Eleanor Kubacki got her start as an idealist and an activist, which is perhaps not surprising for the daughter of a woman who worked for AT&T, starting out as a union member and always a strong supporter of unions even when she made it to management. But, like her mother — who retired at 55 and then opened her own brokerage firm in Manhattan — Kubacki ended up as a businesswoman, chief executive officer of the multimillion-dollar advertising agency EFK Group, as well as owner of the signature building on South Broad Street in Trenton in which the agency is based.

Describing her agency’s work as “impactful creative,” she says, “we are not creative for the masses. We are about ‘creative’ that tends to push the envelope and gets noticed.”

Take EFK Group’s campaign about bariatric surgery for Mercy Health Systems in Pennsylvania. With taglines like “Love the you within,” “Less you. More life,” and “Lose yourself to find yourself,” the ads talk to what everyone wants out of life, says Kubacki. “We want to be comfortable in our own skin,” she explains. “It’s not about how you look.” Rather than featuring the usual before and after pictures — forward-facing body shots — EFK Group has placed the before and after pictures face to face, so that people appear to be looking at themselves.

When people are driving along and see another billboard with an obese “before” and a slender “after” picture, says Kubacki, they are not likely to pay much attention. “But when they see a person looking at themselves thin, they take note and stop. It is shown in such a different manner that people go, ‘what is that?’” Raising that question, she says, is the job of advertising and marketing. In fact, the bariatric ads were so successful that other hospitals within the Mercy system also bought and used them.

Admitting that not every company is comfortable with the kind of approach her agency took in the bariatric campaign, Kubacki says that “people are afraid that if you do things outside of the norm and you fail, they will get criticized and fired. That is why marketing tends to be safe, and safe doesn’t always work.”

Kubacki also cites a successful series of ads her company did for the Atlantic Club casino. Although most casino ads feature beautiful young people playing and drinking in fancy surroundings, she says, “Our casino is about the ordinary person.” Ordinary means not-so-young husbands and wives who are not beautiful people — mechanics, and “cash queens” with their hair in curlers at a beauty shop.

Says Kubacki: “We highlight people who don’t get highlighted anymore.” And indeed these ads spoke to their intended audience. “That casino was about to close its doors,” she says, “and it was the only casino to increase its profits in Atlantic City.”

EFK Group plans its campaigns in a distinctive way. “The whole company participates in creative sessions, from the person who answers the phone, to the bookkeeper, to creative, to account people,” says Kubacki.

So 14 people gather to talk about a client’s needs and goals and do a competitive analysis, looking at everything the client does vis-a-vis marketing. Then they come up with several ideas. “We do a creative brief — the who, what, when, where, and goals for a campaign,” she says.

Creative then takes this input and puts together five or six approaches, usually two that are “safe,” one in the middle, and one or two that are “really out there.” The creative team prepares these approaches with mockup ads, including television and radio scripts, and does an internal presentation with EFK Group employees playing the role of client. From this they glean about three ideas to present to the client.

Talking about this process, Kubacki says, “It’s really fun. Our stuff is always good, so you’re always proud when you go in. I love coming up with solutions for our clients.”

A recent client is Kleer-Guard, which creates packaging products for the moving and storage industry and recently got a big contract to be in 3,000 hardware and container stores throughout the United States. “We are rebranding it — package, logo message, and displays in the stores too,” says Kubacki.

With clients like Kleer-Guard, EFK Group makes sure it understands the company’s business models and translates them by creating brands that will sell products. “We can change people’s business very quickly, and that is a cool thing. It is business and creative coming together,” she says. “It is very interesting — the chemistry between the two — and how to meet them in the marketplace to become successful.”

Kubacki, who was raised in Turnersville, New Jersey, became an activist in high school at age 14, after being upset by the homeless people she saw during a visit to Philadelphia. Her passion to help the homeless blossomed during her college years at Rutgers University, where she started the organization RU for the Homeless. This student organization raised money for the homeless and increased awareness of the problem; helped fund and staff the soup kitchen in New Brunswick; and pressured the Statehouse to give more funding to the homeless. Working both on the political side and doing the real work of implementation, says Kubacki, the students recognized that the number of shelters was insufficient and worked with New Brunswick churches to open their basements to house the homeless.

Back then, she says, homelessness was controversial: homeless people were disliked and people did not understand the connection between mental illness and homelessness. As a result of her efforts, RU for the Homeless raised awareness, becoming the largest student organization on campus, with 100 to 150 students attending weekly meetings.

Kubacki was also active supporting the unions during colleges. One big issue was when workers on campus were getting their benefits cut, and she joined other students in taking over a provost’s office to protest the university’s action.

Looking back on her college activism, Kubacki says, “That’s how my love of nonprofit work started.”

Her experiences with RU for the Homeless were also the genesis of her advertising persona. “It was the first time that I ever realized I had used advertising,” says Kubacki, who had asked an artist to draw a picture of a homeless woman holding a baby for a poster. “They were show stoppers on campus,” she says. “It was the first time I used graphics to get across a point; and it got us really noticed on campus.” The poster, she says, prompted the realization that the homeless were mothers and children.

