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When American Movie Classics wanted ads and promotional concepts for the sexy New York television drama Mad Men, they turned away from Madison Avenue advertising agencies (for whom the series is named) and called The Richards Group.
Stan Richards, founder and principal of the Dallas-based agency, has helped deliver more bright ideas than the NBC peacock has feathers. Richards is the professor of “thinkology” for an advertising agency that began humbly enough in the 1950s and has grown into the largest independently owned agency in the United States. Projected billings for 2009 are $1.28 billion. You’ve heard Tom Bodett assuring “We’ll leave the light on for you” for Motel 6. You’ve seen the “Eat Mor Chikin” billboards for Chick-fil-A.
Great ideas got Richards into the Art Directors Club Hall of Fame—with Walt Disney, Andy Warhol and Norman Rockwell. Great work earned The Richards Group numerous awards and mentions as being among the most creative in America.
When you visit Richards.com, you find just four words: Let’s go have fun. You then choose from a Rubik’s Cube, a sketchpad, a View-Master, a musical jack-in-the-box or a paper airplane to find out more. Click on the Rubik’s Cube, and you’ll get the idea: “Some agencies push products. Some sell ads. We tell truths. The truth, as you know, can set you free. It can hurt. It can make you laugh. It never fails to make you think, and it always makes you listen.”
The day that SUCCESS magazine dropped by the chrome and glass headquarters of The Richards Group, you could hear the heels clicking as staffers made their way up the elevators and staircases to the floors of idea central. It was an energizing staccato, the sound of momentum.
Richards writes about his start in 1953 in his book The Peaceable Kingdom: Building a Company without Factionalism, Fiefdoms, Fear and Other Staples of Modern Business (John Wiley & Sons Inc., 2001). He was 20 and fresh out of Pratt Institute in New York, one of the country’s top design schools. He was headed for Los Angeles, but stopped in Dallas to try a few practice interviews. Looking back, he believes he never would have stopped if Neiman Marcus hadn’t been doing good design work. At the time, “Big D defi nitely didn’t stand for design,” Richards says.
It only takes one creative soul to put a town on the design map. Chick McKinney did it in Raleigh, N.C.; Dave Martin in Richmond, Va.; and Ron Anderson and Tom McElligott in Minneapolis. Stan Richards was about to light up Dallas. During his interviews, one creative director told him his work was “junk.” Still, he chose to stay. Armed with passion (and a few cans of potato soup), he opened his sketchpad.
How did he succeed? Some of it was the basics: He credits valuing good work, treating others with respect and fair pay as essentials. Beyond that, though, he made his company’s purpose a clear one: endear brands to people, and do so at every point of contact. Today, that mantra permeates the work of more than 600 “groupers,” who still see Richards at work, snapping the pen from his shirt and drawing possible solutions, helping them find extraordinary ways to say ordinary things.
“I absolutely love what I do,” Richards says from his 12th-floor office, which has no door. He’s a big believer in removing barriers to communication. You won’t find departments or jacked-up titles here. Even the cubicle structures are minimalist to encourage the flow of conversation and, yes, eavesdropping. Gone is the wardrobe guideline to “dress like you’re going to the bank for an $80,000 loan.”
When he speaks, lightning appears to shoot from his head, but this is more a factor of the North Texas weather outside. “I didn’t arrange that,” he says quietly, then grins.
“I decided very early on what I was going to do for the rest of my life, and I’ve never veered off my track,” Richards says. “All day, every day, I get to do what I love to do around bright, talented people who are a joy to be around. And what could be more fun than that?”
For Richards, the fun begins with a daily workout, usually running or cycling at the Cooper Aerobics Center when he’s not traveling on business. Then it’s on to the office, where everyone must clock in by 8:30. If everyone’s in, everyone can participate without holding each other up. Advertising has never been a day job, but Richards discourages “sliding the day” (arriving late if you worked late the night before). Being ready to work is how you get to the world’s biggest advertising stage, the Super Bowl.
“We have the current assignment of writing and producing two spots to run next year. When we do that, because it’s such a huge opportunity, I open that up to every writer and art director in the agency, not just the team that works on the Bridgestone account,” Richards says. “We will go through a series of meetings where we’ll cull the work down to probably eight or 10 spots, but it’s a difficult process because we’re going to look at 120, 130 concepts. All but eight or 10 of them are going to get killed…. We’ll be looking at some great work. Unfortunately, some great work won’t make it in front of the client.”
What should great ideas be? First of all, likable, Richards says. “It’s no different from if you were selling across the counter in a retail store and a customer walked up to the counter. The very first thing you would like to have happen is, you would want that customer to like you, because you stand a much better chance of selling that person something if there’s a positive relationship between the two of you. That relationship may last 10 minutes. And it’s over, and you’ll never see that person again. But, during that 10 minutes, you want respect and a connection between you and the customer. Advertising works exactly the same way.”
Nearly every beautiful idea has really ugly parents, Richards says in The Peaceable Kingdom. How do you separate the two? “Training is everything,” he says. “Our writers and art directors are trained in what they do. You don’t always come up with the right answer and do it quickly and easily. There are times when you just have to beat yourself over the head, and you stay with it for as long as it takes.”
Advertising has been called the wonder in Wonder Bread, but also the rattling of a stick inside a swill bucket. When it comes to the professional group with the most abysmal public image, advertising people are right there with bootleggers and members of Congress, Richards has said. He continues to work toward changing that perception, with no plans to get out now, thanks.
Here’s to “Mor Chikin.”