ended in the early ’90s. Staff members now have the freedom
to decorate their cubes as they see fit, and the blinds—at least
when I visited—seemed to be set at different angles. Richards
no longer insists on OK’ing every piece of work. The time sheets
and the mandated start time remain in place, though. There are
new rules, too. Richards discourages e-mail, preferring that
people speak in person. When they send messages to clients,
he requires that the missives be clearly written and carefully
proofread. Slipshod work, he believes, makes for a slippery slope.
On the third morning of my visit, Richards shows up to my hotel
at 5: 45 a.m. dressed in shorts, a tank top, and a black sweatband around his head. Ever since he had his hip replaced in
2008, he has been unable to run every day. Now, he alternates
running with grueling spin classes. Today, we’re spinning.
Richards climbs on a bike. A minute later, he is joined by
The Richards Group’s creative group head Tina Johnson, who
oversaw the work on the Summer’s Eve campaign, and principal David Hall. Halfway through the
class, the only other man anywhere
near Richards’s age quits, his face
wracked with pain. Afterward, Richards looks sanguine. “Not a bad
workout, heh?” he says.
Richards has never doubted his
vigor. But when he hit official retirement age in the late 1990s, something
had begun to change in meetings with
prospective clients. They were beginning to ask, each in their
own diplomatic, awkward way, what would happen to the
agency when Richards called it quits—or, well, keeled over.
Richards found it a reasonable enough question. So one
afternoon he sat down and drew up a succession plan. It is
designed with only one goal in mind: to ensure that The Richards Group persists in the future the way Richards has it set up
today. Richards has two sons, one of whom runs his own ad
agency in San Francisco. But neither wants to fill his father’s
shoes. So when Richards dies, sole voting power and management of the company will be awarded to one of four employees
who will run the agency autonomously, just as he has. They are
two art directors, a copywriter, and a principal—Glenn Dady,
Gary Gibson, Mike Malone, and Dick Mitchell—who have
worked for him since almost the beginning. Richards will
provide no clues as to who will prevail. (“We try not to think
about it,” says Malone.) At the same time, all the company’s
equity will be donated to a nonprofit—which he has selected
but not yet named—on the condition that the agency never be
sold to a holding company or anyone else, ever.
The plan is unusual, if not unprecedented. And it presumes
that the nonprofit, which has not been informed it will be the
recipient, agrees to such a scheme. (Richards will say only that
it is one he has been involved with, which makes MD Ander-
son Cancer Center, the Salvation Army, and Southwestern
Medical the most likely candidates.) Still, both Richards’s CFO
and his wife have signed off on the idea. And because Richards
is the firm’s sole owner, it’s his call.
“When you die, would
this be the work you’d
want to be remembered
by?” asked a client.
Richards had to admit
that it wouldn’t.
96 | INC. | NOVEMBER 2011