Stan Richards on Advertising and Why He is Not a Drill Sergeant

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Earlier this month, the advertising department of UT’s Moody College of Communications was renamed the Stan Richards School of Advertising and Public Relations after a $10-million campaign, with the school named in honor of one of the ad industry’s most influential people.

At 78 years old, and still possessing the ambition of someone a quarter his age, Stan Richards owns and heads the Dallas-based The Richards Group, the largest independent advertising agency in the nation, which he founded in 1955. He sat down with the Alcalde earlier this week to discuss his work, his origins, and how he definitely does not manage like a drill sergeant.

How did you get into advertising?

I was one of those really fortunate kids who knew very early on—probably by the time I was 10 or 11 years old —what they wanted to do. And I know most of the kids who come through the [advertising] program here graduate without knowing exactly what they want to do. I knew very early on, and the reason I knew was I could draw better than anyone else I knew.

When I was in high school, I took a course called “Commercial Art,” and it was not a particularly good course, and the guy who taught it was a hack, but I suddenly learned that I could do what I loved to do and get paid for it. And so that became a mission for me. When I went to college, I picked a school that would prepare me for the industry, and so I’ve been doing the stuff that I do for a very long time. And I’ve never veered off that path.

You graduated from Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. Why did you decide to support UT?

I have a long connection with UT. First of all, [I’ve] hired kids from here for many, many years. And this program turns out good kids, very smart and really very well-prepared for the industry. So they come in and they hit the ground running and they’re productive essentially from day one.

Then, as the years went by, I would come down here once or twice a year to talk to large groups of kids in the advertising sequence, and do it where there were 200, 300 kids in the room. I would talk about what we do and how we do it, and try to give them a sense of what an extraordinary business it is and what a joy it is to come to work every day in that kind of business. And the advertising business has all kinds of rewards built into it, aside from the money. It’s an opportunity, at least on the creative side, to express yourself creatively, whether you’re an art director or a writer; to solve problems with a great deal of enthusiasm; and then the other part of it is you’re going to be associated with people whom you would choose to be friends with even if you weren’t working together. Nice people, smart people. Funny people, charming people. That’s how I spent my life, and that’s how virtually everybody in advertising spends his life.

You own and oversee the largest independent advertising agency in the nation. To what would you attribute your success?

A lot of good work for a very long time. I’ve always believed that all that really matters is the work, and it may have something to do with the fact that we present ourselves well; that we’re nice people and we communicate that we’re easy to work with. But what really matters is the quality of our work, and our work is as good or better than every other agency in America. So that’s what counts.

What has been your favorite ad campaign to work on?

Probably it’s a current campaign, and we’ve done a lot of stuff over the years that I’m very proud of, but I think all things considered, our current work—and it’s been our work for almost 20 years—for Chick-fil-A is absolutely extraordinary. Totally dominates the category; there’s nobody in fast food that has a campaign that’s anywhere near as effective as what we’ve done. And also it has to do with the fact that they are a terrific client. They are really, really good people with an enormous amount of consistency on the client side. We’re working with the same people today that we began the relationship with 20 years ago, and that doesn’t happen in the advertising agency.

Who has been your least favorite, or the most difficult to work with?

Oh, we won’t talk about that. [laughs]

Good answer. I’ve heard your managerial style be compared by some to that of a drill sergeant. Very disciplinarian.

That couldn’t be more wrong, and I know that’s a general impression, but it really is wrong. First of all, we only have two rules at our place. Just two. You get to work on time, and you turn in your timesheet every day. That’s it. Everything else is up to you as an individual, and you run your life the way you run your life, and you push your work as hard as you’re capable of pushing the work. So it’s not a drill sergeant kind of environment.

Now, on the other hand, I’m a very disciplined person. I’ve never felt that, if I’m working on an assignment and I’m having trouble with it, that the right answer is to go to a movie or go for a walk. The right answer is to sit there and slug it out until I get to the right answer … We don’t need to manage people at all; they manage themselves. And all that we require is follow those two rules and do great work. That’s it. So that doesn’t sound like a drill sergeant to me. [laughs]

Do you have any advice for recently graduated or soon-to-graduate students at UT?

I guess the advice that I would give them is to embrace the attitude that the only thing that matters is the work, and it’s up to them to create the kind of work that, first of all, will get them jobs, have them move through the industry at whatever pace they think is appropriate, and very few of them will come into their first job out of school and stay there for the rest of their career. We have some people like that, who joined us out of school and have been with us for 35 years. But, for the most part, people in the advertising industry change jobs every three to five years, and the thing that makes the difference and allows them to progress is the quality of work. And it’s so obvious; they can put their work in front of anybody.

And it’s not like in most endeavors, if you can write an interesting résumé and make yourself look really good, you can get a job. Well, that’s not the case in our business. You put your work in front of somebody, and it’s either terrific or something less than terrific. And that’s the only thing that really matters.

Photo courtesy the Moody College of Communication


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