Creative Q&A: Ad Person of the Year, Charles Hodges of Arts & Letters

CharlesHodges1

Charles Hodges at Arts & Letters’ office in the Power Plant at Lucky Strike building in Shockoe Bottom. (Jonathan Spiers photo)

When Charles Hodges founded Arts & Letters Creative Co. in 2017, he says he didn’t envision the then-17-person agency becoming the 150-plus behemoth it is today.

What started in an 8,000-square-foot space in Scott’s Addition now also fills the 21,000-square-foot Power Plant at Lucky Strike building in Shockoe Bottom, with plans to open a third office in New York City by the end of this year.

The agency also has gone from a sole but significant client, Google, to working with such brands as ESPN, Dick’s Sporting Goods and Tito’s Handmade Vodka.

Along the way, while the company’s office footprint has ballooned, Hodges has encouraged a work-from-where-you-are approach that preceded the pandemic, and led him to develop a hybrid work model appropriately called Work From Anywhere.

Such accomplishments over a span of six years were among the reasons why the Advertising Club of Richmond named Hodges, 39, as this year’s Ad Person of the Year.

The Charlotte native and VCU Brandcenter alum recently sat down with BizSense to discuss the recognition, his and the agency’s approach to the creative process, and why he credits Richmond for Arts & Letters’ growth. The following is an edited transcript:

Richmond BizSense: Congratulations on being named Ad Person of the Year. What was it like receiving that recognition?

Charles Hodges: It was a huge honor and a surprise. It wasn’t something that I even really knew was an option. They just reached out and said the board had selected me, so I was very surprised, very honored.

ArtsLetters RichmondShow

Hodges with fellow ‘Letterheads’ at this year’s Richmond Show, when he was named Ad Person of the Year. (Photo courtesy Arts & Letters)

RBS: You’ve said Richmond’s creative community is why Arts & Letters exists. What do you mean by that?

CH: I started Arts & Letters thinking it would be a small project studio. I went to the VCU Brandcenter, so I knew the magic that was here from my experience there. Having spent some time in New York and L.A. after that, I was just thinking of what was a great place to start a new project studio that was closer to some of our friends and family on the East Coast, and Richmond was the easy first answer.

I think maybe without knowing it Richmond is the best city in the country that’s not a major market but makes major market communications work. That pedigree, excellence and ability to do that is really owed entirely to the tradition of The Martin Agency, and connected to that, the VCU Brandcenter. They have created a 50- and 25-year tradition of a community of people that can live and work here and make work that goes to a national and global stage.

Equally as important are all of the production community and the smaller and mid-sized agencies that are also here that make up the fabric of the town. Richmond provides an environment for the creative community to try a lot of different things professionally. I think that’s really different compared to a lot of other cities, and it allows people to find their path, which now more than ever a lot of people have been trying to figure out.

RBS: Those who nominated you for the award mentioned the Work Together Anywhere hybrid work model that you initiated for Arts & Letters. What is that program and how does it work?

CH: It was something that we discovered throughout the pandemic, that given the talent that we were working with, we were already working in this hybrid model without really knowing it. All of our meetings and many of our client relationships pre-pandemic, we’d have meetings on the screen; we had a wide contract freelance network that we worked with remotely. Making that transition, while it certainly wasn’t easy, felt a bit more natural.

Then it became a question of not what does the company want, but what do people want and how do they want to work. Talented people, you give them the right environment and empower them in the right way, geography can become a limiting factor, but so can expectation of physical presence in a building.

ArtsLetters Titos

Staffers celebrate Dick’s Sporting Goods naming Arts & Letters its lead creative agency in March. (Photo courtesy Arts & Letters)

RBS: How is that different from remote work in general?

CH: Work Together Anywhere is not a remote policy; it’s a hybrid model that allows for the flexibility of remote work, but it also has given us a chance to redefine what it means to be together. To have those tentpole moments throughout the year from a place standpoint, but also, accounts and departments have their own rhythms. It allows us to live a little bit more naturally in how people actually want to work.

Everyone talks about this work-life balance, and that’s always been a huge part of our story, but it’s not even this equation about time. I think a lot of people come to that realization that they’ve built their entire life around their work, and we’ve always wanted to be a place that you could build work around your life, and that that’s also really great for the work and allows you to come up with different ideas, work in different ways, and it’s better for the output and strategic and creative thinking.

That’s been something that Work Together Anywhere has really allowed us to live into: this kind of hub-and-spoke model of being based in Richmond but having people in over 14 different cities across the country now. Similarly we’ve had maybe over 100 people move to Richmond from other cities to work here throughout the last six years.

RBS: Describe the company’s creative process in light of that model. How does Arts & Letters approach a brief or try to do things differently?

CH: Traditionally, advertising agencies are organized around a waterfall project management and a baton-pass from brief to creative to production. We work in more of an agile way that mirrors more how tech companies prototype.

