Rich Bailey was a refined gentleman who lit bad copy on fire.
He would say something witty, flick the lighter, and set the paper ablaze right in front of the writer. There's nothing like a little drama to help make a point. Times were different in those early days of the agency I've called home for more than 30 years—Bailey Lauerman, the eponymous shop founded in 1970 and run by creative savant Rich Bailey and type A account man Jim Lauerman in Lincoln, Nebraska.
Back then, writers would slow walk their copy down the hall into the top guy's office for review. If it didn't pass his sniff test, Rich had a way of letting you know. It didn't take more than one "rejection" to learn to always have a backup in your pocket.
The truth is, the fire test made us all better. It was a forceful reminder that only high-quality work deserves to survive. It demonstrated the importance of setting standards and to never lose the opportunity to make a big statement relating to the agency's priorities. And it left an impression on me to do the same.
I was lucky to land a spot in Bailey Lauerman's creative department right out of college. It was 1986. I cut my teeth early on local and regional accounts, then left for an opportunity at a larger shop in Kansas City that handled a number of prominent national brands. A few years passed before I met Rich for lunch on the Country Club Plaza. Within an hour, he convinced me to return to Lincoln. At 28, I took over as creative director of Bailey Lauerman.
Since then, Nebraska has remained my home. And the agency's location has given us a unique advantage: working with clients on a national scale and leveraging a deep understanding of Middle America. World-class work has nothing to do with geographic location, budget, time constraints or any other excuse. It has everything to do with passion. So passion is what I've learned to hire for.
Training aspiring young talent to be successful and maintaining an environment conducive to great work is critical. Because we place so much of our energy on the Midwest region, that's where much of our recruiting focus has traditionally been. Sure, we hire from the outside, but success for us is mostly about finding intelligent and naturally talented people within our area and developing them as best we can. That's been a key factor in leveling up our creative product.
Rich instituted this strategy in the early days. He described it as the process of hiring "creative hybrids." These were the people who could execute all types of creative work—art, copy, a little account management if needed. They also seem to be the ones who are highly motivated to grow because they possess a natural curiosity about the industry and how the best work is formed.
As such, we often see talented team members get picked up to lead creative departments at other agencies or even form their own shops. It's just part of the game. The byproduct of these cycles is that we've maintained a consistent reputation of being able to help incredibly talented creatives grow. So, our process remains the same: hire for potential, train for talent, watch the success.
To be sure, this business has had its fair share of ups and downs. Advertising is one of the most volatile industries, especially as an independent. I try to be measured in response to wins and successes because, by tomorrow, everything could change. Our people are scrappy, thick-skinned, and remarkably dedicated. Through the downs, we pull together as a team and solve the challenge. And during the ups—well, that's why we all got into the business in the first place.
Speaking of "ups," if we wrote the book on Bailey Lauerman, an entire chapter would be devoted to Jim Lauerman's love for aviation. We've worked for just about every airframe manufacturer and supplier in the general aviation category. Early on, Jim secured a Beech Baron, a piston twin aircraft, for the agency. He would fly a few people at a time, maybe a team of four or five to meet with regional clients. That was in the heyday of advertising, when planning meetings were often day trips. But flights in that small plane weren't always smooth. The threat of airsickness was always present. When one of the passengers got sick, avoiding setting off a chain reaction among the rest of the team required closed eyes and pinched noses for the rest of the flight. If you've ever seen the pie-eating contest scene from Stand by Me, you get the picture. Even though we were saving time on travel, trips to the dry cleaners needed to be factored in.
We no longer have a company plane, and Bailey Lauerman has transformed numerous times since those early days. In my time as CCO, president and now chairman, I'd like to say I've seen it all. But I'm sure there's still more to come.
Through it all, my guiding principles have remained the same: offer far more encouragement than criticism, spend time discussing how we can, and set aside discussions about why we can't, push ourselves to explore beyond the obvious, and have twice as many questions as we have answers.
And as Rich Bailey taught me, if your last idea went up in flames ... take a hard look at your work, but never lose faith in your abilities.