Mike Power, founder
It all fell into place because we always tried to do the next right thing.
Mike Power was a proud, tough and charismatic south Louisville native. As a graduate of DuPont Manual High School in 1961, Mike showed an affinity for the arts at an early age and, not surprisingly, earned a degree in graphic design from the University of Louisville. Sure, he was a respectable designer, but his real talent was sales. He could sell you anything— shoes, paper, production art, catalogs—it didn’t matter.
After a stint as a rep for Champion Paper, Mike decided his heart was in graphic design and he’d take a chance on his own business. He started Power Graphics on April Fool’s Day, 1976, with a $10,000 bank loan and $2,000 from his father-in-law. “I realized that clients didn’t have a design problem. They usually had a communication problem and a set budget,” recalled Mike. “Knowing a few tricks enabled me to give clients more for their money.”
It was a humble beginning with only five employees, including Mike himself and Rita Buntain, Mason Ploch, Mike Schmidt and Bob Schroth. Their Plainview office rental was meager but equipped with everything they needed for graphic design and production art. Their very first job was an “anti-tip” sticker for a GE appliance.
At that time, access to basic services necessary to meet fast art deadlines in Louisville was limited. The closest house for good typesetting was in Cincinnati, and you had to get in line behind other design firms and ad agencies for a studio-quality photograph. These services took time, and clients were used to paying a good price. Mike knew if those services were in-house, he could control both quality and deadlines and get paid well for the work.
“The key for us was we were always honest with our customers and fair with what we charged them. And that paid off,” recalled Mike in 2012. His blue-collar work ethic was pervasive in everything he did and delivered. Always high quality. Always on time. And he was never afraid to try something new.
After five years, Mike made a bold move and bought his first acre in a rather isolated Jeffersontown location, a few miles east of downtown Louisville. It’s where Power still stands today, 11701 Commonwealth Drive. The original building was 7,600 square feet (today the Power campus covers over 80,000 square feet) and the perfect foundation for Mike to begin expanding his staff and capabilities.
Be accountable. Always do what you say you’ll do. If you tell a client you can save them money, or generate more response, you’d better do it. If you don’t, admit your error or miscalculation. Learn from mistakes but never try to cover them up.
One day, Mike couldn’t meet a deadline because he was waiting for a photo of a cooking range. It drove him nuts. This was not the way he did business. So he promptly ordered a 4×5 camera, hired a photographer and, just like that, went into the photography business. By the mid-80s, Power Graphics was equipped to be an incredibly efficient design/production machine. In-house typesetting. Stat cameras. Sinks in each production station. Plus, a photo studio.
It didn’t take long before Mike ran out of space. In the early 90s, he expanded the original building to accommodate more offices and a more robust photo studio. The studio was complete with two in-house E-6 film-processing lines. This was unheard of in the industry, but typical of the bold moves Mike made to ensure quality and efficiency.
All the while, Mike’s son, David, was “earning his keep” by working part-time during the summer months at the agency. Still in high school, David swept the studio floors and unpacked appliances waiting to be photographed. He would eventually leave to earn his degree, but would return to follow in his father’s footsteps.
We built a strong reputation for meeting deadlines and budgets, and that was the result of being an early adopter of the technology that changed the advertising business.
Back in 1991, Mike purchased two top-of-the-line Macintosh computers for typesetting and hired a “computer operator.” It didn’t work out and was a very expensive mistake (maybe his first). Instead, Mike agreed to let a young art director try to design using one of the computers, because “it was just sitting there.” Power Graphics became the first agency in the region to use computers for design. But, because no printers would accept electronic files, traditional mechanicals were still needed. To that end, David worked as “stat boy” for several summers while in college.
In the mid-90s, GE Appliances needed a website prototype to debut at the year’s most important trade show. Most of Power’s art directors were working exclusively on computers, and the agency had a computer tech on staff (a rarity in those days), so Mike was convinced his staff could build a website with photos and product information.
With help from books on HTML, Power Graphics succeeded in building that prototype—which only worked on one PC laptop—to get the client through the trade show. It earned rave reviews. Soon after, GE Appliances hired a big web firm out of Canada to build their first legitimate website. When it became obvious the company knew nothing about GE’s business or appliances, GE asked Power to build it instead. The site contained over 300,000 hard-coded links.
Remember what business we’re in. Clients come to us for ideas. Don’t disappoint them.
In the late 90s, the lead brand and advertising guy at GE Appliances (an old-school Ad Man) was unhappy with the local ad agency he used. But he liked their writer, a former Ogilvy & Mather and Leo Burnett creative, named Dick Pruitt. Mike hired Dick not just as a writer, but also as an Account Executive to sell, service and write ads exclusively for GE Appliances. Quickly though, Mike began to see the value of Dick’s focus on strategy and copy, and eventually promoted him to Creative Director.
