Originally posted on dallasnews.com on May 4, 2017
When the American Advertising Federation recently inducted Stan Richards into its hall of fame, it confirmed what we’ve known for decades: Dallas’ famous bespectacled ad agency icon is a singularly notable dude.
Richards was honored in New York along with seven other legends of the advertising world, including Jerry Della Femina, who brought the world the singing Meow Mix cats.
We all know Richards for another animal — the self-aware “Eat Mor Chikin” cows — and for leaving the light on at Motel 6.
Over the decades, Richards has received numerous industry shout-outs, including induction into the prestigious Art Directors Club’s hall of fame 18 years ago. That honor put his artistic talent — which includes creating the opening sequence to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid — on par with Walt Disney, Leo Burnett, Andy Warhol and Norman Rockwell.
His latest award recognized him for turning a struggling freelance graphic design career in Dallas 64 years ago into the largest independently owned advertising firm in North America, with more than 740 employees and $1.41 billion in annual billings last year.
Going out feet first
The award is considered one of the industry’s highest honors, celebrating legends who’ve raised the standards of professionalism, while inspiring and mentoring younger generations. Past recipients include Dallasites Herb Kelleher and Liener Temerlin, and J. Walter Thompson and Ted Turner.
There is one little catch. While I’m not saying Richards should relinquish his coveted “Golden Ladder” trophy, he might have received it under false pretenses. Richards is supposed to be retired to win it.
“I didn’t know that, and I don’t want to know that,” Richards says after being apprised about the apparently overlooked rule.
You see, at 84, the CEO of the Richards Group figures he’s got a decade or so left before he gives up his drawing pencils or turns over the reins to his agency in Uptown.
“I’m not a golfer,” he says. “And if I were, I wouldn’t want to spend every day on a golf course.
“I’m doing something that I love to do. As long as I’m productive and can do it reasonably well, I’m gonna keep doing it till I croak.”
Richards has a succession plan in place with no plans to put it into play.
“Not unless I go out for a run some morning and don’t come back,” he says.
Over the years, Richards and I have worked together on numerous topics: His employee nap rooms; why he still has people clock in by 8:30 every morning; and his egalitarian, open-space headquarters where only the CFO has a door, but everyone has a view.
The HQ’s main assembly space is a three-story atrium staircase where employees gather whenever there’s any tidbit of news to be shared.
Dallas pit stop
This Peaceable Kingdom reflects Richards’ laid-back but strategic style and follows a success that’s been guided by serendipity.
Like how he never intended to work in Dallas.
In 1953, Richards was on his way from New York to Los Angeles, intent on wrangling his way into an interview with Saul Bass, Hollywood’s soaring star of movie and graphic design.
Richards, at 20 a newly minted graduate of the lofty Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, had known he wanted to be someone like Bass since discovering his artistic talents as a 10-year-old fourth-grader in Philadelphia.
“I wanted to do everything that a designer did, and Saul Bass did it all,” Richards says.
But Richards had never interviewed for a job. His summer internships hadn’t required one. So he thought he’d stop between coasts and practice with agencies in the advertising backwoods of Dallas.
If he goofed up, no one in Hollywood would be the wiser.
But a funny thing happened on his way to La La Land: Richards fell in love with the accommodating people here.
“There’s a certain brittleness that goes with the people that you meet in New York or Philadelphia or Boston or any place along the eastern seaboard,” Richards says. “They put their hands out as if to say, ‘Don’t get any closer than this.’ Here, everybody was just so welcoming and so nice, inviting me to go to church with them, inviting me to have dinner at their houses. I’d never met people like this. That’s why I decided to stay.”
It certainly wasn’t because of the work being done at the agencies here or a meteoric rise to fame.
One agency owner told him to keep on heading west because he’d never make it in Big D.
Despite those testy words, after two years of freelancing, Richards landed a lucrative job ($105,000 in today’s dollars) as a creative director at a big-for-Dallas advertising agency and immediately bought a new sporty white 1956 Porsche. He paid the sticker price of $3,150.
But he hated the work and disliked the way the owner ran the shop. So he quit and returned to freelancing corporate logos and graphic designs and became the poorest Porsche driver in town. One month in 1957, he made a total of $135.
There were weeks when he and his late wife, Betty, ate potato soup every night for dinner, because it was cheap and filling.
“I still love potato soup,” he says fondly. “If I find it on a menu, I always order it.”