After graduating from Rutgers in 1992 with a degree in political science, Kubacki moved to Camden, because she loved inner cities and had signed on for a master’s degree in public policy from Rutgers Camden. She says that living as a single woman in Camden was rough, but she was motivated by her underlying goal — to work for the mayor of Camden to enact public policy initiatives.

While in Camden, she acquired a “junker” car that would play a surprising role in her life. After her car was towed in Cherry Hill, she went to the mayor’s office to complain that the people who had towed her car had broken her door locks, and her complaint got an unexpected result. “They hired me on the spot to do public policy,” she says.

The person who hired her was political powerhouse Susan Bass Levin, then mayor of the township of Cherry Hill, who later became the first deputy executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Remembering very positively the couple of years she worked with Levin, Kubacki says, “I got to work for a very strong woman, and we started all kinds of programs.”

In one program that Kubacki worked on, student volunteers were assigned to work with nonprofits in Camden and Cherry Hill, with the goal of proactively getting them more involved in the community. She also launched and ran an economic development corporation, one of Levin’s ideas, that provided government loans to businesses.

Kubacki also worked for a year on a composting pilot program in Cherry Hill with a nonprofit that what would become her first client, the National Audubon Society. Its goal was to encourage municipalities on the East Coast to help residents with composting just as they pick up recyclables, and the pilot was in Cherry Hill. Unfortunately the program did not come to fruition.

After several years with the mayor’s office, Kubacki told Levin she wanted to start her own business. Levin was encouraging, although her mother was a little concerned. “Women didn’t do that,” says Kubacki. “Back then, you started a business when you were in your 40s — if you were a man.” But once Kubacki had made her decision, her mother was completely behind her.

Kubacki started her company while she still lived in Camden, focusing only on nonprofits, and did pretty well right off the bat. For the National Audubon Society, she was trying to get the composting pilot program off the ground in Cherry Hill and she was asked to try to get some bigger suburban areas interested. “It was controversial to compost,” she says. People had no idea why it was worthwhile to compost and were worried that it was dirty and was going too smell. But “we’ve evolved,” she says.

For her second client, Women and Infants in Need in Cherry Hill, she helped get them off the ground by giving them a brand, a look, and an identity and then did fundraising and community public relations.

Kubacki had a unique approach to nonprofits. “I looked at a nonprofit the same way people looked at private enterprise: How do you build, network, and market? How do you gain support, momentum, and grow?” she says. “Nonprofits were still in the Dark Ages as far as those things were concerned.” For the first 12 years of EFK Group, Kubacki’s business was split about 50/50 between nonprofits and for-profit businesses. During this period her nonprofit clients ranged from the Boys and Girls Clubs of Philadelphia to the American Cancer Society and the Young Scholars Institute.

After two years in Camden and a short period in Glendora, she moved to Trenton in 1995, figuring she would be halfway between the nonprofits of New York and of Philadelphia.

She moved into the Old Cigar Factory, converted into an apartment building, where she started to really work on her business. Over time she moved from a one-bedroom to a two-bedroom apartment and eventually bought a house, and used the third floor for her business. By about 1996 she started to hire additional employees.

For 10 to 12 years, big-time political events for the Democrats were a big part of her business, including the Democratic Senate Ball, where 1,000 people celebrated the Democratic senators of the state and fundraising events for Senator Richard Codey and Governor Jim McGreevey. She also did “oodles of hospital galas and nonprofit galas.” She says, “I started really raising money for nonprofits.”

One particular event fueled growth for the EFK Group — the Exelon Invitational. EFK Group had been hired as one of three advertising agencies Exelon used to brand the company, a nationwide provider of energy resources. “They got a logo, a message, and a look — a creative direction — and we took those pieces and did their trade shows, their advertising: newspaper ads, radio, websites, trade shows, and direct mail,” she says.

While working for Exelon, her client received a proposal for a golf event and asked Kubacki to brand it for them. The first year she helped run the event with the man who had the idea, but then she decided to purchase the idea from him and run the event herself. “The best golfers in the world would come to the Philadelphia area, and I would sell sponsorships and tickets,” she says.

Her goal for the event was to raise money for nonprofits. During the first five years, she raised $550,000 for a variety of nonprofits, but for the next six years decided to focus only on Boys and Girls Clubs of Philadelphia. “When you go to a boys and girls club, when you see all the kids and the need for after-school daycare for low-income parents — it’s important for the children, the parents, and us as a society,” she says. She raised $2.5 million for them during the last six years of the event. About this experience, which ended three years ago, Kubacki says, “We took something and we grew it.”

In about the third year of her business, she was doing events for Honeywell, AT&T, and Bristol-Myers Squibb, which eventually led to marketing gigs for them. “When you do events,” she explains, “you end up working for people in the marketing department — they are on your website and see your branding projects.”

