Mills James - May 1, 2019

The Odd Couple

Mills James is a story of how an extroverted salesman and an introverted producer learned to adapt to each other and walk an entrepreneurial tightrope for 35 years, across a vastly changing production landscape, guided by one belief.

by Karlee Hehemann, Content Specialist

We’re old by the standards of our particular industry of production. This year marks our 35th year in business. So there’s a debate going on in our office. Do we really celebrate our age this year or eat cake, post on social media, and move on?

On one side of the debate: Highlighting our age might make us look old. Too old.

On the other side: The fact that we are old is exactly what makes us so compelling.

The latter is the side I stand behind. A side that happens to be filled with a younger generation of Mills James employees in general, believe it or not.

I am the Content Specialist at Mills James and I was born a decade after our first day of business, May 1, 1984. I want to know what it took our founders to start a creative business in the mid-1980s. What it took to survive, nurture, and grow for three and a half decades to arrive at our current family of over 180 creative types, and with our current client list of some of the country’s best brands, inspiring social causes, and local lifeblood businesses.

If read as a modern tale, our story sounds like a typical creative company’s journey. But we’re not a modern tale. We began in a time of slide carousels, 16mm film, long-distance fees, 5 ¼ inch floppies, and Disk Operating System (DOS). We had no laptops with edit software, cloud system file sharing, or community workspaces hosting free Wi-Fi.

Mills James is not a 2019 startup, in other words, and it shows. It shows in our founders, who still walk in the door and greet everyone by name—even greeting me in my early days as a receptionist. It shows in our employees, who range from 21 to 73 years old. It shows in our balance sheet and our debt level. (The former is strong, the second is smart. I’ll get to that later).

Even among the vastly shifting production landscape, two complete opposites met and decided to walk the entrepreneurial tightrope together. The question we all have is: How did these two guys do it? And armed with that wisdom: How do we do it for another 35 years? To find the answers, I sat down with the namesake duo, Ken Mills and Cameron James. Decade by decade; I reveal the secret ingredient to how the Mills James founders bucked the odds.

1980s: Founded, May 1, 1984

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Cameron James (L) and Ken Mills (R) on an early job utilizing a rented television remote truck.

A business partnership is like a marriage, but with far worse odds.
– Ken Mills

The world of 1980s production was madness, just like today. Long days, late nights, carry out from Frisch’s Big Boy or GD Ritzy’s, business dinners at The Bistro or Jai Lai (a Woody Hayes favorite).

The ad agencies, unions, and unknown Columbus corporations such as AEP and The Limited spent half their weeks in production companies cranking out videos like this, with no sense of what their futures may hold.

One of those production companies was The Media Group, where Ken Mills and Cameron James were employed, Cameron as Sales Director and Ken as a Producer.

Cameron had already grown the business six-fold in four short years. His success was due in no small part to his “leadership” role at the Advertising Federation, where among other things he would wear a gorilla suit around town passing out bananas to convince agencies to join AdFed (“Go Ape Over Advertising!”).

Cameron remembers the first time he saw Ken. The Media Group had a steady flow of projects in Detroit, but the owners only trusted themselves to travel up there for the work. Cameron saw the new guy Ken heading out the door for Detroit and thought, “He must be pretty good.”

Opposites in almost every way—Ken an introverted book-nerd and Cameron a man comfortable in a gorilla suit—they hit it off right away. They worked together through impossible deadlines, often surrounded by the inevitable media prima donnas that would come to shape their philosophies. Through it all, they learned to act like they didn’t mind. But their passion was dwindling. Twice Ken quit The Media Group. Twice the owners talked him out of it.

Gradually, after a lot of back and forth (mostly Cameron talking Ken into things, establishing a 35-year trend), they decided to go for it.

On May 1, 1984, they opened their doors, with the full knowledge that there’s a fine line between being self-employed and unemployed. They called the company Mills James only because “James Mills” sounded like a person’s name.

