Michael Wertz
Photography by Joe Wojcik

Apple Box Studios’ staff competitions bring out best

02/17/2012 – by Patty Tascarella
Senior Reporter Pittsburgh Business Times

Apple Box Studios needed to add bigger and better clients in order to grow. It was losing out on too many pitches to larger agencies, as far as Principal and Creative Director Michael Wertz was concerned.

Because of its relatively small size with a staff of 13, some potential clients were concerned whether Apple Box could handle the workload and meet deadlines, and tapped other agencies.

Wertz knew he couldn’t do anything to alter the landscape, but he could shake things up on his own end of the equation. He believed the key to winning accounts was having the best creative ideas and concepts.

“Creative is the key,” Wertz said. “So, we cannot compete based on our size or client list or national account experience. But we can develop creative campaigns that knock people’s socks off.”

Creative is admittedly a subjective call. Tastes differ. So Wertz decided to ratchet his company’s standards.

“I’m a very competitive person and I understand what the by-product of competition is — better work, setting the bar really high,” Wertz said. “There’s competition in life and among other agencies. Why should there not be competition within your own agency?”

So, in early 2011, Wertz began pitting employees against each other to come up with the best campaigns for clients — writer versus writer, designer versus designer, but mostly writer/designer duos.

“What we do is lay out a creative brief, give it to the teams and they go to their corners and work totally separately,” Wertz said. “There’s a ticking clock and we have formal presentations.”

Apple Box often fields three different teams, each devising multiple ideas.

“Ultimately, the client decides what creative wins, but the internal process is up to us,” Wertz said. “There’s a referee — me internally and then the client externally.”

Wertz is no easy sell.

“You can’t be lazy about your creative; you have to be able to pick it apart,” Wertz said.

The Mount Lebanon native worked in Los Angeles, editing and running the cutting room for several movies for nearly a decade, including “Scream II,” “Gone Fishin’” and “Striking Distance.”

The employee or team whose work wins receives a bonus.

“Winning over the client is one thing. Winning compensation makes it a real competition,” Wertz said.

In 2010, Apple Box won around 30 percent of the requests for proposals to which it responded.

After implementing the strategy Wertz calls “competition by design,” that changed dramatically. In 2011, Apple Box came out on top 80 percent of the time.

Revenue last year rose 25 percent over 2010 to $1.4 million. Apple Box won work for Dick’s Sporting Goods, Emerson Process Management and Northwood Realty Services.

Tom Hosack, president and CEO of Wexford-based Northwood, said Apple Box’s size initially gave him pause, and he hedged by bringing on two agencies last summer.

“When we first decided to rebrand our company, we interviewed multiple firms and hired two and had them working at the same time — a traditional larger firm and Apple Box,” Hosack said. “After about a month or so, it became apparent to us that Apple Box was faster and more creative and really understood what we wanted to do instead of telling us what to do.”

Apple Box also successfully deployed its competition-by-design approach with the Pittsburgh Advertising Federation’s recent RFPittsburgh, a creative competition for its membership that aims to open opportunities with national marketers. Wertz won StarKist Co.’s challenge to create a full-page print ad featuring its pouch line: It will run in a national publication selected by StarKist. Apple Box also gets to submit a credentials package to StarKist with the hope of gaining more work from the seafood company.