Friends, Roman, Countrymen

Roman Hiebing will HATE this column. Unlike most ad agency founders, he was never one for self-aggrandizement. When colleagues at Hiebing (the agency he started) threw his retirement party, he left halfway through … before I showed up. So this article is my retirement toast to Roman, whether he likes it or not.

Roman is the founder of Hiebing (formerly The Hiebing Group), a multi-million dollar, 55-plus person marketing communications group in Madison that has handled such notable national advertising accounts as Famous Footwear, Culligan, AAA, Kraft, Coors, Nestle, Orkin, and Coca-Cola. You may also have seen Hiebing-created advertising for the Dean Health System, Anchorbank, United Way, The MCA, Kwiktrip, Monona Terrace, U.W. Colleges, Berghoff Beer, and others.

Most ad agency start-ups fail within a few years, and very few survive the transition from founder to new management group. But since Roman started the agency with a handful of brave souls back in 1981, Hiebing has had three generations of management and has never had an unprofitable year. In an industry known for eating its veterans, it is amazing that two of the original founding group, Marion Michaels and Mike Pratzel, are still working there.

Roman’s secret was to share the wealth and the power. Most ad agencies are revolving-door sweatshops that churn and burn employees for the profit of a few fatcat owners. At one of my previous agencies, the boss was so evil that employees set his desk on fire, and he was relocated to the Kuala Lampur office for his own safety. When I joined Roman in 1993, Hiebing was the only agency in the United States that offered a sweat-equity opportunity for workers to become owners. One-third of Hiebing employees, from CEOs to secretaries, own shares in the business. This high level of ownership causes employees to think long-term, put we before me, and put clients first. I once had to tell a high-ranking and talented employee that they had been voted down for partnership because they were mean to the secretaries. One criteria for partnership was: "Would you want your child to work for this person?"

Roman (and his talented protégé, Scott Cooper) co-wrote The Successful Marketing Plan, The One Day Marketing Plan, How To Write a Successful Plan, and other international best-sellers translated into many languages and now in multiple editions and used as standard training texts at many universities. The emphasis was on clear-headed thinking, realistic expectations, measurement of everything, discipline and rigor in process, accountability for results, and beginning and ending with the target market instead of the internal political folks or the creative awards judges or your own personal biases.

He would endlessly repeat: "You can’t manage what you can’t measure," or, "If you dance with your customers, let them lead."

Good advice in any business.

Like Larry Tate of Bewitched fame, you can make a lot of money in the ad agency business smooching and polishing the behinds of powerful clients who want their opinions honored as fact. It takes conviction to recommend what the target market wants over what the client wants, because it is the clients who hire and fire you and who think they know best. Roman consistently had the integrity to stick to the truth as revealed by market research, even if we got fired.

Roman had a giant poster of Rough-Rider Teddy Roosevelt in his office with this quote:
"Far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure … than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much, because they live in a gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat."

Thank you Roman, for the glorious triumphs and checkered failures, and for giving me a shot at creative directing and inventing Pitchperfect Message Strategy and writing books. You walked the walk, and so your agency lives on.

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