Stan Richards, founder of the Richards Group, the country’s largest independent advertising and marketing agency, has had a reputation sharply at odds with the depiction of admen in movies and TV series such as Mad Men. He’s no three-martini-lunch Don Draper. Described by some as a “drill sergeant,” the executive starts each day with a bowl of oatmeal topped with blueberries. He often could be seen on an indoor cycling bike at the agency’s sleek headquarters building in the Uptown neighborhood of Dallas, where he insisted that his employees report to work each morning by 8:30 a.m. sharp.
Yet it’s Richards who now has failed to live up to the agency’s standards, losing what he estimates is roughly 40 percent of its business in a single week because of racially insensitive remarks he made on a Zoom call last week with about forty employees. Richards called a proposed ad campaign for agency client Motel 6 “too Black” for the chain’s “white supremacist” guests. Blowback to the comments, first reported by Ad Age and the Dallas Morning News, came quickly, with Motel 6 denouncing the tone-deaf comments and terminating its long-standing relationship with the privately held agency. In a statement, the Carrollton-based motel operator said it was “outraged” by Richards’s statements, which were “not only completely inaccurate, [but] also in direct opposition of our values and beliefs as an organization.” Other clients, including Atlanta-based Home Depot, Plano-based Keurig Dr Pepper and San Antonio–based H-E-B, soon severed their ties with the Richards Group as well.
Richards spoke to Texas Monthly on Thursday afternoon, a few hours before publicly announcing his decision to step away from the agency he launched in 1976. “I’m firing myself,” he later told his staff on a Zoom call. Richards Group principal and creative director Glenn Dady, who assumed day-to-day control of the company late last year, will assume the agency’s “dominant role” going forward. Richards told the Dallas Morning News that he shifted ownership of the agency eight months ago to a nonprofit that’s contractually obligated not to interfere with its operations.
The Richards Group, which according to the Dallas Business Journal has 688 employees and $210 million in annual revenue, ironically had vaulted to national prominence because of its “We’ll leave the light on for you” slogan for Motel 6, coined in 1986 by the folksy spokesman Tom Bodett, who ad-libbed the line during the first recording session for the radio campaign. Other red-letter campaigns created by the agency over the years were Chick-fil-A’s iconic cows, which included the line “Eat Mor Chikin,” and Corona beer’s “couples on the beach” spots. The agency’s clients have also included Hobby Lobby, Ram Trucks, and the Salvation Army.
In order to stanch the agency’s bleeding, one veteran public relations consultant in Dallas says, it was inevitable that Richards would have to resign. “The traditional PR advice is apologize and make amends. But that’s really not enough, there’s so much money involved here,” Andy Stern, principal at strategic communications firm Club Oaks Consulting, said Thursday, a few hours before Richards announced his exit. “At 87, he needs to retire and leave the firm. … There’s just too much tension in the world, and too much attention in the world, for something like this to happen.”
In the interview with Texas Monthly, Richards seemed to double down on his controversial Zoom-call comments, saying they were intended to get the Motel 6 ad campaign back on track. “The three words that really were a mistake was when I reviewed a piece of work … and I didn’t think it was going to serve the client well, because it was a multicultural assignment, and the work I looked at was not multicultural,” he said. “So what I said was, ‘It’s too Black.’ In trying to protect the client’s business, I just didn’t want to have a campaign out there that was going to run off any of their guests. And that campaign would have. It should have been more multicultural, and it wasn’t. It was very Black.”
Was he surprised by the uproar over his words? “Yes I was,” Richards said. “I had no idea. But, on reflection, instead of using those three words, I could have said something that was much more clouded in its meaning. And it would have saved an awful lot of trouble.”
Asked whether he had made the white supremacist comment, as reported, Richards said, “That was attached to it. The point was simply that our client doesn’t need to be losing any of its current business, even if it was white supremacists who chose not to do business with them.”
As a result of the controversy, Richards went on, the agency is taking several steps to “increase overall awareness of the potential to create [such] a problem,” and is seeking “more guidance in how to deal with issues like that. Because mine was not a racist comment. I’ve never been a racist anytime in my life. But it was read that way and, unfortunately, it has proved very costly.”
This isn’t the first time Richards has found himself in a dust-up. In 2011, the Richards Group unveiled an ad campaign called “Hail to the V” for Summer’s Eve, a brand of feminine hygiene products. The campaign, which was reportedly aimed at empowering women, included three video spots that showed talking hands meant to represent vaginas, each one targeting a different racial group. After critics said the Black, Hispanic, and Caucasian hands traded on stereotypes and were racist, sexist, tasteless, and “borderline obscene,” the agency pulled the spots, saying it didn’t intend to offend anyone. Richards told Inc. magazine that he’d not seen the spots before their release, but hoped that, if he had, he would have anticipated the controversy. “I hope I would have caught it,” he said, “but I don’t know for sure.”
The adman has often been praised for his instincts. A member of the Advertising Hall of Fame and the Art Directors Hall of Fame who was named one of the Wall Street Journal’s “Giants of Our Time” in advertising, Richards was honored in 2014 when the Moody College of Communication at the University of Texas at Austin established the Stan Richards School of Advertising and Public Relations there.
Although Richards told me in a 2006 interview for the Dallas Business Journal that he intended to work at the Richards Group “until I croak,” it’s clear that won’t be happening now. So, what does he plan to do next? “There are a lot of ways that I can help the Stan Richards school down at UT to get better, stronger, and more useful to the kids,” he said. “So that’s how I’ll focus my attention, at least for the time being.”
Late Thursday, Moody College dean Jay M. Bernhardt and JoAnn Sciarrino, director of the Stan Richards school, sent out a release to the college community that included a professionally produced video in which Richards apologized to Moody faculty, alumni, and students for “the biggest mistake of my life,” and asked for their forgiveness. Earlier in the week, the school had released a statement that strongly suggested it was reconsidering its affiliation with Richards. In a note accompanying the video, Bernhardt and Sciarrino said that while Richards’s “racially intolerant and bigoted remarks” have hurt many in the Moody community and are “not consistent with its core values,” the school remains “firmly committed to building and sustaining a culture of diversity, equity, and inclusion in Moody College, and we sincerely hope that the learning from this incident can be used to help us accelerate our progress toward those goals.”
In other words, this Stan Richards saga probably isn’t over yet.
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