With idea still king, archer>malmo continues growth

Local advertising agency archer>malmo has enjoyed explosive growth over the past five years, doubling their staff and adding new clients from across the country. How has this firm fostered such dramatic growth and longevity while landing national brands?
The headline of advertising agency archer>malmo's latest company news piece is no surprise: "Second quarter brings more expansion for archer>malmo." It's now a common announcement from the long-established firm housed in downtown's historic Cotton Exchange Building. They have been hiring new talent across agency functions regularly over the past five years, touting seven new hires this quarter and more space renovations in their office building. Since 2009 the firm has literally doubled in size, ballooning from 80 employees to 160 to date.

The most recent staff additions include Kate Aguinaga and Aspen Mueller to the account service team, Ben Hampton and Philip Rule to the creative group, Wil Gatlin and Heidi Press to the digital team and Wil High to the media department.

The agency provides brand development, advertising, public relations and digital marketing services to more than 20 national brands across a variety of categories. Although it is the largest advertising agency in the state with now 160 employees, CEO Russ Williams maintains growth has never been an explicit goal. The expansion has been a product of the team's commitment to being the best they can be--new business has responded to that kind of effort. But he points to the company's longevity, rather than recent growth, as a real sign of their success. And in an up-and-down business like advertising, he's right to trumpet their endurance in the market since the company's founding in 1952. "Durability is more important to us than growth and profitability," he says.

The agency hasn't just grown, though, they've also expanded their reach--for the past 15 years they've been busy exporting Memphis-style creative to new clients across the country. In 2000 when Williams started with the agency, 25% of their clients were from outside of the Mid-South. Today approximately 75% of their business comes from outside of the city, with clients from a wide variety of industries operating in many markets.

The explosive growth since 2009 has been part new clients and part new business from existing clients. The firm also acquired a retail firm during that period that brought some unique capabilities to the company. As a result, they have tripled their retail since they merged in 2011, which has been a significant part of the overall growth.

So how does a Memphis creative firm compete with large operations in the major ad markets of New York, Los Angeles and Chicago? According to Williams, you do it by creating great work while being more nimble than your competitors. "We never wanted to be a myopic company. We always wanted to have a global perspective," Williams says. "Looking at the work we did, and how good that work was--and seeing how good our talent is--that led to a number of opportunities with those out-of-town clients. It's also a relationship business. As you recruit people from around the country, they know other people from around the country who see our strong work."

Gregg Hastings, Group Creative Director at the firm, says they stay relevant by staying uniquely good while remaining easy to work with. "You can play big league ball with these folks, even if you keep a low-key nature. You don't have to be big to do the great work," he says.

Part of this freedom comes from being privately held by senior agency staff, unlike most major firms, which are governed by holding companies. Because they are publicly traded, those agencies have to reach Wall Street expectations. "It's hard to have control of your culture and be creative and do what's right for clients in that environment," Williams says. "Companies like ours should be private and independent. You need the eclectic culture that brings out the best in creative people."

Another facet of the firm's growth is their intentional diversity; they don't specialize in one industry. "That contributes to the durability. We're not a one-trick pony," says Hastings.

A Downtown Staple
Hastings describes archer>malmo as a "distinctly Memphis" company which approaches the business with a decidedly genuine and refreshingly original attitude. "Memphis is a pretty authentic place. There is an authenticity about the people. We go out of the way to hire people that fit that bill."

Williams echoes these sentiments, acknowledging that the firm enjoys the creative reputation the city has built. "Memphis has respect around the world for being a very creative place," he says. "Being in Memphis is absolutely a factor of our success. When people outside of the city hear there is an exciting, growing, vibrant creative company in Memphis, Tennessee, no one is surprised."

The firm moved downtown in the 1980s, before the location had the cache it now enjoys. Williams says that was a demonstration of the commitment Ward Archer had to downtown Memphis and its future revitalization. When the company eventually moved into the historic Cotton Exchange Building, it settled into offices on the fifth floor. Now the company has a presence on eight floors, and its footprint continues to expand.

The increasing employee count has prompted the agency to acquire more space, building out the third floor for the digital strategy team and adding 1,200 square feet of additional space on the 10th floor for more members of the account service team. It has also invested in the development of the lower level of the building to include a state-of-the-art video production facility--with sound booths, and infinity wall, and editing rooms--for the broadcast team. With the expansion, the agency now occupies 45,754 square feet.

Cultivating Culture
The culture of archer>malmo is a big contributor to its longevity and growth. The agency has always been ambitious about the quality of talent it could attract, as well as the quality of work it could produce. This ambition both drives the culture and is a product of the culture. From keeping work friendly and collaborative to stocking a snack closet, the company is keenly aware of the positive environment. "It's an attractive place to work and an attractive place to do business," Williams notes. "That limits turnover with clients and employees."

"We pride ourselves on making a collaborative effort," adds Hastings. "We have 160 people, but it's a very respectful environment where we all come together with a collaborative spirit. That all comes out in the work."

Recent hire Marion Kello, an Account Supervisor, joined the firm in April of this year. She came out of a 25 person firm in Oregon--a noticeably smaller organization. "It felt like family, and coming here, I expected to lose that at a larger firm. But the environment feels similar here. The collaboration of all our teams is all about doing the best work we can possibly do and caring about our clients," she says. She also cited the company's focus on work-life balance and transparent management as attractive features that drew her to the Memphis job.

Naomi Bata left Chicago in 2013 to join the firm as Chief Public Relations Officer. She was moving from a significantly larger agency. "I knew from the moment I walked into the building that it would be my home," she recalls of her first visit. "The collaboration and the environment are what stand out. I couldn't be happier to be here. And I know there's tremendous opportunity for this agency."

"We're very unique, the size that we are," Kello adds. "What that means is we have a depth of resources." While they can be flexible and avoid the stringent requirements of a holding company, with 60 years in the business, the company does seem to work like a well-oiled machine. Employees have the great advantage of working in a supportive, collaborative environment--qualities of a small firm--while enjoying the resources, stability and workflow of a large agency.

When asked what has changed most in the last five years, Williams smiles. "As my 12-year-old son says, 'There's this thing called the interweb'." The company has been investing aggressively and wisely in the digital industry, and it started investing early on. "Digital is 35% of our business. But it's in everything," Williams says. "That's one reason we have excellent prospects of continued growth. We're so differentiated by our strength in digital. For agencies that haven't kept up with that, it's hard to grow."

Asking what has changed begs the question, what hasn't? For Hastings, that's an easy question. "We have always been a very idea-centric agency, despite size. We are solution oriented with our clients. We think beyond the assignment."

He explains that when you work at archer>malmo, you build a book of "stories," not a book of work. "Idea is king. That's how we solve problems. I say, don't sell them an ad, sell them an idea. And we have a depth of resources that can take an idea to some pretty special places."

Read more articles by Anna Mullins.

Anna is a local writer, editor and non-profit administrator. She serves as Managing Editor for High Ground and as the Director of Communications and Marketing for the New Memphis Institute. Share feedback and story ideas with her here.
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