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NINETEEN-NINETY-THREE WAS A VERY GOOD year for The Richards Group. Not to be put off by earlier near misses in the Mercedes and Porsche reviews, the Dallas agency nailed two big wins, the Continental Airlines and Home Depot accounts, worth about a combined $80 million. Along with a passel of smaller accounts added last year, the agency figures it upped its total billings $115 million-to a relatively whopping $265 million. By contrast, back in 1984, the year founding father Stan Richards, now 61, got his own Wall Street Journal ad ("Stan's Stand," it was headlined), total billings were $53 million. Couple that with The Group's longtime radio reputation-it is the home of the all-everything Tom Bodett-for-Motel 6 phenomenon, after all, as well as very funny campaigns for American Spirit insurance and others-and the outstanding print that's been flowing of late, which copped a pace-setting seven Pencils at the '93 One Show, and you have an explosive situation that in many ways mirrors the success of New York's Deutsch Inc., but for one key factor: Where Deutsch has its share of hot TV, The Richards Group reel, as Richards creatives will readily admit, is still sitting a touch short in the saddle.

"The TV is just good, it's not great yet; we're still working on that," says creative director/writer Todd Tilford, who, understandably, may be a touch too charitable here. The current reel includes less than memorable spots for Memorex, TGI Friday's and Whataburger, and there's even a lingering :60 for former client 7-Eleven-one of those sentimental family reunion tales with an unbearable airport hug scene. The first batch of spots for Home Depot doesn't do much with either the sincere-employee strategy or real-people comedy with title cards and the usual trailer park stiffs, and a regional Continental series that pushes Peanuts Fares stars a peanut farmer who does low-sodium Jimmy Carter shtick.

To be sure, there is some better work on the reel: a commercial for Texas Cadillac dealers portrays imported gas guzzlers as prize pigs; a Motel 6 spot that's nothing but black screen to demonstrate what any room looks like in the dark is as engaging as the radio campaign; a Rainier beer spot has a mildly amusing transvestite version of the old Senor Wences talking hand routine; and, probably the best of the bunch, a (1991) McCaw Cellular spot features a giant man bound with telephone lines bursting Gulliver-like to a new world of wireless freedom, as telephone poles dangle from his wrists.

Still, one has to wonder, what gives? Does anybody do great TV in Texas? Grant Richards, 34, a Richards Group creative director and son of Stan, doesn't think so. "There's an occasional good one out of Tracy-Locke and GSD&M, and aside from that it's pretty mundane." Beyond the fact that The Richards Group is handling a "disproportionate number of retail accounts," the problem, at least at his agency, lies with a particular "mentality," Richards believes. "I think a stiffness sets in when you set out to do television. Everybody expects it to work really hard; there are generally too many people involved, and maybe we all try to do too much. This doesn't happen with print." Asked to name the best commercial ever to come out of the agency, after a pause the junior Richards, who prefaces his answer by saying, "I'm not a big fan of our reel; I would have different spots on it," finally suggests a Texas Department of Health AIDS prevention message.

Stan Richards offers a regional spin on the TV lag: "Part of the reason is we tend to be dealing with smaller budgets than many agencies in other parts of the country; whereas in print you can often pull off wonderful things with small budgets, in TV you may not get the chance to use the premier directors around the country. That's always an inhibiting factor, and that's a function largely of geography."

Guy Bommarito, creative director at GSD&M, an Austin rival, agrees: "Texas agencies are probably more a victim of budgets and missed opportunities. The Richards Group prizes concept above everything else, and that's to their credit, though their production values may not be as sophisticated as some other Texas shops. I don't know that they understand the medium that well yet, but I see great strides just in the last year on some of their accounts. They'll continue to impress people."

They've impressed plenty of people in the past few years with print campaigns that fre quently recall the hipness, polish and overall graphic chic one would more readily expect from a Goodby, Berlin & Sil verstein or a Margeotes Fertitta Donaher & Weiss. Tilford, who's been at the agency about four years, notes that while the shop has a rich history of fine art direc tion and classic de sign-after all, Stan, a Pratt Institute design grad, converted the pri vately held company from a design firm to a full-service shop in 1976-recently there has been a resurgence in cre ative, with print that he feels can stand up to the likes of a Goodby or Wieden. Now that they've got "a neat mixture of large clients and really cool small clients," this work "has a new look, a new attitude; it's not the old traditional Richards Group clean, straightforward look," says Tilford. "It's a little hipper."

