Ben Bradlee

Congratulations to Stan Richards, for whom I worked long ago at The Richards Group in Dallas. He’s now the namesake of the Stan Richards School of Advertising and Public Relations at the University of Texas. It’s a terrific honor for him, and it makes everyone who worked for him feel proud.  Stan is a famous designer, but he also taught me a lot about the craft of writing.    

He banned the word “plus” from our lexicon, as in “Free hot dogs plus lots more!” It’s a weak and ad-dy word that I still won’t use in copy. He detested ellipses … because they implied disconnected thinking and left bare holes in a layout. He insisted on good English. You were your own proofreader and your signature on the final art meant it was right. I signed with trembling hands after checking the copy a dozen times. You were responsible.  

We called him “The Chief.” It was like the city room at a newspaper and he was Ben Bradlee. He touched everything. He saw every piece of work. There was no hiding. In that era before computers, he insisted art directors sketch the ad in pencil. You put your thinking into the idea, not the trappings.  

He said  “I trust you” a lot, even though he had very little reason to have confidence in a scrum of 20-something rookies, many graduates of UT. It was indicative, most likely, of his incurable optimism. There was nothing we could screw up that he couldn’t fix.  

He was honest in his assessment of work. When I screened my first television commercial for him (made while he was away on vacation) he politely told me that while it was indeed clever, it looked like something “made for Carpet Warehouse.” (As I recall, it had a man jumping out of a newspaper box and screaming. Lots of screaming.) As I stood in his office, he called the client at The Denver Post and told him he felt it wasn’t quite right for the brand (no joke). He then shot a new commercial on his own dime. He didn’t fire me or humiliate me. He trusted me. (I made sure never to shoot another commercial while he was out of town.)  

He had rules. You signed in every morning.  You did your timesheet promptly. Discussing salary was a firing offense (as some found out). You also got the distinct hint that taking up running would improve your career, as he was, and still is, an avid runner. I was a smoker when I went to work for him. Not for long.  

The result of all this (besides the usual eye-rolling) was that Stan created a distinct point of view about advertising and ad agencies. He built the most successful independent agency in America. There’s a lot to learn from him. He didn’t just own the place. Or run it. He led it.   

Creative people, at least in the business of advertising, need leadership. They don’t really like anarchy. Creating advertising is a time-sensitive discipline, not an endless art project. It’s a craft that can be learned, if you have a good teacher.  

I had one of the best.  

Fowler is an advertising writer in New York City. He worked at The Richards Group from 1983-87. Follow Fowler on Twitter @dfowlernyc.