AHA co-founder Betsy Henning celebrates 25 years

She, others reflect on what makes the successful Vancouver creative agency tick

By Brooks Johnson, Columbian Business Reporter

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The year was 1994, and Betsy Henning just got her first big break after setting out as an entrepreneur a few years earlier. Hewlett-Packard’s Vancouver office had called with an offer that would snowball into a 25-year-and-counting career as one of the most successful businesswomen in Clark County.

But first, she needed to buy a fax machine.

“At the time, I was like, ‘Oh, my God. I’m going to spend $900,’ ” Henning said with her characteristic laugh.

From her corner office on the top floor of Vancouver City Hall, at the headquarters of creative agency AHA, that’s money she does not miss today.

“One HP project turned into another turned into another,” Henning said as she looked back on 25 years in business, an anniversary she hit last month. “Then one year later, Brenda Alling and I joined forces to create AHA.”

With 60 employees and national clients such as Comcast and Charles Schwab, AHA has grown to be a brand to know among brand-builders.

Yet if Henning’s story is a blueprint for success, it’s only because her plans were fluid and her ambitions clear. AHA has not just survived, but thrived as technology has forced a rapid evolution in corporate communications. The digital revolution also opened an ocean of opportunities to communicate a message or shape a brand.

AHA, like all media companies, has had to keep ahead of the many new ways people and businesses can interact. But the basics are still intact: telling a company’s story in a way that sells a brand or a product.

“What’s really changed is the ability to speak directly to the consumer through social media and all things digital,” said Wendy Lane Stevens, president of Portland public relations firm Lane and also a 25-year industry veteran. “Finding the stories that are compelling and getting them out there hasn’t really changed.”

Call it lucky

For all the success Henning has had in a quarter-century, one might be surprised to learn that it happened almost by accident.

“I didn’t really mean to do this,” said Henning, 55. “A long time ago, I called myself the accidental entrepreneur. I also say we got lucky.”

There’s plenty to be said about being in the right place at the right time. But Henning said she swears that her success in helping create and then lead one of Vancouver’s largest independently owned companies was partly due to luck.

“A lot of people push back on that, the fact is it’s true,” she said. “A smart person does good things with luck. But a smart person without luck often doesn’t always have a great turnout.”

It was lucky her husband, Tom, got a job in Vancouver in the ’80s after they moved from their native Colorado. It was lucky that when Henning “hung up her shingle” as a freelance writer, as she likes to say, and HP was right down the street. It was lucky — or perhaps this time, it was skill — that AHA would find its place as a Vancouver company in a hypercompetitive and swiftly changing global industry.

“We are a business of a fairly unique nature in (this) community,” Henning said.

AHA began in 1994 as Alling Henning Associates, just two friends working out of Henning’s upstairs bedroom.

“I can remember a time when we had just one email account for the business,” said Alling, who left the company in 2008 and today is the communications director for Washington State University Vancouver. “We succeeded because we rolled with it, and because one of our major clients was a technology client (HP) and we needed to meet their expectations on the technology front.”

Both have degrees in journalism — Alling from Washington State in Pullman and Henning from Northwestern University in the Chicago area — so starting a writing business was a no-brainer.

But AHA wasn’t destined to be just a copywriting company. And it wasn’t just luck that drove two decades of growth.

“As our experiences and skills and capabilities evolved, as technology evolved, and as our clients wishes and desires for what we would do for them evolved, we have broadened our services considerably,” Henning said.

Rapid change

AHA’s workflow today is faster and more integrated. What once was handled with a fax or a FedEx shipment with a three-day turnaround on a project is needed, well, now.

“In the days of email, (clients will) turn it around in an hour and expect it back in an hour,” Henning said. “The speed of work and the speed of expectations has accelerated since the dark ages.”

That means no waiting around for an outside design firm to tweak things like in the old days. Design and copy both need to get done in-house. So AHA brought in more people. Those people brought new skills, and the company kept growing.

“The happy outcome of that has meant our work has gotten so much stronger,” she said. “Now, we develop pieces with both the visual and written pieces together.”

That mostly includes work for national companies, but AHA was also behind the re-branding of local firms, including Vancouver’s Cadet Manufacturing a few years ago. The family-owned electric heater manufacturer had taken a hit to its image due to a lawsuit over a defective heater, and it was struggling to find new ways to market itself in a fast-changing retail environment.

Cadet President Hutch Johnson said AHA came in and figured out who Cadet was, what it did and why it mattered very quickly.

“Cadet is a 58-year-old business. What we needed was to refresh the brand,” Johnson said.

AHA’s work brought Cadet a new logo, slogan, website and promotional materials, breathing new life into the heater maker.

“It was a home run,” Johnson said.

AHA’s creative soul

On the sixth floor of the City Hall building, Henning and her employees have all the amenities of a modern office: exceptional views, wacky conference rooms, shared spaces and beers on tap. It has all the makings of the Twitter hashtag #agencylife, which depicts the quirks of working at creative agencies.

Paging through AHA’s annual staff-written magazine, Praxis, you’ll meet the creative types that make up the heart and soul of the company.

“When I joined AHA two years ago, I knew there was something special here that Betsy built: the talent, the culture and the work we deliver to clients,” said Executive Creative Director Brent Wilson.

During its rise in the past 22 years, AHA was hiring a new employee every six months, recalls co-founder Alling.

“I think Betsy and I were collaborative leaders,” Alling said. “We were lucky to have surrounded ourselves with incredibly talented people with work ethics that mirrored mine and Betsy’s. We focused on quality, and we worked long and hard.”

The mood in the office is as bright as the painted walls. Since AHA is always competing for star employees, creating an appealing workplace is key to recruiting.

“We’re here to do great work, have fun while we’re doing it and have time for the rest of our lives,” Henning said.

But the work they do, at its core, is serious.

“Businesses are powerful. They have lots of influence, and they can make choices that change the way the world works,” Henning said. “Helping companies celebrate that, helping people understand that: It’s really neat work. And it’s inherently complex.”

While there’s room for the company to grow, Henning said her 60 employees is a good number. Stevens of Lane PR in Portland agrees that finding a company size that works requires a balancing of talent, workload and industry connections.

“At smaller companies, which Betsy and mine are, you don’t want to be spread too thin,” said Stevens, who has 30 employees. “Storytelling and public relations and digital is about knowing who influencers are.”

Beyond institutional knowledge, it’s especially important to maintain a solid team in a field prone to disruption.

“Stability is not an earmark of the agency business. And that’s partly because you’ve got these crazy creatives driving the ship half the time,” Henning said.

But it’s those crazy creatives — Henning among them — that make it all possible.

“AHA has never been about me. It’s always been about the people the business supports, the clients we serve and the community we create.”