Coming Full Circle

August 4, 2007
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GRAND RAPIDS — In the not-too-distant past, the founders of Full Circle Marketing & Design had difficulty thinking of their full-service marketing shop as an “agency.” They were just two guys working out of basements and spare rooms in 2002, and it was another two years before they had an office and as many employees as principals.

In the 18 months since, the firm has doubled in every way. With the recent addition of a 10th member, Full Circle is comparable in size to all but the largest local agencies. It grew out of its first office in the Eastown Business District six months before its first lease expired, moving to a roomier space in the Brass Works building downtown last year. Revenues for the firm climbed into the seven-figure range.

“But it wasn’t until we started getting phone calls from people who heard about us from people we didn’t know that we felt like we really owned an agency and not just our own jobs,” said Full Circle co-founder Todd Mellema. “When there are people you don’t know saying good things about you, that’s when you know that you’ve made it.”

Full Circle takes its name from the philosophy that successful marketing does not originate with the agency or even with the customer, but with the customer’s customers. In its five years of existence, the agency has lost only one client.

“It really does come full circle,” said Steve Harney, newly promoted partner and director of business development. “We’re not trying to sell anything here. The only thing we have to offer is our knowledge, experience and time. It’s not about selling brochures; it’s about helping clients grow their business.”

That requires a deep understanding of the client companies and the markets they serve.  

“We need to be able to see what a customer sees when they walk up to you at a trade show or read your brochure,” Mellema said. “We need to know what their concerns are, what the economy is like for them, their opportunities.”

It was through a similar relationship that the company was founded. Formerly a marketing executive for Holland furniture-maker Haworth Inc., Mellema confessed he nursed a desire to launch his own agency for several years before finding a potential partner. Gregg Burns, Full Circle co-founder and creative director, was at the time a freelance graphic designer for Haworth and other firms.

“The day before Thanksgiving, we had this big book that had to be out on Monday,” Mellema said. “We gave it to Gregg, and he had it in our mailbox on Monday morning. I said this was the kind of person I wanted to partner with.”

“And I needed something more than just freelance design work,” added Burns. “I needed someone who could do strategy and marketing.”

The pair hired their first employee a year later from a competing agency on the night of the Ad Club of West Michigan’s annual Addy Award presentation. Their new designer won Best of Show and two other awards that night.

Harney, who was the second employee hired by the founders, had been introduced to Full Circle originally as a client. While on the marketing team at what is today Dematic in Grand Rapids, he was one of the agency’s earliest clients.

“Our commitment to service really grew out of these two,” said Harney of the Full Circle founders. “When I hired them, they were doing everything individually. They were hungry, chasing after opportunities. What I was paying a lot of money and waiting a couple weeks for from other agencies, they were doing for a lot less and could have it done in a day or two.”

After a lengthy recruitment, Harney joined the agency in January 2005 in a role dedicated largely to business development. In a risky move for both the founders and Harney, he was to split his time between developing marketing strategies for clients and for the agency itself. By design, his position would eventually not produce any billable hours and would be devoted entirely to driving business development at the agency.

Mellema and Burns believe that was the turning point for the company.

A year and a half later, Full Circle continues to add new clients large and small to a core of existing clients that include Haworth, Dematic, Independent Bank, Ave Maria School of Law and professional fisherman Kevin VanDam.

“Even if you never lose a client, you still have to go out and find new customers,” Harney said. “Eventually, some of your clients are going to have a bad year, or they might not spend as much on marketing for whatever reason. So you have to grow.”    

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