The NYC Leadership Academy has nine years of experience turning New York City public school principals into better leaders and their students into better performers.

When the nonprofit organization decided to offer its services nationally, the academy chose the Minneapolis ad agency Level to take them there.

"We talk from the heart but we have to use language that resonates with an external audience," said Mary Jo Dunnington, vice president of national initiatives for the leadership academy. "Our language tends to be education-speak, or on an academic level. Not using a lot of jargon is really important. Level helped us develop that message."

At Level, the agency's work is all about brand and reputation, a company's internal and external perception.

"If we can understand that, we can help a company be better performing and get to the brand's essence," said John Foley, the ad agency's CEO.

Level is small -- just 19 employees -- but has a large reputation. "I worked with [agency president] Lois [Dirksen] several years ago at another nonprofit in education and the firm did such a good job getting into the complex educational issues,'' said Dunnington.

"And when NYC decided to go national, I thought of her."

Level started its assignment with the NYC Leadership Academy with an in-depth interview process that included staff, funding organizations, school principals and external focus groups.

"It's not just about brand identification. We want a deep understanding of what drives their business," Dirksen said. "Education is a very personal thing. We're talking about your kids."

The academy, with a $10 million annual budget, has worked with more than 1,000 public school principals in New York City over the last nine years, many of them in high-need schools. Test scores in both math and reading rose in the schools where leaders were graduates of the academy's Aspiring Principals Program.

"A lot of people say that teachers are the single most important factor in student achievement. But there's also a great deal of interest in how we strengthen the leadership that recruits and develops good teachers," Dunnington said.

Foley said it's Level's job to help the academy differentiate itself from the competition and make itself believable to potential clients.

Academy executives were at Level's Warehouse District offices earlier this month to discuss position and direction for their organization. The "war room" for those discussions was still wallpapered last week with ideas and photos for making the organization relevant to users outside of New York.

Slogans such as "power to the pupil" and "take charge of change" jumped off the walls to a casual visitor.

"Our goal isn't to sell an idea," Foley said. "Our goal is collaboration and consensus."

With its research nearly complete, Level's next assignment for the NYC Leadership Academy is to coordinate a redesign of the nonprofit's website to make it more inviting. At the same time, Level will be creating marketing brochures for the academy.

"This is an exciting point for us," Dunnington said. "Level did the information gathering, the focus groups, the testing of language. We're going to have new tag lines and messaging. We're growing one step at a time.''

Foley is author of the 2006 book "Balanced Brand," which became the basis for changing the agency name to Level. The agency was originally called Foley Sackett. Its client list includes Medica, Bremer Bank, Cargill and Dunwoody.

"We have done brand positioning for more than 130 companies," Foley said.

David Phelps • 612-673-7269