The Evolution of An Agency

My Parting Thoughts (After 31 Years)

In the Beginning

Work life has changed a great deal since my father’s generation. My father worked as the foreman at a paper mill for his entire career. I am my father’s son, because even in an age when moving from job to job every couple of years is commonplace, I stayed put. After earning a Masters of Fine Arts degree specializing in drawing and painting, I had an opportunity to live abroad in London, England for 2-1/2 years. When I returned to the States in 1981, I began my career as a freelance illustrator. To help subsidize my income, I worked 2 to 3 days a week as a contractual production artist for a small ad agency. In 1984, I decided to start my own business in earnest (and get married, while I was at it). My new bride, Claudia, was courageous and supportive, asking only “that we have insurance.” I promised her that we would, and I was off on my career path as the owner of an agency.

The first three years were rough, since neither my wife nor I brought any money into the marriage. We started with little more than a beat up old Toyota Corolla (which I bought for $3,000 cash from the proceeds of one of my first assignments) and a few months’ rent, but love conquers all. I had never viewed myself as a risk-taker, but looking back over my career, I guess I was. Of course, I learned along the way one has to take risks to create a business worth anything. Fortunately, I entered the commercial arena when illustrators were seen as specialists, and we were in high demand. Since computers wouldn’t make much of an impact until the late 1980s, I spent 8 to 10 hours a day, typically 6 days a week, airbrushing illustrations for large and small agencies, freelancers, and company marketing departments. Subject matter included magazine editorials, posters, book covers, cut-away engines, medical illustrations, New Yorker-style cartoons and more, and since Photoshop wasn’t released until 1990, I also did a lot of manual photo retouching.

Early Career

After about a year as a one-man shop, I began to get requests to do design work. I’d typically do an illustration for a print ad and then the client would ask, “Why don’t you lay it out as well? Here is the copy.” For a while, I designed out of my hip pocket, but it wasn’t long before I hired Paula, my first designer. Paula was with me for 10 years, until she set up as a freelance designer in order to spend more time at home with her growing family. I’d like to say that I had a strategic plan for growth, but I didn’t. The business grew organically as work increased. Foolish or not, I never turned anything down in those early years. When a new challenge (um, I mean opportunity) would come along, I’d go for it and then figure out how in the heck to pull it off. I did a lot of figuring things out back then. The one constant was that I always committed to doing my best. That often meant working well above the project budget because I just couldn’t bring myself to do sub-par work. Never just a job, I had passion for what I did. That work ethic served me well (not always in the short run, but over the entirety of my career). By 1998, we were a design firm with seven employees, and soon we began to get requests for larger campaign work that required more strategy.

Ad Agency

In 1999, my six employees and I were working in a 780 square foot office. That needed to change, so in early 2000 we moved into our currant and final office (there had been two offices prior to this). We decided that we needed to stop doing project one-offs, so we hung out our shingle as an advertising agency. This afforded us the opportunity to roll up our sleeves and take on larger clients and offer more substantive services. Over the next couple of years, our staff grew to 8 and we decided to knock out two walls and increase our space to about 1,700 square feet. Later we added a digital photo studio.

Branding firm

In 2006, a few years before the recession, we began to get requests to help our clients better understand their unique offerings and position themselves against their competitors. Our Creative Director at the time, Julie Tibus, already had a passion for branding, and she led us into our final incarnation as a brand development firm. This offered us the opportunity to help our clients at every level. After a few more years, we reached a dozen employees and I knew that twelve felt right. Since I was a creative, not a “suit,” I felt that growing larger wouldn’t serve us or our clients. The last decade has been the most rewarding, as we were a small firm willing to take on big challenges. We expanded into extensive brand development and deep research including customer surveys and focus groups, SEO, user experience, animation, retail brand development and much more — all in-house. Our clients found it appealing that even though we were small, we could do it all.

My Team

Which brings me to the “we” — my staff. I have been most fortunate in the “Hileites” I’ve had the pleasure to work with over the years. Every member we’ve hired was able to handle multiple skills with expertise, something that’s important in a small company. On the few occasions that I’d interview someone with a “big agency” background, I could never find anyone who had the breath of skills we needed. And for nearly the entire 3 decades of my business, I never had an employee leave because they didn’t like the job or the culture of the company. Of course I had to make the difficult decision to lay a few people off over the years, and others left because they started a family, or moved out-of-state, but I was, indeed, fortunate to be able to retain great people. This was one of the most important aspects of our success.

Final Thoughts

Thinking of starting a creative firm? Here are a few suggestions:

  • Treat everybody the way you want to be treated (and I mean everybody, from deliver people, to interns, to potential clients who you know aren’t right for your company). This paid off in a big way when I landed a large client who was referred to me by a person who I had met and given advice to 5 years earlier, when they were a student.
  • Surround yourself with employees who are smarter and more talented than you are. If you think you are the sole reason for your success, you are sorely mistaken. Much of the best advice and counsel I’ve received in my career came from my employees.
  • Change is not the exception, but the norm. If you are adverse to constant change, you can’t run a business.
  • Same goes for conflict resolution. It’s not possible to run a successful business if you expect things to consistently run smoothly. I decided to always try and view client disagreements through their eyes (which was sometimes frustrating for my wife and my staff).
  • Get off your high horse. Embrace humility and admit when you are wrong. Apologize to your employees and clients when it’s warranted. I’m an extremely tolerant guy, but one of my pet peeves is a person full of their own self importance.
  • Always aim for excellence, and your employees will do the same.
  • Technology and analytics are meaningless unless there is a great idea behind them.
  • When someone is dogmatic in their approach, they will nearly always be proven wrong.
  • Finally, creative people need a visual, fun, and supportive environment.

That’s all I’ve got. And now, I will retire to my home art studio. I guess I’ve come full circle since I’m retuning to my roots as a fine artist.

 

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