For the VIA Agency’s CEO Leeann Leahy, Good times and great work go hand-in-hand.
“Have a seat on the world’s most comfortable couch,” Leeann Leahy says as she welcomes me into her office at the VIA Agency. Dressed in jeans, a kelly-green sweater, and patent-leather loafers, Leahy matches her surroundings: polished yet relaxed. As president and CEO, Leahy is credited for the agency having been named one of AdAge magazine’s “Best Places to Work” twice during her four-plus-year tenure. Unlimited vacation, spontaneous activities designed to spur creativity, and on-site perks such as a bocce court and a meditation room were among the examples cited for VIA’s inclusion on the prestigious list in 2014 and 2016.
Leahy attributes the agency’s reputation as an inspiring workplace to the core values established by John Coleman, who founded VIA in 1993 and moved it to the historic Baxter Library Building on Congress Street in 2010. “What John built here was an incredible cultural foundation,” Leahy says. “It’s a place with tremendous empathy, and spirit, and optimism; a big part of my responsibility was not only to protect that but to enhance it.”
Leahy grew up just north of New York City and spent her early years in advertising as a strategic planner at various agencies in Manhattan. In early 2011, she became president of Translation, an agency co-founded by rapper Jay-Z. Big-name accounts such as Bud Light flooded in, and the staff grew from 30 to 130 in the 18 months Leahy was there. “But in the middle of all that, I met John, and I was reminded how fun advertising is supposed to be,” she says. “I realized: we can have fun together and do amazing work. Next thing I know, I live in Maine.”
The state wasn’t entirely unfamiliar when Leahy, her husband Tom, and their three children moved here from New York in 2013. The family has owned a home on Bailey Island for 14 years, where her parents recently established themselves full time. “It never occurred to me we would live in Maine,” she says. “I was the New Yorker who thought New York was the center of the universe and I wasn’t going to go anywhere.” Originally hired as president of the VIA Agency, Leahy became CEO in 2015 when Coleman made the decision to transition to board chair, removing himself from the day-to-day operation of the company. “She brought her expertise, her professionalism, and her humanity to the job from day one,” he says. Aware that he would eventually need to choose a successor, he wasn’t actively looking when a mutual friend introduced him to Leahy. Over lunch in New York City, “we laughed for an hour straight,” he says. “On the flight back I thought, ‘Damn, she could be the one.’” When he called Leahy to say, “You need to come to work in Maine,” she didn’t take him seriously, but agreed to a visit. “I think it switched from a daydream to the real thing when she walked in the door of the Baxter Building and met the people,” Coleman says. “She saw it was a professional as well as a personal move.”
Leahy’s goal for VIA is a lofty one: to be the best agency in the world. To reach it requires “a combination of the most inspired associates and the best quality work,” she says. To inspire “VIAns,” as staffers are nicknamed, she has introduced several initiatives designed to reinforce VIA’s 10 founding principles: Be curious, Honor the process, Think like the audience, Create respect, Be on time, Be on budget, Figure it out, Find the magic, Do work that makes you proud, and Believe. Chief among these is the “Go. Do.” series—surprise activities that involve the whole company. “My personal favorite was the lunchtime dance party at Geno’s next door,” she says. “We had pizza, and one VIAn DJ’d; everyone was given a drink ticket, and we danced our faces off—and then we all went back to work.” Individual activities—the “Hey You! Go. Do.” series— have included sending an employee to New Hampshire the weekend before the primaries to see all the presidential candidates, and right before Christmas, flying art director Danielle Dutile and her boyfriend to the North Pole. “Technically it’s Finnish Lapland, but it’s in the Arctic Circle and they have Santa’s Village,” says Leahy. “Our uber principle is ‘Believe,’ and what better way to reinforce that at the holidays than to send someone to meet Santa?”
The trips and the dance parties are not just a perk; they’re a “strategic investment” in the effort to be the best, Leahy says. “If you can dance in front of your colleagues and be silly and foolish, well then, it makes it a lot easier to share your ideas with them the next day in a meeting.” The “no-vacation policy policy,” which allows VIAns to take as much vacation as they want as long as they clear it with their manager, generous parental leave, a stipend for nursing mothers who travel for work to ship their breast milk home, and a sabbatical policy are also key to acquiring and retaining top-level creatives, she says. “It’s important to have people who want to be here, who are happy here, and who can rely on each other, but we also have very high standards. This is not a place to skate by.”
Beyond benefitting employees, Leahy’s approach has attracted significant new clients to the agency, notably L.L.Bean. VIA won the business through a “very, very competitive creative shootout” with an agency “ranked the best in America right now,” she says. The new campaign is being rolled out in July for back to school. She is also proud of the agency’s work for T. Rowe Price, which features acrobats “to show the beauty, nuance, and precision that they apply in active management of assets,” and for Three Olives Vodka, a campaign involving artists called “Find Otherness.” Thinking ahead, Leahy says, “I feel like it’s our time to get a car [account], and we love working in soft drinks and beverages because they’re super fun to play with, and they’re so image oriented that you can really create interesting brands there.”
Outside of the office, Leahy serves on the Board of Trustees at the Portland Museum of Art and spends “a lot of time on the sidelines” at her children’s various sports activities. Mac, 17, Winnie, 14, and Duncan, 11, all go to public schools in Yarmouth, where Leahy and her husband renovated an old ship-captain’s home close to the center of town. It includes a big rec room with games and a built-in disco ball. “Tom’s awesome,” Leahy says of her husband. “We’ve been married almost 20 years and he makes everything I do possible because he’s such an incredible partner and father. He stays home with the kids, which is such a huge gift for our family. And he keeps me laughing at the same time. Lucky me.” They entertain year-round, but are known for their New Year’s Eve party, where the disco ball comes in handy for dancing until the wee hours. “Really, all you need to know about me is that I have a disco ball hard-wired in my house,” she says with a chuckle. “I say all the time, ‘I feel like I won the lottery.’ All my professional challenges are as great, as if not greater than, they’ve ever been in my career, and yet I get to live here.’” Coleman was right: she is the one, believing and making magic in a place she never dreamed she’d be.