Jeff Terpstra was on the verge of closing Scott Allen Creative shortly after the Great Recession. Courtesy Jeff Terpstra
Scott Allen Creative is not your standard marketing agency.
Founded by Jeff Terpstra, the Grand Rapids-based agency’s primary focus is helping nonprofit organizations with their marketing and branding campaigns.
Nonprofit organizations such as Paws With a Cause, Habitat for Humanity of Kent County, Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired, Phoenix Day and Family Promise of Grand Rapids are just a few of the agency’s clients.
Terpstra’s inspiration to narrow his business preference is based on his personal experience. He grew up in a household where his mother slowly became blind, a father who joined the construction industry and six siblings who followed suit.
Terpstra, the sixth of seven children, always had a growing passion for something different but not unusual. Similar to the design element that is associated with construction, Terpstra had that same passion for design, except he wanted to do it differently. He had a growing passion for the arts, which his father supported.
“When I was a young kid, probably about 10 or 12 years old, (my father) said, ‘Jeff, jump in the car,’” Terpstra said. “It was on a Saturday morning, ‘I want to take you somewhere.’ At that time, it seemed like a long trip from Wyoming all the way to downtown Grand Rapids. We crossed the river and came across right on Fulton Street. There was an art store that while we drove up to the parking lot, I wasn't even sure where we were. But when we entered the store, I was just like wide-eyed because all around me was art supplies. It was like this world of wonderland to me as a little kid who loved to draw. He really opened up the world of art for me at that time. He said, ‘Jeff, just buy whatever you want, you can buy paints, pastels, anything.’ He just opened up the world of art by offering me a very generous gift.”
As Terpstra’s passion for the arts grew, his mother’s vision was getting worse.
“She started tripping over things,” Terpstra said. “She couldn’t write or sign her name on documents very well, anymore. She would burn her hand on the stove, she couldn’t walk outside on her own because she would fall or trip over things. She wasn’t able to iron her clothes the same anymore, (She couldn’t) shop … on her own. One by one, things were taken away from her life.”
Despite the decline in his mother’s independence, Terpstra said his family was able to find a nonprofit organization that taught his mother how to adjust her lifestyle after she was declared legally blind when Terpstra was 13 years old.
The Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired visited the house often to teach his mother how to do things differently, such as turning the handle of a pan to the side instead of the front of the stove, measure things in a measuring cup by using her fingers, sort things by using different tags to put on different colors, fold a $10 bill differently than a $5 bill, among other things.
“She inspired me by saying that even though you might have disabilities, we can still live our life to the fullest, we can still contribute to each other's needs and not give up on life, even when we go through pain and suffering … and trust in God,” he said. “My parents had a lot of faith in God, and they passed it onto us.”
Terpstra took all that he had lived through in his childhood — his love for art and witnessing a nonprofit organization teaching his mother how to adjust to a new way of life — and decided to make a profession out of it.
His love for art took him to Kendall College of Art and Design, where he learned he could tap into his creative side for a living by working at an advertising agency or marketing firm.
Terpstra worked part time and took about three to four classes per semester in order to pay for his education. It took him six years to get his bachelor’s degree, but during that time, he worked at a landscaping company and an advertising agency.
(For) landscaping, I designed the projects,” he said. “So, (I was) designing the three-dimensional setting for that family or that business. The textures, the color of the flowers and plants. (It was really) an art form. I loved it. I almost did that instead because I loved it so much. We were working with our hands, getting our hands dirty and actually creating something that people could enjoy. But I guess my love for art won over even that.”
As a result, in 1996, Terpstra began working from his home to be around his wife and children, doing illustrations and designs for both corporate and nonprofit clients. Terpstra recalled about 12 years ago, a client asked him to partner with them to strategically market their products and company to their audience. With that opportunity in hand, Terpstra said he became inspired by author David Ogilvy, who Terpstra said wrote about getting to know the company you are representing, whether you are a designer or copywriter or an illustrator or a videographer or a web developer, before you start to develop their message or brand.
“Now, when we do nonprofit work, we'll do usually about 20 to 30 interviews, one on one with all the key stakeholder groups, like interviews with a group of donors, the people they serve, the clients whose lives are being changed, with the executive team, with volunteers, with major donors like foundations and corporate sponsors and really get to know the heart of the organization,” he said.
Terpstra opened the office for his marketing agency in 2008. Although he spent the first 12 years of his business designing out of his home, he successfully had a growing national client base, which included banks, golf course, arenas, manufacturers and real estate companies.
However, Terpstra went through one of the most challenging times of his professional and personal life in the first couple of years after he opened his office.
“2008 to 2010, it was like a season where we lost clients one at a time because their budgets were cut,” he said. “I had to let go of my employees. I was just at a time where other agencies were cutting back, too. So, I told my wife, ‘I can't just quit Scott Allen and get hired somewhere else. No one else is hiring. They're letting their creative directors go, their art directors go.’ Everyone was cutting back.”
Terpstra was on the verge of closing his own business. He had one proposal that he had put forward to a client and on that client’s yes or no depended the future of his firm.
“I told my wife that week, ‘Honey, if they don't sign on, I'm just going to quit, close my doors and just work at Walmart, anything, just do something else,” he said.
“I really felt like a failure as a dad, as a father, to my children, to my wife as a husband and to my business, and then that brokenness and weakness on myself.
“(Then, I had a) thought, if the Lord keeps Scott Allen open, if we keep moving forward with Scott Allen, I really want it to have a greater purpose. I really want it to be … a part of those nonprofits who are making a difference in the world and changing people's lives.”
Luckily for Terpstra, the client accepted the offer, bringing a sense of hope to sustain his business.
About three years ago, Terpstra made his promise a reality, when he and his staff committed to focus on services to nonprofit organizations that help people who are facing domestic violence, addiction, homelessness, depression and unemployment, among other things. In 2018, Terpstra expanded his business to Phoenix, providing the same services his clients receive in the Grand Rapids office.
“Our greater purpose (at) Scott Allen Creative as an agency is to really help by creating a really powerful brand and getting that right, that we're going to help that nonprofit expand their cause, move forward and change even more of our world,” he said.