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Why Stan Richards Will Never Sell: It's the Path to 'Mediocrity'

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Stan Richards
Stan Richards Credit: The Richards Group
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Stan Richards has "watched a hundred agencies be acquired" and said, "I cannot name one that got better."

The founder of The Richards Group in Dallas, the biggest independent ad agency in the U.S., with billings over $1 billion, plans to leave his controlling stake in it to a nonprofit with the stipulation it will never be sold. Stan says the nonprofit will have no say in how the agency is run and will receive a yearly stipend for serving as the stock's safekeeping place.

He's never been tempted to sell to a holding company. "It's been really easy for me to say no," he said.

In a video interview at his open-concept office prior to his induction into the Advertising Hall of Fame, Stan contended that when a holding company snaps up an agency, "it's always a long slide down from what was a really good agency to one that borders on mediocrity. I really believe it's all about economics, and that's why it's an inexorable slide."

Everything The Richards Group makes is paid out to employees in the form of salaries, bonuses and profit sharing. "So if I were to sell the agency, first of all, I'd put an enormous amount of money in my pocket because I own all the stock," said Stan. "I don't need the money, I don't particularly want the money."

And if he did sell, the acquiring holding company would have borrowed the money to buy Stan's agency and therefore expect a 20% return on its investment. That would force it to let some Richards staffers go, reduce or freeze salaries and abandon profit sharing and bonuses (except to the four or five top people).

Stan, spry and agile at 84, gets up every day at 5 a.m. to work out at the agency's top-floor fitness center and is a big believer in "targets of opportunity," as he put it.

When he graduated from the Pratt Institute in New York, he drove across the country to get a job with the great designer Saul Bass in Los Angeles. But Stan decided to stop off in Dallas to brush up on his interviewing skills. "It was an enlightening experience for me because the people I met were very different from the people that I had grown up with," he said.

The people in Dallas "embraced me in a way I had never seen before, and I thought this is a really, really nice city, and I'm just going to stay, and that's the way it worked out."

Before starting his ad agency in 1976, Stan's firm did graphic design work for 20 years or so. One of the major banks in Dallas asked him to pitch its account as a full-service agency and he got the business.

I asked Stan what he considered the most important elements of good advertising. "Well, we start with a simple one. I really believe and have always believed that people need to like the work. It has to be endearing in some way. It may create a smile. It may create a laugh. It may create a tear. It may provide information that wouldn't have come any other way, but there's some element that makes the people like the advertising, and we work very hard to find that element."

Stan said the goal is to solve the marketing problem based on the brief, but once you've done that, "set the brief aside and just use your instincts" to find something stronger than the brief.

Credit: Chick-fil-A

The Richards Group's famous Chick-fil-A campaign had nothing to do with the brief, which stated that Chick-fil-A invented the chicken sandwich and therefore it should do it better than anyone else. The agency was working on an outdoor campaign for its new client, and Stan happened to stop by the workstation of a creative who showed him a thumbnail sketch of two cows that had painted a sign that said, "Eat Mor Chikin," and "that was the campaign."

Richards stuck with Chick-fil-A through controversy, including remarks by the founder's son and CEO Dan Cathy against gay marriage that generated a lot of negative headlines.

Then last year, Chick-fil-A quit The Richards Group. Ad Age quoted Stan as saying that getting fired was "a little hard to understand." The work moved to McCann, which still used the cows, but showed them wearing VR goggles. So I asked Stan if he understood getting fired any better after seeing McCann's work.

"No, I really don't, and I still like the people at Chick-fil-A," he said. "It was a wonderful relationship for almost 23 years."

Stan wrote a book about breaking down walls and avoiding office politics. But he still requires people to come in on time and fill out daily time sheets. "If you don't start on time, then obviously you can't finish on time. Advertising agencies are terrible about that, and part of it has to do with respect," Stan maintained.

The account people and the media people show up on time, but "the creatives wander in whenever they feel like it. I think that shows a lack of respect for the other disciplines because almost everything we do is collaborative."

As for time sheets, Stan's take is if you don't fill them out every day, they will not be accurate, and since time sheets drive every financial consideration, they have to be correct.

Another enduring relationship for Richards -- 34 years -- is the Motel 6 account, which put The Richards Group on the map. The campaign's longtime voice is Tom Bodett, who introduced Stan at the Hall of Fame ceremonies (Tom is also the voice on the elevators in the agency's offices).

"I can walk out on any street in America, walk up to the first person I saw [and say] 'Motel 6,' and our research tells us that there's a 95% chance that person will come back with either of two things," Stan said. "'Tom Bodett' or 'We'll leave the light on for you.'"