Canterbury BldgThe company began in an apartment building, the Canterbury Towers, with just a few thousand dollars and no existing client base. What they did have was a great love for the production industry and good reputations. They also had a doorman at their apartment complex, so it was almost like they had an employee.

And on their first day, the phone rang.

A client from their previous employer had tracked them down. They had their first job in business, and it was … rough. They were asked to provide services for an employee recognition event. Easy enough, but they couldn’t send the doorman to do it. Ken and Cameron had to sub-contract the job to a firm. The final project came back, and the audio sucked. Cameron’s charm saved the day and kept the client, but they quickly realized it took a little more than passion and reputations—especially when a majority of their jobs required freelancers and sub-contractors until they found their financial footing.

Ken and Cameron ran the business as two independent producers, but many jobs overlapped or required a crew. They knew the risk of losing client relationships to the outsourced services, but they flipped perspective. Every business experience became an opportunity to learn about a range of business practices and philosophies.

To manage cash flow, they got resourceful—reusing cellophane tape dispensers and only calling long-distance after hours. And most importantly, they were nice to the doorman. Who remained their honorary-almost-employee, greeting visitors and accepting packages. Business was no guarantee, and they knew this. That’s why they controlled what they could: their attitudes.  

In reflecting on the early days, Ken reminisced about their neighbors at the apartment complex. Most were elderly, retired residents with early bedtimes. Ken and Cameron would hang around the community room playing bridge with the residents, and once the room cleared, they would turn it into a production studio.

One of their elderly neighbors often mistook Mills James for a coffee shop. She would come knocking every morning requesting a coffee, and again in the afternoon. And every time, they would deliver. Not once did Ken mention any annoyance or question why this woman wouldn’t just get the hint.

80s_throwbackShe even came to visit them after they moved into their first purchased office building in 1985. There was no more doorman, but they had their first official employees and a rapidly growing client list. They also had a building that was prone to flooding. Then in 1988, Mills James partnered with Discovery Systems and moved into Discovery’s headquarters in Dublin, Ohio. Their employees doubled, they added post production and graphics to their services, and suddenly they were operating a million-dollar operation.

Still walking the tightrope of early business ownership, Ken and Cameron had to calculate every risk. Especially who they hired. They wanted the kind of people who would patiently serve a visiting elderly woman coffee. They wanted a team of opposites with strengths where they had weaknesses. After all, that’s what made Ken and Cameron such a powerful combination in the first place.

They interviewed a lot, always asking the same questions of their interviewees: share three successes and three failures. The latter was how they’d assess people’s authenticity. And wisdom.

But there was often one more question, one Cameron would ask. “Are you a good speller?”

1990s: Making history

Cameron is dyslexic; a diagnosis he didn’t receive until he was 36 years old, after co-founding Mills James. “My first-grade teacher called me stupid, so I thought I was. But as I grew up, I learned to identify my talents,” Cameron reflected.

As he played to his strengths, he sought employees that would play to his weaknesses. And that’s why he wanted good spellers. He needed a second set of eyes to review client slides.

He compensated in other ways too, often to the mild annoyance of colleagues who didn’t understand why he was doing what he was doing.

While preparing client proposals, Cameron would always write down the client’s needs in detail, then submit what he wrote as part of the plan. He did it purely for himself, to bring a sense of order to the disarray he felt in his mind.  After reading his summaries, Ken’s response was usually something like, “Cameron, you have a great ability for stating the obvious.”

Cameron’s compensations extended into production where, as an event producer, he would write highly specific run of shows, more than anyone else thought was necessary.

“I had to live out the event in my mind ahead of time to be sure I got it right,” he believed.

Then came The Limited’s annual meeting. The event was always internally produced, but as scope and tech grew, the company started looking for help. And having just announced the opening of a new distribution center, this would be the largest meeting yet. Cameron had built credibility with the Producer at The Limited, and Mills James landed the job.

Cam preps for IABC seminar at Media Group

Cameron James prepares carousel projectors for an event.

