The early days of Chris Spiro's graphic design business, launched in rented space from his father in Cape Coral, were slow to get going.
“It’s actually a 30-year corporation because, in the first five years, I couldn't afford to incorporate it,” says Spiro, 53, about Spiro & Associates, today a $6 million advertising, branding and marketing firm.
Touting his firm as “brand architecture,” Spiro was riding high prior to 2008, before the impact of Hurricane Katrina followed by the recession nearly put his own brand out of business. Coming out of the downturn, the business model had changed. Agencies were smaller, talents were outsourced and campaigns once assembled under one roof were planned, created and executed from multiple locations.
“Now we're the ringmaster,” Spiro says. “We create the idea for all to build from.”
Through the constant evolution of the advertising business, Spiro says he has clung to a singular secret to success: the idea.
He credits former partners William Waites, Steve Martin and Steve Nance for teaching him the written, subtle design and organizational aspects of running an advertising and public relations firm, contrasting his bold, colorful approach to graphic design.
There's also the downside. For nearly two years, Spiro carried a bankruptcy plan in a ring binder in his briefcase, needing only his signature to execute. He recently spoke to the Business Observer about how the agency evolved following the recession, overcoming challenges and the future of the industry.
What was your most valuable lesson?
When I started out, I was a graphic designer. I sold my wares by the hour. I didn't sell them by the value. I earned X dollars per hour, there are so many billable hours in a day, and Bill (Waites) taught me how to think differently.
How did your business turn around after the recession?
Clients who had trusted us in the past would come to us and say, “Chris, I have a dollar and I need to turn into a dollar-and-a-half or two dollars.” I had guys coming out the woodwork who I hadn't seen in years, but they were coming back. I was almost, to a certain extent, one of the last guys standing. I won some business simply because I was still here.
How did you adapt your business model?
We were on the cusp of the new economy, and I had to re-learn my job. Things were no longer solved with a print ad, an outdoor board and a TV commercial. They were paired with e-blasts and an app. The digital area had evolved and was in full force. We had to evolve the office.
What principle sustained you through the good times and bad?
The hero is not the Spiro name per se. The hero over the past 30 years has been the creative product that happens to carry my name. The one thing I won’t give up was the creative product. The one thing I won't surrender to compromising is the idea to save money. I'd rather sell (clients) the idea and let them do it themselves. Sometimes I won't even sell the idea because I'd hate to see a great idea executed poorly.
An ad agency is an ad agency is an ad agency. We all pretty much offer the same menu of services. What stands out, No.1, is the creative product, the idea. No. 2, you can have the best idea in the world, but if you don't have the strategy to execute said idea, it falls down. No. 3 is service. We're in the service business. But the idea is what we hold up and measure all things by.
You called your agency the ringmaster. How does that manifest itself?
We conduct the meeting. We make assignments. We are the local ringmaster here, but we coordinate with the New York agency that then has a Texas PR social media firm and there are 12 of us on a conference call. Technology allows us to do things differently. This is where the old school meets new school.