Around the same time, GE Appliances had yet another need Power Graphics could meet. Mike bought a drum scanner, hired a seasoned prepress manager and created a scanning, color management and retouching department. To manage the master high-res images, Power purchased a Digital Asset Management system. Mike eventually bought three Kodak Approval Proofing machines, and added prepress to the company’s portfolio of services.
In 1998, Power Graphics officially became a “Full-Service Advertising Agency” and changed its name to Power Creative. This didn’t happen by accident. Over the years, Mike carefully put the pieces of his company together, investing in the people, technology and facilities that would put Power Creative in a position to compete for blue-chip accounts on a regional and national level.
Mike’s “everything under one roof” strategy was paying dividends in the early-mid 2000’s. Power Creative began to win several large accounts with both national and global footprints, including Ingersoll Rand, Iomega, Lexmark, Lennox and GE Aviation. This, not coincidentally, was the time when David became more involved in the day-to-day operations. He took his dad’s interest in new technology to the next level.
David Power, CEO
Dad always told me to listen to my business instincts and mine were telling me to follow the new and the next.
While David was overseeing the GE Aviation account in the mid-to-late 00s, he noted the rapid maturation of computer-generated imagery (CGI). To David, the rising graphic medium was the future of the marketing industry and dovetailed perfectly with the agency’s strong photography services. So he wooed an experienced CGI artist to Louisville to help build a new department and invested in top-of-the-line equipment and software—carrying on one of his dad’s long-standing traditions. A new Power Creative service offering was born.
“The cost of server storage alone was enough to take your breath away. The data these guys generate is staggering but, if I was going to do this right, I wasn’t going to skimp,” David explained. “I wanted to put them in a position to succeed. And they rewarded me with some amazing work—and a good amount of business!”
Power Creative’s CGI services were especially well suited for the agency’s industrial clients. Their massive products were not only logistically difficult to photograph, but also frequently existed only on paper (or as a CAD file). Production for heavy industrial equipment was often years away from their initial product launch, but marketing required assets. CGI brought the virtual product to stunning life, providing a level of detail and visual impact the agency’s clients had never seen before.
The department quickly grew, adding CG artists who helped broaden the skill set beyond technical product renderings and animation. David’s foresight in the marketing possibilities of the medium was paying dividends. Soon, as the lines between photography and CGI became more blurred, Power Creative’s clients outside of the industrial category were taking advantage of CGI resources. It also added a new dimension to the agency’s creative, allowing art directors and copywriters to unleash the boundaries of their concepts.
It’s going to be a lot of fun to watch the company—and David—succeed for a long time to come.
In the spring of 2009, Mike made the official transition from acting CEO to Chairman of the Board. “I’ll do my best to stay out of the way,” he proclaimed. “David’s taken the business to a new level and added a host of new clients. The work that he’s generated is truly amazing, and I feel really fortunate to turn the reins over completely to him.”
Unfortunately, when David assumed the position of CEO and President, the country was reeling from the aftermath of the Great Recession. Every client was affected. Marketing budgets were often the first to be cut and Power Creative’s lackluster billings confirmed it. “That was a time where we could have easily gone into self-preservation mode, fire a bunch of people and start cutting corners in quality and service. You know, nickel and diming our clients,” recalled David. “But that wasn’t in our DNA. That wasn’t the Power way.”
Instead, David found a way to balance the responsibility of taking care of his employees, serving client needs without lowering the bar and ensuring the business was fiscally resilient for the future. Not a short order. The next couple of years would prove to be some of the most challenging for David—both personally and professionally—as Mike’s health started to decline and many of the agency’s original staff were retiring.
If you’re going to offer a service, it better be up to your highest standards. If it’s not, you better fix it. Fast.
During Mike Power’s final years as CEO, the marketing world he once knew so intimately had changed demonstrably. Whether it was the emergence of Adobe Photoshop or the advent of high-speed internet, technology would transform the business dynamic between client and agency. More was expected, in less time and for a lower cost. After several years as CEO & President, David knew he had to “right the ship” and adapt the business model to be more sustainable for the future.
David didn’t have his most trusted advisor at his side. Mike faced a growing number of health concerns and, when he wasn’t receiving exhausting medical treatment in Louisville, he spent his time at his Florida residence. David needed an outside perspective on how the company should recalibrate to meet the marketing demands of the modern brand. So, in the fall of 2014, he hired a consulting group specializing in marketing agencies, to evaluate the state of Power Creative, the business and the brand. The decision would prove to be the catalyst and inspiration David needed to put a solid sustainability plan in place.
The process was extensive and put the microscope on every facet of the agency. From company culture to workflow process to agency positioning, nothing was off the table. After the initial discovery phase, including a comprehensive employee survey, David knew it going to be a bumpy road.
“This was the first time in the company’s history we not only hired an outside consultant, but also pulled back the carpet and looked at everything—good, bad and ugly,” David recalled. “I have to admit, it stung at first. But, you know what? We’re a 40-year agency and I knew there were deeply entrenched issues we had to fix. At the same time, I was never more excited. I knew this was the right move, because we had an exceptional foundation and a lot of brilliant people.”
