Creative Focus: Richmond, VA. – Man At Work

A creative’s creative, Cabell Harris likes to shake things up
Cabell Harris thinks big. “I want to change the way the ad industry does business,” says the founder of the Richmond, Va.-based agency, Work. He already has. Agencies hire him as a freelance creative director, he runs an agency with its own clients and he is about to launch his own brand of beer.
Four years ago, Harris formed “an agency for agencies,” an unconventional resource for ad shops in need of creative help. After 17 years in advertising, Harris, who had held creative positions at The Martin Agency in Richmond, Chiat/Day in New York and Hill, Holliday, Connors, Cosmopulos, Boston, among others, found himself looking for more control and stability. And while the freelance world is not the usual place to look for it, Harris found peace of mind in steering his own creative destiny.
Instead of simply positioning himself as a freelance art director or creative director, he formed a company that offers creative services and consulting without the overhead costs or extraneous services that are typical of agency/client relationships. Harris hires the creative staff he needs for particular projects, outsourcing ancillary services to other experts. Among the agencies that have “found” Work: DDB Needham, Ogilvy & Mather and McCann-Erickson, all in New York; Chicago’s Leo Burnett; and The Martin Agency. With eight staffers–designers, a planner, an office manager, etc.–Harris dubs Work “the smallest large agency in the country.”
“The industry was changing. Agencies needed top product, but they couldn’t afford full-time services,” says Harris. “I knew typical freelance wasn’t the way to go.”
Work has helped produce Exxon spots for McCann-Erickson, New York; Crestar ads for Just Partners, Richmond, Va., and Ameritech spots for Fallon McElligott, Minneapolis. At The Richmond Show earlier this year, Work took home Best of Show for a One Show book sleeve, deterring thieves with “The Giant Encyclopedia of Spores” cover, and three golds, two for Work agency promotional materials and one for The One Show cover.
Despite the momentum Harris has created with Work, the 39-year-old art director has again shifted his business strategy, moving the company into more familiar agency territory. Harris has begun adding full-time clients to the mix, such as financial-services firm Wheat First Union and the Burly Bear Network. Harris’ tactical switch stems from a desire to not only have more control over projects but more involvement in strategic development. Most of the time, Work is hired when an account is in trouble, says Harris, which is not an ideal arrangement.
“If things kept going the way they were, I would have been fine financially, but I thought to myself, ‘Am I building anything? I’m becoming invisible,'” says Harris. “I couldn’t see my life a month down the road. It’s like I’m being hired, fired, hired, fired, over and over again.”
Harris promises Work will never be a traditional agency. For one thing, he says he wouldn’t like it to grow to more than 50 employees. And how many agencies develop their own product lines? To build brand awareness around Work, Harris is developing a raft of products bearing the Work name, including a beer, a clothing line and a children’s book. If the products take off, Work, of course, will be the agency.
“All my career I’ve been helping other brands,” Harris says. “Why not build it for ourselves? I want to make Work a household name.” –Eleftheria Parpis
“Cabell Harris is one of the best art directors in the country,” says Don Just, president of Just Partners in Richmond, who attributes Harris’ success to his ability to marry ideas to strategy. “He brings strategic thinking and fresh design, a combination rare among art directors.