Becoming Big


Big 1

Ford Wiles, John Montgomery, and Mark Ervin

John Montgomery celebrates Big Communications’ 20th anniversary.

Written by Rosalind Fournier

Photography by Liesa Cole

 

In the late 1990s, John Montgomery was one of downtown Birmingham’s original loft dwellers. He lived in a second-story space on Morris Avenue that was modest but retro cool in the way that downtown loft dwelling was always meant to be. What made it remarkable, however, was that the small space functioned not only as Montgomery’s living quarters, but also as home base for Big Communications, the advertising and public relations firm he started in 1995.

Montgomery, then all of 27, explains that he had spent some time at a small agency and felt the call to do his own thing. “I wasn’t impressed with a lot of the things that were going on in the advertising market, and for some reason I had guts enough to plant my own flag,” he remembers, adding that he had no start-up capital to speak of. “Looking back, everybody says, ‘God, that was brave.’ But it didn’t seem that way. It seemed like the normal thing to do.” He calls those early days—roughly ’95 to 2007—Chapter One, and it’s tempting to say you had to be there. But here is a picture:

It started as a one-man operation, but hardly quiet, with friends and freelancers in and out all hours of the day and night. Montgomery recruited enough clients to survive the first year, learning as he went. Then after a year he hired his first employee: a 24-year-old named Will McKee (today marketing director for MedJetAssist), a friend who had just been downsized from another agency. There wasn’t much money to pay him, so in the early days, McKee worked retail by day and ad accounts by night, back at Montgomery’s loft. As things evolved, they made accommodations: They turned the couch sideways to split the living room into two “offices” and bought a second desk. They shared a single computer. “John was doing the PR and conceptualizing the ideas, and then we’d freelance it out to someone to put it on paper,” McKee says. “I did the media research, planning, and buying. And we were nothing if not resourceful. I can remember making phone calls, with John’s Dalmatian literally sitting on my desk, and magazine reps would say things like, ‘Can you get us something by such-and-such time?’ And I would say, ‘Let me check with my production department and I’ll call you back.’ And I would hang up the phone, wait 20 minutes, then call them back and say, ‘Sure, we can do that.’

“The whole concept of Big was we were so little but we acted big,” he continues. “I don’t think half of the people we worked with knew just how small we were in the beginning.”

They were growing, though, in clients, staff, and eventually, space. “It’s amazing what happened in the first decade,” McKee remembers. “Within nine years there were probably 15 to 20 employees, and the agency just grew like gangbusters.” Soon Montgomery rented a second loft in the same building—one for creative and one for account services—and then a third to finally have his own living space. Eventually they moved to Jemison Flats, which McKee calls the “first true Big Communications office.”

“Small acting big” continued to be one secret to Montgomery’s success for awhile. “I think when you take on the world to do something like this with nothing, you’d better have ambition,” Montgomery says, “and a lot of sweat equity. And luck.”

He also worked and played 24/7, and he wasn’t alone. There was a seemingly inexhaustible crowd of creative types back then who were all connected in some way or another—by advertising, media, and other creative outlets by day, the Southside/downtown club scene by night—and everyone knew Montgomery. It was a way of life.

“That’s who John was, and it made Big what it’s become,” McKee explains. What helped Montgomery stand out, moreover, was that no matter what, he was always suited up and ready to hit the ground running the next morning. Another secret weapon in Chapter One was the Convention and Visitors Bureau account, which had been a client of the agency Montgomery left. After a year’s non-compete clause passed, he and McKee won the account, which became a pivotal relationship for the small, up-and-coming agency.

Ford Wiles, Jim Smither, and John Montgomery

Jim Smither, the bureau’s longtime president, predicted as much early on. “I told John when he came to work with us, ‘This is what’s going to happen,’” Smither remembers. “You will become one of the most prominent agencies in this city, and for one reason. You’re going to show other clients ads that you’ve done for us, and it won’t be selling bread or soft drinks or automobiles. It’s selling Birmingham. What these ads reflect is pride in their city.” Big was also able to show potential clients advertising they’d never seen before, since CVB advertising appears mostly in national trade-industry publications.

It became Big’s longest-running account—as active today as ever. Smither describes Montgomery as the kind of guy who can become a personal friend and close colleague without ever taking his business for granted. “We’ve been working together a long time,” Smither explains, “but John keeps it on a very high professional level. We’re not playing games, and John understands that because he totally understands our business.”

