The Image Group: Overcoming growth challenges

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This Ohio-based marketing company has succeeded through its growth philosophy and unorthodox hiring practices.

The Image Group has been delivering marketing, branding, and promotions solutions to a wide range of companies for nearly 40 years. And yet, when it comes to hiring, the Holland, Ohio-based company isn’t looking for seasoned marketing veterans.

“We haven’t been as successful hiring people from within the space, because the culture they came from wasn’t consistent with our business,” says Jon Levine, co-founder and president.

In an industry dominated by sales volume, associates moving through the ranks at other marketing companies may lack the entrepreneurial and relationship-building skills that are the foundation for The Image Group’s growth. As a result, it frequently looks outside the marketing industry for new talent.

“We do a substantial amount of hiring out of college; 43 percent of our workforce is millennials, and we train them in our systems and provide mentorship,” Levine says. “We also look at people in other industries who have the experience we’re looking for. Our director of HR came out of the health care space. Our senior-living vertical—one of our fastest-growing—is managed by someone from that space. We gain from that experience.”

Compounding the challenge of finding the right people are geographic location and perception.

“It’s difficult to be a marketing company in this area,” Levine says of the location. “First, you have the regional economy. Northwest Ohio isn’t viewed as a shiny object right now. And in a strong economy, young people in particular are looking for opportunities in higher-income areas, so many are leaving for areas with more opportunities.”

To combat that trend, The Image Group has fashioned itself into a place where young associates have options for personal and career growth and plans to expand into markets where those people want to be.

“Ultimately, we must go where the talent is,” he says. “We have to recruit from the industries they’re gravitating toward, and we have to do business in those higher-income markets that young people are relocating to. It’s difficult, but we work at it each day, and we have had success with that approach.”

And once people are hired, the company focuses on compensation and philanthropy to retain them.

“We want to be philanthropic and create opportunities for people to volunteer,” he says. “We also want them to have opportunities to advance. Growing, thriving organizations draw people. If you see others getting increased responsibilities, you know you have that opportunity, as well.”

One of those eager for the opportunities offered by The Image Group is account associate Kristen Filzer, 27.

“The Image Group has a great reputation, so when I was looking to make a career change, it was a no-brainer to check it out,” she says. “The culture is incredibly positive, hard work is valued, and everyone has a real can-do attitude. It’s a great place for a millennial to build a career because it is a fun, fast-paced environment with an immense amount of opportunity for growth and development. I feel set up for success and connected to the bigger picture.”

The Image Group’s hiring philosophy is indicative of the company’s overall growth philosophy. It’s a mix of common, time-tested strategies and less orthodox means, an approach that has allowed it to grow to more than 100 employees and four offices in three states.

(Photo by David Richard)

Talent and territory

The Image Group traces its 1981 beginnings to the founding of a family-owned screen printing and embroidery business in Toledo. It was spun out of that business in the 1990s, when Levine and a founding family member took over a division and added marketing and promotions.

It was a critical crossroads in the company’s history.

“There wasn’t a large enough marketplace in the Toledo area for just screen printing and embroidery, so we started adding other components,” Levine says. “That allowed us to steadily grow. We moved into a 15,000-square-foot building about 20 years ago, and eventually doubled that to 30,000.”

As the millennium dawned, the company’s growth strategy had Levine and his team looking for new markets, driven by acquisitions—of both companies and talent. The Image Group opened offices in Cleveland in 2001, Ann Arbor in 2006, and Richmond, Virginia in 2017—the latter two via acquisitions.

While The Image Group already does business in larger, higher-growth cities including Columbus and Chicago, it does so from the nearest field office. In the future, Levine wants to open offices in those cities.

He believes it’s an attainable goal, but the challenges within the marketing space—and the challenges of attracting talent—mean The Image Group’s growth strategy will continue as a mixture of traditional and unorthodox, incorporate elements from both inside and outside the marketing industry.

“We interview very talented young people, but have a hard time competing against bigger cities,” Levine says. “We have to go to those cities to grow.”

(Photo by David Richard)

Understanding the challenges of growth

The Image Group has a longstanding relationship with Huntington in Northwest Ohio.

Jon Levine, co-founder and president of The Image Group, says his marketing and promotions company has stayed with Huntington because the bank’s team members have gone out of their way to understand the unique challenges and potential obstacles to growth his company faces.

“They have learned about the challenges we face as we continue to grow the business,” Levine says. “They understand that we’re operating in an industry where companies are low on assets but still need financing to grow.”

He says Huntington is always present when The Image Group’s leaders are considering a new growth opportunity.

“They frequently meet with us, review our finances and needs, and talk to us about product offerings that might make sense for us. Building that relationship is key, because relationships are how you develop solutions for issues you’re facing. Huntington gets that, and that’s why we continue to stay with them.”

Jon Levine
Co-founder and president, The Image Group

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