Success Ideas from Master Designer, Jack Anderson

Secrets of Success from Jack Anderson:

  • Starting the office is one of the best things I ever did professionally.
  • Chasing the dream of being “one of the most influential design firms in the United States someday” is what really drove us through the challenging times.
  • Our naivety, not knowing what was around the corner, not knowing what was ahead, and not knowing the challenges we would face is what’s grown us into the successful business we are today.

Early beginnings:

I started out studying engineering, transferred into architecture, then into industrial design with a little stint in interior design, and ultimately landed in graphics, all in the very limited environment of Montana State University. I managed to extend their 4 year program into 5, before graduating with a degree in what was called Professional Design back in 1975.

Mixed in there were a lot of art, photography and industrial arts classes, and frankly, I graduated feeling somewhat handicapped that I had a little taste of a lot of things and really not much skill in any one specific thing.

As it turned out, it was probably one of the greatest gifts I could have ever received. When I look back now, a big part of the reason Hornall Anderson is what it is today is because of that diverse background.

After graduating in 1975, I came to Seattle, accepted a job at an architectural firm called TRA Richardson Associates and, for 5 ½ years, I did title blocks, the occasional brochure, and a lot of environmental graphics or way finding.

When I started branching out into the community I met a gentleman by the name of John Hornall. This was when I was still in college and showing my book around. I courted him for nearly the full 5 ½ years that I was at the architectural firm. Ultimately, we got together at Cole & Weber, where he managed the design group. We were there for a year and a half together, before striking out on our own in 1982 when we started Hornall Anderson.

Deciding factors about going into business:

It was an interesting set of circumstances. John and I had a thriving little design group within Cole & Weber. We were in a satellite office in Seattle. One of our major clients was Westin Hotels, and when they changed their name from Westin International to Westin Inn, we had the opportunity to do a lot of really cool projects with them. We were out on our own and enjoying a fair amount of success, but the main agency wanted to pull us back into the mothership.

Simultaneous to this, I’d had a number of partnerships in small-scale real estate ventures. I’d bought homes and was fixing them up with some buddies of mine, and had experienced the process of what a partnership looks like, both contractually and in reality.

So, when Ron Elgin formed a brand new agency called Elgin Kirkland Syferd, which later became BBD Seattle, he asked John if he would be the design department inside their new agency. I said, “Wouldn’t it make more sense to have our own firm?” Long story short, we started Hornall Anderson Design Works, and Ron Elgin, Dave Syferd and Terry Kirkland became investors in our firm.

It was a nice deal for everybody. It was good for us because, not only did we have a little bit of financial stability, we also had access to some of their shared clients—specifically a client by the name of Princess Tours. This served as a foundational start for us.

We hit the ground running. You’ve heard that axiom: practice-based business versus business-based practice? We wanted to be a practice-based business. It was for the love of the craft and the freedom to do the kind of work we wanted that drove us into business, not because we wanted to be business people that happened to do design.

I don’t think one way is right and another way is wrong, but I do think that chasing the dream of being “one of the most influential design firms in the United States someday” is what really drove us through the challenging times.

On acquiring new business at first:

We experienced what I think a lot of young firms do. We were so busy doing the work that was in front of us, we neglected marketing to get new work. We experienced some of the roller coaster where things slow down and we would either answer RFP’s or call friends of friends. It was more of a guerrilla effort to make sure that at least our name was being considered locally for some of the assignments that were coming up. Little by little we established a presence in the community. And at least we were getting invited into the consideration process.

Acquiring new business today:

It’s a whole different game. Today we have about 120 full time staff people and probably another 15-20 contract people. It takes a lot of work to keep everything in a fluid state of optimism and with us playing to win.

We’ve been really, really fortunate to have a lot of continuous work from long-term clients, and from people who’ve moved on to new companies then returned to us for work. So ,we’ve built a lot of loyalty. Not just with companies, but with individuals. That growing network of friends and family has really been the key to a lot of our success.

Jack’s strategy for developing new business

We have a Director of Revenue. She’s got a team of people that report to her.

We also have a sales force, plus a support group that serves them. And for our existing clients, we have a very aggressive account service group that’s been able to garner a lot of our business.

We’re into year two of experimenting with this sales strategy mix, and it’s been getting us invited to some bigger conversations outside of the RFP process.

Biggest accomplishment:

Starting the office that would grow into a stand-out company is probably one of the best things I ever did, professionally.

Jack’s biggest success secret:

Most of all, our naivety, not knowing what was around the corner, not knowing what was ahead, and not knowing the challenges that we would face is what’s grown us into a fairly major business. That innocence, that naivety, is what allowed us to go forward and play to win. It’s been a challenge at times, but I sit here today and feel like the luckiest guy in the world.

I’ve surrounded myself with a group of people that include some of the smartest, most entrepreneurial, talented people with which I’ve ever worked. And we’ve got a distinct culture. It’s been a lot of work to get us to this point, where we have this phenomenal group of really bright people that totally believes in the “one plus one equals five” theory.

There’s an interesting mix of people from different nationalities, different walks of life, different professional backgrounds. It’s a brain trust that allows us to do some of the most exciting, innovative work we’ve ever done. I’m really proud of that. The group of people I work for is the best we’ve ever had.

The “one plus one equals five” theory:

You may know a lot of people who are incredibly talented, and in their own moment of genius, could sit in a cubicle and create greatness. But there are other factors that influence their success.

