When Christopher Parr, a client of The Richards Group for 8 years, read Stan Richards’ comments that a proposed ad campaign for Motel 6 was “too Black” and risked alienating the company’s “white supremacist constituents,” it stopped him in his tracks.
“I was floored as it was so similar to my own experience,” says Parr, who was a marketing and brand manager for high-end appliance maker Wolf and Sub-Zero until 2010.
Parr says that in the eight years he worked with the agency, he was continually frustrated with the lack of diverse talent in ads that Richards devised for magazines including Bon Appetit and Architectural Digest. “All the recommendations were of white models,” he recalls. “My archive didn’t contain diverse models. None.”
“It was an incredibly frustrating experience,” recalls Parr. “As if people of color didn’t cook or couldn’t afford kitchen appliances,” noting, “this was the mid-2000’s, not the 1950’s.”
Parr, who is now CEO of Pursuitist.com, an online publication focused on luxury products, says the agency repeatedly resisted his recommendations on the grounds that using diverse talent “would alienate the average Sub-Zero and Wolf customer,” he says.
Scoffs Parr: “I doubt that a white customer would throw out their $6,000 Sub-Zero refrigerator because a Black model was featured in an ad campaign.”
But there was more than the agency’s point of view that troubled Parr. It was also the lack of diversity in its ranks. “No people of color, or any other nationality. The entire team we worked with was white,” he says, adding. “I don’t ever remember seeing any people of color or diverse talent when visiting their Dallas office.”
“While they are an amazingly talented agency, they have significant diversity issues. It is indicative of their culture,” he says.
Two Richards Groups
In interviews with employees, former and current, it appears that there are two Richards Groups.
The first is a solid agency with good strategic and creative credentials, rigidly efficient and adhering to a strict work ethic and rules put in place by its founder. This Richards Group is paternalistic—a family company where discipline is balanced by a benevolent founder who roamed the halls, addressed hundreds of employees by their first names and treated employees to fishing expeditions and skiing trips to Deer Valley, Utah, on his private Learjet.
The other Richards Group is a fiefdom where senior leaders are obsessed with archaic rules, forcing people to clock in by 8:29:29 a.m. and fining them if they are late. This Richards Group positions itself as a family, but with favored sons: Until recently, only men were permitted on those trips, and until last year—more than four decades after its founding—the agency did not offer paid maternity leave for women.
This Richards Group believes itself inclusive, yet only a handful of Black employees can be found among its ranks. Two who worked told Ad Age they felt like outsiders with little opportunity to advance. When they encountered microaggressions, there was no human resources department to offer recourse. Instead, like all Richards Group employees, they had mentors—generally white—to whom they could not relate.
“The lack of HR made it hard for anyone, especially me as a minority woman, to find an outlet or someone to report the bias treatment. The only women in leadership were women who have been at Stan’s side for decades,” says Brandi Rand, who was employed at Richards as a senior social strategist from 2014 until she quit two years later. (The agency says the “assertion that women in leadership are only those who have been here for decades is not accurate.”)
Says another ex-employee, who is Black, of her mentor: “I did not establish a relationship with her. She smelled of privilege. She was light years away from me.”
Contrast that to the recollection of a white male ex-employee. “They did have mentors when I was there—an objective party who looked out for you and provided you advice and counsel if you needed it outside of a managerial relationship. It was a bit of a safe space.”
When asked about the lack of a formal HR function, the agency says, “that may change.”