Stan Richards turned 87 in November, but he’s not slowing down. You can find him at the Richards Group office in Dallas every day at 7 a.m., and he takes spin classes there three times a week. Richards, who founded the advertising agency in 1976, now runs one of the largest independents in the country with 752 employees. Richards Group posted $196 million in revenue in 2018, according to Ad Age Datacenter, and is noted for its long relationships with clients and its strong employee culture. In this lightly edited conversation, Richards shares his fierce belief in independence, and explains why the shop will remain so even after he’s gone.
You say you have been in the ad business one way or another for 67 years. And you remain independent. Why?
Over the last decade or two I’ve probably watched 100 agencies be acquired by holding companies and the problem is I have yet to see one that got better. It is pretty much preordained that once an agency that might have been interesting, exciting and doing terrific work when it was independent, after it was acquired and a few people at the top of the company got very rich, it started a long slide downhill. The work changed, the people changed, the attitude changed and instead of dedicated to doing the best possible work it was now dedicated to making sure that the stockholders are paid appropriately and made enough money. As a result of that I’ve made it very clear to all the holding companies that have called over the years that we are not for sale now, we will never be for sale and I’ve even seen to it that even after I croak we will still not be for sale.
How have you managed that?
There are a lot of people who have dedicated their careers to this agency. They have been here a very long time and the last thing I would do to them is to have them suddenly wake up in the morning and find out that they are working for a holding company. So I’ve arranged for this company to be donated to a nonprofit that will act as a repository for the stock. They will be prohibited by contract from ever selling the stock. The agency will continue to operate as an independent.
Richards has a reputation for long client relationships.
We have a pretty good track record. We have been the agency for Home Depot for 26 years. We were the agency for Chick-fil-A for 23 years. We have been the agency for Motel 6—I believe that’s the longest-tenured client we have—that’s going on 34 years.
Speaking of Motel 6, did I read that your elevator plays their jingle?
Not quite. When you take the elevator to the ground floor to leave the building, a voice says “Floor one. We’ll leave the light on for you,” in the voice of Tom Bodett.
You mentioned Chick-fil-A. That was an almost personal loss for you. Has your attitude toward it changed since you lost the account in 2016?
A very important part of it was Steve Robinson, who was CMO. He is the person who hired us and we reported to for the entire 23 years. When he retired, someone was put in that role of CMO who really had no background in marketing. He was a very senior IT guy and a really, really, nice person. But he was not a fan of the cow campaign, despite the fact that it was the most remarkably successful marketing campaign in the history of the category. Ultimately, we got fired. It was a sad moment for us, but those things happen and you have to live with them when they come.
Does it still sting after all these years?
Sure. I think about it regularly. It was probably the lowest point in my career when we were told Chick-fil-A was going away.
What would you consider your career highlight?
About three to four months ago, I had an early morning meeting that one of our senior brand management people and I were going to attend, and he was going to pick me up in front of the building at 8:30. At 8:28, I stood there waiting for him to come pick me up and I watched this long, long line of cars driving past me and pulling into our parking garage. And as I watched all of these cars—there must have been 700 of them—I could not help thinking about the fact that there were all of these people who were buying homes, raising kids, putting them through college and leading really exemplary lives partly as a result of who we are and what we do. That was a telling moment for me. It was a career highlight for me.
Do you go in every day?
I’m here at 7 every morning. We have a gym here and I work out here every morning. I’m usually at my desk about 8:05, maybe 8:10. And I’m here until 5:30 or 6 every day.
Do you still run?
I was a runner up until about 6 or 7 years ago. I had a hip replacement and that pretty much ended my running career. But over the years that I ran I accumulated 45,000 miles.
When you look back at your career, is there anything you would have done differently?
I don’t think so, because my career has never changed. It’s all about the work. All of my work is related to the creation of advertising that I’m excited about, the clients are excited about, and the customers might be excited about. I don’t think there is any circumstance in which there is any regret about what we’ve done so far.
So you are not planning on retiring anytime soon?
No, I’m not. I’m just going to keep doing it until I croak.