Richards Group spawns cottage industry of startups
In the five months since The Richards Group was rocked by its founder’s racist remark, a lot has changed—and a lot hasn’t.
The shop is smaller, having shed 15% of staff, or 100 people. It has hired a diversity, equity and inclusion consultant called Do What Matters. But the agency’s name remains the same, and the Stan Richards School of Advertising lives on at the University of Texas’ Moody College of Communications. A spokeswoman for the school says it is “still gathering information and viewpoints. We will share updates and conclusions as they are available.”
The most visible change is a cottage industry of small shops springing up from Richards alums. At least three have hung up their shingle since the beginning of the year: Baker & Bonner Creative Emporium, PlotTwist Creativity and Trace Element.
Opened earlier this month, Baker & Bonner was founded by the creative team of Rob Baker and Jimmy Bonner, who worked together for 17 years and are perhaps best known for Jeep’s “God Made a Farmer” commercial (below) that ran on the 2013 Super Bowl.
PlotTwist Creativity was formed by Dave Kroencke, a 32-year Richards veteran, and Chris Smith, a 22-year Richards exec, to service H.E.B. and Central Market, which decamped Richards. The third, Trace Element, was spun off from RBMM, an in-house design affiliate of Richards Group, into an 8-person indie run by decade-long Richards vets Jeff Barfoot and Lindsey Phaup. RBMM itself closed this year after a 63-year run.
All three shops are staffed with former Richards employees, and they credit the agency with supporting their startups. Still, none of the trio would likely exist if Stan Richards hadn’t begun a client exodus by noting in an Oct. 8 internal meeting for then-client Motel 6 that one of agency’s campaigns was “too Black” and threatened to alienate the motel chain’s “white supremacist constituents.” Shortly after, Motel 6 and Cracker Barrel dropped Richards from their reviews while Home Depot, Keurig Dr Pepper, Shiner beer, H.E.B. and others left.
“If it hadn’t happened, I’d gladly still be there,” says Smith, whose shop ironically opened on Martin Luther King Day. “Dave and I were there for our whole careers and I saw that place as home, which is why we called ourselves PlotTwist. We didn’t see it coming.”
Smith and Kroencke both worked on Motel 6 and H.E.B. at Richards. Motel 6 went to Barkley, but “when H.E.B. decided as a corporate entity to leave The Richards Group, they came to Chris and myself and said ‘We would love to continue to work together, what would that look like?’” says Kroencke. So the pair decided to strike out on their own as agency-of-record for H.E.B. and its Central Market unit, its founding clients.
“We have 10 full-time employees, all from Richards, that frankly most likely could or would have lost their jobs as they were having to downsize,” says Smith, who was interviewed while on a remote shoot for Central Market in Houston. “A lot of those decisions were based on who had clients and who didn’t. We were very lucky that we were able to support all those people,” says Kroencke.
Baker and Bonner, who operated an entrepreneurial creative group within Richards turning out work for Ram, Home Depot, Bridgestone and more, had toyed with the idea of opening their own shop since 2013.
“As creatives, no matter where you are, in your head you think what would it be like if we had our own place,” says Bonner, noting that Stan Richards himself fostered that thinking by forming groups like the one they ran called the Bomb Squad, which was free to take on non-
Richards clients via a firewall. “We had been thinking about it for a long time, and the opportunity to step out and do it was heightened by what happened in October.”
“It was a pretty sad situation to watch,” says Baker. “It affected so many of us in so many different ways. It was something we were not prepared for.”
Baker logged nearly 25 years at Richards and Bonner worked there early in his career, left and returned in 2000. Both are co-founders and chief creative officers at the five-person shop, where they primarily handle projects for clients including photographer Danny Clinch, R&D Brewing, Peacock Alley, Jan Erika Design, Oyster Bamboo Fly Rods and a feature film documentary called “Cowboys.”
Barfoot and Phaup are still working with their former Richards colleagues at PlotTwist as they share the H.E.B. and Central Market accounts. At Richards their internal design group worked on those accounts and others including Home Depot (now in review) and Shiner Beer, which moved to an Austin agency named Bakery. The shop now also works with a coffee called Lavazza 1895 and AT&T, a client it brought over from Richards—for which it designs the company’s diversity and inclusion report. Barfoot is creative director and Pharup director of accounts.
Like most of the new startups, Trace Element execs are reluctant to discuss the implosion at Richards. Although “we had been kind of siloed from the agency,” says Pharup, “we saw it as an opportunity to start fresh.”
“It was surreal and heartbreaking,” says Smith, who is rooting for Richards. “I can’t wait to see what they do. The future is wide open, I am still a fan.”
None of startups have mandated at their new shops the Richards rule of clocking in at 8:30 a.m. sharp. However, laughs Smith, his day as a new agency owner now begins more than five hours earlier. “I wake up at 3 a.m. staring at the ceiling.”