Words and Pictures celebrates its 25th anniversary in 2012, having grown from a two-person partnership in 1987 to its current size of 12-plus employees. The founders, Rhonda Smith and Wes Shaw, took time recently to sit down and reminisce and sketch out some history and milestones along the way.

How did Words and Pictures come into existence?

Rhonda Smith: Wes and I met when he was freelancing at an agency, McCormick and Company, where I worked. We collaborated on several jobs together over the years. I was a producer then, with five or six years’ experience. I had a good idea of what the business was all about, and had learned a diverse set of skills, which is an advantage of working at a small company. Wes had the big-agency experience: J. Walter Thompson, Y&R, N.W. Ayer, Compton. He brought the sexy part of it—that’s how we got in the door lots of times. He had the big Madison Avenue experience.

So I brought the small agency background, where I knew how to manage on a day-to-day basis, and he was more about the big picture.

How did the name happen?

Wes Shaw: She came up with the name in a bar! She always said: if you want to name something, take me to a bar.

RS: He was an art director and I was a writer, and that’s how we came up with the name Words and Pictures. It seemed to sum it up.

Were you nervous about trying to make it as a new agency?

RS: When Wes left J. Walter Thompson, he was a little disillusioned with the big agencies. He was at the point in his career when he was ready to try to go on his own because he was tired of the red tape, the confines of a large agency. We were working together and he asked, “What if we tried to go it on our own?” And we decided if it didn’t work, we’d just apply for other jobs. We were both working in the city, but we had a contact with an agency out here in New Jersey and they offered us an office. When we started it was like, what the heck, we’ll see if it works, and then we didn’t give up, and things just started happening.

WS: We started out with an office in Montvale, at a pharmaceutical agency called Sweeney and Partners. I thought we could make it. It wasn’t arrogance, it was just 30 years of experience at large agencies. We knew what an idea was and we felt empowered by that knowledge. It gave us a solid grounding in creativity.

What was Words and Pictures’ first account?

WS: What put us on the map was one day Rhonda got a call from a homicide detective, telling us about a task force being formed by the Bergen County Freeholders to combat teenage suicides, because there had been a horrific incident that year in Bergenfield, where four kids killed themselves. He asked if we’d be interested in doing the public awareness campaign that would educate people about the warning signs of people contemplating suicide. When I heard about it—it was a pro bono thing—I just thought it would be great to work on it.

RS: We both agreed it was a great cause, so we created an awareness campaign and became members of the task force.

WS: We came up with this campaign, “Don’t Say Goodbye. Call 262-HELP.” And it became very successful. We got Billy Joel to let us use his picture and we had posters in police departments and schools. There were even inquiries from other states about using it. The best part though is that there was a cafeteria worker in one of these schools and she noticed a girl who seemed to be demonstrating the warning signs that were on our posters and stepped in to offer help. And it turns out the girl was contemplating suicide. So we may have helped save a life.

You’ve done a lot of pro bono work. Is there a philosophy there?

WS: I always believed in “bread on the water:” good things happen when you do good things.

RS: As a result of that suicide prevention project, we got in to see Valley Hospital and that ended up being our account for eight years. We also ended up with the West Bergen Mental Health Center and Family Counseling Service because of those contacts. It doesn’t always work that way, but my point is that if you give of yourself and do something for other people, I truly believe it comes back to you in many ways. For us it’s always worked. That’s why we’ve made it our policy to do at least two pro bono projects a year.

What are some of the milestones in those first years?

RS: Certainly it was getting Sony as a client the year after we started. And Sony’s been our client for the past 24 years! They’ve really been a terrific mainstay for us, one of our most valued clients. It’s very hard to get in there, but once you do and you prove yourself, they truly value you as a marketing partner. I’m proud to say that we’ve maintained that relationship and actually grown it over the years. Also, people who have left Sony and gone to other companies have become long-term clients, too. If you have great relationships, those will carry on, they’re not limited to just one company.

WS: Another milestone was hiring our first employee. By that time we had moved into our current offices at 141 Kinderkamack Road. We hired a designer to help us. And then another and a production manager, and a media buyer. By the mid 90s, we had seven or eight employees.

