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Advertising success Featured

5:39am EDT November 29, 2005
Former Procter & Gamble CEO Edwin Artzt wisely observed that “no company that markets products or services to the consumer can remain a leader in its field without a deep-seated commitment to advertising.”

Melissa Hickman of Hickman + Associates in Carmel agrees wholeheartedly.

Hickman arrived at Hickman + Associates as an eager college graduate 25 years ago after responding to a career placement ad. Shortly after she landed the position of account coordinator, owner Vaughn Hickman’s wife, Judy, was injured in a car accident and was in a coma for six months.

“Even though I was clueless about the advertising business at that time, I dove in feet first, taking on as much responsibility as possible,” says Melissa Hickman. “Thankfully, Hickman + Associates had great clients who were extremely loyal during this difficult time. They helped me learn the business.”

Several years later, Vaughn Hickman, then a widower, proposed to Melissa. Now married for 19 years, they are partners in life and business; Melissa serves as president of Hickman + Associates and Vaughn is CEO.

“When people ask me how I met my husband, I tell them I responded to a classified ad,” Hickman says.

Smart Business spoke with Hickman about running a successful family-owned business and how she finds and keep the right employees.

What sets Hickman + Associates apart from other advertising companies?
We’re a family-owned business that has operated in Indiana for 35 years. That’s unusual. Also, we run our business with high standards. Our commitment to integrity is evident in how we treat our staff, clients and vendors.

Also, we do really good work. For each campaign, we know our audience, what message needs to be delivered and the most profound and memorable way to do so. There’s a saying in advertising that you live and die by the success of your most recent project. We believe that, and it motivates us to put 100 percent into every venture.

How do you find and retain the staff to help you do that?
Vaughn and I both believe that, to a large degree, we are responsible for the quality of life of our staff members. I use a ‘tight, loose, tight’ management approach.

When we bring on a new employee, the expectations are explained to them in no uncertain terms. Then, the ‘loose’ phase begins, where we back off and let them go do it. To get the best out of creative employees, you must give them space.

After the project is completed, it’s back to the ‘tight’ phase, when we carefully examine how well it went and what could be done better next time.

How do you keep your employees engaged and motivated?
I engage my employees in every way possible. I want them to gain a broad perspective of the business. For example, the art director needs to know what the PR person does.

The account executive needs to understand how long something takes by working with the traffic manager so that unrealistic expectations are not set with clients. I strongly believe in the servant-leader philosophy of management. I never ask my employees to do something I have not done and would not do again.

How has the advertising business changed in recent years?
A few years ago, clients expected to be wined and dined. It was not unusual to take them on trips, treat them to elaborate lunches and buy them expensive holiday gifts. Our customers’ expectations have shifted. They are looking for us to do great work, be on time and within budget. It is consistent with what all business are seeing these days — more of a focus on expense control and taking care of the basics.

Another trend is that of technology. It has definitely impacted the advertising industry. We rely more on the Internet to get companies’ stories out. It involves lower cost than producing printed brochures. As an added bonus, we can get more creative on the Internet medium.

How do you balance work with the rest of your life?
This is a high-stress, fiercely competitive business with constant demands. We have to find new customers, strike the perfect creative chord in our advertising campaign and meet aggressive deadlines.

I love what I do, but I take mental breaks from work. I am engaged in many outside interests.

Also, when I go on vacation, I take a total break from work. Vaughn and I recently went to France for two weeks. We did not check in or fret about work. Of course, everything was fine when we returned.

How to reach: Hickman + Associates, (317-816-9760) or mhickman@hickmanassociates.com