We often have the entire team get briefed in the beginning. That allows everyone to have context of the problem. It also allows more empathy for people that wouldn’t have had windows into other parts of each other’s process, so there’s an ability for everyone to learn and have more awareness of what each other’s superpowers are.

The other thing is that we have no media function, so everything at Arts & Letters is about the strategic rigor, the conceptual ability and the craft and taste of production to bring something to life. We can really focus on what the idea is, and that often also gets us invitations to focus more on the business problem that our clients are facing, rather than just how marketing can solve an existing product or service.

RBS: What work have you all done recently that has turned the most heads? What do you consider your current calling card?

CH: I think the highlights of the last six months would certainly be launching the new brand platform for Dick’s Sporting Goods, “Sports Change Lives.” “This is Sportscenter,” getting an invitation to help on that again meant a lot to us. And also being invited to be ESPN’s lead creative partner across their business as a constellation of all the properties that we work on… definitely has been a highlight.

Our work with Tito’s and the DIY January piece that we made with Martha Stewart was just a really great piece of work and another testament to a different kind of partnership that wants to do things in a different way.

RBS: How do you keep a creative mind and keep your ideas fresh? What sources of inspiration do you keep at-hand or seek out?

CH: I listen to an unbelie+vable amount of music. I’m always listening to music, and I’ve seen that show up in our work a lot. I find that it can help me change my perspective on something. So much of the business of communication is very logical, and the process is very logical. That’s understandable, but the way that audiences experience things is actually very emotional, so music has been my forever partner in terms of thinking through different ways that things might feel, or the tone.

RBS: What work have you done individually in your career that got you noticed or you’re most proud of?

CH: The first piece of work that I did that seemed to cross the noise sound barrier was John Clayton’s “This is Sportscenter” commercial, when I was a copywriter at Weiden+Kennedy. “This is Sportscenter” is a really important campaign to me; it’s kind of what drew me to the industry in the first place, so to have a chance to be a writer on that was an honor and also intimidating.

As an executive creative director here, “Home Alone Again” for the “Make Google Do It” platform that we created for Google Assistant was also a highlight from a piece of work standpoint. And also “There’s No Place Like Sports,” the ESPN brand campaign that we created. How that’s become a point of view for them on social and far beyond broadcast has been really great.

RBS: What shops in Richmond have been getting your attention or whose work you appreciate?

CH: I would say Martin, for sure. It’s been really inspiring to see Familiar Creatures also start up in these past few years and make some really great things. Overcoast, I think that the bar that they’ve kept, it seems like they’re always really close to really great things. Similar with Mondial Creative Labs. I would count them, as well as Spang.

RBS: Speaking of The Martin Agency, we previously spoke with Danny Robinson, Martin’s chief creative officer, and he had no reservations in describing your two agencies as competitors. There’s also been a lot of movement between the agencies in terms of talent and staff. How do you see Martin as a peer and competitor?

CH: We haven’t really been across the table from each other in client things. My point of view on it is they’re so much a part of our story, I just have so much gratitude and awe and so much respect for Kristen (Cavallo) and Danny.

We’ve had people move here that wouldn’t have moved here if Martin wasn’t here, and then Martin’s had people move here that maybe wouldn’t have moved here if we hadn’t been here, so it’s great to have, from a talent standpoint, multiple options in town, inclusive of some of the other places.

I have nothing but good things to say and a lot of gratitude, because I don’t know that we would exist if they hadn’t created the community here over the years.

CharlesHodges1

Charles Hodges at Arts & Letters’ office in the Power Plant at Lucky Strike building in Shockoe Bottom. (Jonathan Spiers photo)

When Charles Hodges founded Arts & Letters Creative Co. in 2017, he says he didn’t envision the then-17-person agency becoming the 150-plus behemoth it is today.

What started in an 8,000-square-foot space in Scott’s Addition now also fills the 21,000-square-foot Power Plant at Lucky Strike building in Shockoe Bottom, with plans to open a third office in New York City by the end of this year.

The agency also has gone from a sole but significant client, Google, to working with such brands as ESPN, Dick’s Sporting Goods and Tito’s Handmade Vodka.

Along the way, while the company’s office footprint has ballooned, Hodges has encouraged a work-from-where-you-are approach that preceded the pandemic, and led him to develop a hybrid work model appropriately called Work From Anywhere.

Such accomplishments over a span of six years were among the reasons why the Advertising Club of Richmond named Hodges, 39, as this year’s Ad Person of the Year.

The Charlotte native and VCU Brandcenter alum recently sat down with BizSense to discuss the recognition, his and the agency’s approach to the creative process, and why he credits Richmond for Arts & Letters’ growth. The following is an edited transcript:

Richmond BizSense: Congratulations on being named Ad Person of the Year. What was it like receiving that recognition?