RS: We were really lucky with talent. We found Smita Aggarwal, an incredible graphic designer who was with us for eight years; we hired Dave Gisler, our current senior managing art director. When you’re small, you have to get the best talent that you can, because you’re also competing with the Manhattan agencies. We were fortunate in that we got a lot of great people who didn’t want to commute.

So what do you feel are the strengths of Words and Pictures?

RS: Our philosophy when we started the agency was that we were going to be a creative agency. We understand what a concept is; we don’t have to do the obvious and state the obvious and look like everyone else. We don’t want your campaign to look like everyone else—it needs to make your product or service stand out as unique and different. That’s what we have always preached to our staff here: go beyond.

WS: We always want to show something that has a concept and an idea. Clients feel they are getting something unique. It doesn’t mean they always buy it, but our approach has always been consistently creative. We think of ourselves as an idea factory. We always have an understanding when we brainstorm. We forbid each other to make judgments on ideas until we collect everything. We encourage our creative staff not to be afraid to say anything, even if it’s stupid, because it may lead to something. Because you have to get it all out there and not censor yourself to get the best ideas.

RS: Our other strength is strategy. The creative must meet the strategy that is established: who’s the target audience, what will motivate them, what’s the unique quality of the product or service, what’s the hook. It’s creative but it’s targeted creative.

How did you handle the account work?

RS: That’s one of the things that’s unique about us: we didn’t really ever hire account executives. Because we wanted to be the account people. And that was one thing I think our clients liked, because they were talking to the principals, the creative directors, and we were their account people, too. They didn’t have to go through another layer. So we’ve always been able to operate with a smaller staff but turn out the work of a larger agency.

Believe me, account people are very valuable, I don’t want to sound negative about them. But that was just the way we approached it. Now that Wes is semi-retired, we are grooming other key people to take on account management roles. For example, Ryan Huban, a natural people person who has been with us about seven years, has successfully transitioned from art director to account manager—or engagement director, as it’s referred to now.

Wes, since you worked at J. Walter Thompson and all those other big agencies during Mad Men times, I have to ask: how does the depiction of that era on the show strike you?

WS: It was dead on. The affairs, the drinking, the smoking. The clients and the treatment of women and minorities. I once had lunch with a guy who was on a car account in Detroit and he had seven martinis and a tuna fish sandwich for lunch and went back to work. The people who write that show, they really did their research, they must have talked to a lot of ad people from that era. The way women were discussed was pretty disgusting, especially since they were mostly trying to sell to women.

How has the business changed in past 25 years?

WS: Computers! That has really revolutionized things. We used to do comps in magic marker!

RS: A major turning point was around 2004, when everything went digital. We came to grips with the fact that we had to be a digital agency and invest in those capabilities. That’s when social media first hit the scene, too. Suddenly we were doing eblasts and web banners and websites. Every printed piece had a digital companion. So I think that was a huge milestone, not just for us, but for every ad agency, because if you didn’t evolve, you were going to be left behind. We had to invest in the technology and we had to invest in the people. As a result, we survived the recession quite well. In fact, we’ve grown, which I think is pretty phenomenal.

But even though technology and the way in which we communicate has changed, I think what still stands true about our company is the value of an idea and a concept that follows the objectives and strategy. We still use the basic disciplines we’ve always used, it’s just that we execute them differently. What’s different is the technology and the types of media that never existed before.

Do you think you’ve changed as well?

WS: Well, I’m heading into retirement now, so that’s a big change for me. I’ll still be around for specific projects and consulting, but I won’t be doing the day-to-day, hands-on stuff. And I’ll miss it. I’ve had a lot of fun.

RS: I feel like I can weather the storms more easily, because we’ve been through some bumps over the years with the economy. I feel very optimistic about the next 25 years. I think the agency really has a great foundation to keep growing, including an incredibly talented creative, production, and support team. I think we’ve proven that we can evolve and we will continue to evolve, because you can’t stop. Things change too quickly.

The vehicles for the message keep changing, but in the end it still all comes down to what we were founded on: words and pictures. That will always be the basis of good advertising and marketing.