It was a seven-day load-in, and Mills James pulled everyone in town on the job. They set bleachers to seat the 10,000 attendees, put up thousands of lights, and hung the 40-foot-wide screens to play multi-image slides. It was a massive undertaking; breakfast with The Limited’s president, a general session, and a press conference, with an all in one day turn around.

The event was high tech and high attendance, and it was Mills James’ big break. Cameron wrote a detailed full run of show, memorized it, and then memorized it again. It had to go flawlessly, so it did.

With continued success came constant fear—a fear as terrifying as it was motivating to the founders. Work was coming in faster than they could manage, space was getting tight, and they needed a studio for film and video shoots. They had to move.

The team went on an exhaustive search at first, looking for the perfect fit of large studio space, in a convenient location, with lots of parking, and far enough from an airport to avoid noise pollution. They searched until they realized it didn’t exist. They had to make it. It was time to position themselves for growth. They decided to design and build Central Ohio’s first production facility.

MJ announces new building

Mills James announces the construction of a new production facility, the first of its kind in Central Ohio.

The initial numbers to break ground were staggering to two people used to running a lean, freelance-driven operation: upwards of $2 million. They sought advice from their builder, Equity Concepts Development, who helped direct them to alternative financing options. The Small Business Association and the City of Columbus offered grants to incentivize new business to settle in Columbus, Ohio. Mills James was the perfect candidate and was rewarded both benefactions.

They found the land they needed in a suburban neighborhood just outside of Columbus. It checked every box, and Cameron had his pen prepped to sign. Right before closing on it, Ken suggested buying all the adjacent available land to avoid landlock if the company needed to expand. “I see opportunities whenever I turn around,” Cameron described himself, “but Ken has the talent of identifying a great opportunity.”

1990 Groundbreaking - Cam, Tom Mick [ITVA chair], KenMills James broke ground on their sixth anniversary, May 1, 1990, a 25,000-square-foot facility. The building was completed in November. The total came to $2.3 million, not including the additional millions of dollars of equipment inside the building—a hefty investment that had to pay off.

After their first month of operation, they gathered around the front desk to tabulate their numbers to see if they reached their break-even, a figure they’d always had top of mind whatever their size. As Ken says, “Fear is never put away. Fear is always constant in business ownership.”

The numbers were $100k over projections.

And they started to realize that their $2.3 million production facility gamble was way more than just a financial transaction. It was a stake in the ground from an identity standpoint. Their investment was completely repositioning two guys in the minds of everyone in Columbus, from Mills and James to Mills James.

And at that moment they shed their seat-of-the-pants habits of the past and acted with the gravitas of a company destined for the Fortune 500.

Kidding! 😉

The humor from their humble beginnings lingered, often in the form of a prank. Their favorite was stealing and hiding employees’ shoes. One time, they managed to hide the CFO’s shoes. While she was on the hunt, Cameron had the front desk prank call her to say The Limited’s CEO Les Wexner had paid a surprise visit and was waiting for her in the lobby.

Sometimes the humor translated into wild ideas that may sound like a joke. Like the time Cameron hired a woman with a British accent that he met at a sales counter at Lazarus, thinking Mills James needed to sound more sophisticated. She only lasted half a day.

One thing they did learn: In the production industry, people are your product. And within a trade on the move, hiring was often on the move, too. Taking the spirit of their British mis-hire, they began to think of hires as casting a role—the musts: passion and people skills. Someone can be the most skilled person in the trade, but without passion for the part and a gift for engaging the people, the client will leave the job thinking the result wasn’t worth the trouble.

Ken and Cameron have always been avid believers of investing the time in people. And the new building made a statement of what Mills James was capable of. Clients came in and stayed for lunch, then for dinner, and then came back for more work the next day. Ken and Cameron knew the pain of long edits from their early days—even being forced to enjoy their lunch in the bathroom when there was no other place to sit for a bite to eat. People pay a lot of money for edit time, and with tight deadlines, it was typical to work through meals and late into the evening. So, they put fully stocked fridges in every edit suite, provided coffee service, and ordered in client meals served plated on china with rolled silverware—at no charge to the client.