Being truly talented is one thing. Being a leader and the best-of-the-best is another thing. But to be a leader that can actually inspire other people to greatness, well, that’s the “plus” factor. Those people in our company are the most valued. A single genius is appreciated. But someone who can inspire and cajole, or whatever you want to do, to get a group of people going in the same direction, and where people are building on each other’s ideas, well, that’s ideal. This is an example of when one and one, instead of equaling two, equals three or five. That’s what it’s all about.

Thoughts on Teamwork:

Teamwork is a cheap phrase, and it’s a cheap concept, because everybody talks about it. But it’s harder to actually create an environment that is built on a team with people in the creative business. I’m really proud that we’ve been able to do that.

Thoughts on executive coaching:

Three years ago, we joined Omnicom. And prior to that I had hired an executive coach to work with me to transform myself into more of an inspiring leader. The process of getting some executive coaching ultimately lead to an opportunity back at Harvard though Omnicom called The Senior Management Program for two summers in a row. That really changed the face of this office. Currently, all three of my partners, in addition to myself and a few of my direct reports, all have executive coaches that basically help in our leadership.

On transforming a company:

Coaching has totally transformed what I believed was a good office into a great office. I’ve had numerous conversations now and again with either peers or people at Omnicom, and am asked, “What was the single thing that happened to you guys as an office that really helped you leapfrog out of where you were into something greater?” And though the coaching certainly wasn’t the only thing, it definitely played a big part.

On the value of business seminars and workshops:

We have a sizeable budget for career development inside this office, and a lot of things fall inside of that. We have on-site training and also send people off-site to attend courses and seminars. In my day, I attended a number of those. I don’t currently, because I’m involved in a lot of meetings back in New York and on the West Coast with the Omnicom network, while still trying to get some work done. (Laughter)

Granted, that doesn’t mean I don’t believe in them. I actually think staying in touch with colleagues and both people of like mind and of different backgrounds is the secret sauce to this whole thing.

On the importance of staying balanced:

I’m absolutely in favor of maintaining personal balance. I’m an avid cyclist. I ski, I’m a climber and I work out every day. It’s part of the way I manage my energy level. Those are the physical things that I do to keep me balanced.

I’m also fortunate to have a great partner and support in my wife. We’ve been together thirty-seven years, and have a wonderful daughter. I’m also a closet architect/developer with a project or two always in the process of either being designed or built.

New opportunities:

Actually, one of our current greatest opportunities for growth, and probably some of the most exciting work we’re doing, is in the area of built-environments, similar to what we did at the top of the Space Needle. We’re also working with a number of developers. We’re actually doing interior architecture and creating experiences comprised of both analog and digital. It’s huge. And they are all branded. I guess it’s in our DNA.

Tips for someone just starting out:

It’s all about relationships.

I’m making a gross generalization, but I think a lot of people get into it for either artistic or selfish reasons to express themselves. Those aren’t bad. It’s just that in order to really be successful in this business, you’ve got to put your clients’ needs in front of your own (without compromising your values or standards, obviously), and then figure out a way to give them something that really makes a difference to their business, while at the same time, provides you with a sense of fulfillment.

Building relationships:

It’s a dialogue. It’s not a monologue. It’s a relationship. And I think when clients sit across the table from someone who is truly inquisitive and interested in solving the problem in a way that actually makes a difference—whether it makes the phone ring, means more clicks on the mouse, or brings someone through the door; that’s what it’s all about. The problem needs to be solved and the client needs to feel like they’ve got a partner sitting across from them, an interested problem solver and not just a graphic designer. That’s what builds relationships.

Thoughts on trust:

To me, relationship is the key to all of this. Without relationship, you don’t have trust. And once you’ve got trust, you can do some amazing design work. But until you have it, it’s a we/them, or vendor/client situation.

There are a lot of people out there, and we deal with this in our own office, particularly with some of the new kids, coming to us with a little bit of entitlement. They think they do great work, and in a lot of cases they do. But doing great work isn’t enough.

Thoughts on the opportunities today:

(Laughter) I wish I was just starting out. I think this is such an amazing time to be in the marketing services business. Years ago, when we first started, we spent a lot of time trying to convince the clients that what we were doing for them had value. A lot of clients thought it was a necessary evil and more of an additive thing, as opposed to what I call a legitimate business weapon. Thank God for Phil Knight, Howard Schultz and Steve Jobs, who actually showed the world that branding, marketing and advertising were in fact legitimate business weapons.

Tips for someone just starting out:

First, be as inquisitive as you can. I truly believe that someone who’s inquisitive, curious and asks questions, and who’s got an appetite for a lot of different input is ultimately going to be able to solve the problem in a more unique, well-rounded way.

The people who are successful in our office think in different media. They don’t think in terms of just print. They think in terms of digital. They stay abreast of all that’s going on in the industry. They really don’t think about it as graphic design, per se.

So stay fresh. Stay informed. Don’t be one-dimensional. Be and think three dimensionally, literally and figuratively. And buckle up, because it’s a roller coaster ride.


This article is published by Will Sherwood | The Sherwood Group |Website Design | Graphic Design | Marketing Communications: The Sherwood Group has over 30 years of experience working with all sorts of companies, small and large. Our clients range from entrepreneurs to Fortune 500 firms, in nearly every business sector, from across the street to around the world (and yes, even Europe, China, and South America). Our goal is to create advertising,  graphic design, website design, and marketing communication that still looks fresh and relevant 10-15 years later. Our mission is to stir your imagination and leave your competition shaken and wondering,  Now what do we do?”  We are located in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.

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