Kubacki’s art director is her former husband, artist Randy Silver, who went to the Savannah School of Art when graphic design was really taking off. One of his early efforts contributed to the firm’s growth. Kubacki recalls, “He did an outrageously great invitation for Governor Florio, then we got a lot of stuff from Florio, then we did creative stuff for McGreevey.”

Even though Kubacki and Silver divorced three years ago, she says, they remain an effective team. “Between me having a natural inclination to brand things and him having this outrageous skill set,” she says, “we came together and were a great combo.” This chemistry was apparent early on. “People took notice and got jobs for us.” They were married for 16 years and have two children, ages 15 and 10.

Not only Silver but also Kubacki learned about the advertising industry hands on. “Neither of us had ever worked in an ad agency; we learned through trial and error,” she says.

The on-the-job training kicked in again six years ago when Kubacki purchased and rehabbed the three-story building at 1027 South Clinton Avenue in Trenton (see sidebar, page 9).

The changes she underwent as a landlord grew out of the changes she had to make to keep the business alive when she found herself with a much-diminished set of clients in the wake of the recession. Going into the downturn, Kubacki had many big clients, in advertising, housing, and banking, including Kara Homes, a large homebuilder in New Jersey. “We had a lot of big guys and they went belly up,” she says. She also lost many long-term clients, including Honeywell and Exelon, which had been with her 13 years, and AT&T, which had been a client for about six years.

“I woke up one day and lost 80 percent of my clients,” she says. Although it was emotionally difficult, she pulled herself together and made the changes she needed to make. “It took a full year, we rebranded, got a strategist, and I started working with a CEO group, and put the plan into action,” she says.

After the recession she decided to really focus on branding, full-service advertising, and digital, including websites and social media. Although she kept quite a few of her university clients, most of her clients today are new. They include three universities, Kean, Rider, and Immaculata; some hospitals and small pharmas; and consumer products companies like Prince Tennis, Prince Global Sports, and Betstreet. Over the last year and a half she has grown the company 70 percent.

Although her plan was important to her comeback, it was also due to some plain luck. The year before the recession, in 2008, her banker had convinced her to take out a line of credit, even though she had never taken out a loan and didn’t really believe in them — her mantra was “I don’t spend money I don’t have.” But that line of credit was critical to her survival. “If I didn’t have those lines of credit to bridge the gap, we would have gone out of business,” she says.

The loss of customers meant that in 2008 she had to lay off some of her employees, but she did it in what she calls a nontraditional way. She told the affected employees, “Listen, we’re not making the money we’re used to — everyone needs to find a job.” All but one stayed on until they found new jobs. About the “layoff,” Kubacki reflects, “It was very emotional for me. I was going through a divorce, too. But nobody got sacked.”

Other, more positive changes in the business were caused by technology. Aside from the mobility of laptops and iPads encouraging easier and freer social interaction, it also makes the business fairly paperless. For example, EFK uses Basecamp project management software that allows its clients to have access to all of its creative assets in a single place and generally streamlines the agency’s work. Her business has also become more sensitive to the impact of technology and social media. “Everything we do, we think about how it will present itself online,” says Kubacki.

The open architecture and the environment it creates also inspires significant collaboration between the companies in the building; and Kubacki now has three clients via a strategic partnership with JFK Communications, which occupies offices on the third floor (see sidebar, page TK). “Once you bring down the walls, people can be more comfortable in their own skin, comfortable when they are working on a personal level again,” she says. “Once you collaborate with someone, you get to know them on a personal level, and every human being likes to work with people they like.”

Kubacki says she loves rehabbing buildings and is now looking toward doing another one. “I would love to have this kind of office environment in another space,” she says. What she likes is replacing the old adversarial landlord-tenant relationship with the idea that your landlord is part of your team. “The old days of a landlord dictatorship doesn’t fit in today’s economy,” she says.

The economy is starting to change, suggests Kubacki. “People are just getting their bearings again,” she says. “I’m on boards with other business owners, and people are starting to get back their mojo and feeling confident again.”

The trend she sees for business owners is to get rid of everything you know and reinvent yourself. “You either change or you don’t exist — that’s the issue with the economy,” she says.

Kubacki has lofty ambitions for EFK Group. “Within two years, I would like to be one of the top five advertising agencies in New Jersey,” she says, noting that her goal is to hit $10 million a year in the next four years.

Big growth is imaginable because the recession whittled down the field, with the number of ad agencies in New Jersey decreased significantly, she says. “A lot of the big ones went down,” says Kubacki. “There is a vacuum, and there are opportunities.”

Looking back to the critical moment in 2009 when she had to remake herself, she says. “Most of us small business owners — if we didn’t change back then it ended, our business failed.” Many ad agencies went out of business, but EFK was able to stay afloat. “We embraced technology, cultural changes, and a spirit of innovation, and that literally brought a second life back for us,” she says. “It has to be from the ground up, authentic, and internal — you can’t fake it.”

EFK Group, 1027 South Clinton Avenue, Trenton 08611. 609-393-5858. Fax: 609-393-1673. www.efkgroup.com.

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