In an age when almost everything can be measured, can be quantified, Millie Ward sees value in what cannot: creativity, the kind of creativity that allows her to tell stories that connect with consumers.
Millie Ward, president of Stone Ward of Little Rock, has been in the advertising business for 40 years and she was recently inducted into the University of Arkansas Business Hall of Fame. But spend any time with her and you’ll see — it’s subtle, noticeable only in retrospect — that she’d rather tell her clients’ stories than her own.
That quality doesn’t go unnoticed by those clients. Russ Harrington, retired CEO of Baptist Health, one of Stone Ward’s longtime customers, said Ward “has the ability to make you feel like she’s working for no one else. She almost becomes a member of your organization.”
The Internet has roiled the advertising industry just as it’s roiled so many other sectors, and Stone Ward — the Stone in the name is Larry Stone, Ward’s husband of 16 years and the agency’s executive creative director — has had to adapt, Ward says.
“Having some measurement to understand the performance of a campaign and being able to use that to optimize is a great thing,” she says. “I think what you cannot always measure — and that’s why you have these things that go viral and no one understands why — you can’t measure emotional triggers.”
Ad agencies can count “impressions” — online page views — and they can analyze, optimize and personalize those impressions, Ward says. “But you still have to have the creativity to tell stories that have an ability to connect emotionally with your audiences.”
Those connections ultimately are what allow an ad agency to succeed, which Stone Ward has done by any measure. It marked its 30th anniversary last year. It sustains two offices — the other is in Chicago. It brought in more than $47 million in capitalized billings in 2014. It employs a team of 54, and it counts as clients national brands such as Terminix and Sport Clips and statewide brands like Baptist Health and Simmons Bank.
If Ward were to market herself as a brand, and that’s what we’re all supposed to do these days, it would be as someone who recognizes her lucky breaks as much as she’s quietly proud of her hard work.
Her parents, James and Alyce Caldwell of Wynne, have been married 62 years, and they always supported her, says Ward, born in 1954 in Ironton, Missouri. “They both were a key part of my life and who I am because I was raised in a household where encouragement was always there.”
They’re still encouraging, but now they’ve turned that encouragement toward their great-grandchildren. Ward tells a story about her father’s advice to 5-year-old Aly, who had been struggling with gymnastics. “She came out of gymnastics and she said, ‘Mamie, I got really scared on those double bars, but I remembered what granddaddy said about ‘I think I can’ and I just said, ‘I think I can.’ And I could do it!’”
“That’s just who my parents are,” says Ward, the kind of person who knows exactly how to use an exclamation point in conversation. “You know, it makes a difference in your life, a huge difference, more than a lot of people give credit for.”
And then, she says, there’s the incalculable benefit of what the secular call luck and what the faithful, and Ward is one of those, call blessings.
“I think I’ve always realized, even as a young person, how blessed I was,” she says, going on to count some of those. “Blessed to have such great parents. Blessed to be in a place where at 28 I could be part of a new company. Blessed to have some early successes that helped us be around for a long time. I was always conscious of that.”
Though Ward doesn’t emphasize it, talent and effort played a big role too, as a 1988 fashion feature in the old Arkansas Gazette made clear. The article — a product of its time — described her attire, but it also noted Ward’s 12-hour days.
After earning her bachelor’s in communications from Arkansas State University in Jonesboro in 1975, she got a job at a two-person ad agency there, Gunter & Associates. She moved to Little Rock in 1976 and after a few years landed a position as a copywriter at what was then Combs/Resneck & Associates.
Ward and Stone first worked together at the Combs agency and found their abilities complemented each other. Stone partnered with Myron Resneck to form Resneck Stone in 1984 and Ward came aboard. She was soon named partner, the firm became Resneck Stone Ward, and Ward became “the first woman in Arkansas to have her name on the door of a major agency,” as a 1990 Gazette story put it.
Ward doesn’t care for talk of “first woman” this or “first woman” that. Results matter more. Two campaigns that brought the agency results were the firm’s work for the Nickelodeon Channel, then in its infancy, and Worthen Banking Corp.’s “dancing banker.” That ad — famously approved by then-Worthen chief Curt Bradbury, now of Stephens Inc. — featured an actor playing a staid banker rocking to James Brown’s “I Feel Good.”
By 1991, the ad agency had become Stone Ward, and in 1999 the partners in business married and became partners in life.
Ward is the writer, Stone “the graphics, the design guy, the visual guy,” she says. “It’s very complementary. Just like our creative skills are complementary, our business skills are pretty complementary too. I think that’s what made it work.”
In business, Ward says, Stone is thoughtful and quiet, while she is the one who works the relationships — “working with the media people, working with the brand-management people, the PR people, all those people who are sort of doing the fiscal responsibility and the relationship management.”
While the couple’s skills are complementary, their vision for the firm is shared. That vision means Stone Ward has made “a conscious decision” to have a diverse client list rather than specializing in one or two categories. “I think it keeps your company and you smarter and sharper if you have to know six categories than if all you have to know was one,” Ward says.
And after all, Ward says, crediting investment banker Jack Stephens with coining the line: “All the verbs in marketing are the same. It’s only the nouns that change.”
Stone Ward’s vision also includes its Building Good initiative, which helps nonprofits like the American Heart Association and others with their marketing efforts and encourages employees to volunteer and serve on the boards of nonprofits.
More broadly, however, it’s a company philosophy, Ward says. “We believe in finding clients who share our values and then doing our best work to help them succeed. But that ability to share values with a client cuts through a lot of other things, and it makes for better relationships and longer relationships.”
Stone Ward has a number of clients of more than 15 years.
“This whole idea of values-based marketing — I mean we’ve been talking about it for a good number of years, but a lot of people are talking about it now.”
However, she cautions, “It has to be real.”
The great big digital world has forced Stone Ward to be nimble. From the firm’s beginnings, Ward says, she and Stone were committed to changing with the times, investing in technology and knowledge and ensuring that they were always a step ahead of their clients “so that we could be genuinely prepared to be their advisers and to tell their stories.
“And I think as a result of that, what’s happened to our business is that we have probably been 10 different companies in 30 years.”
Some things, however, stay the same. One of those, she says, is putting clients first.
“I always tell people here that if you have a crossroads where you don’t know what to do, do what’s best for the client, and that will ultimately be what’s best for the company.”