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5 Minutes With… Chris Smith

5 minutes with... 1.1k Add to collection

Creative Group Head, The Richards Group

5 Minutes With… Chris Smith

Chris Smith left up-state New York for Dallas, Texas with two goals: to follow his college sweetheart and to one day work at The Richards Group. Almost twenty years of living in the city later, he’s now married and has been at The Richards Group for almost 16 of those years. These days he’s a Creative Group Head at the agency, and has helmed campaigns for some the USA’s biggest brands, including The Home Depot, Red Lobster and Chick-fil-A. LBB’s Addison Capper caught up with Chris to talk improvised comedy, being the frontman for ‘Stan Halen’ and the secrets of Texan barbecue.

LBB> You’re originally from up-state New York – how come you originally moved to Dallas?

CS> I met a girl at band practice while studying at Penn State College and she got a job in Dallas. She was a little older, so I followed her out of college. I had two goals in mind. One was obviously to be with her and the other was actually to, someday, work at The Richards Group. I had a class in college and we’d watched The Richards Group reel and there was a Motel 6 commercial on there that cracked me up. I thought, “that’s what I want to do. I’ll follow this girl to Dallas and maybe I’ll get lucky and get a job there”. 

LBB> And how long have you been there now?

CS> I moved there in 1994, so nearly 20 years. And I’ve been at The Richards Group for almost 15 years. 

LBB> The city isn’t a traditional advertising ‘hub’…

CS> No, it’s not New York or Chicago, but there’s a couple of bigger agencies there. Some of them have been shrinking and have been bought by the big guys, but we stayed independent and kept growing. 

LBB> Considering that, what is the city like creatively, outside of advertising?

CS> That’s a great question. Dallas is a sort of very shiny, very new city. But there’s kind of an underbelly that’s a little crunchier, a little grittier. There are some really good design firms in Dallas. Fossil, the watchmaker, is there. They’re just the design monster, so they bring in designers from all over the place. There’s a really good creative community. The music scene isn’t like Austin’s but it’s decent. They’re also building a world-class arts district, with new performance spaces, an opera house and a lot of interesting architecture. It feels like an up-and-coming city.

LBB> The Richards Group is the largest independent agency in the U.S. – how do you go about nurturing new talent?

CS> It’s sort of a fun thing – everybody wants to raise The Richards Group profile. We all push each other – it’s a friendly, competitive environment. A lot of the time, everybody will pitch in on a huge project. Everybody wants their stuff to win, but at the same time roots for the best work to go forward. Stan [Richards, Founder of The Richards Group] has created a culture there that doesn't really tolerate a lot of drama, a lot of backstabbing and a lot of that ego-type stuff. Obviously you get that because we’re all creative people. But Stan calls it the ‘peaceable kingdom’, and in most cases it works like that.

LBB> We’re currently at the London International Awards judging, where you’re the Radio Jury President. I know you’ve judged radio in the past – I imagine it’s a tough medium to judge, with its lack of visuals. Are there any specific nuances that you look out for with radio work that can tip its favour?

CS> A lot of times in television or other types of media, we’re finding that we’ve seen it before. But with radio, there’s a tendency to think, ‘music, great copy, great voiceover… oh I’ve seen that before’. That’s the bread and butter, but what I love is when someone does that – just great copy, voice and music or sound effects – and it surprises me. It’s great. I’m amazed at how people can keep that formula fresh. When you get something that’s completely out of the blue weird, it’s a pleasure, a joy. We’re all just working with sound, you know. And if someone can come up with a new way to do that, a new approach to music that we’ve never heard of before, it’s pretty amazing. 

LBB> And trends-wise, have you been hearing much of that this year?

CS> The music has been particularly strong this year. There’s a lot of great work where the music is just outstanding. For the past few years at various shows, the innovative uses of radio have just been exploding – there’s the tie in with Twitter, or the internet, or satellite radio, or whatever. The idea of just a 60-second radio commercial is almost quaint. That’s still the bulk of what we listen to, but there are so many other things. Three-minute commercials, eight-second commercials – it’s actually really exciting. 

LBB> This might seem a little odd, considering we’re sat at the LIA judging – but how important are awards to The Richards Group?

CS> Obviously everyone likes to win them. We are not an awards-obsessed agency, we don't enter every possible show. I don’t want to speak for Stan, but I think we’ve proven that we can do that kind of work. Some agencies seem to be award-driven, but we’re not. Obviously we like to win them, but we don’t make a huge deal out of them internally, or anything. And they’re an expensive thing – I don’t think that Stan feels like we have to prove our creativity. But all of the creatives are still gratified to win them and we enter when we can.

LBB> And which pieces of work out of The Richards Group have particularly resonated with you over the past year?

CS> Our agency has been doing some great work for RAM. We had a spot during the Super Bowl last year that got a tonne of press and was beautifully done. What I really like about The Richards Group is that we’ve had a lot of clients for decades. The Home Depot, Chick-fil-A, Motel 6; we’ve had those for 10, 15, 20 years. We’re still keeping the relationship and we’re still doing good and new work for them. For me, it’s like keeping a marriage fresh after decades: it’s not easy and we’re managing to do it. 


LBB> You did improv comedy for 15 years – do you still do it? And what else do you do outside of advertising that influences your creativity?

CS> I do it on and off. First of all work has got much busier, but I also have three kids – a ten-year-old girl and two eight-year-old boys. They’ve become more demanding with their time and my time. Really, as I get older I like having my Fridays and Saturdays to myself. I love performing, but I like having that time with my family to get a pizza and watch a movie. For 15 years it was a great long time, but these days I’m gone enough with work already. I still perform when I can, but it’s not something I do every week.

On top of that, I read constantly. Novels, non-fiction and some graphic novels (essentially comic books for grown-ups) thrown in. I’ve actually just started introducing my kids to those. I also listen to music like crazy and, like every other middle-aged guy, I’m in a rock band. I’m one of the singers. We’re a tribute band called ‘Stan Halen’ because we all work for Stan Richards. And we put on wigs, a tonne of make up and make fools of ourselves – it’s a blast. 

Also, my kids are all taking music lessons. My daughter plays drums, so I play that with her. One of my boys plays guitar and the other is learning keyboard. I’m learning the guitar with my son and we practice together, while my wife is doing the keyboard with my other son. So we’re all kind of learning instruments together, and it’s been a lot of fun. 

I’ve been playing chess my whole life and I’m trying to teach my kids – but not as much as I’d like. They seem to prefer the iPad. 

LBB> So you have like a family super-group in the pipeline?

CS> Yeah, that’s the joke! We want them to get good at instruments, so I can quit advertising and we can go on tour. The plan is to have another Jackson family – what could go wrong? But I only have three kids, and the ‘Smith 3’ doesn't have quite the same ring to it. So yeah, we’ll have a rock band with a keyboard, a guitar, a drummer, a trumpet and a piccolo. 

LBB> To finish up, from a Brit who is rather envious of American barbecue to a man who lives in Texas – what’s your favourite dish and where’s the best place to eat it? 

CS> Oh, man alive. There are a lot of great places. The one getting all of the press right now is a place called Pecan Lodge, but I haven’t been able to get there yet. I’m a fan of a place called Dickey’s. I used to live just down the street from it and it’s like walking into somebody’s house. I’m not a huge snob about barbecue because it’s all delicious. 

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LBB Editorial, Wed, 16 Oct 2013 16:23:33 GMT