Clients never wanted to leave, and Mills James needed to expand. In 1994, they decided to nearly double the space with a 22,000-square-foot wing with additional production suites. The work wouldn’t wait for the construction. Employees volunteered for second and third shift, and the edit suites stayed open 24/7. The fridges still fully stocked; beer included. By early 1996, Mills James had a fully operating 47,000-square-foot facility.

2000s: New Owners

The end of the 1990s brought apocalyptic anxiety: Y2K. A computer bug that caused the world to fear the internet would crash on January 1, 2000. Having now amassed millions of dollars’ worth of computer tech, you could say Mills James was a bit nervous themselves.

Then the ball dropped in Times Square. And … nothing happened.

We wish we could say the same about the rest of the decade.

The 2000s were packed with near-business-death experiences for many; two major economic downturns, including the Great Recession, and many other trying moments for Mills James.

Ken and Cameron had seen major success over their first two decades in business. They were eyeing significant growth and expansion in the days following that ball drop—building a conference center and expanding the studio space.

And then they blinked. Ken and Cameron saw the numbers and decided to hold off. “We were getting a bit full of ourselves,” Ken admitted. Their ability to gut check risks of over-extension became a necessary strength.

What followed surprised the entire country: The 2001 economic crash. Banks froze, interest rates became erratic, foreign investors pulled back, and many businesses were forced to close their doors.

Ken and Cameron had deftly dodged the bullet of financial overcommitment. But the Mills James client parking lot still thinned out, and the existing business went into decline. It forced them to begin the incredibly difficult task of “controlling overhead”—which let’s face it—is just a service business euphemism for letting people go. The lessons of these tectonic shifts were bittersweet. The company needed to be more scalable in both directions, and better insulated from macroeconomic realities in general, but damn did they hate firing people. The entire company hated it.

IMG_5765_ST-min

Mills James brings Cash Explosion’s fast-paced TV excitement to a large audience at the Ohio State Fair in 2008.

The world kept spinning. In 2003, business picked back up again. Actually, it boomed. It was the year Mills James won a major broadcast production contract. A client relationship that all started with a simple rental back in 1988, when Scott Lanum, now Mills James Managing Partner and Chief Operating Officer, answered a call from an agency needing drape for the Ohio State Fair. Scott had no idea what or who the rental was for, he also didn’t have any drape, but he made it work anyways. When he showed up on-site, he realized the client was the Ohio Lottery Commission (OLC), who then immediately requested staging and lighting rentals too. Again, Scott made it work. That one rental turned into Mills James providing production support for the Ohio Lottery’s Cash Explosion roadshows. Then, after 15 years, a relationship that started with a simple rental turned into hosting and producing the Ohio Lottery Cash Explosion show—52 episodes a year for the past 16 years.

Slowly but surely, the company was gaining a level of scale that was putting them on a national stage—right into 2006, when Procter & Gamble (P&G) decided to release a nationwide RFP to outsource their on-site event and video production to a third party. This novel strategic decision helped P&G focus on their core competency of building brands, and everything else was left to a creative firm to help them with. It was a strategy that was years ahead of the trend.

IMG_9884_ST-minNowhere near the biggest player, Mills James threw their hat into the ring, commencing a year-long process in which P&G dissected each company for their production expertise, cultural compatibility, financial strength, and scale. P&G looked straight into the soul of every candidate to see if they could handle the breadth of services they were requesting.

Mills James won the multi-year agreement to provide corporate media services to the world’s largest consumer packaged goods company. A large team of Mills James employees was now walking into P&G every day.

Was it all unicorns and rainbows after that? Not really. For the first year, wanting to impress, Mills James tended to over-deliver on jobs, whether it be the caliber of equipment or number of people. Until their year one review, where they were politely encouraged to learn how to better calibrate to each client need in a company that produces a firehose of meetings and content. Not every client wants the same thing, in other words, and that’s really when Mills James learned to be better listeners; a skill they refer to as learning to dance with their clients. Mills James embraced these lessons, and the creative firm has been in contract with P&G for 13 years now.