By 2007, Montgomery, by then married with two small children, felt ready to move forward in a bigger way—into the agency’s second chapter, if you will. Enter Ford Wiles, who had been at another agency in town for years and was ready to make a go of it on his own. Montgomery resolved to talk him out of it, inviting him to spend a day, which turned into weeks, getting a feel for what was going on at Big. Eventually they worked out the terms of a partnership, and Wiles has now been Big’s chief creative officer and partner since 2008. A third partner, Mark Ervin, chief brand officer, came on board a few years later.

Today, with three partners, nearly 50 employees, large downtown offices, and the marking of its 20th anniversary, Big bears almost no physical resemblance to the agency that once operated out of a loft with one computer, an imaginary production team, and a large Dalmatian sprawled on the desk. But many of the same themes have continued to define the agency, including its relationship with the CVB, which fits well with what the team agrees is a strong, shared commitment to community stewardship. They’ve made impressive waves with a number of recent campaigns, including “50 Years Forward,” a locally based forum for international discussion and advancement of civil rights; Go Build Alabama, a campaign for the Alabama Construction Recruitment Institute to address a growing shortage of skilled-trade workers; and the IN campaign for the CVB, in which locals are invited to nominate their favorite spots to take visitors—no chain establishments allowed. (IN began and still exists as a print brochure and is now also a popular mobile app.) But the agency is also regularly recognized for its work for businesses such as Jim ’N Nick’s Bar-B-Q, for which Big’s rebranding campaign brought home Best of Show at the 56th Birmingham Advertising Awards, along with awards for Brookwood Women’s Center, Jacksonville State University, Dixie Fish Company, and more for the year 2013 alone.

Montgomery, Wiles, and Ervin sat down with B-Metro recently to talk about Big’s evolution, the chemistry among the team, a few of their boldest campaigns, and how Montgomery feels about not having to carry the proverbial water bucket alone anymore.

 

Big poster smallerB-Metro: What was the turning point between Chapter One and Chapter Two for Big?

John Montgomery: In the old days, I was always working on the now and chasing the next, and it diluted things to a point. There’s only so much of you, and you can only do so much. I was good at juggling—and I guess I still am, which serves me well.

I would say if you knew me in Chapter One, you probably wouldn’t recognize me in Chapter Two. But everything I did in Chapter One for some reason helped me get to Chapter Two.

Chapter Two started when Ford showed up. We really took it to the next level, and it’s been fascinating to watch. Ford is the most well-rounded, responsible, creative person I’ve ever met. He’s hard on himself, and that’s what makes him—and in turn, us—successful. The other morning we were walking down the hall at 6:30 a.m. to go to a meeting, and we just kind of laughed…I said, ‘I guess this is why we’re working together, right? Because it’s still dark upstairs, and we’re in suits headed to a meeting at 6:30 in the morning. This must be what it takes.’ And aside from my marriage, it’s one of the best partnerships I’ve ever had the privilege of being in.

 

B-M: Tell me about earning the CVB’s business—and managing to hang onto it for all these years.

JM: I think they’re singularly most responsible for putting Big on the map. They gave me a chance at a great account when I was a kid. Just me. And I still have that business, and we’ve reinvented it and evolved it every year. I owe Jim (Smither) and Dilcy (Hilley, vice president of marketing) a lot for trusting me.

Ford Wiles: Our relationship with the CVB also throws us into a lot of unique opportunities, because we are always looking for the best of Birmingham to promote outside of Birmingham. So we’re brought to interesting tables to do that, to play an active role in kind of changing the perception of the city.

The IN campaign was the first that John and I worked on together, and that to me was a phenomenal experience, because it was a catalyst for making Birmingham look at itself and say, we’ve got to love each other and love ourselves before the rest of the world sees us that way. That’s exciting for us, and we take it very seriously here.

JM: It’s extremely important to our team. The predominant age demographic of our workforce at Big is made up of millennials, and they want to know that the company they’re working for contributes to their community.

FW: The “50 Years Forward” campaign, for example, was an incredible thing for us to be involved in. You have a chance at the international spotlight. People are going to be looking at Birmingham, and you want to get it right.

 

B-M: Your website states that “nobody likes being called a full-service agency,” which seems to kind of shy away from any whiff of arrogance and also avoid that “jack-of-all-trades” conundrum. But at the same time, it’s hard to find much in the way of advertising or PR that you don’t do.

