includes Stanley Steemer, Goodwill, Delta Faucet and Steak 'n Shake.

In a figurative sense, the awards night delinquency befits the rebellious sensibilities of Y&L’s founders. But unlike the parking lot thugs, the effusive intellectual, David Jemerson Young, and the reserved gentleman, Jeff Laramore, rabble rouse by refusing to perpetuate the status quo. The pair met on a tour of Chicago art galleries in 1979, finding like minds beneath seemingly opposite dispositions. Young began as a credit union teller until he seized creative control of the financial institution’s advertising and helped boost business by nearly 300%. In 1981, he joined Laramore, graduate of Indiana University’s Herron School of Art and by then an art director, at Indianapolis’s Pearson Group. Together, they established the creative reputation necessary for Young to set up shop in a house in the artists’ community, Broad Ripple, where Laramore would join him in 1983 to found Y&L.

“At the time,” says Carolyn Hadlock, principal/creative director, “these guys were just really breaking out. They were known as mavericks. They didn’t socialize outside, and no one really knew what went on in that house.” Hadlock joined the company as an art director in 1991, when Y&L had settled into its current Massachusetts Avenue office overlooking Section 8 low income housing, continuing to build its portfolio for such clients as Red Gold Tomatoes, Galyans Sports & Outdoor, The Indianapolis Star, Weaver Popcorn, Pray the News, and construction company Shiel Sexton. The strip has since become home to cafés and fashion boutiques—one called Splurge, putting a poetic cap on the gentrification. For the first two years, the founders worked from separate offices, but they lost their mostly nonverbal communication mode—a grunt, a nod and reams of sketches where the spoken word might otherwise take up space. “I knew all was right with the world when they moved into one office,” says Hadlock.

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With 2004 capitalized billings of $67.5 million, Y&L’s staff has grown from 18 to 65, including a 12-person creative department. The creatively-owned agency’s ambition hasn’t led to the culture eradication of a buyout. The partners turn down acquisition overtures at a rapid clip. “I’m going to measure the success of the agency,” says VP/creative director Charlie Hopper, who rejoined Y&L, his first copywriting stomping ground, in 1999 after exploratory runs with two larger Midwestern agencies, “when someone calls me up and I don’t have to spell our name, ‘Laramore, L-a-r-a-m-o-r-e.’” Y&L’s confident outpouring of sophisticated creative presages a swift, industry-wide graduation from spelling lessons like these.

As the company matured, Young and Laramore created a division called 2nd Globe, producing public art and sculpture for both Y&L’s and its own clients, such as The Indiana State Museum and The Glick Foundation. After 2nd Globe became its own entity, the founders bestowed the agency’s creative direction to Hadlock and Hopper, who continually draw on lessons learned from Young and Laramore, their mentors. “It’s as if David Ogilvy or Bill Bernbach were to wander in from time to time,” says Hopper, “remarking on the creative product of their agencies. That’s what David [Young] does every day in our heads.”

Young—who references James Joyce, Vermeer and epistemology in one breath—is that rare breed of creative leader who managed to marry a vigorous intellectual life with business. Every ad Y&L produces is built on his belief that marketing is applied philosophy. “As a student,” says Young, who earned a philosophy degree from Indiana University, “I learned that the opinions I’d grown up with were sloppy opinions, and philosophy swept that away. In advertising, I also couldn’t start with an opinion and work in that direction. I have to wipe away everything that exists and instead build up from zero, gathering facts and building arguments from them.”

Y&L calls this tabula rasa process the unlearning curve. Preconceptions expunged, Y&L builds up from the results of rigorous research. It’s little wonder that some new business prospects, confronted with the idea of disengaging from the product they live and breathe, find the unlearning curve initially discomfiting. Add to that the agency’s proclivity for grand entrances: “We travel in a ground-hugging fog of agency people,” says Hopper, a practice that garners ribbing from the local ad community and also ensures that both account people and creatives hear the client’s needs firsthand. As marketing directors wait to hear this cavalry of creatives rattle off its category expertise, Y&L instead makes an unapologetic and Socratic declaration that it aims for “intentional ignorance.” To fill the blinking silence, the team explains that the process of replacing old category rules—which hang on only as a taken-for-granted belief system does—with the right message is the difference between reaching and alienating the consumer.

It’s as if David Ogilvy or Bill Bernbach were to wander in from time to time. That’s what David [Young] does every day in our heads.” —Charlie Hopper

The goal is to sit on the outside ring of a circle next to the client. The consumer sits pretty in the center, waiting to be understood. Y&L will take sartorial measures to remind CEOs that they likely know their product better than they do the people who use it, once printing T-shirts for a meeting with the ethnic hair care line, Elasta QP. “The last time I looked,” read the shirt, “I wasn’t an African American woman, aged 18 to 44.” The CFO arrived at a subsequent meeting in the shirt, conducting business with the graphic reminder emblazoned across his chest. As the unlearning curve slides toward its peak, conventions—such as the legacy of the red wine stain in ads for carpet cleaning—get debunked. “The whole category of professional carpet cleaning was built on stain-based advertising,” says Hadlock. “I think I spilled red wine on my carpet once—maybe in 1999?—but I haven’t since.”

