It has been 30 years since I first opened the doors of C.C. Rigg’s, more years than I had been alive at that time. (Okay. Wow.) I look back now at that 27-year-old with great affection realizing what a naïve, idealistic young girl I was, recognizing all these years later the great gift in making that kind of leap when I didn't know any better. I didn’t know what I didn’t know, as they say, I had no clue how complicated and risky and unpredicatable running a business would prove to be.
Day One was October 19, 1987. It will go down in history as Black Monday—so named due to the dramatic dive of the Dow Jones—the greatest single day drop ever, and a turn of events a more knowledgable entrepreneur might have interpreted as a sign. It was lost on me. I don't remember the news even registering, to tell you the truth, my focus so narrowly zoomed on the one sure-bet client giving me enough confidence to open those proverbial doors.
And so I sat at my Bell Office Furniture used metal desk, straightened up the set of newly sharpened pencils, and picked up the phone to call Anne, the marketing director for the client I planned to recruit. "She's no longer with the company," said the operator on the other end of the line. "The entire marketing department was 'dissolved' over the weekend."
I kid you not.
I don't remember what I did next. Sat in stunned silence for a minute, I am sure. Then probably I got up and served myself a large Diet Coke.
Those first years were tough. I was single, then a newly wed with a husband who supported my crazy idea and the resulting business in a quiet but beautiful way. For the life of me I don't know how anybody in the ad business made money in those days. In addition to the requirements of sound strategy and great creative the mere development of the ad executions was incredibly time and labor intensive. We used drawing boards and radiograph pens and t-squares and press type. If you needed an image you drew a sketch, then hired a photographer or an illustrator. If you wanted to test color for an outdoor board you put tissue paper over the thing and colored it in. I created my own accounting system: every payment I received I split between two checking accounts. Into one I put every dime I owed on behalf of clients, and I paid those bills immediately. Into the other I put the "profit" out of which I paid the agency bills. I never mixed the two and as archaic as the system was I am proud to say it established a wonderful and important precedence. To this day our agency has never used client money to pay anything but their own bills.
I also didn't pay myself a regular salary, at least not for the first few years. I believed it to be a smarter business practice to put that money away in the event the agency needed it. It's a practice I counsel against strongly these days when I talk with new entrepreneurs, a terrible practice that sets up an unrealistic and unsustainable model.
at our 10th birthday party
It was tough, but the rewards were great, too. The first to come along was a sweet high school student, Julie Smith, who called out of the blue to offer her free services as an intern willing to do anything to get some advertising experience. This included emptying the trash, she noted on the telephone, "and you don't even have to pay me." I had not considered adding any type of employee at that time—even a free one, and certainly not a high school student—but Julie's infectious enthusiasm won me over. She remains one of the brightest lights in my life.
Julie's joy is infectious. See?
We enjoyed success, too. A little billboard campaign we created for Dutch Door Artists Supplies won gold and then Best of Show our first year in the Addys, something we never dared dream in a market with big reputation agencies that had big budget clients. We were particularly proud the work was honored since it represented more than good creative—it established an uncompromising ideal that to this day has been our standard. I had woken up the day the campaign was to be presented to the client with the knowing feeling my recommendations were not right. I called my dear friend and freelance art director Tim Burke very, very early and asked him to meet me at the studio as soon as he could get there. "I know the pitch is today," I said, "but the work isn't right and we're changing it."
So many people with incredible talent and great dedication have been a part of our story since those early years. It takes my breath to consider it. Somewhere in the neighborhood of 78 or 79 folks are Rigg-ers past or present, not including the many interns for whom we don't have viable records. The aggregate number feels surprising since our staff numbers have, by design, remained relatively small. I look over that list with awe and remember what each and every person brought that pushed us forward. So many gifts. So much grace.
Lisa, Tim, me, Julie: the early years' C.C.Rigg's crew
It is the thing I am most proud of, if you will indulge me that, more than the work for which we are known, more, even, than the honor it has been to serve exceptional clients who have trusted us with both their investments and their businesses. We have hired well, by and large, knowing beyond knowing that the best thing an entrepreneur can do is be brave enough to surround herself with people who are smarter and more talented than she is.
This goes doubly true for my beloved business partners. I am neither kidding nor exaggerating when I say I truly believe each and every one—individually—is the secret to our success. (I do realize that is not possible. And yet.)
Teresa Sarvis Coles, who was the answer to a prayer I didn't even know to pray when she stepped in and took the reigns during the years I was geographically removed from the business, whose smarts and vision took us from creative boutique to bonafide Mar Com agency, whose little idea became big CreateAthon and who serves as the program's grand champion today, who in every personal and professional way is my heart and soul;
two girls with some big dreams
Kevin Smith, who literally knocked on the door as a recent college grad and talked his way into a job that didn't exist, who brought us our first Big Client, who had his sights set on NYC and spent those years away reminding us what a special place our little agency was, then returned bringing everything he learned, whose gift for strategy is beyond comprehension and who, without fail, elevates our standard;
Ryon Edwards, the finest person I know, the most generous and patient and kind coworker I know, the most talented designer/art director I know (quite possibly in the universe), who always—always—delights and surprises with his other-worldly talent and sweet, sweet spirit;
Tom Barr, the incomparable Tom Barr, who is In Charge Of Everything and makes it all look effortless, the ultimate juggler of 10,000 things and still always has time and an answer, money man, spreadsheet man, my I-can't-survive-in-a-world-without-him-and-wouldn't-want-to man, thank you Tom Barr.
my people: Tom, Teresa, Kevin, me, Ryon
And I must mention Michael Powelson and Katy Miller, both with their own superpowers, both providing so much support and smarts and doing their jobs so well they have given me the grand, grand gift of stepping back a little, opening my life a little to some awesome new experiences and challenges.
I am also deeply proud of my insistence that we evolve as the years have gone by. I always think of Riggs as having shape, a literal shape I can see in my mind's eye, and I can visualize it morphing from this to that as we meet changing market conditions or changing client needs. This matters whatever the type of business, I believe, but never more so than in an industry dedicated to understanding and anticipating trend. To still be around, and relevant, and independent, 30 years later is a testament to this commitment to change, I think, to re-thinking and reconsidering everything every single day.
before we cutted and gutted the Yugo (and painted it purple)
and attached it to a billboard
This is a business for young people, there is no doubt about that. How grateful I am to those who populate the WECO building as Rigg-ers today. We have never had a more talented, cohesive, supportive, and yes—loving--group, not in all the years, and that's saying something because we've had some mighty strong teams. I thank each and every one of you from a place of deep affection.
Riggs Partners today
It has been a lovely, bumpy, joy-filled ride, and I am humbled to my core when I look back to see the 30 years all lined up, pretty maids in a row.