Advertising Age balanced the biased backing for Stan Richards with a blistering blast at the old man and his White advertising agency, bringing to light a culturally clueless culture where even White women felt dissed. Why, the place doesn’t have an HR director, despite boasting over 700 staffers. Discerning truth from lies is difficult, as the accusations by employees and clients are countered by firm spokespersons. Everything could be clarified if the Dallas-based shop—like most holding companies in recent months—revealed its employee data. Although it’s a safe bet that The Richards Group is not “too Black.”
A Tale Of Two Richards Groups
How the agency’s culture reflected its founder, and how it’s trying to reinvent itself
By Judann Pollack
When Christopher Parr, a client of for 8 years, that a proposed ad campaign for Motel 6 was “too Black” and risked alienating the company’s “white supremacist constituents,” it stopped him in his tracks.
“I was floored as it was so similar to my own experience,” says Parr, who was a marketing and brand manager for high-end appliance maker Wolf and Sub-Zero until 2010.
Parr says that in the eight years he worked with the agency, he was continually frustrated with the lack of diverse talent in ads that Richards devised for magazines including Bon Appetit and Architectural Digest. “All the recommendations were of white models,” he recalls. “My archive didn’t contain diverse models. None.”
“It was an incredibly frustrating experience,” recalls Parr. “As if people of color didn’t cook or couldn’t afford kitchen appliances,” noting, “this was the mid-2000’s, not the 1950’s.”
Parr, who is now CEO of Pursuitist.com, an online publication focused on luxury products, says the agency repeatedly resisted his recommendations on the grounds that using diverse talent “would alienate the average Sub-Zero and Wolf customer,” he says.
Scoffs Parr: “I doubt that a white customer would throw out their $6,000 Sub-Zero refrigerator because a Black model was featured in an ad campaign.”
But there was more than the agency’s point of view that troubled Parr. It was also the lack of diversity in its ranks. “No people of color, or any other nationality. The entire team we worked with was white,” he says, adding. “I don’t ever remember seeing any people of color or diverse talent when visiting their Dallas office.”
“While they are an amazingly talented agency, they have significant diversity issues. It is indicative of their culture,” he says.
Two Richards Groups
In interviews with employees, former and current, it appears that there are two Richards Groups.
The first is a solid agency with good strategic and creative credentials, rigidly efficient and adhering to This Richards Group is paternalistic—a family company where discipline is balanced by a benevolent founder who roamed the halls, addressed hundreds of employees by their first names and treated employees to fishing expeditions and skiing trips to Deer Valley, Utah, on his private Learjet.
The other Richards Group is a fiefdom where senior leaders are obsessed with archaic rules, forcing people to clock in by 8:29:29 a.m. and fining them if they are late. This Richards Group positions itself as a family, but with favored sons: Until recently, only men were permitted on those trips, and until last year—more than four decades after its founding—the agency did not offer paid maternity leave for women.
This Richards Group believes itself inclusive, yet only a handful of Black employees can be found among its ranks. Two who worked told Ad Age they felt like outsiders with little opportunity to advance. When they encountered microaggressions, there was no human resources department to offer recourse. Instead, like all Richards Group employees, they had mentors—generally white—to whom they could not relate.
“The lack of HR made it hard for anyone, especially me as a minority woman, to find an outlet or someone to report the bias treatment. The only women in leadership were women who have been at Stan’s side for decades,” says Brandi Rand, who was employed at Richards as a senior social strategist from 2014 until she quit two years later. (The agency says the “assertion that women in leadership are only those who have been here for decades is not accurate.”)
Says another ex-employee, who is Black, of her mentor: “I did not establish a relationship with her. She smelled of privilege. She was light years away from me.”
Contrast that to the recollection of a white male ex-employee. “They did have mentors when I was there—an objective party who looked out for you and provided you advice and counsel if you needed it outside of a managerial relationship. It was a bit of a safe space.”
