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Southwest Agency of the Year 2002: The Richards Group

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When the Hyundai marketing team arrived at The Richards Group's North Dallas headquarters last February, it found 10 shiny Hyundais of different colors and models parked in front of the building that bears the agency's name. Together, the license plates read: "The Richards Group will take you where you want to go."

The same could be said of Hyundai as it moves the $750 million shop into a rite of passage for any midsize agency. Rich ards has long sought the national prestige and critical mass that an auto marketer bestows upon such shops, particularly an independent with a regional image. In the past, the hot Southwest shop has gone after Volkswagen, Por sche and Mercedes-Benz, and emerged from those reviews empty-handed. Now, with creative duties on Hyundai's $160 million factory ac count, along with $200 million in dealer business, Richards is a player in one of advertising's highest-profile categories.

Prestige aside, Hyundai gave Rich ards a remarkable new-business year in 2002, along with GoRVing's $40 million account and $10-15 million from Robert Mondavi's Woodbridge label. Billings jumped 33 percent to $750 million, and revenue rose an estimated 18 percent to $100 million.

Company founder Stan Richards plays down Hyundai's role in propelling The Rich ards Group to the next stage of development. He prefers to emphasize the client chemistry that won the account, something that has been a key to the agency's growth. "We felt totally at home with everyone from the CEO on down," says Richards.

Paul Sellers, Hyundai's director of marketing communications, concurs. "It's almost an intangible thing that we all sensed and walked out of the initial meeting and said, 'Wow, that was pretty special.' The environment and business culture, ironically more than anything else, solidified our choice."

After the car maker's initial agency briefing, Stan Richards brought its marketing execs to an expansive internal stairwell that was jammed with the shop's 540 staffers. They peered down on a miniature racetrack, complete with little cones and two-foot-long remote-controlled cars made to look like Hyun dai Santa Fes. Richards took the controls, as did Sellers, both men fans of rally racing. Richards jokingly proposed a deal: If Rich ards won, the review would end right then, with the agency nabbing the business at the finish line. If Sellers won, the review would continue.

Sellers won. Not only did the review continue, The Richards Group trailed early front-runners. Despite the good chemistry and the client's strong interest in Rich ards' initial strategy—presenting Hyun dai drivers as winners at life—the shop's three creative executions were off base. "If we had to select an agency after the first presentation, I don't know if we would have selected Richards," Sellers says.

Group creative head Mike Mal one says the shop's first effort was "too quiet." Explains Malone: "They were darn proud of the fact they were one of the fastest-growing car companies in America, and they wanted to stop being apologetic and be confident. [The tag had been, "Driving is believing."] The biggest lesson we learned is, there's a difference between quiet confidence and confidence, and they didn't want to be quietly confident."

The shop pulled it all together for the final presentation in April at Hyundai headquarters in Fountain Valley, Calif. Nearly all of the TV spots, print and point-of-purchase materials the agency presented would be used in the "Win" campaign that broke six months later.

Richards believes the Hyundai win marks a coming-of-age for his 27-year-old agency, a creative shop that finally fine-tuned its other disciplines enough to secure the blue-chip account.

Always known more for its strong print work—harking back to Stan Rich ards' graphic-design background—the shop now has a growing reputation for television, another sign of maturation. "It's been a gradual process. These things develop concurrently, because as we as an agency develop the skills, we work with a different range of directors," says Rich ards. "We tend to have larger budgets to work with as we mature and grow. One of the problems agencies have as they try to produce television—particularly if they're midsize or small—is even gaining the attention of Class A directors. Now we call any director and they say, 'Of course we want to talk to you,' because our stature has changed over the years."

Their creative, says Fruit of the Loom client John Shivel, vp of advertising and corporate communications, "is like peanut butter: It sticks with you. And I think they're very successful in getting through clutter." In its first work for the client since winning the account in October 2000, Richards revived the legendary "Fruit Guys," sidelined for more than a decade.

Richards still looks over nearly every piece of work that goes out the door. "It brings a level of experience, and if there's a single person who is sitting in the room when reviewing creative, it cuts down the amount of debate," he says.

At 70, Richards has no immediate plans to implement his succession plan. Two years ago, he named Glenn Dady, Gary Gibson and Mike Malone to a "leadership council," saying that one of them would someday take his place. Richards also ensured the shop's independence by selling its stock to an unnamed Texas nonprofit.

Local competitors may be disheartened to learn that even with national accounts such as Hyundai, Home Depot, Chick-fil-A and Motel 6 in its cache, Richards does not intend to quit pursuing smaller billings. Nor has the auto win slowed its persistent pitching.

"We seldom say no to a pitch," says Malone. "You have to keep that hungry entrepreneurial attitude no matter how big you get."

STATISTICS

BILLINGS
Up 33 percent to $750 million (est.)

REVENUE
Up 18 percent to $100 million (est.)

WIN'LOSS PITCH RATIO
10 out of 19

ACCOUNTS WON/MEDIA BUDGET*
Hyundai Motor Co./$160 million
Hyundai Dealers/$200 million
GoRVing/$40 million
Robert Mondavi's Woodbridge/$10-15 million

ACCOUNTS LOST/MEDIA BUDGET*
7-Eleven/$30 million (creative)
Pilgrim's Pride (inactive for two-plus years)
Trane HVAC Systems & Equipment (residential account)/$5 million

HIGHLIGHTS

Broke into automotive category with Hyundai win;

centralized new-business efforts under principal Diane Fannon, promoted to new-business chief.

*Only largest accounts included.

Sources: Adweek, agency reports and CMR.