Hi, this is Tom Bodett for Motel 6. Oh sure, it'll be rough to survive one night without avocado body balm or French-milled soap, but maybe the money you save'll help you get over it. It always works for me.
And this is Stan Richards, 1995 AIGA Medalist. A designer who says he's most proud of his twangy radio spots for a no-frills motel chain. Stan is the ad man in the rarefied world of graphic design, the slick Easterner among the straight-shootin' Texans. He defies easy characterization. “Just call me a creative guy,” he says.
People cal him all sort of things. Pentagram partner Woody Pirtle has called him “the ideal businessman, salesman, teacher, and mentor.” Rex Peteet of Sible/Peteet has called him “my cheerleader, my muse, my conscience, my dad, my friend, my critic, my enemy—all in the same day.” He's been favorably or unfavorably compared by various Richards Group “alumni”—all now highly successful entrepreneurs in their own design and advertising businesses—to Leonardo da Vinci, Midas, Machiavelli, Hemingway, E.F. Hutton, Michael Jackson and God.
Stan Richards, founder and head of the Dallas-based Richards Group, is the quintessential advertising agency executive. In fact, his agency is the only one that's been named “agency of the year” four times by Adweek magazine. He's also the quintessential graphic designer, principal of Richards, Brock, Miller, Mitchell & Associates (RBMM), one of America's premier design firms, winner of too many major design awards to count. And as head of various entities that create and produce print advertising, television commercials, radio spots, film titles, annual reports, corporate logos, public relations, sales promotion, and marketing communications of all kinds, he is perhaps above all the consummate businessman, named “entrepreneur of the year” by Inc. magazine in 1995. How many entities he runs and how much money they all make is a bit of a mystery. “A bunch” is all Stan will say, admitting that he has 315 employees, $300 million in annual billings, two buildings in the north end of Dallas, and clients from San Francisco to Yarmouth, Maine.
Stan was born in 1932 in West Oak Lane, Philadelphia, a typical suburban neighborhood. His father was a bartender and his mother a hostess at restaurants and social director at hotels. When he was in high school, the family moved to the New Jersey shore and Stan played basketball for Atlantic City High, where he “drew better than anybody else.” “Everybody's mother thinks they can draw better than the other kids in school,” he says. “My mom thought I could draw better than anybody else in the whole world.” This constant familial encouragement, coupled with the “real” feedback of always being chosen poster contest winner, brought him to the Philadelphia Museum School and then to Pratt Institute, where he came under the tutelage of the legendary Hershel Levit, the teacher who has been credited with being the most significant influence on the careers of Gene Federico, Steve Frankfurt, Len Sirowitz and other advertising luminaries who, along with Stan, learned the ropes at Pratt's Brooklyn campus in the late '40s and '50s. “It was a terrific program,” recalls Stan. “The best school in the country. Extraordinarily broad-based. We learned 2-D, 3-D, color theory, illustration, lettering, how to make great ads, and more important, how to make good judgments.” Unlike many of his classmates, though, Stan didn't stay in New York. Inspired by the work of Saul Bass (“one of my heroes”) and the Office of Charles and Ray Eames, he decided to take off for L.A. after graduation to do the kind of work for which Doyle Dan Bernback was starting to get famous. For some reason he decided to stop in Dallas on the way there, and spotted an opportunity that nobody else could se at the time. “I was one of better kids out of Pratt,” says Stan, “with a highly advanced portfolio. Dallas was a cow town. I mean, it was a retarded advertising community. But I saw that Texas was going to grow and flourish. Good work was going to be really difficult to sell. But if I could stick to it, I could become the predominant designer. It took a lot of years, but we did it.”
It's interesting that he doesn't say, “I did it.” From the beginning, Stan was a “we” kind of guy, a team builder. The Richards Group/RBMM may be the only creative organization in the country that has something akin to an alumni association, having nurtured the careers of, in addition to Pirtle and Peteet, such important design firm principals as Jack Summerford, Don Sibley, Cap Panell, Arthur Eisenberg, Jerry Herring and Mark Perkins. And then there are the ones who stayed, including Dick Mitchell, Steve Miller, Ed Brock, Brian Boyd and Kenny Garrison. Some of Stan's partners and colleagues have been with him for more than twenty years.
