could have predicted (such as bloggers enraged by his agency’s
take on feminine hygiene), he knows a good agency, like a
good ad, binds commerce to art. He’s betting his legacy that his
rules will remain the linchpin.
On a recent summer afternoon in Dallas, Richards can be
found in his natural habitat: a creative-planning meeting.
This particular gathering concerns a new client, the Dallas-based electricity reseller TXU Energy. The brand, spun off
from Texas Power and Light when the state privatized its
utility industry in 2002, is in search of a new corporate
identity. Too many Texans consider it a faceless monolith;
the corporation’s private equity owners asked Richards to
help make it more personable and endearing. Do for us,
they asked, what the cartoon cows have done for Chick-fil-A.
As Richards sips from a travel mug of tea, 11
copywriters and art directors gesticulate, speak in
funny voices, and talk along with videos in an
attempt to pitch scenarios as diverse as a noirish
detective on the lookout for low bills to a kangaroo bouncing on a pogo stick bouncing on a trampoline—anything that might make TXU Energy
seem cute and likable. But in practical terms, what
they are trying to do is get a reaction from their
boss. That is easier said than done. Occasionally,
Richards smiles or asks a question. But for the
most part, he stares silently, his eyes narrowing as
makes a point
not to comment
on work he
“I learned long
ago that it’s not
worth it to try to
fix bad work,”
On the Verge
though fatigued. Each pitch is met by the same, inscrutable
Richards and his design pros in 1974, shortly before The Richards
Group relaunched as a full-service ad agency
One pair of creatives, Lynn Fredericksen and Kevin Paetzel,
pitch the tag line “Our Energy, Your Life” and propose TV
commercials featuring You Tube–inspired videos showing all
the nutty things people choose to do with electricity—such as
blow-drying a parrot. Richards smiles slightly at the parrot.
“Read the offer again,” he says. Fredericksen does as he’s asked.
Richards breathes in deeply, while others in the room shuffle
papers. “OK.” The pair toss out another idea, “Wedgie,” a refer-
ence to the way rival energy companies trick their customers
into higher bills. “OK,” Richards says. “Thanks.”
David Eastman, a creative group head, is up next. His idea:
a robot mascot, “Tex-U,” a high-tech, well-muscled superhero
designed to personify the brand. Eastman acts out several
scripts, alternating between human
voices and Tex-U’s robot voice,
which includes a hysterical-sounding
electronic giggle. Richards again
responds with a slight smile.
A dozen or so pitches later, Rich-
ards concludes the 90-minute session.
“My only comment is that we have
figured out 20 different ways to com-
plicate the offer to the point where it’s
almost impossible to figure it out,” he
says. “But there were things I thought
worked. They were…”
The room is silent. “Lynn and
Kevin, your spot called Wedgie. I
thought there were a lot of things
wrong with it, but there is potential there if you can fig-
ure out specifically how to communicate your point.
Eastman, the robot direction works reasonably well.
The key is figuring out how to design the robot so that
it has the appeal of Wall-E. Currently, it doesn’t have
that.” That’s it. Richards makes a point not to comment
on work he doesn’t like. “I learned long ago it’s not
worth it to try to fix bad work,” he tells me later.
Richards has always run meetings this way. “If you
got a ‘way to go,’ you’d be on Cloud Nine for the rest of
the day,” says Doug Rucker, who joined the agency in
1987 and served as a creative head until 2001, when he
left to start his own shop.
Richards strikes the same quiet demeanor with clients.
He’s friendly but prefers talking strategy to jokes and
backslapping, says Leigh Killeen, who ran advertising at
the Florida Department of Citrus, a Richards Group cli-
ent, until 2010. Richards and his team “aren’t suits,” says
Killeen. “These guys and gals are very down to earth,
smart people. Good listeners, and good with research.”
Richards has been cultivating this singular style for
his entire career, but it can be traced back to one man:
couRtesy company/gReg booth
9 0 | INC. | NOVEMBER 2011