“I'm going to hang a shingle.”
That's Jim talk for, “Set up shop.”
I started this agency because I wanted to set my own trajectory and work for myself. I didn’t realize that being “the man” would require me to work longer hours and be more tenacious, even when defeated. I started out wearing all hats — bookkeeper, salesman, copywriter and creative director. It was May, 1979 and a month before college graduation when I opened shop in a 10 x 14 rented space. I glued my business card on the door: Wilson & Company. My tools were a Smith Corona typewriter, a pica rule, a ratio wheel, a camera, paper and a drafting table. I had one account that netted $780 a month. I was living off a nest egg created from my first business, a lawn mowing service.
My friends had all taken jobs with big agencies and I had decided to go solo. I’d read the stories of David Ogilvy, Bill Bernbach and George Gallup. The romantic idea of being an “adman” moved me forward because the money was slow in coming. I was having to live a Spartan social life. But I was too proud and too scared to quit.
I was 24 and still green when it came to understanding a financial statement, client credit checks or corporate organizational charts. My first five years in this business were limited to direct mail and print advertising for a local audiology and hearing aid retailer, print collateral for a telephony manufacturer, sales collateral for a boat seat manufacturer and a newsletter for a company that manufactured walk-through airport security equipment. Two of these accounts I lost within the first three years to larger name-brand agencies in Fort Worth, which made me feel like a failure to the point of wanting to quit and join a larger agency; I didn’t, but I wanted to. Being solo is a hard way because it’s lonely and there isn’t someone with whom to bounce ideas, take breaks or reciprocate on their challenges.
To move forward I listened to motivational tapes and set a rhythm in my work schedule, something I named “The Seven Principle.” Leave the house at 7 am and go to my office; network, follow leads and produce work for my clients. Then, at 7pm, go home. My first year I earned $8,700. I was crestfallen. If money was a measure of my worth, I wasn’t worth much. Insidious thinking! I refused to let my first year’s salary define me. So, I stayed focused and cranked away on any business I could drum up. I sought new work through getting out of my office and making personal contacts, phone calls and writing letters.
In 1981 I married. It seemed that as my personal needs increased, new business came in just in time. By 1984 I had hired an employee as a copywriter and started hiring outside vendors to help me produce work. We were working on a good portfolio of noteworthy accounts and we entered and won first place in the Fort Worth Addy Awards. This was a boost to my confidence and an encouragement to be recognized by my peers. I took this as a harbinger of my future. I bought a new Apple IIC for $1,300, replacing my Smith Corona typewriter.
In 1985 I got a bank loan, bought a building we remodeled ourselves, and moved into our fourth and current location. It was a huge space at the time with three employees. I had a great sense of pride and was moving forward — steady she goes.
A friend at a Dallas agency referred me a nice piece of business — a seed company out of Johannesburg, South Africa — to establish retail seed distribution in the United States. This was a huge opportunity, but there was a problem I didn’t see coming. The United States passed laws placing trade sanctions on South Africa in 1986 forbidding registered corporations from doing business with South African firms, factories, or banks due to Apartheid. Due to trade sanctions, in 1987 my little agency got shorted payment for two months’ radio buys, and I had personally guaranteed the media contract. I didn’t have the $22,000 owed to the station — a significant amount of money in ’87. The ABC network had no grace on me, nor should it have! So, I signed a note with ABC paying them 10 percent interest on the full amount and $1,000 per month until it was cleared up. As an agency owner, I have learned multiple lessons like this one that can only be learned through financial pain.
My college friends who’d taken positions at Dallas agencies didn’t have this problem, so I thought, and were free of this type of self-inflicted financial bleeding. This wasn’t the romantic ad business I had envisioned. But for me, playing the comparison game never works. Looking at colleagues to the left and the right steals energy from what I need to be focusing on AND it is defeating. I learned that staying focused, pressing forward and rejecting fear feeds the creative juices.
In 1991 I was 35 and I pitched an account against two name Dallas agencies and won the account; I was very excited. It was a national maker of dinnerware molded from melamine resin. My agency produced and placed consumer and trade media and created sales collateral. We even designed and produced the company’s trade show exhibit. Then along came their annual color catalog requiring photography, copywriting and production that had to be complete before a summer deadline of the National Restaurant Association show. Time was short. This was one of many times we worked 48 hours straight, went home to sleep, then worked all night, again and again.
By 1995 we had worked on a range of businesses: a bank, a food processor, dentists, a car dealership, an institutional fund raiser, an oral surgery group, a hospital, trade associations, a plastic surgery group, a national wholesale distributor of HVAC, Lasik surgeons, funeral directors — and … more hearing aid retailers! With each new account, we learned more about business, we were stretched and our scope was increased. Having integrity and being transparent with clients and vendors has earned us a place at the table on many, many critical deals.
In 1997 Wilson & Company became friends with the largest hearing aid manufacturer in the United States. I was called upon regularly for consulting and special projects. With this introduction into the broader hearing aid world, our reputation among hearing aid retailers grew.
In October, 2004 we lost our largest account representing 70 percent of our billing. This was a huge grief to me. As I worked through it, I doubled my efforts to replace the business. But it was through the loss of this account that my agency developed new structures I didn’t know we needed. It forced us to evaluate everything, and make changes. This was painful and necessary. It prepared us for what was about to happen.
A hearing aid group we’d picked up in 2002 with just three clinics was posting huge gains and was acquiring locations rapidly (they are up to 235 today). The leadership is visionary with solid core values; I liked these people as people, regardless if they were my client. They needed an agency-partner with bandwidth and savvy for hearing aid retail. They would need a full scope of agency services: TV, web, newspaper, direct mail, collateral and patient-lifecycle remarketing. To match their growth-plan required us to strategically add specialized staff. Over several years we added positions for strategy, creative direction, art direction, media buying and analysis, direct mail, website production, digital media, social media, data management and account service. Our new growth edge became human resources: we learned to cull through many applicants to find the cream of the crop. We became stronger, smarter and wiser, and we’ve grown.
In 2005 we changed our name to Wilson Group Strategic Solutions to better reflect our scope of service. The value we bring is our granular understanding of clinic operations: Administration, Marketing, Financial Control and Clinical Pathways.
Wilson Group has a fastidious track-record in local clinic marketing and lead-creation worlds. We have become the quintessential marketing firm. I revel in our staff; each is a bona fide all-star — and together this team of nine happy, brainy people know how to help clinics succeed. We love being considered part of our clients’ teams, and we do love our clients! We are fluent in the metrics of cost-per-call, cost-per-appointment and cost-per-sale — with current stats and metrics for audiology and hearing aid retail. We measure everything, because what is measured improves! We know how to drive patient acquisition costs down and closing ratios up.
Our group’s daily practice of Budget, Plan, Execute, Measure and Evaluate works for any type business. During any given quarter, there are other types of business we are serving at Wilson Group. Currently we are working on a marketing plan for an oncology group and planning a website for our county hospital’s head-and-neck surgery residency program. With equanimity, we use the same disciplined processes and apply them to any practice specialty.
My growth in this business has been up-hill. I’ve had days of fear and made mistakes that cost me a lot of money. Today I still read business books for inspiration, focus and refocus. I make mistakes — hopefully fewer — and work long hours when needed. I love what I do and have come to understand how God uses-for-good aspects of my career as an adman I once chalked-up as a total loss or a complete waste. In fact, disappointments and hard projects and bad situations are probably the only times I am growing.