Hi Everybody”—I am posting my story here by the request of several members of this Design Forum, Just-B and SteveO in particular who I would like to thank for giving me such a compliment. Several questions were posed to me by other members as well and I will attempt to answer these questions as I go along .
I grew up in a small town near the Ohio river. Life was good and I loved art from the time I picked up my first pencil. Mom and dad constantly posted my new works on the family refrigerator. One day in second grade I overheard my teacher telling my mother,”Your son is really creative! Look at this thing he drew today—amazing!” From that day, my life-direction was set—art it would be!
The second milestone came when my family bought one of the first TV’s. I would get up at 6:00 a.m. on Saturday mornings to watch all the Warner Brothers cartoons and try to draw the characters. All my classmates and the residents of the town called me “The Town Artist.” (Like I said, it was a small town—(snicker!) When I was twelve, I talked my parents into letting me take two years of correspondence classes from the Famous Artist’s School, started in 1948 in Westport, Connecticut by some of the finest commercial artists of the day, such as Norman Rockwell, Rube Goldberg, Albert Dorne and others.
My Freshman year in high school was another milestone. I was an average student but quickly learned I could create large posters for biology class (dissected animals and literary characters for English class), raising my grades significantly. One of the other kids spoke up in class one day and said “Hey Doc Filley, can I get extra credit for drawing posters, too?” “Only if you can render them as well as Gene does” Doc said. End of discussion.
That same year, the only sign painter in town passed away suddenly (Since he was my best friend’s dad and lived only two houses up the street, I had spent many hours mesmerized, watching him wield his craft.) A few days later, one of my father’s friends said “Russell, I need signs put on my truck. Your boy is an artist, isn’t he? Can he do it?” “I’m sure he can” my Father replied with confidence. The next day, dad took me to the Lexington Art Supply store and bought me all of the One Shot sign writer’s paint and special squirrel hair brushes and I was in business! It took me about six months to hit my stride, but I became very good, very fast. The most challenging jobs were painting store window signage which required painting letters backwards from inside the glass. And while other local boys were sweating out mowing lawns and raking leaves for a dollar a day, I was making $50 to $75 a week painting signs.
Another money-making skill for me was creating and selling “Wierdo” sweatshirt art created with an airbrush and fluorescent paint—lots of fun, lucrative and “over the top” creatively. Little did I know how much of an advantage these skills would be when I secured my first professional position, especially because it was a time in history when almost all commercial art was done by hand.
After high school I attended an advertising art school for a semester, but it didn’t take me long to realize that an art only education would be too limiting. I needed a broader education, because I was beginning to become aware that creative ideas are born out of broad knowledge in as many fields as possible. Consequently, I enrolled at the University of Kentucky with a Major in Fine Arts and a Minor in Broadcasting. There was no Advertising/Marketing Major at the time, like there is now, and during the 1990’s I was often asked by Dr. Scott Whitlow, the head of the Communications Department, to be a guest speaker at least once each semester.
As a college student, word soon got around that I had sign painting skills. Several book shops close to campus got hold of me and hired me to create Wildcat illustrations, reverse on store windows e.g. “Go Cats Beat (opponent of the week) rendered in gouache and changing the signs to match different opponents each week.
University Theater Professors got word of me too. For every upcoming show, directed by the professors, I would create program art and at least one 36” x 48” illustration on poster board. The professors would claim dibs on the art after the plays to hang in their homes and offices. Some of these graphic design pieces were so popular that they were actually stolen before the shows ended.
While still in college in April of 1967, I was hired at the age of nineteen, as Assistant Art Director for the only full color TV station in town. In addition to designing and building stage sets for local shows, plus producing weekly ads for TV Guide Magazine, the majority of each day was creating “Cam Cards”drawn by hand, because all local commercials were usually produced on 16mm film or photo slides with voice overs and Cam Card tags. The Art Director and I would create eight to twelve Cam Cards a day as ordered by the Sales Department. Each Cam Card was painted with gouache on clay coated illustration board (usually 11” x 14”) in a variety of colors. This is where my previous sign painting skills really paid off.
The only machine we had to help us was a Kensol Hot Press. Single Headlines or other lettering too small to be rendered by hand could be created by this machine and pressed in a variety of colors directly on the illustration board. We only had three typefaces Helvetica, Caslon, and Dom Casual with each letter being placed by hand one by one into the heated platen screwed down tight. Various primary colors on heat sensitive plastic film was placed under the lettering and pressed in placed with a pull handle.
