Rinck on brink of big things

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AUBURN – Peter Rinck scoffs at the notion that all the best ad firms are on Madison Avenue.

He should know. He’s already been there.

Founding partner of 5-year-old Rinck Advertising with his wife, Laura Davis, Rinck grew up horsing around at 330 Madison Ave., the headquarters of Sperry & Hutchinson. The famed promotions company was renowned for its S&H Green Stamps, the nation’s first loyalty program where customers got stamps from retailers based on their purchases and redeemed them for goods. Peter’s father, Larry, was vice president of advertising.

“In terms of advertising and marketing, he worked with a $15 million budget when $15 million was real money,” said Rinck, who can recite the S&H motto – “The more you lick ’em, the more you like ’em” – at the drop of a hat.

That background gives him a unique perspective into an industry that has changed enormously since the golden age of advertising. It’s also helped prepare him and his Auburn ad firm for the new age of advertising – one where video conferences have replaced the three-martini lunch and search engine placement means more than a full-page ad in the Times. Within the next two weeks, Rinck Advertising expects to hear on more than $750,000 worth of pitches to prospective clients.

Even without the new accounts, the ad agency that started in the couple’s laundry room in Buckfield should double last year’s revenues and top $1 million in 2007. They are hiring for six new positions, including a Web master and business development officer, and are keeping an eye open for new space to alleviate overcrowding in their Riverpark offices.

“Peter and I looked at each other and said ‘Do we stay small and comfortable or do we just go for it, get bigger, make some hires?'” Davis said. “We said ‘Let’s just go for it … we’re not getting any younger you know.'”

They’ll cast a pretty small net when it comes time for a new office. Unabashed advocates for Lewiston-Auburn, the pair feel a deep commitment to the area, which gave them their first big break when the firm was hired in 2003 to do the publicity surrounding the Blaine House Conference on the Creative Economy at Bates Mill.

Now, four years later, Rinck Advertising is the poster child for a creative economy business. Their downtown office suite is wired for all cyber access, courtesy of Oxford Networks, a local communications company that shares Buckfield roots. They outsource work to local printers and designers. Funky artwork by local artists hangs on the walls and the predominantly young, hip staff share ideas and work stations in a relaxed, open concept office.

“We have company. Put your shoes on!” joked Rinck as he led a visitor through the office door.

The laid-back, communal atmosphere balances the frantic pace as deadlines approach for projects from clients around the world. One of them, GiveFun.com, is a group of four young mothers who live in Israel, Miami and Los Angeles and run an online gift certificate business via the Internet.

“It wouldn’t be possible if we didn’t have fantastic technology,” said Davis, who’s had the account for two years.

She connects with them nearly every day to pitch ideas, monitor progress on various campaigns and even share tips for numbing teething pain.

“You can hear the kids in the background – sometimes they’re screaming – but it’s OK. We deal with the kids, we deal with the business,” said Davis with a laugh.

Right now she’s waiting to hear about a pitch to get the foursome on “Oprah,” the Holy Grail of exposure for any business. If it happens, she’d fly to Chicago to be with her clients … and meet them for the first time. They’d meet each other as well.

“We’ve never met, yet we’re the best of friends,” she said. “The key is building a trust between agency and clients. It all comes down to results for us. If you can show results and meet deadlines, you can do business that way.”

It’s just an example of how the advertising world has changed since the days when the elder Rinck could convince a supermarket chain to offer S&H Green Stamps to reward customers for shopping at their stores. In homes across the country, it was a Saturday night custom for kids to lick the stamps into special collection books so parents could redeem them for items from the S&H catalog.

“Every Christmas I knew where my gift was coming from,” said Rinck, fondly recalling a minibike under the tree when he was 12. “It was pretty cool.”

Although Rinck displayed an early aptitude for advertising, he took a detour, studying and performing classical violin for 17 years. That led to a job as a disc jockey for a classical music station (“I could pronounce Tchaikovsky, Dvorak and Saint-Saens,” he quipped.). Then voice-overs for commercials returned him to the ad world.

A first marriage brought him to Maine in 1981, where he worked at different ad agencies and eventually landed a job as a copywriter at L.L. Bean, only the third person to pen the text for the company’s catalog. Years later, a stint with an ad agency in Boston made him long for Maine and he returned in 1989.

He met Laura while shooting a commercial she was in. The former Montello school teacher was ready for a change and Rinck thought she had the temperament and talent for the ad business.

“She liked to introduce herself as the world’s oldest intern,” he said.

Together they decided to open an advertising company that would be different, one where the client is fully involved in the decision-making.

“A lot of ad agencies have agendas and direct the marketing to what they’re comfortable with,” Rinck said. “We don’t do that here.”

The agency has a broad background in TV and radio ads, direct response, Internet, print ads, public relations campaigns, mobile marketing, buzz marketing and more. Androscoggin Bank, Oxford Networks, Mechanics Bank and Federal Distributors are among their local clients, but the bulk of their clientele is out of state. That means the company brings outside money into Maine, where it circulates locally – another hallmark of a creative economy business.

“Locally” almost meant Portland. When the couple decided to commit to their own firm, Rinck said he’d just assumed they’d need offices on Exchange Street in Portland, Maine’s version of Madison Avenue.

“But Laura said we should open it in L-A. When I asked why, she just said ‘Trust me,'” he said.

She’d been listening to her mother – a nurse at St. Mary’s – tell her for years that L-A was on the verge of big things.

“She kept saying ‘It’s going to happen, it’s going to happen,'” said Davis, who grew up in Turner.

And there were other indications. The cities banded together to rehab the Bates Mill and fight for a postal distribution center. They were beginning to revitalize both downtowns. Her mom had her I-told-you-so moment when the Hilton Garden Inn was announced in 2002.

Davis said there was such a sense of imminent success that when L/A Arts approached them to help with its publicity campaign, coming up with the motto “It’s happening” was a natural. (Another agency would later come up with the “L-A: It’s Happening Here” motto for the L-A Economic Growth Council, an apparent bit of flattery.)

And when developer Leighton Cooney approached them and offered free office space until they could get on their feet, it cemented their decision to stay, even though they didn’t take him up on the offer.

“We’re just so grateful to put our roots down here,” Rinck said.

The first five years of the company have been terrific, as evidenced by the trophies discreetly displayed in the Rinck offices. But they’re not resting on their laurels.

Rinck is taking a lesson from his dad’s old firm, making sure his agency doesn’t go the way of S&H Green Stamps. The program was wildly successful until the 1972 oil embargo, when gas stations and supermarkets stopped carrying them to trim costs. If S&H had been able to hang on for a few more years, it would have had the foundation for a terrific marketing database – the first in the nation.

“It was a huge lost opportunity,” he said, lamenting the gap between marketing and technology back then.

Now he’s making the most of every opportunity and available technology. He’s even bringing his dad into the new era of advertising.

“He’s 85 and we just got him his first computer,” said Rinck, who, after a pause, added, “You know, we do have plenty of work here to do.”

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