He sold that white Porsche in 1959 to make the downpayment on the couple’s first $15,000 home on Junius Street in old east Dallas.
“Going through a time like that gives you a certain level of armament. You can think back and think to yourself, ‘We were OK. We had fun. We did things that we wanted to do that didn’t cost any money.’
“If I had to go through that again, it would probably still be fun.”
That’s a key reason he’s repeatedly turned down offers from global giants — even when they came calling during hard economic times.
Not happening, he says, ever.
Becoming for real
In 1976, Gene Bishop, CEO of Mercantile National Bank at Dallas, hired Richards to do a full-fledged marketing campaign, and that immediately put the Richards Group on the ad map.
“That was the first time that we moved from a design organization to an advertising agency,” Richards says of his band of 15 graphic designers. “We did terrific work for the bank. It had a lot of visibility, so it brought other business to us. It was one of those first milestones.”
Another milestone is the Motel 6 campaign featuring Tom Bodett.
Two years before Motel 6 hired the Richards Group, creative writer David Fowler brought in a folksy Bodett commentary that he’d taped from National Public Radio about Bodett’s life as homebuilder in Homer, Alaska. Richards agreed that this was a voice and an attitude they could employ someday.
The famous tagline “We’ll leave the light on for you” was another instance of the fates aligning.
During a test run, the script ran a tad short, so Fowler and Bodett improvised with the tagline that has stuck with the budget chain’s mostly radio spots for more than 30 years.
Bodett, who introduced Richards at the banquet, says that like any enduring friendship, theirs is one of mutual respect and trust.
“That, and we still crack each other up,” he says. “Stan is the gentleman you often hear about and rarely meet — especially in these days of crass meanness in our public conversation.
“He’s gentle and kind without being a pushover; persuasive without being pushy, and he works like a well-digger every day.”
In 1995, the agency hit on the notion of cows with enlightened self-interest espousing the virtues of eating chicken. It started as a single billboard concept and became the main element of the food chain’s identity.
During his acceptance, Richards singled out Steve Robinson, Chick-fil-A’s retired chief marketing officer who’d been his primary contact at the Georgia-based fast-food chain until Robinson retired at the end of 2015.
But Richards’ thank you was bittersweet.
Robinson’s successor, Jon Bridges, summarily fired the Richards Group in July, taking the business and the cows with him.
Richards says he was blindsided. Sure, trade publications had reported that the Dallas agency might lose the account because Bridges thought the cows were getting a little long in the hoof. But Richards dismissed these rumors as unfounded.
“I thought there was no way that any client would walk away from the most successful campaign in fast-food history,” says Richards. “If you’ve seen what they’re doing, they’re a little lost right now.”
I’m not quite sure if he’s talking about the company or the cows.
Robinson admits he was somewhat surprised by Bridges’ decision, but isn’t going to second-guess it.
He is, however, willing to praise Richards for taking a brilliant billboard idea and marshaling it into an advertising campaign that cost his company a fraction of what other fast-food companies spend and transforming Chick-fil-A from a boring brand to a lovable phenomenon.
“Most people think they’ve got to buy their way to visibility,” says Robinson. “Stan had a quote that I adopted because it’s absolutely true: ‘An endearing brand is an enduring brand.’ He didn’t come up with the first penciled cows, but he followed them through the creative process at the agency for 20-plus years and personally reviewed every piece of creative that was ever sent to us.”
Besides that, Richards spoke cow, Robinson says.
“Given his background in typography, Stan became a fanatic about how the cows spelled, how they wrote. He personally got engaged in the cow font,” Robinson says. “This is going to sound really bizarre, but it’s true: Stan understood the personality of the cows: renegade, fun-loving, unexpected, engagement in things humans take for granted and borderline abrasive. He managed to keep the creative cutting edge, funny and relevant.”
Those traits sound a lot like Richards to me.
“Yes,” agrees Robinson, “but you’re also describing Truett Cathy. He was fun-loving, a practical joker, didn’t mind taking funny little potshots at the beef guys. It was fascinating to me that we backed into an iconic character who reflected the personality of our founder.”
So the loss of the cows was more personal than financial, since Chick-fil-A accounted for less than 6 percent of the agency’s annual billings, Richards says. Dr Pepper and The Home Depot are much larger, and the agency’s stable of clients includes other power brands.
Richards expects 2017 billings to be about the same as last year’s — unless there’s another bovine moment.
“You never know until it happens,” Richards says. “But it will happen sometime soon.”