The company had been around for 20 years now. Ken and Cameron were in their 60s and were longing for an extended vacation—aka retirement. They felt it was time for a new generation of leaders to run the business, so they went to their accounting firm seeking advice. Over the next couple of years, Ken and Cameron decided on an exit strategy and were eager to announce their plan to the company.

Rumors began circulating that the two men who had founded the company had sold the business to new owners, and many believed it was P&G. So, at the company holiday party in December 2006, Ken and Cameron decided to make an announcement. After thanking the company for another great year, Ken confirmed the rumor that they had sold the company. And the new owners were actually at the party. As employees began looking around towards the door for a grand reveal, Ken asked the room to stand up. “You are all the owners! We have decided to sell Mills James to the employees.”

Business_First_MJ.ESOP_crop-min (1)

2007 Columbus Business First article announcing Mills James' Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP).

The room was shocked, excited, and a bit confused. Cameron began explaining what an Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP) was. Skeptics questioned what they would need to invest, and Cameron assured them, “The effort you have already put into the company qualifies you as an owner; the work you do is your investment.” Mills James is a service industry, and the founders have always genuinely cared about investing in the people because they are the product. People don’t get into the production business unless they are passionate—becoming employee-owned added a sense of pride and special care to the work. It also added careful consideration for business decisions.

The employees’ first decision as owners came that night, on the holiday party dance floor. Ken and Cameron let everyone know that the DJ’s time was up. Mills James would have to decide if they should pay the DJ for additional time or to shut the DJ down. In true ownership fashion, they decided to send the DJ home and save on cost.

A couple of years later, they had their first real business decision as owners—a decision that tested the grit, and the humanity, of the company.

It was the Great Recession. The economic downturn in 2001 had helped to prepare Mills James for financial hardships, but not this. They went back to overhead trimming and assessed vendor relationships for business opportunities. At first, the leaders decided to slow payments for freelance labor but immediately started receiving phone calls. Mills James had always been the earliest payers in town, sending checks out in under 30 days, so people noticed the delay right away. Still remembering their early days as freelancers, Ken and Cameron reconsidered, concluding that delaying payments wasn’t the best place to make changes. “Cashflow is the lifeblood to freelancers,” Cameron explained.

Sales strategy was tweaked too, as clients downsized events or even canceled entirely. Thankfully, Mills James was not just an event company. With experience in live video production, they pitched virtual communication instead. Clients cut down on travel costs, and Mills James would introduce new technological chops. Cashflow was coming in, but more changes still had to be made.

This is where the first major business decision as employee-owners came in. Ken and Cameron decided to take a 10% pay cut and asked department heads to do the same to avoid laying off employees. To their surprise, other employees began coming forward, volunteering to take a pay cut themselves. They would rather see reductions in salaries than see more people lose their jobs. “Good times make you complacent. Recessions teach you what’s truly essential,” Ken reflected.

2010s: The Secret

Two events over the past 20 years have had the most impact on the company. One was scary and the other existential.

The Great Recession was the first event. Some of Mills James’ competitors washed out quickly, especially those with unreliable cashflow, weak balance sheets, or too much dependence on one client.

As Ken said, “Recessions teach you what is truly essential.” You can interpret this line in one of two ways. The first way: define the ‘what’ in business-like terms. What number of employees are essential? What service lines are profitable, and which aren’t? What can the company do to diversify further? What technology trends should we embrace to stay ahead? What can we do to not only sustain client relationships but strengthen them for the future?

Mills James Managing Partner and COO Scott Lanum credits the company’s survival with the answer to this last question. The employees’ role with clients had been shifting for years—from production vendor to trusted advisor.

Scott analogizes this shift to something he instills in the Operations Department, “Understand what the client really needs and get them there. Your job is not to just mail their package; your job is to make sure their package arrives.”

