A tale of two Richards Groups
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.”
‘Tokenized, underutilized and blamed’
Today’s Richard Group, reeling from the loss of nearly 40% of its accounts, is working hard to distance itself from Stan Richards’ comment, which cost it yet another client, Shiner beer, last week. But there appears to have been a culture of discrimination that existed beyond Stan Richards—intentional or not.
“I don’t want people to classify this as one incident,” says Rand. “Women have a hard time there. And the culture is toxic to people of color.”
The ex-employee interviewed by Ad Age said she “wanted to work in advertising since I was 16,” but once recruited to Richards Group, her enthusiasm quickly waned. “I was tokenized, underutilized and blamed.”
On her first day of work, she says she was brought to meet Stan Richards. Once there, she was dismayed that he kept veering the conversation from her credentials to her hair—which sported long braided extensions. By her third day, she says, she’d counted only 14 Black people of what she says at the time were 742 employees. There were no Black women in leadership and only two Black men. “I observed a system in place and knew right away that, for me, the ceiling was very low,” she says.
It’s possible, and maybe even probable, that some of the bias was unconscious.
Rand says that she has been reading on LinkedIn accounts of current and former Richards employees denying they saw discriminatory behavior, particularly from cisgendered white men, and remarks, “Of course you wouldn’t see it.” And as for those who say the behavior isn’t there, “It just shows you there is a problem. Instead of saying ‘I wasn’t aware of it,’ you should be saying ‘I’m sorry I didn’t see it.’”
One who didn’t initially see it is a third ex-Richards employee, a white man who attended skiing trips that excluded women during the time he worked there. “There are truths to face there,” he says, adding that he was unaware of the maternity policy until he was told about it by Ad Age. “There's a lot to be held accountable for there. I can't believe it wasn't called out sooner.”
According to two people with knowledge of the agency, the rule to disallow women on the agency trips was initially made “out of respect” for Stan Richards’ late wife Betty. And even after the rule was lifted, one former employee said that men and women were still largely kept separate.
Here is how the agency describes it: “Stan had great respect for his late wife Betty. He felt strongly that he never put her into a position to have to hear speculation or rumor and he chose to limit his one-on-one interactions with women outside the workplace. Trips were not related to work, and paid out of Stan Richard’s money, not the agency’s. After Betty passed away several years ago, the trips were opened up to female employees. The accommodations were such that gender-specific trips meant that more people could go and have those experiences with Stan and their coworkers—without having to worry about privacy.”
The lack of paid maternity leave at Richards forced prospective mothers to save up their vacation or sick time in order to be paid while they were home with their children. “This passively led to a cap on women leaders staying at the agency because they needed the maternity leave to start a family,” says one. “Until someone ran the numbers and saw that The Richards Group was losing more money onboarding and hiring new people after women left.” A spokeswoman said, “the decision was made because it was long overdue.”
Rand was one of those women. She took three months under the Family Leave Act, and wanted to stay home with her child longer, but since she was out of PTO took two unpaid weeks of leave. Before she left, Rand trained a new hire who had essentially replaced her role, and who remained doing it after she returned. Rand never regained her accounts, and eventually resigned in frustration. “They took [my leave] as, ‘You shouldn’t have been gone that long,’” she said. “It wasn’t really payback, it was more like ‘You left, so we had to react in this way.’”
As for the Black former employee, she claims she got little to no direction or management from her supervisors. Her briefs were continually changed, and she found herself scratching for assignments. There was no review process, she says, and her boss seemed overwhelmed. After about a year, she was fired for “poor work ethic.”
Parr, the ex-client, says that when he now looks at Sub-Zero’s current site and social channels, “all the faces are still, even in 2020, prominently white.” And he also hasn’t seen much change in the ranks of the agency. “If you browse the Richards Group on LinkedIn, with a few exceptions, you’ll see the whitest ad agency in America,” says Parr. “It is a shame nothing has changed.”
The Richards Group, however, insists it is changing. The shop is still tied to its founder in that he owns the building, for which it is currently paying rent (the Learjet is wholly owned by Stan Richards, not the shop.) And though the agency wouldn’t comment, it’s said to be considering other ways to distance itself from Richards, who has stepped down, including exploring a name change.
But given that The Richards Group is so deeply rooted to a founder who created it in his own image, separating itself after more than four decades will not be easy. Says one ex-employee: “Stan is in the floors, the elevators, the color scheme, the cubicles, and the coffee.”
“Our story and culture were written and refined by Stan for decades,” says a spokeswoman. “But while he has managed who we’ve been up until now, he will not be doing the same into the future. This is a new day. We have many employees working actively and enthusiastically on plans to invent the agency. We’re evaluating all we’ve stood for—the championed and the challenged—and deciding which parts advance and which are consigned to history. It’s a huge task, but we’ve never shied away from those.”