Mad Men Meets Cancel Culture
The cautionary tale of how 3 words ended a long and illustrious career for advertising icon Stan Richards and the important lesson that can come from his mistake.
Advertising icon Stan Richards says he’s confident about two things: One, he will never retire, and, two, The Richards Group will never be sold — even after he dies. “You have to understand that I love what I do. It’s the most fun that I have. Why would I want to give that up?”
This is how a glowing profile on the man in D Magazine began just a month ago. Fast forward just a few weeks and now Stan Richards, an 88-year old advertising legend, is now out of the company he founded, and he took the step himself — because he simply knew he had to.
The story of Stan Richards’ fall is a cautionary tale — and yes, it is one that we should all take note of. And while there is indeed fault and awkwardness to what he said that brought all of this about, there is also some grace and courage with the way he is exiting the stage. The end of Stan Richards’ reign at the agency he founded, the Richards Group, is a story that should be shared far and wide, as it shows how even those who have crafted legendary messages can see their careers — and even much of their life’s work — overshadowed in an instant by not really thinking about how their words can be perceived today — even if they themselves know the power of words.
Stan Richards and 3 Words
If you are outside of the advertising industry, you may not know the name Stan Richards. However, you do know his work. He and the Richards Group created some of the most iconic — and lost-lasting — advertising campaigns in the history of modern American marketing.
After crafting successful campaigns for local businesses in the Dallas area for years, Richards came to national prominence for his agency’s work with Motel 6, which at the time was a struggling chain near bankruptcy. In fact, according to legend, Richards’ first advice to the company in the mid-1980s was to not advertise, saying: “The first counsel that we gave him was, don’t advertise. The reason we said that was because the product was so bad that if we invited people in and they found the product was poor, they would never come back.” However, after a new CEO instituted a turnaround strategy to improve the budget hotel chain, the Richards Group launched the “We’ll leave the light on for you” campaign, which became one of the most memorable taglines in advertising history.
Stan Richards and his company have also been responsible for a number of other iconic ad campaigns that have become part of the culture today. Probably their most famous campaign that helped brand a company was their work with Chick-fil-A. Although they were replaced by a New York-based agency in 2016, their years-long ad campaign featuring renegade Holstein cows with the slogan “Eat Mor Chikin” helped to put Chick-fil-A on the map.
However, in creating a new ad campaign for Motel 6, Stan Richards long career suddenly came to an ignominious end. According to multiple media reports in The New York Times, AdWeek, The Dallas Morning News, and other outlets, the agency was conducting an internal session with about 40 employees in attendance on Zoom. In reviewing a proposed television ad for the lodging chain from the creative team, Richards made his fatal mistake. The 88 year-old remarked about the ad that “It’s too Black,” going on to add that the ad might well offend or even alienate Motel 6’s “white supremacist constituents.”
Although Richards’ comment did occur in an internal setting and he issued an apology to all of the agency employees Internally, many of the Richards Group employees felt that Stan Richards and the agency’s leadership had not gone far enough in the internal apology. And of course, as happens today, word spread fast beyond the four walls of the agency about what had happened. And soon, major clients, led by Motel 6, but including Home Depot, the Salvation Army of Texas, and grocery chain H-E-B cancelled their contracts with the Richards Group. All told, the Richards Group quickly lost approximately 40% of its business as its founder’s remarks became public, and the writing was on the wall: Richards had to leave the company he had founded — and he publicly announced his departure through a video statement offered by the University of Texas and its Moody College of Communications, in which the advertising program is offered through The Stan Richards School of Advertising and Public Relations.
Now as could be expected when such a controversy erupts today in the business world, there was no shortage of media coverage on Richards’ resignation:
And his fall was made all the harder by the fact that Richards was very public about how he sought to manage the agency that bore his name:
But even though he said that no one would ever get fired for making a mistake, he, in effect, fired himself after making this one. In a written statement, Richards explained his move:
“If this was a publicly held company, I’d be fired for the comments I made. But we’re not public, so I am firing myself. Our employees, first and foremost, deserve that. I made a mistake. The biggest mistake of my life. One I will never be able to adequately explain or take back. All I can say is that I was wrong.”
In the wake of Richards’ firing himself, the agency’s Creative Director, Glenn Dady, who had been designated as his successor a year ago, assumed control. And Richards had also earlier donated all of his ownership of the agency to an unnamed Dallas nonprofit so as to keep the agency independent into the future — something he prided himself on as more and more consolidation was taking place in the advertising industry. And yes, the agency has pledged to undertake a number of initiatives to improve its diversity and racial sensitivity. And Dady made the following public statement that currently splashes over the agency’s website:
These days, we see stories like Stan Richards almost on a weekly basis. Someone says something that is offensive, sometimes marginally so and sometimes obviously so — as clearly happened in this instance. And while not to minimize his mistake in using the 3 words he used and lessen the impact that those words had on his company, his employees, and his clients, something about this story struck me as being very different from all the others we have seen in the past line of corporate executives, celebrities, athletes, and politicians who have misspoke — especially when it comes to the very divisive issue of race.
As a strategic management consultant and professor, the key takeaway from the Stan Richards sage is this: He owned his mistake. He did not dodge. He did not waffle. He did not try to come up with an explanation that involved his medication, stress, or dog. He stepped up to the plate and owned his mistake. Now certainly there were personal motivations to what he did — to save his reputation and to save the firm that he had built with over 600 employees that was quickly hemorrhaging clients and revenue as major companies sought to disassociate themselves from the controversy that was inescapable when the name of the firm was the name of the founder and owner. However, in a world where waaaaaaaaay too often we see people lean on any excuse to justify bad words or even bad actions, the 88 year-old Stan Richards did not do that. Yes, he “messaged” what he said in that video, but did what more people should do today in that he admitted his mistake and then pledged to do better in the time he has remaining. And at 88, that is indeed saying something!
So while no one can agree with the words Stan Richards used in that Zoom meeting, what he did in the wake of those words should be an example for others to follow when mistakes happen — both large like this one and perhaps even the small ones too. Today, we need more leaders and public figures who are truly willing to acknowledge what happened and where they went wrong — and then do something about it. This was an unmitigated public relations disaster for Stan Richards and the Richards Group, but hopefully, as he said, this can be a “teachable moment” for us all in an era where people — and even entire companies — can be cancelled in an instant.
About David Wyld
David Wyld (email@example.com) is a Professor of Strategic Management at Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond, Louisiana. He is a management consultant, researcher/writer, publisher, executive educator, and experienced expert witness.
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