The company was slowly becoming less of a production company and more of a strategic communication company with a giant warehouse of production firepower. In terms of the recession, the challenge was now to help clients achieve the same goals they always had, just more efficiently and in new ways (e.g., streaming meetings rather than traveling everyone to a central location).

Learning how to innovatively solve client problems was a lesson Ken and Cameron instilled in the company in the early years, and this mentality allowed the company to strengthen relationships through tough times, with big players such as the Ohio Lottery, P&G, L Brands, and other Columbus institutions.

The company’s key differentiator of having ‘everything under one roof’ also started to take on more resonance with clients.

Back to Ken’s line. The second way to determine “what is truly essential” is not to use business-like terms at all. It’s not even about the ‘what.’ In fact, it’s about the ‘why.’

Dynamics coincided in this decade to push the company in a very new direction, one macro, and one micro. Companies all over the country were facing more skepticism about their products and pitches and just the general nobility of their capitalistic intentions. Attribute it to the speed of information, the power of social media, or the growing cynicism of younger people who saw generational outcomes that hurt their families and themselves. What emerged was an epic pushback … “I’m no longer buying what you’re selling.”

The calls to action that had existed since the 1950s—“buy buy buy”—were being met with a single-word response from millennials and others: Why? Why should I buy from you? Do you stand for things I value? Are you part of societal solutions or societal problems? And, thus began a new movement still gaining momentum: companies becoming more purpose driven.

brandguide

Mills James' renewed focus and desire to be purpose driven included a company re-brand in 2017.

The second impactful event was far more Mills James specific. The fear of becoming unmoored as a company with Ken and Cam retiring. Ken had officially decided to retire, and Cameron had started to plan his exit strategy as well.

Mills James President Arthur James explained, “We were a company that began with two owners, and now we have 180. We couldn’t just flip the switch. We had to develop a new operating system and find our north stars.”

In a word, Mills James needed to define its ‘why.’

One first step was to reflect on—and memorialize—the company’s essential values, many that had been intuitive since the beginning, just never written on a wall.

Trust, Respect, Connection, Personal Accountability, Nurturing, and Growth.

We also have since defined a company mission:

mission

The company's mission statement was written by associates and adopted in 2018.

Before they passed the torch to the new leadership team, Ken and Cameron decided to focus on the first value: Trust. With so many individually managed departments, it was easy for Mills James to become siloed. The founders had mastered teamwork in a world where partnerships often fail and learned every successful relationship always begins with trust. It was time for leadership to transition from two guys to a team of ten:

  • President, Arthur James
  • CEO, Cameron James
  • Chairman of the Board, Ken Mills
  • Chief Operating Officer, Scott Lanum
  • Chief Creative Officer, Rodrick Pauley
  • Chief Financial Officer, Steve Spence
  • Chief Sales and Marketing Officer, Mike Yearling
  • Chief Hospitality Officer, Joe James
  • Human Resources Director, Bob McWilliams
  • Director of Client Services, Cincinnati, Tom Buten

 “We went through a lot of team building to build trust in one another,” Cameron explained. They also got real about each leader’s strengths and weaknesses and worked with a business coach, Mary Rauchenstein, Chief Encouragement Officer at Leadership Edge Solutions, to refine the soft skills.

The journey from what to why pushed the entire leadership team through the succession process and prepared them for a decade full of their biggest growth yet.

Mills James had become a major player in Columbus, Ohio but as they expanded into Cincinnati and Cleveland, they had to carve out entirely new niches and prove themselves all over again. First was the Queen City. Having built a relationship inside the walls of P&G, the company decided to purchase a building in Covington in 2011 to pursue the broader Cincinnati production industry.

OHlottery_CLENext: The Land, where Mills James built a new office and studio after winning the daily draw broadcast contract with the Ohio Lottery Commission in 2013. Mills James was the new kid on the block again and had to learn how to grow business without 35 years of local presence.

