A basement is a fine place to start out. It's inexpensive. Exposed plumbing offers its own aesthetic. Peddlers don't bother you. But if you're still there years later, you might want to rewrite your business plan, right? Well, no. Take Huey/Paprocki for example. Their seven-year basement experiment in advertising has produced a formula for success.
From the outset Ron Huey and Joe Paprocki, co-creative directors, made compelling, highly creative work their mission. It started in 1997 at Joe's house. Eighteen months later, they moved from Joe's dining room to the former ballroom of a 1920s-era hotel that had gone from grand to bad to worse to much, much better. The hotel is located in one of Atlanta's coolest, funkiest neighborhoods—Poncey/Highlands, where families, DINKS, Guppies, Buppies, Skinheads, runaways and strippers share the streets.
The below-ground space once hummed as a speakeasy, a ballroom and a single bowling lane before starting a long decline that mirrored the exhausted fortunes of the surrounding neighborhood. But things began to change in the mid-'80s. Hookers and pushers left. Young couples, gays and lesbians moved in and began refurbishing apartments and homes. Then came coffee shops, bike shops, book stores, restaurants. Prices rose. New owners came to the hotel, burned the old sheets, added the word "inn" and made it into a respectable B&B. In 1999, Joe and Ron stepped into this milieu.
UP AND OUT
Ron Huey, copywriter, grew up in Winder, Georgia, about 40 miles northeast of Atlanta. After graduating from the University of Georgia in Athens in 1983, he spent two years as an account executive at J. Walter Thompson/Atlanta, then worked at a smaller firm where he diversified his skills and began copywriting. But Atlanta didn't offer the kind of growth experiences he desired. So in 1990, he left for Los Angeles to work for Saatchi & Saatchi's Team One Advertising. There, Ron's work on Lexus established him as a force in the business. His reputation spread. In 1993, The Martin Agency in Richmond, Virginia, offered him the keys to their Mercedes-Benz account. As Ron put it then, "Time to trade in the Lexus."
Joe Paprocki, art director, grew up in Lakeland, Florida, where cars also shaped his career. "I trained to be an auto mechanic. It didn't take too many burned fingers to realize I might be better suited for something else." He went to Florida State University in Tallahassee where he earned a degree in Visual Communications before moving to Atlanta.
After a stint at Cargill, Wilson & Acree, Joe's work was solid, but he was not finding the career-building opportunities he wanted. So Joe also decided the best way to move up was to move out—in 1992 to Minneapolis to work for Fallon McElligott. His work there, for Purina, Nikon, Family Life and Lee Jeans, was featured in all the leading annuals.
Thomas Wolfe, of course, was wrong. You can go home again: if you've earned enough credit and experience to set yourself apart in a dimly-lit market. In 1996, Ron and Joe returned to Atlanta. "Coming back was always part of our grand plan," says Ron. "Joe took a job as creative director at Ogilvy & Mather. I came to Atlanta to open an agency. It was something Joe and I had discussed for years. It didn't happen by chance."
By early 2001, Advertising Age included Huey/Paprocki in its list of "20 Creative Agencies to Watch," stating, "[e]ver since it opened its doors in 1997, Huey/Paprocki has dominated the Atlanta Addy's, bringing home more medals than any other agency." Either Atlanta advertising was that bad, or Huey/Paprocki was that good. Two years later, 72 of 76 Huey/Paprocki submissions garnered awards at ShowSouth. In 2004, they again took away more awards than any ShowSouth participant.
But local success is not the standard against which this group measures itself. "We like winning locally, regionally," says Joe, "but our goal is to go up against the world's best and win." And they've done so, consistently appearing in Archive, Communication Arts and The One Show, year after year.
Huey/Paprocki has established itself as one of, if not the, preeminent creative shop in Atlanta. So what's the secret to their success? Well, it sure ain't the fancy office. The answer, as usual, is simple: hard work, trust, loyalty, respect and sharing credit.
"It starts with talent. But after that, it's about listening and responding to what a client has to say. When you do that, you build trust, and trust is the basis from which clients allow their agency to do great, leading work," says Robyn Ulrich, VP of marketing, Do It Yourself Network. "While we have grown from 5 million households to 25 million since we began with Huey/Paprocki, what has not changed is the fact that either Joe or Ron come to every meeting and return every phone call. They don't treat us like clients—they treat us as partners."
THE SANE ASYLUM
Today, Huey/Paprocki's staff works in the old ballroom's open, shabby-chic space. It is an office without walls. To meet, one need merely roll their chair across the cracked terrazzo floor and start talking. It is an egalitarian, informal atmosphere. What keeps talented people coming to the place is the same thing that motivated Joe and Ron years before: if you work at a hot shop, you get career-enhancing opportunities and a great book which is, in turn, a ticket to a fulfilling career. Ron and Joe encourage the people around them to grow. That some (or most) will leave one day is a given. Rather than fight the inevitable, they nurture it, getting the best out of folks in the time they are there.
Bob Cianfrone, copywriter at Crispin Porter Bogusky in Miami says he benefited from his years at Huey/Paprocki. "Ron and Joe only wanted good things for me. They put me into a position where that could happen. When I showed my book here, 99% of my work was done in the two years I spent with those guys. They're selfless."
Paul Crawford, a former Huey/Paprocki staffer and now creative director at Lewis Communications in Birmingham, notes how good Ron and Joe are at setting priorities. "With all their notoriety I expected to walk into some nice office with a bunch of people," he recalls. "Instead, there were three guys standing around in shorts and T-shirts. I was like, 'What is this, some kind of weird science project?' Well, it was, in a way. It was advertising broken down to its most basic components. No useless meetings. No extraneous staff. No fancy office space. We did tons of work, we did it efficiently and we all got home at sane hours."
Sharing credit, quality of work and mutual respect are themes often repeated when speaking to people both inside and out about Huey/Paprocki. But nearly everyone with whom I spoke about Huey/Paprocki mentioned that it is not the kind of place where you must work eighteen-hour days, six days a week to call yourself a "success." The founders value a balance between work and home.
"I learned over the years that to make great ideas happen, you have to constantly push yourself and your clients to new levels," Joe says. "But that does not mean you have to be at the office night after night, weekend after weekend to achieve your goals. By eliminating the needless bureaucracy, by avoiding the pointless paperwork, you have plenty of time to generate ideas. When there is no time left on the clock, you know that all your energy went into the work, not the usual agency crap that distracts you."
Ron agrees. "We are incredibly efficient. We can work 8–6, 9–5, week upon week and get more done than I was ever able to do at bigger agencies. We can do that because we have rid ourselves of the layers that can bog you down. Being productive at work creates balance in our lives. I spend time with my family. My son expects me to go to T-ball with him. It's all in how you place your priorities."
NOWHERE BUT UP
The people at Huey/Paprocki are unassuming about their well-earned success. They're soft-spoken, welcoming and relaxed. They put stock in work, not pretense. They spend time creating brands, not yapping about them. With fourteen people and growing, they've finally outgrown their basement lair. There's nowhere else for them to go but up.
While Huey/Paprocki's years in the basement will soon be over, it's unlikely to feature suspended staircases and million-dollar views. It will simply be a place where they can continue their unique experiment in essential advertising.
Too bad more people don't experiment in their basements. The advertising landscape might improve markedly if they did. ca