Richard Ward: President & CEO, 22squared

My NativeAdVice:


Richard has over 20 years of agency management experience, an innovative, startup company mindset and an unparalleled passion for great creative work. Prior to joining 22squared in 2006, he served as Managing Director of FCB/San Francisco, helped launch the Internet startup search company Infoseek, worked on the team that ushered in an era of explosive growth at AOL, and managed global business development as a consultant for eBay. He’s worked on a wide range of brands and categories, including financial services, food and beverage, CPG, and retail, and has helped shape 22squared into the full-service, integrated agency it is today.

How did you get into the industry?

I attended The University of Oregon, which has one of the five best journalism programs in the country. And even though I was a business major, I took many classes within the school of journalism. The department head was a legend named Willis Winter, who was very well connected to the ad industry on the West Coast and encouraged a constant presence on campus of world-class advertising agencies. With every visit, I fell in love. And by the time I was a junior, I knew that this was what I was going to do.

Any emerging industry trends?

Our industry is famous for re-inventing itself in ways that are repetitive. When I started in the business, the big idea was to unbundle media from the making of advertising (the creative.) And they did that to consolidate media buying power to create more clout for clients. So, what’s happening now is everyone’s talking about putting it back together again. When I came to 22squared, a number of people told me to unload our media operation. Ha! The model that we’ve set up for 22squared is just the opposite of that. We always saw the power in merging the media with the message.  

Any industry opportunties or challenges?

Oh, huge. Talent screams out at me. The war for talent has never been more intense. I was in a meeting this morning where we were talking about entry-to-mid- level people and about how many more options they have now versus twenty years ago. Platforms, client side, in-house agencies, consulting companies, digital media companies –ad agencies struggling to find and keep the best talent is probably the toughest thing that most of my CEO counterparts are wrestling with.  

Inspiration for the business idea, and your vision for the Business?

11 years ago when we set out to re-invent 22squared, we were an old school, traditional ad agency. We really had no digital footprint. We had media. We had creative. And we had account management. We bet the company on seeing a huge opportunity in our industry landscape for a super mid-size agency, with a fully integrated suite of services, to service big Fortune 500 companies.

The choice between global networks and small boutiques can be frustrating for big brands, and they often crave an agency that has both the scale to handle a national brand and the tailored service of an independent. We saw that as the secret sauce, and that’s what really has been the success of 22squared.  We’ve moved up market from where we were 11 years ago. Well over half of our clients are fortune 500, and of that group two-thirds are fortune 200 or larger.

What's next for the Business in the near future?

11 years ago we had a dream. And the dream was to go from a sleepy, little Atlanta agency to being a national brand. And then someday, springboard beyond that to being a company with a global presence. We are now truly a national brand, and we’re just starting to experiment with expanding our presence in the international marketplace. The next big frontier for us is having a global connection.

Also, digital content is probably the most explosive and exciting part of our business model. I get tickled when I read about agencies announcing that they are focusing on digital content. It’s incredibly complex to set up, staff and manage. It’s taken us several years to perfect a formula that really works for us and it’s becoming the cornerstone of our business model.

Your key initiatives for the success of the Business?

The single most profound decision that we ever made was to stay independent and to stay 100 percent employee-owned. Years ago, we were approached by a holding company and we came very close to being acquired. It was a blessing that didn’t happen. Being independent has allowed us to build a hybrid model that most agencies wouldn’t have the courage to try to build. We tried so many things and frankly, not all of them worked. But we did it our way. We’ve tripled in size and have become a national powerhouse. We couldn’t have done that if we had been forced into a corporate matrix.

Your most difficult moment at the Business? (and what did you learn?)

When the bottom fell out of the market in 2009, it was a crisis management situation for most ad agencies. In truth, a lot of our clients had severe cutbacks. We chose not to cut back, specifically on our talent and our services. We felt that if we continued to invest in our people and culture, we’d come out much stronger. We took that risk, and when the market turned around, we were in a much stronger position that our competition. But it took a lot of courage.

Ideal experience for a customer/client?

One client called us “happily feisty” and I think that s a great descriptor. We’re 100 percent focused on the success of our partners. We are confident and stick to our convictions, but we also have a strong culture of collaboration. Our partners know that being independent means we’re all in – that’s called skin in the game. We wear our hearts on our sleeves everyday, and that’s what our clients enjoy the most.

How do you motivate others?

I try to lead by example. Our leadership team has a mantra, “leaders always go first.” So, whether it’s 360 employee evaluations, development programs, or volunteer opportunities, I’ve always tried to go first and set the tempo for everybody. At this point in my career, I get so much joy out of being a teacher. It’s something that motivates me everyday.

Career advice to those in your industry?

My one piece of advice to young folks coming into this industry, and any industry really, would be the people who get noticed are the people who always ask for more to do. Whether it’s going above and beyond, showing initiative, intellectual curiosity, wanting to get involved, or finding ways to add value to the company. These qualities make you stand out immediately. And it’s not self-serving because these qualities help the company. And it gives you the opportunity to experience different things that you may not normally be involved in or get exposure to.