The consultant came back with an initial assessment of the agency, and, in an honest moment, it wasn’t unexpected. Power Creative was unfocused. It was too diversified, offering and trying to sustain too many services and working for clients in too many different types of industries. Power Creative’s brand of “full in-house service” was falling out of favor among marketers. And, deep down, David knew it.
Whether it’s an advertising concept or a business decision, the best option always feels like an easy choice.
Net profit margins for advertising agencies have plummeted in the last two decades, as services have become commoditized and traditional media have fallen by the wayside. With the rise of digital technology, specialty agencies are quickly replacing their full-service predecessors. Today’s marketer is far more likely to have a pool of marketing vendors instead of the traditional AOR (agency of record). Power Creative needed to reposition itself, focus on what it does best and not try to be everything for everybody.
“Focusing the business’ position forced us to essentially decide what not to do and when to say no,” reflected David. “Which is a lot harder than it sounds.” After much deliberation, the agency concluded its unique strength was tied to its experience with two of the largest accounts: GE Appliances and Lennox International.
GE Appliances was a constant through 40 years of business and Power Creative’s relationship with Lennox International had grown substantially over the last 10+ years. The agency had entire departments of account executives, project coordinators and creatives dedicated to the two companies—and their respective subsidiary brands. The agency’s depth of knowledge and expertise regarding GE and Lennox brands, products, customers, end users, and sales channels is extensive, deeply rooted and simply unmatched.
David was not blind to the fact that the two accounts not only represented a huge segment of the agency’s billings, but also the agency’s intellectual capital. The opportunity for brand differentiation was clear. Power Creative could leverage its expertise to position itself as an authority in the installed home product category and focus on supporting brands selling through a dealer, distributor and/or contract sales channel. It was, in the end, an easy position to support. And an exciting one.
The next order of business was to decide what existing agency services would support that new position. And which ones wouldn’t.
You can’t try to do it all. But if you do it well, you can’t hold it back.
Even before David hired the consulting group, he knew many of Power’s service offerings were often underutilized. This was especially true for the CGI and photo departments. If clients weren’t consistently using these services, those departments would simply sit idle and wait. The new agency position would give David the perfect opportunity to tweak the business model.
“When I started our CGI department, I knew there was a huge need for high-quality commercial work from a reliable vendor. What I didn’t anticipate was where the demand was coming from—other agencies without visualization resources,” David explained. “And typically they don’t like to outsource with competing agencies.” The same logic applied to Power Creative’s photo and video services.
If one issue was an unfocused service portfolio, and the other issue was agency affiliation cutting off potential revenue streams, why not unleash the CGI, photo and video departments? Start a spin-off company. Give them their own brand and ability to prospect business as an independent vendor. It was win-win. David was thrilled about the possibilities and potential, and gave the green light to begin working on the new company and brand.
Soon after, Kitestring was born. And on December 1, 2015, it officially opened for business. “The first 15 years of Dad’s company were primarily focused on graphics and photography. I feel like Kitestring is a modern interpretation of that vision and will carry on the legacy of creating gorgeous visuals,” David declared.
Change is part of our tradition.
As the future path of Power Creative (and Kitestring) was being paved, Mike Power passed away after a long battle with a rare inflammatory disease. Well wishes, stories celebrating Mike’s life and expressions of sympathy poured in from hundreds of past and current clients and employees. It’s no mystery why. Mike transcended the typical business relationship. He genuinely cared about the well-being of people, helping them succeed in their jobs and in their lives.
“When Dad died, it reminded us all that we had a north star,” David said. “I wanted to make sure the changes I was putting into place weren’t going to put a crack in his foundation. We had to sustain the values this company has lived by for 40 years. And, in my opinion, we’re doing that. In fact, we’re taking it a step further. We’re being true to ourselves like never before, and really focusing on what we do and know best. Dad would wholeheartedly approve.”
David launched several key initiatives to fix systemic shortfalls and modernize across the agency. This included the restructuring of the account service and creative departments, the addition of project management and plans to renovate the entire campus (to name a few).
In addition, David announced the promotion of Tim Lucas to President—the first person outside of the Power family to hold that position—and a new tier of leaders to focus exclusively on the business. The agency even changed its name from Power Creative to Power, ushering in a new, rejuvenated and bold step into the future.
Stand for something good and people will want to work with and for you.
Whether it’s a graphics house, a full-service agency or a specialized marketing agency, Power has always been a business built on traditions. Those traditions have provided sustenance and guidance for 40 years. Regardless of how the agency is positioned and what services it offers, the fundamentals stay the same. Respect. Fairness. Trust. Quality. Adaptation. Fearlessness. They weave through the fabric of the company and are instilled in everyone who represents it. When a marketer chooses to work with Power, or a talented professional comes to work at the agency, those values always come standard. And great work is always the reward.