JM: There are all kinds of ways to tell a story, and all kinds of things that are needed to help you tell that story. And then you take everything that the digital evolution of our industry throws at you—which is very much where we are right now—and it adds even more.

Along the way, you probably need to kill off some of the tools that you used to be good at and get better at some of the new ones. It’s kind of like a self-audit: You clean out the stuff that’s not as relevant to what you’re trying to do anymore and get better at the stuff that’s new.

That’s woven throughout the whole history of Big, the culture of learning something new every day. It’s a big motivator for me. You have to be ever curious to do a good job, because it’s a fast-paced business. We don’t like to have a set playbook; we’re constantly identifying and developing different strategies for everything we do.

 

BigbillboardB-M: Mark, what brought you to the agency?

Mark Ervin: Ford and I worked together for a long time previously, and…eventually I hit a similar wall that Ford had run into before he left to join Big. And I was like, it’s time. Aaron Gresham, who is now our creative director, and I were both working at the same place, and we both called Ford unbeknownst to each other. We just said, ‘Hey, buddy, what’s going on?’ And it worked out perfectly, because Ford was on the verge at the time of being overwhelmed. But it was a leap of faith for John to take on two guys like us at the same time.

JM: It was expensive.

ME: For a small company to take on two guys like that at the same time, it was an investment.

JM: I think you should tell her you got tired of losing to us in presentations.

ME: Just one time (laughs). It was a big loss.

 

B-M: John, did you feel like you were running any risk of being overwhelmed by these three guys who already knew each other going way back?

 JM: I can take care of myself. We don’t have that kind of relationship. It’s mutual respect. It’s like, I got this, you all have that, we’re going to do this. That’s what happens every day. We couldn’t take on what we take on and do it at the level we hope to do it and not work as a team—not for very long anyway.

So that’s where we are. Now that we’ve realized how we work together and fine-tuned our operations, our ambition remains strong and probably more energized than ever.

FW: Our core values are “Young, Hungry and Wide Open.”

 

B-M: Wait, you mean your written core values? It’s not “Honesty, Integrity…”?

ME: Those are things you should always do—they’re just core human principles. But we operate with a different esprit de corps. If a prospective hire is going to choose between us and another company, with the same offer on the table, what’s going to make them want to work here will be those things. It’s going to be that emotional component to what makes you get up and go to work every day.

 

B-M: Is it the same when you’re pitching to clients?

FW: We like to say we never lost a pitch, because if they didn’t like what we were selling, or it didn’t sync up, that would be the worst partnership ever. We get in there, present, and give it all we have, so no matter what happens, I can sleep at night.

 

B-M: One of my favorite case studies on your website is the Go Build Alabama campaign. It reminded me of the 2012 Republican presidential primary, when Rick Santorum said that for Obama to talk about everyone being able to go to a four-year college made him a “snob.” Everyone made fun of him. It seems like it’s almost controversial to talk about training people for skilled labor….

ME: It is hard, because parents want to do whatever it takes for their kids to go onto college. But maybe the kid didn’t love history and English and doesn’t want to do that, or maybe they’re good with their hands. They’re super gifted at something else. So part of it is, we had to give the parents permission to say, if my kid doesn’t want to go to college, how am I going to be OK with that? So one of the most important things was knowing their future was going to be secure without the false sense of comfort that can come with a college education—because right now a college education could end up being an albatross for some people, ending with $160,000 or more of debt. The flip side is there are kids that make $40,000 the day they graduate high school in certain apprenticeship programs.

It’s not trying to sell somebody a bag of goods and say ‘Hey, go pound a hammer and you’re going to do fine.’ No. This is hard, highly skilled stuff that people have to learn to love. And when it matches somebody with something they were born to do, that’s fulfilling.

JM: We launched Go Build Alabama in 2010, and Alabama was the first state to get it together on the skilled trade gap and highlight real career pathways for young people. The Go Build program has been held up as a national model for dealing with this issue.

 

B-M: On that note, any parting words?

JM: I would say for me, the story of Big has been ever evolving. That’s the best part. Twenty years this month is just a milestone, but I’m really proud of it. I’m glad to still be here…. So today Alabama, tomorrow the world. That’s where my mind is—fishing new ponds. Not forgetting about your favorite fishing holes, but always fishing new ponds. That’s 2015. It’s where we’re headed.

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