When asked about the lack of a formal HR function, the agency says, “that may change.”
‘Tokenized, underutilized and blamed’
Today’s Richard Group, reeling from the loss of nearly 40% of its accounts, is working hard to distance itself from Stan Richards’ comment, which cost it yet another client, Shiner beer, last week. But there appears to have been a culture of discrimination that existed beyond Stan Richards—intentional or not.
“I don’t want people to classify this as one incident,” says Rand. “Women have a hard time there. And the culture is toxic to people of color.”
The ex-employee interviewed by Ad Age said she “wanted to work in advertising since I was 16,” but once recruited to Richards Group, her enthusiasm quickly waned. “I was tokenized, underutilized and blamed.”
On her first day of work, she says she was brought to meet Stan Richards. Once there, she was dismayed that he kept veering the conversation from her credentials to her hair—which sported long braided extensions. By her third day, she says, she’d counted only 14 Black people of what she says at the time were 742 employees. There were no Black women in leadership and only two Black men. “I observed a system in place and knew right away that, for me, the ceiling was very low,” she says.
It’s possible, and maybe even probable, that some of the bias was unconscious.
Rand says that she has been reading on LinkedIn accounts of current and former Richards employees denying they saw discriminatory behavior, particularly from cisgendered white men, and remarks, “Of course you wouldn’t see it.” And as for those who say the behavior isn’t there, “It just shows you there is a problem. Instead of saying ‘I wasn’t aware of it,’ you should be saying ‘I’m sorry I didn’t see it.’”
One who didn’t initially see it is a third ex-Richards employee, a white man who attended skiing trips that excluded women during the time he worked there. “There are truths to face there,” he says, adding that he was unaware of the maternity policy until he was told about it by Ad Age. “There's a lot to be held accountable for there. I can't believe it wasn't called out sooner.”
According to two people with knowledge of the agency, the rule to disallow women on the agency trips was initially made “out of respect” for Stan Richards’ late wife Betty. And even after the rule was lifted, one former employee said that men and women were still largely kept separate.
Here is how the agency describes it: “Stan had great respect for his late wife Betty. He felt strongly that he never put her into a position to have to hear speculation or rumor and he chose to limit his one-on-one interactions with women outside the workplace. Trips were not related to work, and paid out of Stan Richard’s money, not the agency’s. After Betty passed away several years ago, the trips were opened up to female employees. The accommodations were such that gender-specific trips meant that more people could go and have those experiences with Stan and their coworkers—without having to worry about privacy.”
The lack of paid maternity leave at Richards forced prospective mothers to save up their vacation or sick time in order to be paid while they were home with their children. “This passively led to a cap on women leaders staying at the agency because they needed the maternity leave to start a family,” says one. “Until someone ran the numbers and saw that The Richards Group was losing more money onboarding and hiring new people after women left.” A spokeswoman said, “the decision was made because it was long overdue.”
Rand was one of those women. She took three months under the Family Leave Act, and wanted to stay home with her child longer, but since she was out of PTO took two unpaid weeks of leave. Before she left, Rand trained a new hire who had essentially replaced her role, and who remained doing it after she returned. Rand never regained her accounts, and eventually resigned in frustration. “They took [my leave] as, ‘You shouldn’t have been gone that long,’” she said. “It wasn’t really payback, it was more like ‘You left, so we had to react in this way.’”
As for the Black former employee, she claims she got little to no direction or management from her supervisors. Her briefs were continually changed, and she found herself scratching for assignments. There was no review process, she says, and her boss seemed overwhelmed. After about a year, she was fired for “poor work ethic.”
Parr, the ex-client, says that when he now looks at Sub-Zero’s current site and , “all the faces are still, even in 2020, prominently white.” And he also hasn’t seen much change in the ranks of the agency. “If you browse the Richards Group on LinkedIn, with a few exceptions, you’ll see the whitest ad agency in America,” says Parr. “It is a shame nothing has changed.”
