Several years ago, I found myself emailing four questions to one of the most notable agency owners and creatives in the business, Stan Richards, founder of The Richards Group. On a Saturday morning, nonetheless. Within five minutes, Stan responded to my email and suggested we meet and talk about these topics.
I flew to Dallas that week and had an inspiring discussion with Stan about business and culture-related issues, running a successful independent agency and how to take care of your clients, staff and the business. Today, I’m lucky to refer to Stan as a mentor and continue to share his principles with my team. Every new hire gets a copy of his book, The Peaceable Kingdom.
Over the last decade, I’ve had the opportunity to continue to bring business questions and challenges to Stan. Here are the top five things I’ve learned from him, which are applicable beyond the agency sector:
1. Culture breeds creativity.
Get rid of the distractions and drama and all the things that take you away from doing great work. When you have an open and transparent culture, people aren’t worried about gossip and all the things a bad culture brings.
As a result, your team can be innovative, creative and focus on the work. This also leads to more ideas being shared. Having an open culture allows your team to throw all kinds of ideas out on the table and not feel judged for them.
2. Not having structure in a creative agency is a bad idea.
I’ve mirrored the structure of my agency on the way Stan has structured his: in multidisciplinary teams. When we began to grow as an agency, we didn’t want to lose our ability to be quick and nimble for our clients, so we decided to grow into multidisciplinary teams rather than departments. Each team is comprised of all disciplines of a full-service agency: creative, digital, media, PR, brand management, strategy, etc.
Each team is led by a principal and each team manages its own projections. Beyond being nimble and allowing for scalable growth, the teams also learn the other disciplines’ day-to-day wins and struggles. The teams also sit close to their other mates, which fosters great communication between disciplines.
This setup goes against the grain, with many marketers believing that having too much structure in a creative firm dilutes the creative. I’ve found it to be the exact opposite.
If you have a structured process and a structured way that ideas and work flow through the agency, then all the second-guessing is put to bed. People can focus on the work, goals and the client, not on the process.
3. Your client is your partner.
I’ll never forget one of the pieces of advice Stan mentioned early on: A good idea is a good idea no matter where it comes from. That means if your client comes up with a good idea, your agency does not have to trump it. Let the good idea happen. Make it better if you can, and execute it.
This made me rethink the agency-client relationship. We’ve structured our agency, MESH, on this very premise: What do our clients have in-house and then what do they need from us in addition to those resources? How can we put them together and work together most effectively? It’s not the agency that’s always right. Let’s be right together and make sure what we’re putting out there is great work.
4. Don’t just build a company, build careers.
No matter where people end up five years from now, I want them to carry what they learned at MESH with them throughout their career. Ensure your agency has a positive effect on the people who work there.
Stan shared his team structure approach and how it allowed for less limited growth. There are no departmental ceilings that people will hit. There can be 17 creative directors in the same agency on different teams.
Focusing on what people want out of a career is extremely important. Don’t ask yourself what an employee can do for your agency. Ask them: What can we do here to get you where you want to be? As a result, sit down and have developmental planning meetings with staff who are interested in the process.
As an example, I recently met with one of our team members who’s an amazing art director. We went through her path, and I learned that she’s really interested in video. By having that conversation, we were able to pay for her to take video courses. Consider making each individual better, not the company.
5. Give back what has been given to you.
Stan owns the largest and most successful privately held agency. And he responded to my email on a Saturday morning. He taught me that most successful people are successful because they are willing to share how they got there with other people. So, anytime anyone asks for career help, respond.
For the most part, people who are interested in working at our agency will get an interview, even if we’re not hiring. Our internship program speaks to giving back. We’re working with college students in the summer and helping them figure out what they want to do within this career. Stan taught me that most successful people are successful because they are willing to share how they got there with other people.
I’ll close with one final impressive thing about Stan that I’ve come to know: His memory is like a steel cage. He’s 86 years old and still remembers more about our conversations from months ago than I do. We still have so much to learn from this impressive and genuine leader — if only I can remember it all to share down the road.