Success Story: Step One CreativeAs it turns 20, Oswego-based PR firm sets pace in highly challenging environment
By Lou Sorendo
His team has done it one creative step at a time.
While Port City native Shane Stepien owns Step One Creative, a highly touted marketing communications firm in Oswego, it is his talented team approach that gives it a distinctive feel and flavor.
Established in 1996, Step One Creative offers full-service advertising design, brand development, public relations, copywriting, media planning/placement, and web development for organizations and businesses throughout Upstate New York. It’s celebrating 20 years in business this year.
Mark Proud, who once operated his own design shop, joined forces as a freelancer initially before developing into Stepien’s valuable full-time colleague and creative director 10 years ago.
The team also includes Stepien’s sister, Shelby Stepien, who is a design and planning specialist. Also helping to anchor the team is art director Mallory Marshall.
“I would put our team up against anybody creatively anywhere,” he said. “Our product is always something we take a ton of pride in.”
The team continuously pumps out new projects on a daily basis, whether it is developing a new website, conceptualizing a new logo design, coordinating an event, developing a news release or producing television commercials.
Stepien, drawing from his previous banking and advertising background, handles all account relationships, media, PR and business aspects of Step One Creative, while supporting his creative team.
He said while it is gratifying to see clients succeed, giving back to the community and paying it forward is paramount.
“There are more things that have come out of this office that people probably don’t recognize or appreciate that we’ve either donated or done for the sake of building this community,” Stepien said. “That’s one of the things I take the greatest pride in, especially over the last 20 years. I can look back and say we truly have made a difference, not only because there is a new brand on a particular building outside and that business is thriving, but because there is a nonprofit that is going to be able to thrive here for generations to come.
“We’re part of the fabric of this community. All four of us grew up here. This is our hometown and we want to see it prosper.”
Step One Creative is located at 317 W. First St., Suite 101 on the first floor of the Stevedore Lofts building in Oswego.
Much of the history of what was once a yarn factory in the 19th century is retained, such as wooden beams and brick walls.
The open environment is conducive for creating banter, creativity and “always throwing ideas around,” Stepien said.
The Minetto resident strives to create a loose, easy-going atmosphere conducive to creativity where employees can dress from business casual to shorts and flip-flops.
“I don’t see any reason to leave this space. We love it here. This will be our last stop,” Stepien said.
The business went through a complete rebrand four years ago when it located in the Stevedore Lofts building.
It introduced a new logo along with featuring a more progressive look and feel to its website that was representative of the office climate itself.
Stepien is from a family that has entrepreneurism in its blood. His mom ran a hair salon for over 20 years, while other family members operated different restaurants and taverns.
“Being independent is exciting, but also nerve wracking at times,” said Stepien, noting that business taxes and healthcare costs are always challenging variables.
In 1997, Stepien was hired as a business development specialist at Oswego City Savings Bank, now Pathfinder Bank.
That same day, he was also hired as an account executive with Latorra, Paul & McCann, an advertising agency in Syracuse.
“I had just purchased my first home in Oswego, and knew I was going to be doing renovations at the house,” Stepien said. “I needed any spare time I had during the day, so I chose to take the position locally at the bank, over the daily commute to LPM.”
Stepien, 47, a member of Oswego High School’s Class of 1987, said it was a great opportunity at the bank, but it differed from his college education and previous advertising-marketing experience.
Stepien earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in communications/journalism at St. John Fisher College, graduating in 1991.
He gained experience in public relations and marketing while working at Ed Vayner & Associates in Fulton before his tenure at the bank.
“While I loved the idea of the new business development position, I had made the decision late in 1996 to setup a dba as Step One Creative, just as a back up plan,” he said. “Well, as luck would have it, the bank made a decision to internalize its advertising and marketing, and I was provided an opportunity to manage that process and provide my previous experience now in the banking industry.”
When Stepien was asked what it cost to launch Step One 20 years ago, his response was “sweat equity.”
“I was basically working full-time at Pathfinder Bank, and then building Step One Creative on my lunch hour and in the evenings,” he said. “My overhead costs were maybe a new laptop, direct mailers, and business cards at the time. There was very minimal overhead because I worked out of my home office.”
In 2006, after nearly 10 years with Pathfinder Bank, Stepien chose to embark on an independent business path and leave his vice president position. He then proceeded to build the agency on a full-time basis — growing annual billings and clients, adding staff and moving into a new office location.
Due to the proprietary nature of his business, Stepien did not disclose specific numbers when discussing how annual revenues have grown through the years.
“We have grown tremendously in clients and gross revenues since we first started,” he said.
During his 20 years in business, Stepien has seen tremendous change occur in the public relations and marketing industry.
Leading that change is the evolution of social media and the far-reaching impact that medium has provided individuals and businesses.
The emergence of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Linkedin, YouTube, Snapchat and other social media companies has set the new standard for public relations, brand development, advertising-marketing to targeted, mass audiences, Stepien noted.
“While traditional media dissemination still exists such as newspapers, TV and radio, the impact and speed that is provided via social media has become extremely effective,” he said.
Like any other industry, public relations and marketing has experienced revolutionary change thanks to technology.
Besides the evolution of social media, the continued growth of smart phones and mobile device advertising has become a viable new source for market reach, Stepien said.
“Computers and their software applications, in general, have provided far greater opportunities from a design and communication perspective,” he noted.
The services and products that are in demand at Step One Creative vary from year-to-year based on clients’ marketing initiatives and strategies, Stepien said.
“We primarily focus on new advertising campaigns and product launches for our existing client base, which might include a blend of both traditional and new social media efforts,” he said. “We do a lot of great brand-logo design projects for new clients, as well as TV/video production, PR, websites and collateral materials. Honestly, every day is a new day with regard to what services we are providing.”
Stepien said his staff is also very focused on the customer experience.
“Our rules of ‘C’ have always governed the approach we take with existing and new clients. The ‘Rules of C’ include commitment, cost-effectiveness, communication, collaboration, customer service and creativity,” he said.
“Having worked in other agencies of varying sizes, one of the things that makes us strong is our size,” Proud said. “Larger agencies have levels of hierarchy that they need to follow. We just get stuff done. With no egos attached.”
Stepien spoke to some of the keys to his business’ longevity.
“We have always loved what we do. We’ve worked hard and put the hours in. We’ve built the right team and partners and always maintained a strong customer-centric approach to our clients,” he said. “Our creative and service offerings have always been tremendous and impactful.”
Stepien gains his gratification knowing that over the past 20 years, Step One Creative has made a significant impact on his hometown as well as other communities it serves.
“We have supported numerous nonprofits, small businesses and government agencies for the right reason — to allow them to thrive,” Stepien said. “We love the fact we can provide long-standing clients and new clients with a great product and service. We love to see businesses thrive as a result of a new brand, website or advertising campaign,” he said. “We take pride in watching an established business reinvigorate its company because of focusing on their marketing budgets.”
In terms of the future, Stepien said he will continue to do what has defined Step One Creative for the past 20 years: design and develop competitive end products and services for his clients.
“We build brands and we will continue to take great pride in that creative process. We’re looking forward to the next 20 years and how it all unfolds,” he said.
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