The Richards Group, however, insists it is changing. The shop is still tied to its founder in that he owns the building, for which it is currently paying rent (the Learjet is wholly owned by Stan Richards, not the shop.) And though the agency wouldn’t comment, it’s said to be considering other ways to distance itself from Richards, , including exploring a name change.
But given that The Richards Group is so deeply rooted to a founder who created it in his own image, separating itself after more than four decades will not be easy. Says one ex-employee: “Stan is in the floors, the elevators, the color scheme, the cubicles, and the coffee.”
“Our story and culture were written and refined by Stan for decades,” says a spokeswoman. “But while he has managed who we’ve been up until now, he will not be doing the same into the future. This is a new day. We have many employees working actively and enthusiastically on plans to invent the agency. We’re evaluating all we’ve stood for—the championed and the challenged—and deciding which parts advance and which are consigned to history. It’s a huge task, but we’ve never shied away from those.”
Advertising Age posted Stan Richards’ video apology to the University of Texas at Austin. Gee, has Richards recorded a similar production for current and former clients of The Richards Group? A video delivering mea culpas to the advertising industry might be in order too.
Can’t help but note parallels between the staged atonements of Stan Richards and Michael Richards. Both exhibited career-killing cultural cluelessness via really bad comedic timing. Indeed, Messrs. Richards seemingly lost control—and momentarily lost their minds. Each also expressed shock over displaying their respective racism, insisting they didn’t have a biased bone in their bodies. Finally, Richards and Richards saw opportunities for teachable moments and personal transformations.
Perhaps Richards and Richards should realize that an amends is not an apology; rather, it’s a commitment to live differently. Don’t just say you’re sorry—prove it by actually changing behaviors and showing progress. For the elder Richards, reparations might involve bringing legitimate diversity and inclusion to the White advertising agency with his name on the masthead—a task where completion may be complicated by his self-dismissal. Hell, solving this mess would baffle Reed Richards.
Watch Stan Richards’ Apology To The University Of Texas At Austin
Richards Group founder says ‘in that moment I wiped out years of trust’
By Judann Pollack
Stan Richards, founder of in Dallas who , has issued a video apology to the Stan Richards School of Advertising and Public Relations at the University of Texas.
An email sent this evening from Jay Bernhardt, dean of the Moody College of Communication at the University of Texas at Austin, to the constituents of the college, reads:
“We continue to listen to the voices who have shared their disappointment and outrage at the racially intolerant and bigoted remarks recently spoken by Stan Richards, for whom our School of Advertising and Public Relations is named. We recognize and acknowledge the hurt his words have caused to many in our community and we conclude that they are not consistent with our core values.
“We have now had the opportunity to speak directly to Stan and he has expressed to us his deep regret and remorse. He has asked for an opportunity to apologize directly to our students, faculty, staff, and alumni and we have agreed to that request. Please view the video below for Stan’s remarks to our community.”
Richards’ now infamous remarks, that his agency staffers’ proposed ads for Motel 6 were “too Black” and could alienate “its white supremacist constituents,” have cost the shop many clients and resulted in his stepping down from the agency he founded. The motel chain ended its relationship with the shop and soon other clients followed, including Home Depot, Keurig Dr Pepper, Advance Auto Parts and HEB.
In the video to the university, Richards says “In that moment, I wiped out years of trust. I’m sorry and I ask for forgiveness.” He also says he wants to use this as “a teaching moment” to bring about lasting change.
(MultiCultClassics credits ESPN’s C’MON MAN! for sparking this semi-regular blog series.)
The Daily Mail reported more details on the “prank” that led to the dismissal of former Mindshare Global CEO Nick Emery. The publication claims Emery was in a Zoom meeting and announced he had to urinate. He apparently took his phone to the bathroom and staged a pee show. Sources can’t confirm, however, if the production included exposing his ass or worse. Regardless, WPP officials decided they didn’t want to see Emery’s ass at all—and booted it out of the company.
