As he celebrates a decade in business and rolls out a new Hispanic division, InnoVision Founder and CEO Ric Militi is the calm in the eye of the creative storm. Or at least he tries to be.
Militi, one of the area’s most successful “creatives,” has created a marketing juggernaut at InnoVision, a full-service agency with multiple divisions, more than three dozen employees and a 110% year-over-year revenue growth rate.
The 63-year-old business executive, who’s built InnoVision Marketing Group into one of the largest and most diverse advertising agencies in San Diego, actually has quite a story to tell himself.
Militi came to the U.S. at age 3, the son of Sicilian immigrants whose family landed in New York and settled for a time in Cleveland before moving to Southern California.
Militi grew up in Tarzana where many of his friends’ parents worked in the movie industry. One of his brothers, a successful hairdresser in LA, also worked with a lot of movie stars and as a teenager, Militi dabbled in acting himself, landing smaller roles on iconic 1970s television shows including Happy Days and the Waltons.
For a time, he studied film at Cal State Northridge. “I was good at getting parts but I didn’t really like acting,” he said. “It was kind of boring to me. Honestly, from an early age, I dreamed about working in marketing and advertising.”
But his career path led Militi through a number of other jobs first, including automotive and casino management. He admits to “talking” his way into his first big job, conceiving of and running a successful rental car operation for a major LA car dealer.
In 1990, he opened his own ad agency, The Ad Group, which was based in L.A. and ultimately bought out by a prominent L.A. advertising firm.
When the 9/11 terror attack effectively shut down his next venture, a travel-related ad agency, Militi decided to move to San Diego for a fresh start and ended up working at Valley View Casino and Hotel, where he managed all of the San Pasqual Indian Tribe’s casino-related marketing.
Militi founded InnoVision in 2012, launching with the support of Valley View as the agency’s flagship client.
To serve as InnoVision’s base of operations, Militi bought and renovated a building on Kearny Villa Road, now headquarters for his 40 employees. The 10,000-square-foot office feels like a Soho loft, with lots of exposed brick and an open floor plan. There’s a centerpiece coffee bar that would make Starbucks envious and a fully stocked kitchen on the second floor where all of InnoVision’s employees can select and make their own lunch – and breakfast – every workday.
“My staff really love this space,” Militi said. “Some nights I actually have to kick them out of here.”
Militi’s office has a glass wall facing the open office area and another wall chock full of sports photos and advertising memorabilia that would make the writers of ‘Mad Men’ jealous.
Militi is generous with his time and provides pro bono services to a number of local agencies and nonprofits. “It’s not about Ric Militi anymore,” he says. “I just want to give back at this point in my career and help my people be as successful as they can be.”
Militi calls InnoVision an “Anti-Agency” and has even trademarked the moniker. He describes his company as “Homegrown San Diego with a New York flair.”
When it launched in 2012, InnoVision offered a stable of traditional services, including branding, creative, media services and web development – all completely in-house.
In 2015, Milliti started his own in-house production company – Pretzel Logic – a wholly owned in-house subsidiary that creates cutting-edge commercial and internet films while embracing storytelling and the brand vision of InnoVision’s client roster.
In 2017, InnoVision added a digital department and in 2019 rolled out a PR division.
Never one to rest on his laurels, this year Militi launched InnoVision Español – a division devoted entirely to Hispanic-oriented clients and companies.
Today, InnoVision represents brands in multiple categories including airports, automotive, fast-casual dining, food & beverage, healthcare, tribal gaming and nonprofit.
In 2021, the firm added another big-name client, Palomar Health, the largest healthcare district in California.
“We have successfully combined old-school and new-school philosophies to create an effective and strategic outcome,” says Militi, who in the 1990s worked for George Lois, one of the most influential advertising figures in history.
“George taught me the value of sticky and smart advertising, how to make a message resonate and the strategy that must go behind every campaign,” Militi says.
Militi and members of the InnoVision ‘OPCO’ team at the Kearney Mesa office. Photo by George Lurie
This week, the Business Journal asked Militi more about his anti-agency’s success.
SDBJ: Your company’s revenues have more than doubled year-over-year. What’s driving that growth?
Militi: The extraordinary culture we’ve developed. The culture at InnoVision is special. We spend a considerable amount of time and money cultivating and maintaining it on a daily basis. The culture attracts and retains great talent, and that translates into better work and results for our clients. Our company turned ten this year, and I think that when you hit the 10-year mark, there is a sense of permanence potential clients feel. Now, along with surviving the economic impact of a pandemic, our history gives our clients and potential clients the security that we’re resilient, durable and financially sound. One might ask, what does all that have to do with revenues doubling? The answer to me is simple. Our job is to create compelling, effective and memorable advertising that results in our clients’ financial and brand success. To sum it up: It comes down to the fact that it’s never one thing that causes growth in a company, it’s the combination of everything it does. And to me, that is the definition of “brand” – and an extraordinary brand will bring you extraordinary results.
(Editor’s note: Militi also credits his “OPCO” team – Operation Committee – for burnishing the InnoVision brand. Comprised of nine senior staff members with an average tenure of 7 and a half years, InnoVision’s OPCO is led by Alanna Markey, Giselle Campos and Jose Carrillo.)
SDBJ: Digital ad revenue jumped 35% in 2021 according to the Wall Street Journal, with 78% of that business going to the top 10 digital publishers and platforms. What percentage of InnoVision’s business is digital versus more traditional media forms like print, radio and television?