My father was one of the best small businessmen I have ever known and he always told me, “Son, never forget—you will make A LIVING from 8:AM to 5:PM, but you will make MONEY from 6:PM to Midnight.” So, while still taking a few hours of study at the university and working as an Assistant Art Director, I also began taking on graphic design work for three local advertising agencies that I would produce in my home at night.
As if that wasn’t enough, I started experimenting with creating animated local TV Show openings for the station. These were done single-frame style and the cells were shot single-frame on film. The first one was for the station’s Saturday Late Night Science fiction show called “Thriller 18”. It was only ten seconds long, but it worked! Soon, I was animating other local show openings. I didn’t know it at the time, but that work gave me the distinction of becoming Kentucky’s First Commercial Animator. I received no bonuses for this at the time, but it would soon pay off big time.
By December of 1967 I was a new Husband, having just married my High School Sweetheart (we are still in love today, four kids and eight grandkids later.) Back to design—that month I was hired away from my current position and asked to become the new Art Director of another local TV station with a significant pay raise. This station had just been bought by a large Insurance company and was changing from a black & white station to full color. There, I got to build the Art Department from the ground up. The first order of business was designing studio sets for local shows. I increased my animation skills as well, creating short animated station identification films for station breaks and other local show openings (News, Weather, Sports, etc.) My reputation in the city was growing day by day.
In January 1971, I was hired as Creative Director for Henderson Advertising. This began a highly productive eight year stretch. James Henderson was known to be the best advertising copywriter around and he considered me to be the most creative visual thinker in the state. It was a mutual admiration society from day-one. Henderson and I collaborated on all of the creative work that came out of the agency. And on the occasions when I animated commercials, as I did for General Electric, Kentucky Fried Chicken and Long John Silvers, I got paid some extremely nice bonuses for the effort.
My years at Henderson were amazing—so much fun! Together with Henderson as Copywriter, we created TV, radio, and print ad campaigns of all types, that ran nationally for such clients as General Electric, Hotpoint, Heublein International, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Long John Silvers, and multi-state regional and local ad campaigns with some internal projects for IBM, Coca-Cola, Diamond Shamrock, American Dairy Association, Wetterau Foods, multiple large automobile dealerships, banks & financial institutions, state and federal organizations. It was during these years that I first began to accumulate multiple ADDY Awards year after year. My reputation grew more and more.
During the 1970’s to early 80’s, Kentucky was a hotbed of Bluegrass music and one recording studio in particular, LEMCO, produced most of the Bluegrass record albums in the U.S. They were distributed by King Bluegrass Records in Cincinnati (now Rounder Records in Nashville). I created record album covers for most of these artists including, Ralph Stanley, J.D. Crowe & The New South, Ricky Skaggs, Brushfire, and many others. Sometimes the bands would come to my house to view their cover artwork and if they were on their way to a Bluegrass Festival, would bring in their instruments for a practice session right there in my living room. (Since I played the five-string banjo, I would jam with them.)
It had always been in the back of my mind to start my own ad agency, but one thing was lacking—sales experience. This was especially difficult for me, because I am an unusual combination of an Introvert who has a Type A personality. So, in 1979 with a heavy heart, I left Henderson Advertising to become Director of Creative Services at KYT Productions to get the sales experience I needed. My function as Department Head, was to work with a team to not only create commercials, but to handle all of the sales duties selling created campaigns to clients. I learned that side of the business quickly and in October 1981, while attending an Advertising Age Conference in Chicago, I began gleaning as much information as I could from other people who had started their own ad agencies. Honestly, the thought of me starting my own agency was scary, because my wife and I were expecting our fourth child in December and as a man of faith, I needed some Devine assurance that the timing was right. That’s when God showed up.
A few days later, just before Thanksgiving, I was visiting one of my KYT Production clients who owned a large Cadillac/Volvo dealership. Out of the clear blue she said to me, “Gene, I want to go with an advertising agency, but I can’t find one I like. When are you going to get off your Duff and START AN AGENCY?” … “Are you serious?” I said. … “Serious as a heart attack!” She replied, “Just bring me a contract and I’ll sign it.” My stomach began to churn.
Eight days later, while at another client’s office, this Manager said “Gene, it’s time you started an advertising agency. If you do, I’m on board!” WOW—two potential agency clients—neither one knowing the other—saying the same thing. I went straight out of his office to a large Sporting Goods firm with whom I had been doing Moonlight work for three years.