While Emery’s exhibitionism did not necessarily display racial or ethnic components, he does qualify as being extraordinarily culturally clueless.
C’MON WHITE MAN!
The campaign ad for President Donald Trump depicted above sure is offering a narrow range of options. Or maybe the selections were incomplete…
Advertising Age published a perspective from Diane Fannon, who presented a biased defense for Stan Richards. Biased in that Fannon worked as a principal executive alongside Richards at his White advertising agency for 19 years before retiring in 2019, continuing to serve as a part-time consultant.
The gist of Fannon’s puffery is summarized in the title: Judge Stan Richards On His Deeds, Not A Few Words.
Fannon fills most of the editorial by gushing over Richards’ alleged dedication to divertsity, citing how White women have flourished at the shop. Plus, Fannon noted that another former employee posted on the old man’s support for the LGBTQ+ community. Whoop-dee-damn-doo.
It’s important to consider who has “judged” Richards. First, clients formerly serviced by The Richards Group passed judgment by distancing themselves and pulling their business. Second, Richards rendered a verdict by “firing” himself, acknowledging that if he were not owning an independent enterprise, someone else would have executed the termination. Sorry, but have any other entities stepped forward as judges?
Fannon evades—or is oblivious to—the key issues in the scenario. Per Fannon’s request, perhaps there is some benefit to avoiding a total condemnation of Richards—and pondering the principles versus the personalities.
For starters, what did Richards mean with his words? Hey, labeling Motel 6 guests as White supremacists is pretty clear—so, no need to elaborate on that statement. But it would be helpful if Richards could explain why he critiqued a campaign concept as “too Black”—and why he believed Blackness would be rejected by Whites. Chances are, Richards can’t even begin to conceive a rationale. And that’s part of the problem.
For the culturally clueless—a group that includes Richards and Fannon—there is almost always a lack of common sense and common courtesy. Fannon insists Richards’ words were a slip of the tongue and not indicative of the man’s true character. Okay, but forgive the offended for perceiving a historical pattern. That is, racist remarks do not commonly expel from anti-racist people. Granted, Richards probably ain’t a card-carrying Klansman. But is anyone categorizing Richards as unconsciously biased? Nope. He likely falls somewhere between a Grand Wizard and a politically incorrect Grandpa.
So, what’s the big deal? Well, for an iconic leader in an industry long struggling with diversity—during these Black Lives Matter times—to display ignorance with racist sentiments is beyond inexcusable. It’s not about who Richards is, but rather, what he represents. The message is painfully simple: cultural cluelessness is persistent and prevalent at the upper echelons of adland.
In defending Richards, Fannon wrote the following:
“But before he could truly address the pain he inflicted, one person decided to inflict pain back by going public with his or her perspective on what Stan said. And in that one incredibly selfish moment, he or she inflicted pain on Stan and all 600 people who work there, their families, the network of services that rely on The Richards Group, and clients who entrusted their brands to The Richards Group for decades.”
For Fannon to attack the employee who exposed Richards’ original utterances and subsequent responses is nothing short of reprehensible—and perhaps passively racist. It’s definitely unprofessional. The consultant could use some consultation with a competent HR director, provided The Richards Group employs one.
Expect the shop to name a new Chief Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Officer soon. Of course they will.
Opinion: Judge Stan Richards On His Deeds, Not A Few Words
Former Richards Group principal says employees will restore trust in agency’s name
By Diane Fannon
Do you judge a person by a few words or by a lifetime of deeds? Do you judge Stan Richards on what he said in an internal meeting, or do you judge Stan on a lifetime of what he’s done? What would you rather be judged by? Something you said, using completely offensive and poorly chosen words? Or things you’ve done that speak more clearly about who you are?
I retired from The Richards Group as a principal almost two years ago, after working side by side with Stan for 19 years. And lest you—like so many others who have weighed in or taken action without the proper background—think I’m speaking about things I read about or were passed along to me, I was also on the Zoom call in a consultative role during that internal creative review.
