Build a Culture of Respect: An Interview with Stan Richards
The legendary ad man talks teams, leadership and how great work starts with a culture of respect.
Stan Richards is an advertising legend. He’s the founder and principal of the Richards Group, the largest privately-held ad agency in the country whose memorable campaigns have ranged from the folksy (Motel 6’s “We’ll leave the light on for you”) to the renegade (Chic-fil-A’s irreverent cows). But Richards’ proudest achievement is the company culture he’s fiercely built and protected over more than four decades – a no-barriers, no bull “peaceable kingdom” where information is shared freely and people are treated fairly and with respect. At 85, he’s as passionate about his agency’s mission as the day it first opened.
I sat down with Richards in his wall-less office to talk culture, teamwork and leadership. Excerpts:
Joe Hirsch: You run a very disciplined agency – people clock in by 8:30 am and fill out time sheets – and yet the Richards Group continually puts out some of the most creative work in the industry. How do you maintain creativity alongside the discipline?
Stan Richards: If I were a gallery painter, I would start everyday at 7 am and I would paint. And I would paint until the end of the day. I wouldn’t wait for some muse to come along and inspire me. And that’s the same thing we do here. If we’re struggling to find an answer, we don’t find the answer by going to a guru. We find it by working our way through whatever the problem is. You stick with it until you find it. That’s how we operate. So while we’re a free-wheeling environment, we’re also a very disciplined environment. We work until we get the work right.
JH: You believe that the driver of your culture is respect. Is that something your employees are taught or simply learn along the way?
SR: It’s observed and absorbed. I meet with all new employees during their first three months on the job and stress the level of respect we have for each individual and that every individual must have for everyone who works here. Advertising agencies are permissive about people exploding when someone disappoints them. That’s totally unacceptable here. If someone lets you down, you sit down with them and try to figure out what went wrong. I learned this hard way. In my first job, I worked for an agency where a culture of disrespect prevailed. I hated the work. I hated the place. From that experience, I was determined to do it differently. It’s that level of respect that makes all the difference for people.
JH: You hire lots of creative talent. How do make sure that talent is continually developed?
SR: Group heads are responsible for nurturing people to make sure they’re growing. We want everyone who works here to be a star. We guide all of our employees so that their star continues to shine. And there’s mentorship, of course. Every new person who comes to work here gets a mentor – someone aside from their direct supervisor – who they can turn to for support and guidance. That is something we’ve found to be very helpful. And because we sit people from different groups next to each other, you are learning various part of the business – account management, marketing, design – much faster than you would in a divisional arrangement.
JH: In 2017, you were ranked by Glassdoor to be the third most well-liked ad agency CEO. Why is that?
SR: Well, I’m a pretty nice guy. (Laughs.) And people know I treat them with respect. The net effect of that is that they like me. But I don’t seek to be liked. It’s not a goal. I only seek that our work is as good as it can be.
JH: You planned the company’s new office (opened in 2016) to be extremely open – lots of common areas, few walls. What was the goal behind the design?
SR: It reflects who we are as a company. We decided to cut the number of conference rooms and used all of that open space for huddle tables where teams can meet up. Instead of giving leadership the corner space, we turned that into an open meeting area for our people. We prefer that people are up and about. It leads to more encounters and better relationships. People are always passing one another, getting into each other’s space, and that’s great for collegiality. At the very least, they get to say hi to one another. And I think there’s a lot to be said for just saying hi.
The layout is a big part of it. We intentionally put the elevators at the far end of each floor. People end up using our stairwell instead. And because it runs down the middle of the agency, it’s the focal point of activity, the literal center of our culture, and the symbol of our no-barriers philosophy. People bump into each other there all the time. We share company news and announcements from there – when we “call a stairwell,” all 742 of us cluster around it, together. It’s really something to see.
JH: People who come to work for the Richards Group tend to stick around for years – in many cases, even decades. Why?
SR: People find it hard to leave, even though they get offers all the time from our competitors. Because so many things are working well for them, they don’t want to go. And there’s our model of profit sharing, of course. We don’t have any shareholders or investors or outside partners. All of the money we make is paid out to the people who work here. That doesn’t exist in any other ad agency in America. But it really comes back to the way we treat people – with respect.
JH: Do you hire for cultural fit? What are you looking for in a new hire?
SR: When I interview someone – and I still interview all of the creatives who work here – I begin each conversation not with their portfolio, but their back story. I ask them about who they were in high school. You can learn a lot about someone by the things they did when they were younger. Athletes, for example – they need a certain amount of discipline and hard work to succeed. They have a work ethic that fits us. I ask them to talk about their family – their parents, siblings, their lives. From their answers, I can tell a lot about who they are, what they hold to be important, and how they might conduct themselves in our environment.
JH: You don’t believe leaders should micromanage. As the leader of your company, what do you do instead?
SR: I believe in giving people autonomy and opportunity. It makes all the difference in the world. No one here should feel managed. We provide the opportunity, and it’s up to people to seize those opportunities. It makes us more productive and effective.
JH: How do know if people are living the culture?
SR: It’s easy to spot. When people pass each other in the hall, do they smile and say hi or look away? That’s a tell-tale sign of the kind of company culture you’ve got.