Stan started his Dallas career by taking a job with the Bloom Agency. “I hated it,” he says. “I hated the politics and the bureaucracy, but I figured you owed an employer at least a year.” In 1953 he and his wife, Betty, began selling freelance design services to agencies that were looking for outstanding creative. And soon there was a milestone month when they billed $135. They spent their times looking for the best clients, putting together the best-run shop in town, finding the best people and getting them to do their best work. Looking back on those years, Stan says, “I made a point of seeing every kid who wanted to see me. I hired the most immensely talented people. I taught them how to run a highly disciplined organization, and how to run it profitably. I taught them how to fight very hard for doing things right. It took a while, but soon we dominated the local awards shows. And then my competitive instincts ran nationally.”
They still do. Today, Stan crisscrosses the country in his private jet, moving from client to client, from briefing to presentation, from mission to accomplished.
Although he may be most proud of his work for Motel 6, he deserves equal acclaim for—among many other achievements—developing the theme annual report (over twenty-five years of outstanding reports for Loman Financial Corporation, which celebrate the American home and family); for using graphic design to help transform TGI Fridays from a single restaurant to a $.5 billion, 400-strong chain; for designing the title sequence for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (Saul Bass must have been pleased); and for orchestrating multifaceted marketing campaigns that launched and ensured the success of Rouse Company real estate projects nationwide.
“Why categorize yourself?” he asks rhetorically. “I want my clients to say, 'I've got a good creative guy.' Some clients who see me as an advertising guy don't even know I'm a graphic designer. And don't care. The difference is the business relationship. Being a designer is a project-based relationship; you're purely focused on one aspect of the work, the design of it. In advertising, it's a long-term, overarching business relationship, which can take place over many, many years. You do anything and all things to enhance the client's business. It could be TV, print, radio. I write headlines, theme lines, come up with ideas for campaigns, do thumbnails.”
A typical workday in the life of Stan Richards finds him up at five in the morning, taking a four-mile run with “a couple of buddies,” maybe a CFO type and a young art director. Then it's in the office by 7:45 a.m. and “endless meetings,” sometimes twenty meeting a day. Some last a few hours and others take three or four minutes, if, as Stan puts it, “That's all the time you need to sit down with top creatives and go over what they've been doing. When you have good, strong people turning out terrific work, sometimes all you have to say is, 'That's great, let's go.'” After a morning of meetings he might be off to a lunch presentation in San Antonio, then a meeting with a CEO in Orlando, then back to the office before leaving for home—rarely later than 6:30 p.m. “I've always been very committed to family,” he says, “real attentive to being home in the evenings. From the beginning I was not going to be the kind of person who was not there for dinner.” Stan and Betty have been married for almost forty years. Grant, their older son, is a creative director in San Francisco; Brad is a clinical psychologist at Harvard Medical School.
A typical non-work day in the life of Stan Richards in something else again. He's into cars, fishing, and music—each in a typically big, Richards kind of way. In cars, he's “won lots of trophies” rallying a racing, and thinks he may be better known to more people in the car world than the ad world. Fishing means chasing blue marlin around the Gulf of Mexico. And music used to be the way he earned his living before people in the oil, financial, health care and real estate businesses in Texas and around the country got wind of his other talents. In the late '50s he had a live television show on Dallas's CBS affiliate in which he played the five-string banjo, sang and interviewed local celebrities. “I played professionally in bars through school and in the first years when selling design was a real struggle,” he says.
Although the struggle has long been over and Stan's legacy as designer and ad man is cast in our profession's equivalent of Mount Rushmore, perhaps he'll always be thought of foremost in the mentor role. At the 1992 AIGA National Conference in Chicago, Woody Pirtle honored Stan with a visual tribute of slides, quotes and remembrances. “He expected each of us to enjoy the kind of autonomy that his office thrived on and to do it all,” Pirtle recalled. “Concept, design, writing, illustrating, handling production, and finally billing the job. It was as close to running one's own business as is possible while working for someone else. And in the end, your success or failure was always judged by the strength of the central conceptual platform. We quickly learned that if the concept wasn't there, the rest wasn't worth doing.”
While Stan's clients, such as Jess Hay, CEO of Lomas Financial Corporation, consistently express appreciation for the positive effects his work has had on their businesses, a generation of designers has chosen him to receive the AIGA Medal as a symbol of their admiration and thanks—even though their feelings about him may be still sometimes mixed with frustration and even a little envy.
In tones sounding a bit like Motel 6's laconic Tom Bodett, all those Richards Group alumni have just about the same thing to say about him:
“Like my dad, he was tough.”
“Nothing was ever quite good enough.”
“He thought I could have always done it better.”
“But I could have never made it without him.”
Copyright 1997 by The American Institute of Graphic Arts.