So I know what he said, and I know who he is. They are two completely different things.
I won’t spend any time defending what he said, because what he said is indefensible, but I will spend time defending who he is. And maybe providing those who are taking the time to consider what to do next with more input on which to base their actions.
In my two decades with Stan, I never saw him discriminate based on gender, sexual orientation, or race. The only individuals I saw him discriminate against were those who lacked talent and couldn’t make the work better. Even then, out of loyalty, he hung on to people longer than he should have. Because that’s who he is.
When it comes to gender, which I can speak to personally, all you have to do is take a look around The Richards Group. More than half the talented professionals who work at The Richards Group are women. A woman leads the media operation. A woman leads the business analytics practice. A woman leads the public relations group. A woman leads the experiential marketing team. A woman leads business development. If you’re the best at what you do, that’s all the discrimination Stan needs.
For sexual orientation, no one could have said it better than former employee Kristina Jonathan in on LinkedIn. So I won’t try. She’s articulate, objective, and circumspect.
While Stan isn’t Black, and can’t begin to walk in those shoes as he would freely admit, he has long recognized the need to address diversity and inclusiveness. The culture of “do the right thing” is fundamental to the agency he built and cultivated. Members of the digital team within the agency created a website called Justice Kitchen, highlighting Black-owned restaurants and bars—a testament to the agency’s commitment to furthering a progressive social agenda and putting words into action.
In February this year, the agency formed ally groups like She@TRG, LGBTQ+@TRG, and BLK@TRG—creating communities that share common experiences to further educate the entire agency.
He may be 87 years old, but Stan has never stopped learning. Never stopped thinking about the future. Never stopped considering what the next generation has to offer. Never stopped listening.
And he would have been all ears after that internal meeting. But before he could truly address the pain he inflicted, one person decided to inflict pain back by going public with his or her perspective on what Stan said. And in that one incredibly selfish moment, he or she inflicted pain on Stan and all 600 people who work there, their families, the network of services that rely on The Richards Group, and clients who entrusted their brands to The Richards Group for decades.
What Stan said wasn’t right. But it isn’t who Stan is. He is a brilliant, gracious, thoughtful egalitarian to a fault. Isn’t that how you’d rather be judged?
Despite all this, what gives me hope for the future is that The Richards Group isn’t just Stan Richards. It’s all the talented and passionate people who still work there. It’s their strategic brilliance and creativity that have served their clients well over the years and continue to serve them well—working through all this with focus and tenacity, operating by the values deeply instilled in the agency by Stan. Their deeds will continue, and restore trust in The Richards Group’s name. Because that’s who they are.
Diane Fannon, a former principal of The Richards Group, retired in 2019 and remains in an occasional consultative role.
Adweek published a perspective by University of Tampa Associate Professor of Communication Christopher Boulton, who opined that successfully squashing the exclusivity and systemic racism in adland will require a major lawsuit. Boulton even suggested Cyrus Mehri as the lawyer to lead the charge(s).
Prompted by The Richards Group incident, Boulton thoughtfully examined diversity initiatives of the past decade, essentially expressing in roughly 750 words what Nathan Young covered in a 28-word tweet; that is, heat shields like ADCOLOR® have not inspired meaningful and measurable progress.
Yet Boulton declined to speculate on the potential legal position of a lawsuit. After all, Cyrus Mehri apparently abandoned his court action due to a weak—or at least difficult to prove—case. Could it be argued that White holding companies and White advertising agencies that now openly trumpet fresh heat shields to combat systemic racism are admitting guilt? Could staffers at The Richards Group, many of whom will likely lose their jobs as a result of client defections, sue Stan Richards for some form of negligence?
Hey, industry insiders should use their vaunted creativity to hatch ideas for viable legal filings. To spark interest, Cannes could introduce a special trophy—the Lawsuit Lion—honoring the top concepts.
