CEO Tom Hirons sat down with us to discuss his unique experience in the advertising world after 39 years in the business. A creative at heart, Tom recounts the path he took from starting the company to where he is today and the challenges he has overcome to achieve success in a fast-paced industry.
Where did you go to school, and what first drew you into the world of advertising and marketing?
I went to Indiana University in Bloomington. I long had interest in advertising and actually paid for part of my college as a freelance designer, concert promoter and political campaign manager. Luckily an extraordinary mentor, Phillip Ward Burton, convinced me I should get better clients than rock stars and politicians. He opened my eyes to the opportunities in communications and what I could learn.
What is something that makes your day-to-day work life unique from others at Hirons?
Ideally, my day is not unique from others. I strive to do the same jobs everyone else is doing. I want staff to perform at the highest level and think strategically, which is why we do our best to work together and keep it uniform. I do, however, have responsibility for more unique tasks such as serving as the senior branding consultant in the agency, gathering talent and assembling high-performing teams. I also have the ultimate responsibility for accountability to our clients for our quality of work.
In the beginning of your career, whom did you look to as a mentor? How has that changed as your career has grown?
In college, Phil Burton was my most important mentor. He helped me realize my potential in communications. Another influencer was my entrepreneurial mentor, Steve Huse, founder of Noble Roman’s and current proprietor of St. Elmo’s. Jerry Neely and Lee Marchant were also extraordinary mentors, grooming me to be chairman of the Bloomington Chamber of Commerce at a really young age. As my background was not in business, they taught me how to use boards of directors and gave me in-depth training on budgeting and financial analysis.
The biggest challenge to starting as CEO is you don’t have co-workers or a boss who is constantly thinking about your professional growth and development. It is essential to find a way to identify the experiences you need, correct the shortcomings you have, and build a set of professional experiences to help you grow in your profession.
As my career has grown, it became clear I needed a challenge, motivating me to open an office in China. This allowed me to work with three Fortune 500 companies as well as work in another culture, opening up a mid-career professional growth opportunity that I could not have found anywhere else. I continue to do that with clients and peers. Today, I look to our COO, Jim Parham, and David Geis, state director of the Indiana Bankers Association, for guidance.
What would you describe as your “time capsule” accomplishment? If you could only take one project or victory with you from your career, what would it be and why?
My most meaningful accomplishment is building a successful agency and operating offices in Beijing. I am very proud to say that we were the first international company to register a woman as our CEO. It was incredible to see her break that barrier and create opportunities that would lead to an extraordinary career.
How has the industry changed over the course of your career, and how have you adapted?
The most visible change is technology. Our initial technology purchase was an IBM Selectric II, a typewriter with a small memory card. Before technology we would buy marker pens by the case to do hand-drawn design renderings and camera-ready art. Technology has driven change. Early on it changed how we did our work, and now it is changing the work and services we provide. Not being a digital native, I have had a learning curve, but surrounding myself with talented digital workers has helped me learn tremendously.
Of all of the agencies in the industry, what makes Hirons different?
Our brand. In reality, there are a number of great firms and talented people in communications. We are different by our integration and digital leadership, and by being research-based, results-focused and employee-owned. Philip Kotler, among the senior faculty at the Northwestern School of Management, is quoted saying, “If you are not a brand, you are a commodity.” This rings true, which is why we have built our brand on a set of values that distinguishes us from other shops. Our values are to outthink, outwork and outperform with a core essence of being bold. Our reputation has continued to be our greatest strength for 39 years.