RDA 2008: South

“If I didn’t watch the news, I wouldn’t know
there were economic problems,” chuckles
Larnie Higgins, president and creative
director of Planet Studio in Atlanta. “I was
bracing for hard times, but suddenly it’s
boomtown,” says Woodrow Holliman, creative
director at Flywheel Design in Durham,
North Carolina.

Echoes of surprised relief that the mortgage crisis and general downturn haven’t
done irreparable damage to the design business
came from Charleston, South Carolina;
Richmond, Virginia; Memphis; and Orlando.
Far from panicking, these designers’ clients
are still spending. And on the expense
side, “the high cost of goods doesn’t affect
us that much,” notes Hayes Henderson,
creative director of HendersonBromsteadArt
in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. For one
thing, the majority of his clients are outside
the region, so “we don’t drive to our clients.”

Many designers at small- to medium-size
firms across the region feel that the
recession has even helped them by driving
cost-conscious companies their way. Keith
Greenstein is senior copywriter at Boone
Oakley, a 30-person ad agency in Charlotte,
North Carolina, that hired seven new staff
members last year. “In this conservative
economy, we’re willing to take on projects
for smaller companies that large agencies
won’t, because they cater only to marquee
clients,” he says.

In Memphis, Disciple Design’s Craig
Thompson says that design studios have been
doing better than advertising agencies there
because they operate on a project-based
model, which is better suited to the trough in
the economic cycle: “It’s a huge commitment
to have a contract and a monthly retainer.
There are times when you need [a full range
of] agency services, and times when clients
look for more efficient solutions.” Cook
Communications (now David C. Cook), a
Christian publishing company in Colorado
Springs, Colorado, recently hired Disciple to
refine and execute a brand over haul. “They
looked at several firms across the country,”
Thompson says, “and were comfortable that
we could provide agency-level work at a
cost fitting their budget.”

Planet Studio’s Higgins says that even
big companies have been giving his firm
projects that in more prosperous times would
have gone to their agency of record. And
these clients aren’t just getting a lower price;
they’re getting better service. Several designers
agreed with Deborah Loercher,
president of Anoroc, a 10-person boutique
in Raleigh, North Carolina, who says her
clients appreciate that “we’re easier to work
with and more responsive. They don’t deal
with a junior account representative—they
deal with me personally.”

Notwithstanding these sanguine
reports, the economy did cause some pain
and scrambling. For High Tide Creative,
an ad agency in coastal New Bern, North
Carolina, the “bread and butter” clients have
been real estate developers, says creative
director Tom Lewis. With those budgets
on hold, they’ve been “very busy” doing
logos and other project work and sending
out self-promotional pieces to attract
new business.

In Winston-Salem, Shapiro Walker Design
recently had its first down quarter
since opening its doors 11 years ago. Partner
David Shapiro says that the economic slowdown
has increased competition among
designers: “Laid-off creatives go freelance,
others defect to start new firms—there are a
lot of little fiefdoms out there that can rob
you.” He cites Mullen Advertising’s loss of the
$120 million Wachovia Bank account, which
resulted in 10 to 20 new local competitors.
Not surprisingly, companies are taking
advantage by putting up for review work that
previously would have been assigned.
Shapiro’s firm is reacting by questioning its
generalist orientation with an eye toward
focusing on a few core specialties.

Print publications have been fighting
not just the economy but obsolescence, as
ads migrate to the web. Page counts are
down at the Nashville Scene, from an average
of around 108 in 2005–06 to 84 last year,
reports Rob Williams, the alternative weekly’s
art director. Hector Sanchez, creative
director at Atlanta magazine, says that ads
have fallen during the past year, which
forces him to “think harder and be smarter
in streamlining the magazine and making it
look good.” He commissions illustration
and photography differently, too, assigning
whole sections as opposed to single pages
to build good relationships with artists hurt
by lower editorial art budgets.

This “doing more with less” theme
is repeated by other designers during lean
times. For Atlanta’s Larnie Higgins, this
means an emphasis on multi-use pieces: “The
luxury of pure branding pieces is scarcer.
Clients need things to deliver, so a corporate
overview doubles as a sales-call leave-behind
or as direct mail.” For Deborah Loercher,
in Raleigh, it means less expensive modes of
communication, such as the internet and
“underground PR.” Similarly, in Charlotte,
Keith Greenstein says, “You have to be more
resourceful.” His agency excels in outdoor,
so the firm creates guerrilla events to “interact
with people one-on-one versus passively
running an ad.” He says that he hears the
same from his colleagues. Speaking for all
designers, he adds, “We love to work. For anyone
who loves design, you can’t let budgets
get in the way.”

This article appears in the December 2008
issue of