I said, “Ron, I’m thinking of starting an ad agency. Will you sign up with me?” … “You betcha!” He replied. — Bingo! Three clients was all I needed for agency certification with the media. That night, I drove to my father’s house. I told him what had happened over the last eight days and about my plans. I asked him for his blessing. He laid his hands on my shoulders and prayed the heavens down for me as we both wept with joy. I obtained the necessary state and local business licenses and three weeks later on January 1, 1982, Creative Media, Inc. was born.
Thus began my 35 year journey as an advertising agency owner and I stayed open right up to my retirement date, April 15, 2017—Fifty years to the day from the time I started my professional career.
To my surprise, within first year I was nominated for membership in the American Advertising Agency Association (known in the industry as “The Four A’s.” This is a high honor and AAAA membership allowed my access to the AAAA’s extensive library of marketing surveys and inside information on every conceivable industry. I took great advantage of these resources that gave me a leg up with my potential client proposals. Membership included on-call one-on-one advice from AAAA Staff and other AAAA members. Out of all of the agencies in my area, I was one of only two agencies that had been nominated for membership. Plus, at least once each year, a AAAA advisor would come to my agency to help me with any and all business challenges I was facing.
It was in that first year of business I learned that 90% of all advertising agencies fail within the first two years. That is because virtually all new clients will give an agency two years to perform. The first year was getting used to the new client’s business, and the second year was when that knowledge was expected to pay off in new income (ringing the cash register) for the client. If positive, the agency kept the business, if the client observed a flat or negative result then the agency would be shown the door.
I also learned that if an agency stayed in business for five years their odds of staying in business increased to 50%/50%. And if an agency lasted ten years, they would stay in business as long as they wanted. Further, I learned that 1/3 of all AAAA agencies are one-person shops (creative boutiques). In fact, both the large agencies and the one person boutiques are the ones who prosper most. It is the middle-size agencies that get eaten up by overhead problems. I didn’t want the headaches of becoming a big agency owner, so after all my other employees moved on to other cities. I decided to cut back my least profitable clients and turn into a creative boutique.
Although I was the sole Creator of all of the work that came out of my shop, I was not a “one man band.” Since I had clients in five states I simply did not have time to do it all. For the first ten years I was already working 50-60 hours a week. Consequently, I had a stable of young TV and radio production people, jingle writers & music producers, commercial photographers, illustrators & cartoonists, talent agencies, announcers, and other graphic designers that were wizards with Quark, Adobe Creative Suites and so on, who could take my thumbnail sketches and written copy and complete the work with me (not for me, but with me.)
As the years rolled on, I accumulated countless TELLY, ADDY, AFTRA, and PIAS Awards. I also discovered an interesting fact about awards—clients usually could care less! Why? While clients like to have “creative and likable” ads, they most want their cash register to ring. Awards gathering are primarily only important to peers, not to clients. In essence, Awards Shows are like a Beauty Contest—no more, no less.
I opened my agency in a Recession year and experienced at least a handful of economic slow-downs during my tenure. On at least three occasions I seriously thought about giving up the business for good. But each time I thought about hanging up my shingle, I would remember how much I truly loved creative work. I was born for it. And Christ was always faithful to encourage me on. Fortunately, the computer age had arrived by the late 80’s and Adobe Creative Suites were available so I bought and learned how to use them myself, which came in handy during down times when I could do some of the work myself and make more money on the graphic design side of my business.
I remember one such event in particular. In 2002 I lost one of my largest clients who had been with me for over 20 years because of a management turnover. (Management turnovers are one of the primary reasons you will lose a client.) Here I was, in my mid 50’s out making cold calls again. I quickly realized that there really is an age bias among clients. One client I pitched said it outright—“Sorry but we want YOUNGER ideas.” Nevertheless, I have a powerful Ali on my side, so I kept patient. I trudged on for two years. Then one day I got a phone call out of the clear blue. It was a large furniture company that had seen some of my broadcast work. They had never had an agency and were family owned. I didn’t even have to make a pitch. I got the business on the spot. And kept it for over ten years, just short of my retirement.
My methods for handling creative block:
Sometimes, without the client even knowing it, the client would give me the seed of an idea for the project while I am talking with them. e.g. One day in a strategy meeting with the managers at Allsports, one of them said, “Most people just don’t know that we sell the same shirts, sweats, and gear that the University of Kentucky players and coaches wear”—Ta-da! Immediate idea flashed in my brain and out of my mouth—“How about this … ‘See It On The Field, See It On The Court. Get It At Allsports!”’ A new slogan was hatched that has been used continually for over 30 years now.