For Stanley Steemer, Y&L presented carpet cleaning as a tool for maintaining not merely stains, but the inevitable results of daily life. In the print campaign, not one monstrous child is shown to clomp up stairs in mud-caked boots. One execution presents the possibility of a similar, markedly less ghastly, outcome—in the image of a child in the park. The shot centers on the child’s bare feet, dappled with dirt and splinters of wood chips. “Living brings it in,” reads the copy, “We take it out.”

Clients seeking a breezy one-off would do better to send RFPs elsewhere. In 2003, Delta Faucet charged Y&L with helping its high end line, Delta Select, command the price points of European and other high end hardware. In showroom visits, Y&L discovered that salespeople saw themselves not as vendors but as interior designers, tastemakers who might easily have been fashion stylists had life taken a different turn. Delta expected a new name; the agency gave them the Greek goddess, Brizo, an ancient enchantress who visited mariners in their dreams, answering their questions while they slept.

“Brizo,” whose legend provides a story to spin from the sales floor, replaced “Delta Select” as the brand name. Appealing to the fashionista trapped in the vendor’s body, the print campaign introduces the brand in the sheen of haute couture. In one execution that graced the pages of W, Elle, Elle Décor and Vogue, as well as trade publications, a model wears an elegant dress whose pattern features the shape of Brizo’s “Floriano” faucet, interlocking like Yves St. Laurent or Louis Vuitton logos in “a graphic shorthand that telegraphs fashion without having to say you’re fashion,” says Hadlock. Those who would convince consumer and client alike that haute couture culture is the most natural home for a piece of hardware demonstrate a pioneering inclination to category-bust.

That Y&L has maintained the same voice for the fourteen years it’s had the Steak n Shake account, surviving four management shifts, demonstrates the flip side—an almost militaristic sense of creative restraint. Viewed from a different angle, it’s just an extension of the discipline with which the agency maintains objectivity. “There are times when we say we’d love to do a new campaign,” says Young, “because it would be fun. But in the end it would be wrong for the brand.”

There are times when we say we’d love to do a new campaign, because it would be fun. But in the end it would be wrong for the brand.” — David Young

When in 1990, a new Steak n Shake management regime approached Y&L, the carhop charm of the 1934 restaurant had surrendered to rhododendrons and brown wall-to-wall carpeting. A potentially more damaging problem was that while the restaurant’s identity hinged on steakburgers and milkshakes, the health conscious world seemed hungry for lentil patties. “Jeff and I weren’t willing to assume that red meat was on its way out,” says Young. “We did some research that indicated people were talking one way about their eating habits and eating in another way.” Essentially, Y&L gave its client permission to stay the steady course. As the restaurant brought back its original swivel-stool, chrome-counter aesthetic, Y&L let Steak n Shake’s simple, high quality, American fare trample fast-food’s paltry offerings as a matter of course. One campaign features crackled, aged photos and 1950’s sign painter fonts, signifying that the restaurant wouldn’t tinker with a menu that has worked since 1934. “And now this update:” one ad declares, “Nothing’s changed.”

The sheer bulk of Y&L’s Steak n Shake work might overwhelm if not for the consistency of its cheeky, benefit-driven voice. One ad features a recipe card—typed, it seems, on an antique Underwood. The ingredient list starts with a “Real-Steak Steakburger,” followed by sundries one might find in Anthony Bourdain’s pantry—“Truffle Oil” and “Herbes de Provence,” for instance. Directing the cook to quick-sear the steakburger, the recipe finishes: “Combine remaining ingredients in separate bowl and throw away.” At the launch of Y&L’s campaign, an influx of customers caught some outlets off guard, including the pitiable case-study example that ran out of buns. Steak n Shake came to Y&L with 118 restaurant outlets. Today, the company boasts 429.

Y&L has received ample recognition from such international venues as Archive, The Art Director’s Club, Communication Arts, Graphis and The One Show and One Show Interactive. Although Steak n Shake has earned a share of this spotlight, the account doesn’t tend to pile up awards show souvenirs. Buttons worn by servers rarely do. (“Since 1934,” one declares, with a small-type afterthought: “Not me, the Chili Mac Supreme.”) And Cannes has yet to establish a Children’s Placemat Category. (“Tell your parents to get their own placemat.”) But every piece of communication, down to the ketchup packets, is treated as though it will bring home a Lion. The gold in Steak n Shake is cumulative, based on a brand personality that hits the consumer at every touchpoint.

To demonstrate the trick in doing so, Young sketched an arrow almost a decade ago. With “aerodynamic hawk feathers for low drag and high rotation,” “military-grade wire binding,” and a “high gloss varnish for true flight,” it’s an engineering marvel. But none of that matters to the target. Not the binding, not the gloss. You can’t throw it sideways, showing off those hawk feathers, and expect it to work. Consumers should see one thing: The arrow’s sharp tip, rocketing through the air toward them. To this day, the drawing is a staple of presentations. Its intent is to educate clients bent on trumpeting product features they care about more than the consumer is likely to. At the same time, it underscores Y&L’s instinct to clear perceptions about what should make great advertising, filling a blank slate instead with what actually does. ca

Tiffany Meyers is a Chicago-based freelance writer. Her articles about business and visual culture have appeared in such magazines as Surface, the Chicago Tribune, HOW, Metropolis, American PHOTO, PINK, Entrepreneur and Advertising Age, among others.

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