Militi: Digital advertising now makes up 20% of our gross media placements, which is a substantial percentage when you consider the amount of media we place. It has absolutely solidified its position in the media mix. What I love most about digital is the analytical and statistical information it brings to the party. It allows us to make more informed decisions not only in the digital space but in all our media buying, as we are seeing real-time data that is verifiable instead of the theoretical projections that are available to us in traditional media. But for now, traditional media is still a very important part of the media mix as it sits at the top of the marketing funnel building brand awareness and recall, as well as driving consumers down the funnel to the transactional part of the sales process, which is now the space of the funnel digital owns.
SDBJ: What factors influenced your decision to roll out the new Hispanic division in 2022?
Militi: The Hispanic community is such an important and valuable sector of San Diego and really in the entire country. Our Hispanic team here at InnoVision is representative of this community which makes up a very large percentage of San Diego County (population counts are varied and are estimates, but, in my assessment, anywhere from 30-50% would be accurate). To ignore that much of the population is not only arrogant, it’s foolish. Marketing to any specific ethnic group is very different from marketing to the English-speaking population. Considerations must include accurate colloquial translation of the message, slang usage, improper insinuations, values and much more. Many of our team members are either native Mexicans, Mexican Americans or from South America. Spanish is their first language. In fact, our two longest-tenured members are spearheading the new Hispanic division. Giselle Campos, our senior vice president and senior creative director and Jose Carrillo, our senior vice president and executive art director. Giselle and Jose understand their own community first-hand. We have been executing Hispanic campaigns for clients for several years now, so it made perfect sense to formally organize the team into a new division this year. We are incredibly proud to officially announce its launch through the San Diego Business Journal.
SDBJ: How has COVID changed the way you do business – and the industry in general?
Militi: Because I bootstrapped this company, I wanted to always be financially prepared for a worst-case scenario, and we were. My primary objective was to keep our entire team intact for two reasons; one, because as the CEO, it was my responsibility to ensure their survival and safety and two, to be able to offer our clients as much free marketing support as possible to ensure their survival. Cash flow at this time was critical. So, I personally reached out to every vendor and partner and asked if they could work with me in holding off on payments. The reason I was able to do this is so many of them knew me personally and they knew I would make good the moment the tide turned, which I did. The combination of being prepared for a disaster and our vendors’ cooperation made it possible for me to pay our team members their full salaries throughout the entire time we were remote, which was a year and four months. We also had full team Zoom meetings twice a week so we could stay connected [but] nothing can replace an in-person brainstorming meeting or the energy created by a room full of motivated, passionate people. Great ideas come from collaboration, diversity and banter, and that will always be best when it’s done in person. At the end of the day, COVID gave me an appreciation for the things I used to complain about like traffic, crowded restaurants and long lines in the market. Now when I encounter any of those things I just smile and think, this is great, people are living and I’m part of it. Be thankful.
SDBJ: How does InnoVision differentiate its brand and services from other local agencies?
Militi: We are very different from any other agency I know of or have ever been associated with, so much so that we trademarked the term The Anti-Agency®. One might think that means we’re anti agencies, which is incorrect. It means that we’re opposed to the methodology of how most agencies operate. I’ve already explained how we value and develop our team. That for one, is a huge difference between us and other agencies from the stories I’ve heard from applicants and current team members.
But here’s where we really shine: We do not have one agreement that extends for more than 30 days. Crazy, right? I mean how do you bank on that? You don’t. You bank on the belief that we’re so good at what we do that if a client chooses to work with us, we’re willing to bet they won’t want to stop working with us. This strategy instantly builds a sense of trust and credibility. It also allows us to sever toxic client relationships that result from clients being rude, unreasonable, or lacking vision. And yes, we have terminated client relationships for those exact reasons.
We want to serve as our client’s partner, not a vendor. This concept starts by determining the scope of our client’s needs and then creating an all-inclusive flat fee that supports and works within our client’s budgets. We do not bill by the hour or an increment of an hour. This has tremendous benefits for the client. For one, our client knows they can request anything they need, and it’s included. No new bills, estimates or surprises. This saves the client time and money and gets the job done.
We don’t turn off. This means clients know they can reach out when they need us or just to bounce an idea off us, 24 hours a day. Seven days a week. 365 days a year. We don’t just offer this service, we encourage it – and it’s part of our service model. Business owners and executives have very active minds, and they can’t turn it off until it’s either done, discussed or delegated. We understand this about them because our philosophy aligns with theirs.
We’re not just about pretty advertising. Bottom-line, clients hire us to make their money into more money. We take that very seriously. We treat their money the same way we treat ours. We are very thoughtful about expenses and how we place their media. We demand extraordinary value for the media investments we make on their behalf, and we get it, or we look elsewhere.
We’re collaborative. We listen to our clients and take their requests, suggestions and needs to heart. So many agencies act like they’re smarter than their clients. I find that incredibly insulting to the client. They know their product and business better than we do. At InnoVision, we partner with them, we study and learn how their business operates. We’re interested in them holistically. We believe you cannot effectively market a business you do not understand. So many agencies fall in love with their work and get offended when their clients give them changes. We don’t. To us feedback is collaboration, and we thrive on that.
We’re selective about our clients. We vet our clients, just like they vet us. An agency/client relationship is not much different from a marriage. You have to like the person; your values and goals have to be in alignment and there has to be mutual respect. Being selective with our partnerships ensures successful, long-term relationships with positive outcomes. And our core management team of nine people has been together for seven and a half years. This adds more stability to our organization.
CEO: Ric Militi
Revenue: Up 110% (Y-O-Y)
Headquarters: Kearny Mesa
Contact: (619) 356-3020
Notable: Employees have access to free, fully stocked kitchen and coffee bar within the office.