The Ad Game

Playing professional baseball was once his dream, but today Jeff Barnes has a new outlet for his competitive drive in the form of his namesake advertising agency.

By Katherine Pyles


In 2006, Susan Miller agreed to a lunch meeting with Jeff Barnes, owner of a small marketing, advertising and public relations firm called J. Barnes & Associates.

“I approached David Call, the president of Fifth Third Bank, and said I’d like the opportunity to do some marketing for him,” Jeff recalls. “He told me I’d need to speak with his vice president of marketing, Susan Miller, about that.”

“I only took the meeting because I didn’t want to offend my boss, who was Jeff’s friend,” Susan laughs.

Even better than landing Fifth Third’s business, Jeff says, he landed a second date. In 2009, Susan joined Barnes Agency as vice president and COO. In 2011, Jeff and Susan were married. Today, they are the leaders of a full-service marketing, advertising and PR agency headquartered in the heart of Huntington.

“In addition to being the most remarkable woman I’ve ever met, Susan has an incredible work ethic,” Jeff beams. “Her professionalism and attention to detail are unmatched. I might be the face of Barnes Agency, but Susan is the engine.”

Before they became the yin and yang of Barnes Agency, Jeff and Susan were on separate paths. In 1981, Jeff was pursuing his dream of playing professional baseball as a pitcher in the Texas Rangers’ farm system. But when things didn’t work out in baseball, he found a new outlet for his competitive drive.

“I knew I had to get into an industry that would allow me to continue to be competitive,” he says. “The advertising and marketing industry thrives on the existence of competition. If businesses and organizations didn’t compete with each other, there’d be no need for what we do.”

It was as simple as that. He had found his calling.

Jeff worked in the health care marketing field including positions at St. Mary’s Medical Center, Genesis Affiliated Health Systems and Holzer Health System. In 2003, he set out on his own with a marketing, advertising and public relations firm in Teays Valley, where he’d remain until moving the business to Huntington in 2013.

“Before I started the agency, I approached two banks to get some startup money, and I was turned down by both,” Jeff recalls. “Then I approached First State Bank in Barboursville, and the Vallandinghams approved me for a $50,000 line of credit. That $50,000 gave me the confidence and the resources to go out and start my agency, and I’m eternally grateful to them for taking a chance on me. Fifteen years later, First State is one of our longest standing clients.”

When Susan joined Barnes Agency eight years ago, she brought with her 20 years of experience in the banking industry. Her background as the senior VP of marketing for a regional banking system has proven invaluable to the agency’s clients.

“Susan and I have both looked at life from a client’s perspective,” Jeff says. “We came out of corporate America. We were responsible for meeting our employers’ needs and getting results. Because of that, we measure our performance as an agency not by ‘pretty ads’ but by the results we get for our clients. We relate to our clients tremendously because we were once one of them.”

To put it simply, “we want what we do to matter,” Susan says.

Jeff Harkins, president and CEO of Woodlands Retirement Community, says Barnes Agency’s 24/7 commitment to clients feels more like family than business.

“We hired Barnes Agency to help us with marketing, but they’ve gone above and beyond that in too many ways to name,” Harkins says. “They’re not so much an outside agency as they are a part of our team.”

Matt Wagner, president and CEO of Huntington Federal Savings Bank, echoes Harkins’ sentiments.

“You expect creativity and talent from an advertising firm,” he says, “but Barnes Agency offers more than that. They listen to our goals and take them to heart. They build upon those goals over time, and when they propose advertising campaigns to us it’s clear our goals have been at the top of their mind.”

A results-driven approach has earned Barnes Agency a bevy of regional and national advertising awards.

“Susan likes results; I like trophies,” Jeff laughs. “The awards speak both to our tremendous clients, who give us the freedom to come up with creative ideas on their behalf, and to the creativity of our team over the years.”

The husband-and-wife duo don’t work in a vacuum. The agency also employs industry veterans Jenette Williams, director of client services, and Tony Campbell, senior graphic designer. In addition, the agency has a longstanding relationship with Michael Stryker, an award-winning video and film producer based in Nashville, Tennessee.

“This is a tough industry to succeed in. It takes time,” Jeff explains. “You have to do things the right way, without compromising your integrity or values. If you surround yourself with good people and maintain a strong work ethic, the results will follow.”

The Barnes Agency team also trains the next generation of designers and marketers. The agency sponsors a scholarship for students in the Marshall University School of Art & Design and has a formal internship program for students at Marshall University and Mountwest Community & Technical College. It’s an unprecedented opportunity for Marshall’s interns, who go to class and go to work in the same building, the Visual Arts Center downtown, where Barnes Agency’s digital studio is located.

“You learn the technical stuff in class, but here you learn how it all works in the real world,” intern Lindsey Cheek says. “The entire team has a lot of experience. They’re the best teachers I’ve ever had. I’ve learned more through this internship than I ever could have in a classroom.”

Barnes Agency interns aren’t around to take out the trash or memorize coffee orders, Susan says.

“Our interns have real assignments to do and real deadlines to meet,” she says. “Mentoring young people and helping them learn is rewarding, but they help us learn, too. You’re never too big or too important to learn.”

Today, roughly 70 percent of Barnes Agency’s clients are located in and around the Tri-State, while the rest are scattered across the country. Since arriving in Huntington, the agency has provided support to area nonprofits and taken on a number of pro bono projects. Jeff serves on the board of directors for Facing Hunger Foodbank and Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Tri-State. Susan serves on the board of directors for the Ronald McDonald House, where she previously served as president, and United Way of the River Cities. In the ad game, there are always a lot of irons in the fire.

“We take our work home with us. We have to. We’re in the service industry,” Jeff says. “We have clients who are depending on us, and if it requires us to work after hours we do that. It’s what our clients expect of us, and it’s what we expect of ourselves.”

Recently, Jeff launched a project with developers Bob Childers, John Hankins and Alex Vence called “Retire Huntington,” hoping to attract retirees to live in Huntington’s historic buildings.

“One thing I really respect about Jeff is that he never limits his vision,” Susan says. “Sometimes the rest of us can’t see past the details, but Jeff has big ideas and has always lived his life fearlessly. He’s not afraid to do the big things and take the big risks.”

Jeff attributes much of his success to a talented team, a supportive community and clients who dream big. But at the end of the day, there’s no substitute for hard work.

“When I was young, I thought it would be very exciting to own my own company, as I would have a tremendous amount of time to play golf,” Jeff muses. “I haven’t played a round of golf in seven years.”

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