If it weren’t for their relationship with P&G and OLC, they wouldn’t have been able to fuel either of these expansions.

Mills James chose investment decisions very carefully. But in many other ways, they had to learn how to be nimbler. And, more courageous.

The recession had nearly killed off freelance work, but with rising technology and new ways to collaborate, startups began reemerging and successfully competing with Mills James. Young players were in the game, and Mills James had to learn to be agile again to stand out. The company began hosting discussions with clients called Megatrends Dinners, where they learn what keeps clients up at night and seek frank feedback on the company’s strengths and opportunities, with the goal to out-boutique the boutiques.

The company always knew how to win with scale and high production value, but now the journey is evolving. “But if there’s one thing we’ve learned it’s this: the goal hasn’t changed one bit,” says Mills James Chief Sales and Marketing Officer Mike Yearling. “Our company mission has always been to deliver breakthrough creative that changes the hearts and minds of our clients’ audiences. Our clients want that even more now.”

The journey now is about delivering breakthrough creative at any budget, and faster. You still have to break through the clutter in general and audiences’ highly tuned BS meters in particular. You have to break through a person’s left brain, right brain, and their heart. Take internal communications for one. Just because you employ people doesn’t mean you can force them to care about a message. You must earn their affinities. It’s just that the budgets are tighter now and the content needs to be cranked out with increasing velocity. Gone are the days of spending six months on a single precious video.

But you still have to stand out in a crowd, which begins and ends with your creative and your storytelling skills. Operational excellence has emerged as a major factor, as a statement of your cost efficiency if nothing else.

The Mills James events group embraced this challenge and rebranded in 2014 as the Mills James Experience Group (MJx). The group underwent serious restructuring changes to realign their focus on creative and operational excellence. They split the department into three categories: production, technology, and creative.

PresidentsCup_3Their first test came with the President’s Cup proposal. Mills James decided to pitch something they had never done before. “The event was to take place at the new Columbus Commons,” recounted Mills James Chief Creative Officer Rodrick Pauley. “Attendance was massive (with a worldwide televised audience), and the client feared the spectators wouldn’t be able to see the stage and screens. So, we suggested projecting on the entire back façade of the Ohio Theater building. We’d raised our creative and technical game and wanted to express it somehow. This was the first real statement of our new strength.”

More events and video work started to come in through the company’s ability to either deliver compelling creative or prove operational excellence.

On the operational front, Mills James most recently was able to land the contract to be the Greater Columbus Convention Center's in-house production company. And continue to grow on-site AV services to hospitality properties all over Ohio—allowing the company to double their warehouse footprint in 2019.

On the creative front, the answer is more complicated. Why? Because when we ask our people to evaluate their own creative, they always think it somehow could have been better, no matter the positive feedback, awards, or resulting business growth.

Regardless, it’s an exciting mindset to take into the next 35 years.


Now we’re at the part of the story where I promised you a big reveal in the intro of this blog—the single secret ingredient behind Mills James’ success. And to be honest, when I promised you that, I didn’t know the answer myself. At first, I thought it was our service skills. Or our innovation. Becoming an ESOP maybe. Cameron’s gorilla suit?!

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized every defining moment in this company’s history demonstrated the same strength: learning how to resonate.

Learning how to resonate with every “stakeholder” the company met on the journey, our clients, their audiences, our employees, our bankers, our vendors, the elderly woman who loved spending time with Ken and Cameron drinking coffee.

To resonate with someone is to get them to feel three things: validated, inspired, and excited to spend a part of their life with you, however work-related.

  • To resonate with a client, you need to listen to them first.
  • To resonate with an audience, you need to know what they’re thinking and feeling.
  • To resonate with an employee, you as a company need to see your role as one of a talent agent for 180 people, helping them find work they love. Then not overworking them.
  • To resonate with the ad agencies of the early 80s, you need to wear a gorilla suit. 😉

None of which is easy at all. But all very much worth the 35-year journey.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Written by Mills James