Ad Men at War

When the two hottest ad agencies in Texas competed for the Southwest Airlines account, the result was a power lesson in the art of persuasion.
Photographs by Doug Milner

It was the middle of June and the creative staff of the Richards Group, one of the more distinguished advertising agencies in the country, had gathered in its Dallas conference room to hear that the great chase was on. “I want you to start thinking about Southwest Airlines,” said the silver-haired Stan Richards, an unflappable, slightly remote man often referred to in the trade journals as the guru of Dallas advertising. From the head of a long, perfectly polished table, Richards peered down at his young Turks, all of them in their twenties and thirties, as sleekly dressed, in colorful striped shirts and silk ties, as models on the pages of Gentlemen’s Quarterly. Under his imperious tutelage, these 16 writers and 21 art directors had become part artists and part showmen, masters at the craft of teaching people to want things. Some of them could look on the walls of the conference room and see their own names printed on the various awards they had won-their boss’s not-too-subtle way of showing what it takes to receive his blessing.

I am going to want your best ideas for this project,” was all Richards said before moving on to another subject. As usual, his carefully modulated voice and perfectly composed face gave away none of his emotions. But to his staff, his words were like a jolt of electricity. The members of the creative team glanced sideways at one another. The rumors were true. They were going to go after the most prized advertising account in the state. For weeks, ever since Southwest Airlines had announced that it was putting its $15 million creative advertising account up for review and would be drawing up a list of five agencies to vie for the business, some of the hottest shops in the country had let it be known that they wanted in. Most of the large Texas agencies, of course, were also contacting the airline. Stan Richards was no exception. Though his agency’s campaigns have been honored in every major advertising competition—since its inception in 1976, the Richards Group has won seven Clios, the advertising industry’s version of the Oscar—winning the Southwest account would secure his place in advertising’s big leagues. Every advertising mogul wants an airline: It’s his chance to show off his work to the rest of the country.

From the day Southwest was born,” says Rod Underhill, one of the principals with the Richards Group, “Stan has been watching it and wanting it and feeling he was the right choice for it—to make a difference in its future.”

Southwest Airlines officials knew they would need powerful advertising to carry them through the nineties. Last year the successful Dallas-based airline went past the $1 billion mark in revenues for the first time, but it is planning to double its business over the next five years, moving into hostile markets where the competition is unforgiving. In American business today, with so many good companies offering bewilderingly similar products, advertising has become perhaps the critical factor in the consumer’s decision of which one of those products to buy. The environment is not so much one of innovation as it is one of marketing—which means the adman, more than ever, has become its superstar.

And if one is looking for such a star, one doesn’t have to go much farther than the twelfth and thirteenth floors of a gray granite-and-glass high rise on the North Central Expressway in Dallas, where a trim 57-year-old man—who sometimes shows up at his office at four in the morning to begin his day and often skips lunch in favor of a 5-mile run—presides over his agency with baronial splendor. Behind his aviator glasses, in dress shirts, suits, and Italian shoes, and always holding an elegant pen that looks like it came from Neiman Marcus, Stan Richards is as close to an aristocrat as the always-changing world of advertising has to offer. His office is immaculate and intimidating. His post-modern desk is black, his office walls are as white as canvases, his chairs are made of black leather and chrome. Richards’ employees talk about “getting a grom” when they sit before him in his office and present him with an idea for an ad. If he doesn’t like it, he stares unblinkingly back at them, a wintry smile on his face. At moments like these, for his underlings, the “grom” (what they call the little button on a chair’s seat cushion) feels like it is grinding into their rear end.

Though the creative departments of many well-known ad agencies are notorious for their freewheeling characters, Richards runs his agency like a blue-blooded law firm. He does not tolerate staffers’ raising their voice. No one is allowed to criticize another employee. The men wear ties, and the other women wear dresses and heels. Everyone must report to the office by eight-thirty, and long lunches, which many ad executives have turned into an art form, are discouraged. No interoffice dating is allowed. There are no company picnics or parties. To a visitor, the pristine offices of the Richards Group have the tenor of an Ivy League library, a quiet refuge where ads are studied as if they were Renaissance manuscripts. “Stan is not one of the boys who comes into your office, throws his feet on the desk, and tells a bunch of stories,” says Rich Flora, a senior writer at the agency. “The office is not fun and games to him. He has these exacting standards about what makes a good ad, and he will not allow an ad we do out of this agency, no matter how small it is, if it doesn’t meet those standards. He puts his head down and works and expects us to do the same.”

Yet out of this traditional corporate culture has come an array of humorous and whimsical advertising campaigns that have set a creative standard in the Southwest for the past decade. The Richards Group’s techniques are now mentioned in the same breath as

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