When that doesn’t work, and I experience creative block, I always try these methods first:
(1) The Driving Method—I will just get in my car and drive around. Freeways, Interstate roads, or even country roads with little traffic work best for this. Just drive and while your conscious mind is working on handling traffic (Is that light going to change? Will that car on the right pull out in front of me?) That frees up my subconscious mind to wander and the results can be startling, e.g. I had just been hired as agency for the second largest shopping mall in St. Louis whose marketing emphasis for the year was Fashion. The first thing I needed was a slogan. As I drove along I thought about the mall, fashion, and the emotions someone would feel when they were shopping for clothes. All at once the slogan flashed into my mind! I pulled off the road and wrote down “The compliments will keep you coming back!” I built an entire ad campaign around it and the client loved it!
(2) The Dictionary Method—pick up a dictionary (you do still have a book don’t you?). Close your eyes. Open the book and randomly place your finger on a word. Write the word down. Close the book, close your eyes, and do it again. Follow the same procedure a third time. Now, see if you can make a creative connection between those three words.
(3) The Magazine Method—Flip through a magazine. Mindless. Just taking in the pictures or maybe a word. Flip through another magazine, etc. I once had to create an ad for Columbia Steakhouse that would run in a Chamber of Commerce publication being sent out to people in other states who would be coming to the city to attend a Convention. Using this method, I picked up a Science & Technology magazine and started flipping pages. My eye fell on a SAAB Aircraft Engines ad. The picture was a jet fighter plane made in France. Immediately my mind went through this progression—A person who speaks French would think people in Kentucky talk funny (our accent). Food has an accent. Therefore “Columbia Steakhouse—Great Food With A Kentucky Accent.” — Ta-da!
My advice for young designers is:
(1) Experiment, try something different, you are a Creative—act like it. But never become enamored with fads and trends. Fads and trends come and go, but the basics of good graphic design never change. If you don’t know the basics, learn them.
(2) Don’t try to sweep people off their feet until you learn how to use a broom. Stay humble in your early years, but never ever sell yourself short. If you are genuinely doing what you love to do, you will get noticed for it, your income and reputation will increase and you will find yourself before kings one day and hardly realize you are working at all.
(3) Be honest!—never try to claim work as your own when you were actually part of a team in the creation of the end result. One of my worst experiences came when I trusted that a young illustrator’s portfolio was his own work. And when I gave him a job with a deadline, the end result he showed me was no where near the quality of the work in his portfolio.
(4) Maintain a “teachable spirit” all your life. Learn all you can from Mentors and the classic books in the industry. Google “best books for graphic designers” plus books on marketing by Reis & Trout.
My advice for Creatives over 50:
(1) Realize that there are lots of potential clients out there who want the experience only a designer over 50 can offer. The persons who told me they wanted younger ideas hired a young idea agency and the first ad campaign the young agency created for them was a downright embarrassment and a total failure that was the laughing stock of the advertising community here! Therefore, don’t worry about those who want younger ideas. Instead pitch your experience and the more rational (perhaps more traditional thinking?) a potential client is, the more likely they are to want your tested, tried and true ideas.
(2) If you haven’t started investing for retirement, do so now! Find a Certified Financial Planner (CFP) who is a Fiduciary that only works on a fee, not commissions. If you are self employed (like I was) no one is going to take care of you if you fail to plan for retirement. If you haven’t started investing (primarily in high quality mutual funds) do so now. I know the current market is down, but it will come up, more than you realize, and you will be amazed what ten years of investing can do. Cut your lifestyle, live on less than you make and invest the rest.
About a year before my retirement in April 2017, the “fun” of running an agency was beginning to wane. I started dreading to hear the phone ring or get an “urgent” job request from clients. That’s how I knew it was time to quit. I had always had the personal goal of staying in the creative business for 50 years and I made it.
I passed my clients off, especially the broadcast heavy clients, to a young and upcoming ad agency in town. I picked them because in our preliminary meetings I could tell the we both had the same approach and philosophy concerning sound business practices and client relationships.
Two clients I retained simply because they only require graphic design work only sporadically and I am also a client of theirs—Merrill Lynch and a local steakhouse my wife and I frequent. The Merrill Lynch graphic design jobs are the most fun and pay handsomely, mostly brochures and slide presentations. Other than that I play as much golf as I can with one of my best friends who is as crazy as I am. Lots of laughs and lots of fun! Plus, goofing around with my wife, grandkids, and family. Now that’s what all the hard work was for anyway.