One day in late 1986, The Leonhardt Group (TLG) receptionist rang to say there was a Larry Coffman to see me.

“Who’s he with?” I asked.

“MARKETING.”

“OK,” I said, “But whose marketing?”

Hey, I was a very busy person, an elitist designer hellbent on carving a place in a shifting, competitive environment with my new eponymous company. But I took the time to meet Larry and his aptly named publication, and I’ve never regretted it.

I could sure see he was determined, and his desire to create a community from the region’s designers, advertising folks and production shops seemed pure, though I secretly thought it was impossible. Thirty years later, I stand corrected

Macintosh, Globalization and Mobile Phones. When Larry first appeared in my office, the Macintosh computer had just sliced the costs of creating an annual report (TLG’s core business), and globalization had connected us with printers overseas. There were huge shifts for the world—and for us.

11tedwebIn 1986, US West New Vector, a first-generation cell-phone company, was our client. (That’s Ted, at right, circa late ’80s) My contact would place his brick-sized mobile phone on our conference table and take calls during meetings. I soon had my own mobile and vividly remember angling my car to a good reception spot to close a deal, early on in this rapidly expanding wired world.

Branding. In the early ’90s, TLG added a brand strategy team. Given that brands, like annual reports, were essential to our client’s success, the work connected us to CEOs and the “C” suite teams. Projects, fees and our firm became larger. Our work became more influential and our understanding or our clients’ businesses became fundamental to our success.

The Internet. All seemed so modern and miraculous—and then came the Internet and email.

I rented an extra office and assigned two designers to create our first website in ’95 or ’96. The result got us noticed by CA magazine and inclusion in their new interactive section. Our branding and corporate communications work began to shape our clients’ Internet presences. By the late ’90s, every client project included a site or interactive presentation. Almost overnight, client communications shifted from calls, meetings and letters to email.

Holding Companies. Advertising’s immense profitability in the ’70s and ’80s allowed many big agencies to go public. There followed the creation of holding companies, which acquired and grouped agencies. At first, it was thrilling to see our industry grow this way, but underneath the growth, we later realized, creativity was being sacrificed for profit.

In the ’90s, holding companies began buying up design firms. By this time, my firm had grown large and well-known enough to become an acquisition target. The lure of the big time and the money that came with it led us to sell, like hundreds of other design and creative firms.

The good part for me was being launched into the wider world, as I moved to London and became global creative director for Fitch Worldwide. The bad part became a bit more evident every year, as creativity continuously lost to profit.

I saw talent leave (Seattle’s Turnstyle, Push Design and Poets and Astronauts are just three creative offshoots from TLG)and quality diminish. I’m embarrassed to say that, after leaving London in 2002, in a desperate bid to stay relevant, I worked for two companies that acquired design shops. I watched again as quality diminished and talent fled, while money and quarterly results took precedence.

Price Pressure. Ironically, the massive consolidation of the creative services industry by three holding companies (Omincom, WPP and Publicis) began to impact, in two ways, the very margins their financial managers needed to satisfy:

• By commoditizing services, allowing a service provider who charged just a little bit more to be replaced by another doing essentially the same thing; and

• By kowtowing to client’s corporate purchasing departments and allowing massive price reductions on the threat of lost business.

Those same corporate purchasing departments are also adept at squeezing every last dollar out of creative-services contract. The result has been frequent agency reviews, shorter engagements, fewer AOR relationships and more project work.

Today’s Changes. A few more phenomena are changing this already mutable environment. For example, brands today crowdsource creative services, avoiding the premiums charged by agencies and other creative groups. And talented individuals use crowdsourcing to connect with clients and opportunity from anywhere.

In-house groups finally have been able to attract the talent that used to thrive in agencies: IBM employs more designers than any company in the world. In-house design departments are viewed by many of my design consultancy clients as their biggest competitors. And they pay talent very well.

Change Provides Opportunity. It seems like such a short time ago since Larry Coffman walked into my office. I had no idea what revolutionary changes MARKETING would record in its 30 years. I’m sure he didn’t either, but he was determined, open-minded and had a creative approach to business. Those were the qualities needed to make the most of the last 30 years. Similarly gifted and talented individuals working today will get the most out of the next 30 years.

Fortunately, we will have Melissa Coffman, to continue building the marcomm community that her dad and her created.                          

Ted Leonhardt has been a frequent and valued contributor of his insights into the design world over the past three decades. This article chronicles the changes through the prism of his illustrious career,. He now “writes, coaches and consults on behalf of creatives” and offers private seminars and online training. Go to tedleonhardt.com for more information. You can reach him at ted@tedleonhardt.com.