For a quarter century, EP+Co of Greenville, South Carolina, (formerly Erwin Penland) was regarded by peers as a well-run, profitable, regional agency. But president Allen Bosworth worried about the future of his agency. He wanted to rekindle his enthusiasm for the business. He needed change. He decided to “fix” what wasn’t broken.
“There’s always a risk to reinvention,” says Bosworth, “but there’s equal, if not more, risk in not reinventing. To not change would be irresponsible.” He decided to hire two established professionals from New York who he felt could bring the change he was looking for: Con Williamson and John Cornette.
In 2014, Williamson joined the agency as chief creative officer (prior to that, he was chief creative officer at Saatchi & Saatchi, in charge of creative for brands such as Lenovo, Tide, Cheerios and Miller Brewing Company). Williamson then convinced Cornette to join him as executive creative director (prior to that, Cornette was executive creative director with Williamson at Saatchi and also worked with him at J. Walter Thompson, with experience for brands including Microsoft, Procter & Gamble, General Electric, Verizon, T. Rowe Price, Rolex, Jose Cuervo and Mountain Dew). Rather than ride in with the attitude that they could “fix” the agency, they took a different approach: they came to add value. It was this spirit that convinced their new colleagues of their plan.
The key to their ensuing success, says Williamson and Bosworth, was knowing what to change and what not to. “We didn’t need to reinvent our core belief system,” observes Bosworth, “we needed to reinvent our strategies and tactics to make ourselves better.” They had a common goal: EP+Co was no longer content with the label “regional agency.” They would compete nationally, and they had the resources, will, talent and experience to do it.
BUILDING THE PORSCHE
When Con Williamson, a Florence, South Carolina, native, took his first close look at the agency, he saw a place rich with underutilized resources. “When I saw the skills, tools and experiences here, it was like looking inside an old barn full of forgotten tools and parts. It was a Porsche waiting to be built,” he says. With his friend John Cornette at his side, they were on a mission. “When we first arrived, there were skeptics, but most were passionate, smart people who are as talented if not more so than any we’d ever worked with,” remembers Cornette. “We were determined to make certain those people knew how good they were.”
Williamson had a gnawing reservation: he feared he might not deliver. “I didn’t want to screw up something that had worked well for a long time,” he says. Instead, he and Cornette vowed to “do the opposite,” to set aside past assumptions and habits and look for new methods to achieve goals. They created a rallying cry, “Unthink Everything,” and put it on everything, from the agency’s website to office art to T-shirts. They inspired everyone to try things, make things and step outside their comfort zones. “The collective energy created positive momentum,” Williamson recalls, “and with every success and failure, it just kept getting better.”
EP+Co veterans have embraced new ways of thinking and are redefining their roles. Allen Bosworth no longer thinks of retirement. Jeff Hoffman is now chief growth officer. Karl Dunn, once a creative director, now leads content engineering. Curtis Rose, the financial wizard behind the scenes, is chief operating officer. Kat Shafer and Karen Mawhinney share managing director duties, and Danny Miller heads up content production. Together, they are rethinking their approach to standard agency practices, from the way creative briefs are written to investing in real prototypes to sell big ideas. Moreover, they encourage every employee, no matter their title or role, to get involved in the creative process. Most significantly, they invested in CoLab, which opened in 2015 inside a repurposed textile mill (more on that later). They also modified their name to EP+Co, with an emphasis, says Bosworth, on the Co. The name change was a signal to everyone—staff, clients and the Greenville community—that everyone can contribute to the agency’s future.
It has paid off. In 2018, EP+Co became agency of record for five iconic brands: 20th Century Fox, John Deere, Lowe’s, LinkedIn and Tempur Sealy International. It is a string of account wins that any agency, of any size, anywhere, might envy. More to the point, the client wins affirm the agency’s core belief that, by motivating people and giving them a sense of personal fulfillment, great and mighty things can happen.
Jeff Hoffman is an eighteen-year agency veteran who has enjoyed his own personal growth. “Once we overcame the fear of what could go wrong and embraced the excitement of what could go right,” he says, “the mix of old and new created a culture of inclusiveness that allowed everyone to try new things. Speaking for myself, I have evolved by working alongside new talent and absorbing fresh perspectives that have deepened my character.” John Cornette has grown too. “In New York, I made a lot of decks for meetings. Here, I make things to test our logic and sell ideas. I take fresh approaches to problem-solving, client experience making and content creation.” He’s getting his hands dirty. And that feels good.
“WELCOME TO OUR FANTASY FACTORY”
Screw the Secret Sauce—build a Sauce Factory. CoLab is a 10,000-square-foot production studio/workshop inside Taylors Mill, a former textile factory just outside Greenville city limits. Inside this enormous complex, a range of artists and artisans ply their trade: craft brewers, zither makers, hatchet throwers, therapeutic window smashers, web developers, filmmakers, letterpress people, as well as other artists, admen and adwomen, and madmen. It is not unlike most warehouse spaces you’ll see in other cities, with an important difference: it’s about five football fields long, two football fields wide, and remains surrounded by farms and ramshackle, old mill houses.
CoLab lies in the back of the complex, a half mile from the main road, a whirling, buzzing, full-service production work-shop. It’s an idea factory and, arguably, the agency’s great differentiator. “Welcome to our fantasy factory,” bellows Karl Dunn, who is a nineteen-year agency veteran. “Not everyone can visualize an idea on a napkin,” he says. “Here, we bring ideas to life.” He brings a sense of craft and continuity to his team inside this brick-walled shop. He believes any idea thrown their way can be transformed into a tangible product, including models, props, sets, prototypes, films, videos and music, made by a motivated team of “innovation engineers.” They’ve turned Puma athletic shoes into drum sets, toy trucks into hurricane-relief food truck models, drywall into dining booths, pencil sketches into full-scale steel sculptures and countless storyboards into social media moments. It’s a kind of Santa’s workshop, relocated to the Deep South.
Kyle Jones, group creative director, recently joined the agency after years in San Francisco. “A headhunter called one day to discuss a job at EP+Co. I’d never heard of them. Then John Cornette asked me to come over.” He recalls his first look at CoLab. “When I first saw people making things out at CoLab, I thought they’d hired actors to play millworkers. I couldn’t believe it. Real people given real freedom to make real things. I thought to myself, ‘God, I hope they make me an offer.’” They did.
“No one here is afraid to fail,” says Seth Hunt, creative content engineer at CoLab. “Not even our clients.” Two weeks into Heather Grace’s new job at CoLab, Hunt handed her a welding torch. “You want to learn how to weld?” he asked. “Go weld!” Hunt’s trust instilled confidence in Grace. She learned to not only “Unthink Everything,” but also try anything.
WHAT MATTERS MOST
Williamson remembers a moment a year after joining EP+Co, when he realized the “Porsche” they were building was going to run. “We were heads down, cranking. I paused and looked around, and suddenly it occurred to me: ‘Holy shit, this just might work!’”
He is having the time of his life. While medals and fame had come to him at Saatchi, Fallon and J. Walter Thompson, today, Williamson feels his work is a part of life and happiness. “I’ve always loved what I do, but not necessarily the way I’ve done it,” he reflects. “All the other stuff never really mattered. What matters are my family, friends, colleagues, clients and community. I’m now the best version of myself because I found a place where I’ve achieved that elusive work-life balance. Here, I can do what I love and be with those I love, equally.”
Cornette feels the same way. “You know, Con and I needed this place as much as they needed us. Now that we’ve got what we always dreamed of, we look at each other and say, ‘OK, now what?’”
“Now what?” Who knows, but it is certain change will come. And the people at EP+Co will be ready. ca