The Richards Group Incident Is Advertising’s Diversity Déjà Vu
It’s time to sue for radical change in the industry
By Christopher Boulton
When Motel 6 fired The Richards Group and other clients cut ties over Stan Richard’s “too Black” comments, the 88-year-old founder quickly “fired himself” and his agency announced a new DEI plan. Cased closed?
Not so fast.
Where will these clients go? And what will they demand?
Back to the future
I began researching advertising’s diversity problem in 2009. It was an auspicious year. In January, Cyrus Mehri, in partnership with the NAACP, formed the Madison Avenue Project and released a 73-page report documenting the industry’s systemic under-hiring, under-utilization, and under-payment of African Americans. In March of that year, NAACP interim general counsel Angela Ciccolo sent a letter imploring the 25 top spending brands to use their combined client value of $52 billion to pressure their agencies to diversify. They did not.
So, in August, Sanford Moore wrote that only economic divestiture would have enough leverage to dismantle advertising’s cancer of anti-Black racism diagnosed by the New York City Commission on Human Rights (NYCCHR) as far back as 1967 and as recently as 2006.
Intrigued by the persistence of advertising’s race problem, I conducted focus groups, interviews and fieldwork inside three large NYC agencies during the summer of 2010, spending the next six years analyzing the data and publishing articles in peer-reviewed journals—in the hopes that an outside perspective would help them make the case for why increasing diversity in advertising was both urgent and necessary. Four years went by.
The long road
In the wake of this summer’s parade of performative allyship in advertising, the industry continues to look to legacy institutions like the 4A’s, MAIP, ADCOLOR and WAATBP—or even new radical upstarts like Allyship and Action for guidance. These groups are no doubt made up of earnest, well-meaning people who want to help advertising do the right thing. And their hard work is rewarded by grateful testimonials from Black talent who’ve blossomed under their support, mentorship, and career development.
But the plurality of anecdote is not data and these organizations and their supporters are in denial if they think that laudable and positive qualitative efforts will ever be able to meet the overwhelming quantitative scale of the disease.
For 50 years, advertising has demonstrated the chronic failure of internal inspiration, cajoling or even tough sounding self-regulation. And don’t hold your breath for clients to use their leverage. They’ve known all along. At this point, it would take boycotts to make Motel 6, Home Depot and Dr. Pepper walk their talk.
Unless, of course, their agencies became as radioactive as The Richards Group is right now.
Diversity’s new diagnosis
In 2019, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and New York University professor Pamela Newkirk published “Diversity, Inc.: The Failed Promise Of A Billion-Dollar Business,” a landmark survey chronicling how workplace diversity initiatives have turned into a sprawling and profoundly misguided apparatus that perpetuates and enriches itself while doing precious little to bring equality to America’s major industries and institutions. Newkirk found that most Chief Diversity Officers, despite their title and healthy salaries, consistently miss their goals because they are isolated from power and largely relegated to serving a public relations role for the company. Indeed, she cites how only 35% of Fortune 500 CDO’s even had access to their institution’s own diversity data and generally feel unsupported.
When asked in interviews to cite an example of a corporation that actually got it right, Dr. Newkirk points to Coca-Cola. In the early 2000’s, the company embarked on one of the most successful diversity transformations ever seen in corporate America. Coke granted broad monitoring powers to a seven-member external task force who made sure the company kept track of salary, promotion, and bonus metrics along race and gender lines and then took active steps to detect and disrupt patterns of bias in real time.
What inspired the Coca-Cola company to go down this path, you might ask? A class action race discrimination lawsuit brought by Black employees. And who negotiated the record-breaking $192.5 million settlement? You already know his name and may be hearing from him again soon.
Cindy Gallop thinks The Richards Group getting fired “sends a message to all agency executives” that the time for radical change is now. I agree and believe that it will take a lawsuit to make it happen. Agencies? Brands? I invite you to prove me wrong.