Vancouver marketing and communications firm defies economy

AHA! enjoying growth by capitalizing on its specialized services, early relationship with Hewlett-Packard

By Cami Joner, Columbian retail & real estate reporter



Alling Henning Associates Inc.

The company: Since 1994, Alling Henning Associates Inc., also known as AHA!, in Vancouver has built a diverse marketing and communications business.

What’s new: The firm has grown to 64 employees, up from 30 in 2007, and is preparing to expand its offices for continued growth.

What’s next: AHA! has added a graphics department and plans to continue its focus on creative communications.

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Every so often, a company beats the odds and emerges from a particularly bleak economic recession not only unscathed, but growing and ready to attract even more new business.

That profile fits Alling Henning Associates Inc., as evidenced by the Vancouver marketing and communication firm's growth spurt during the tough economy of the past five years.

Back in July 2007, the company moved 30 employees into sixth-floor offices in a new downtown building.

Today, Alling Henning Associates Inc., which goes by AHA!, has grown to 64 employees and plans to bump out the walls of its sixth-floor offices in the building that also houses Vancouver City Hall to take up the entire floor.

AHA!'s office isn't the only thing being revamped, say the company's leaders. A five-year strategic plan has fine-tuned every aspect of AHA!'s business, from assigning job titles to employees to devising clear-cut job descriptions. The company expects to generate billings of $7 million this year and it has moved up at least two notches on a published list of the Portland metro area's largest marketing firms. The publication ranked AHA! No. 7 out of 41 area firms.

Much of AHA's growth stems from its ability to help businesses articulate how they are socially and environmentally responsible, a specialty that helped AHA! land big public relations projects, such as the magazine-style global citizenship report it has annually produced for Hewlett-Packard Co. over the past three years. The 20-page blend of graphics and text describes measures HP takes to save energy and promote health care for women.

The work communicates the softer side of Palo Alto, Calif.-based HP, one of AHA!'s earliest and largest clients, which helped the company grow and pick up referral business all over the globe.

"Our early growth was part of (HP's) growth, and we were able to extend our relationships," said Betsy Henning, AHA!'s chief executive officer and founder of the nearly 20-year-old company.

Helping its Fortune 500 client with its corporate image may also prove to be a catalyst for additional business along those lines, said Steve Shields, AHA!'s new managing director.

"It's a fairly small crowd that is involved in this kind of work, so we show up in that domain," he said, estimating that only about two dozen companies specialize in similar work.

But it won't be long before other companies offer the same kind of services, said Joe Cote, a marketing professor at Washington State University Vancouver.

While Shields estimated his company has at least 10 more years worth of business in the corporate responsibility market, the competition is moving in fast, Cote said.

"In two to five years you'll be in a real cutthroat environment," he said of AHA!

Fortunately for AHA!, the company has made inroads in other areas of corporate communications as the recession transformed how the world does business, Henning said. The economic downturn forced some clients to take a more sobering look at the written materials that were telling their stories, she said.

That was an advantage for AHA!, a company that has long focused on well-crafted writing.

"When (businesses) get serious, they start really looking at substance more than flash," said Henning, a former journalist who launched AHA! in 1994 with then-partner Brenda Alling in an upstairs bedroom-turned-office of Henning's home.

Back then, Henning had connections with HP, which helped start the newly formed company.

"They had a juggernaut of a business and we were able to ride that tide with them," she said, attributing much of her company's growth -- both in numbers and capabilities -- to its association with HP.

Alling left the company in 2009 to become the director of marketing and communications at Washington State University's Vancouver campus. The former partners both say Alling's departure was drama-free.

The company has worked for a long list of clients, from PricewaterhouseCoopers to Green Mountain Coffee, NBC Universal, Levi's and Yahoo!, among others.

Shields predicts AHA! will double its staff over the next five years, growth that presents a whole different set of challenges. Unlike other PR firms that are planning layoffs and wondering how they'll survive, AHA! is doing its best to prepare, he said.

"You'll tend to land some projects and clients who want a lot out of you immediately," he said. "The smaller you are, the harder that is."