To what may we credit this infusion of grooviness? Well, it apparently owes much to Tilford himself, which is a bit odd, since he's a copywriter. Yet Grant Richards, who heads a creative group with Tilford and often teams with him, says if he had to attribute the print parade to one person, it would be his good buddy Todd, who, interestingly, joined the agency from GSD&M (the 30-year-old Kansas City native started at local Valentine Radford and went on to O&M/Hawaii before settling in Texas). "He's been pushing us," Richards explains. "There are a lot of talented people here, but he lit a fire under everybody. He pushes the art directors and he is indeed partly responsible for even the look of the work." (On the subject of leadership, incidentally, Grant, though it may seem natural that he is the apparent heir, does not consider himself the heir apparent. "I'm just another creative guy here working really hard," he insists. "I'm in no way being groomed for that, and it's not something I really even thinking about much.")

Modesty prevents Tilford himself from assuming any keeper of the flame honors, though Stan Richards agrees that the Tilford/Grant pairing is leading the new wave; he'd prefer to let the awards speak for themselves, and it's hard not to note that Tilford has a writing credit on all seven One Show Pencil winners, which, by the way, are heavily hogged by a fresh-sans-flesh Tabu lingerie campaign (art directed by Jeff Hopfer) that won in Direct Mail, POP and Outdoor categories, nailing three Golds, a Silver and a Bronze.

Not to say that there isn't plenty of other potential award-winning print. Strangely fashionable Harley-Davidson of North Texas clothing ads already took a Direct Mail Silver Pencil (Harley art director Bryan

Burlison has since left for Chiat/Day/Los Angeles), and cool craftsmanship for Optique eyewear (Tilford and Burlison), McQueeney neckties (CW

Tilford, AD Grant Richards), Neiman Marcus (CW Kevin Swisher and AD Dennis Walker), Rainier beer (CW Tilford, ADs Richards and Patrick Murray), a Dallas FM station known as 94.5/The Edge (CW Tilford, AD Terrence Reynolds), and a very consumerish-looking Memorex trade campaign (Tilford and Richards) all call plenty of well-deserved attention to themselves. Among the piquant writing here is a McQueeney ad that pictures a wildly hued tie and the line, "Every once in a while, just for fun, we feed LSD to the silkworms," while a new Harley fashion ad, also written by

Tilford, features a darkly threatening photo of a typical studded leather motothug and the line, "The necktie is society's leash." Versatile writer, huh?

Others, however, remain skeptical of the agency's growing reputation. One former Richards' creative, who prefers to remain anonymous, pooh-poohs the agency's print thusly: "There is some startlingly brilliant work there, but I think they've built a creative reputation for clients that don't really exist. A lot of the work is for barbershops and lingerie shops. Are they really in the business [of selling], or are they just conjuring up ways to make interesting advertising? I don't know of any large clients that they're doing great work for."

Grant Richards points to print for Memorex and Neiman Marcus, clients who are certainly well beyond any dismissive "barbershop" designation, and notes that "by New York standards all our clients are small; by our standards" some of the larger print clients are "medium size."

In any event, the ads surely do build a creative reputation, and a part of the "barber shop" strategy is of course to parlay hip print into hip TV. The G. Heileman beer brands, most of which were wooed to Richards last year, including Rainier, Colt 45 (both formerly at Deutsch), Henry Weinhard's and Lone Star, hold much creative promise, and he's confident that the Home Depot and Continental work will mature over time. Stan Richards points out that right now, in fact, a big-budget shoot is underway for Weinhard's, with Peter Smillie directing, and he's expecting spots that live up to the brand's creative legacy at Hal Riney. Stan, again taking a stand of regional solidarity, is also encouraged by Dallas rival Temerlin McClain's recent Subaru win: "Anytime an agency in this region has a big win, it helps all of us. It improves the general level of production capabilities in print and broadcast, and it provides solid employment for good art directors and writers. A win for them is a win for us." (Some consolation, conceivably, for Temerlin, which lost out in the Home Depot finals along with New York's Messner Vetere.)

As far as new, preferably consumer products TV prospects go, the agency attitude is a hopeful, "We'll leave the light on for ya." "Presumably there are a lot of potential clients that are smart enough to recognize that if you can do good print, you can probably do good TV," says Grant.

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