Charles Hodges: It was a huge honor and a surprise. It wasn’t something that I even really knew was an option. They just reached out and said the board had selected me, so I was very surprised, very honored.

ArtsLetters RichmondShow

Hodges with fellow ‘Letterheads’ at this year’s Richmond Show, when he was named Ad Person of the Year. (Photo courtesy Arts & Letters)

RBS: You’ve said Richmond’s creative community is why Arts & Letters exists. What do you mean by that?

CH: I started Arts & Letters thinking it would be a small project studio. I went to the VCU Brandcenter, so I knew the magic that was here from my experience there. Having spent some time in New York and L.A. after that, I was just thinking of what was a great place to start a new project studio that was closer to some of our friends and family on the East Coast, and Richmond was the easy first answer.

I think maybe without knowing it Richmond is the best city in the country that’s not a major market but makes major market communications work. That pedigree, excellence and ability to do that is really owed entirely to the tradition of The Martin Agency, and connected to that, the VCU Brandcenter. They have created a 50- and 25-year tradition of a community of people that can live and work here and make work that goes to a national and global stage.

Equally as important are all of the production community and the smaller and mid-sized agencies that are also here that make up the fabric of the town. Richmond provides an environment for the creative community to try a lot of different things professionally. I think that’s really different compared to a lot of other cities, and it allows people to find their path, which now more than ever a lot of people have been trying to figure out.

RBS: Those who nominated you for the award mentioned the Work Together Anywhere hybrid work model that you initiated for Arts & Letters. What is that program and how does it work?

CH: It was something that we discovered throughout the pandemic, that given the talent that we were working with, we were already working in this hybrid model without really knowing it. All of our meetings and many of our client relationships pre-pandemic, we’d have meetings on the screen; we had a wide contract freelance network that we worked with remotely. Making that transition, while it certainly wasn’t easy, felt a bit more natural.

Then it became a question of not what does the company want, but what do people want and how do they want to work. Talented people, you give them the right environment and empower them in the right way, geography can become a limiting factor, but so can expectation of physical presence in a building.

ArtsLetters Titos

Staffers celebrate Dick’s Sporting Goods naming Arts & Letters its lead creative agency in March. (Photo courtesy Arts & Letters)

RBS: How is that different from remote work in general?

CH: Work Together Anywhere is not a remote policy; it’s a hybrid model that allows for the flexibility of remote work, but it also has given us a chance to redefine what it means to be together. To have those tentpole moments throughout the year from a place standpoint, but also, accounts and departments have their own rhythms. It allows us to live a little bit more naturally in how people actually want to work.

Everyone talks about this work-life balance, and that’s always been a huge part of our story, but it’s not even this equation about time. I think a lot of people come to that realization that they’ve built their entire life around their work, and we’ve always wanted to be a place that you could build work around your life, and that that’s also really great for the work and allows you to come up with different ideas, work in different ways, and it’s better for the output and strategic and creative thinking.

That’s been something that Work Together Anywhere has really allowed us to live into: this kind of hub-and-spoke model of being based in Richmond but having people in over 14 different cities across the country now. Similarly we’ve had maybe over 100 people move to Richmond from other cities to work here throughout the last six years.

RBS: Describe the company’s creative process in light of that model. How does Arts & Letters approach a brief or try to do things differently?

CH: Traditionally, advertising agencies are organized around a waterfall project management and a baton-pass from brief to creative to production. We work in more of an agile way that mirrors more how tech companies prototype.

We often have the entire team get briefed in the beginning. That allows everyone to have context of the problem. It also allows more empathy for people that wouldn’t have had windows into other parts of each other’s process, so there’s an ability for everyone to learn and have more awareness of what each other’s superpowers are.

The other thing is that we have no media function, so everything at Arts & Letters is about the strategic rigor, the conceptual ability and the craft and taste of production to bring something to life. We can really focus on what the idea is, and that often also gets us invitations to focus more on the business problem that our clients are facing, rather than just how marketing can solve an existing product or service.

RBS: What work have you all done recently that has turned the most heads? What do you consider your current calling card?

CH: I think the highlights of the last six months would certainly be launching the new brand platform for Dick’s Sporting Goods, “Sports Change Lives.” “This is Sportscenter,” getting an invitation to help on that again meant a lot to us. And also being invited to be ESPN’s lead creative partner across their business as a constellation of all the properties that we work on… definitely has been a highlight.

Our work with Tito’s and the DIY January piece that we made with Martha Stewart was just a really great piece of work and another testament to a different kind of partnership that wants to do things in a different way.

RBS: How do you keep a creative mind and keep your ideas fresh? What sources of inspiration do you keep at-hand or seek out?

CH: I listen to an unbelie+vable amount of music. I’m always listening to music, and I’ve seen that show up in our work a lot. I find that it can help me change my perspective on something. So much of the business of communication is very logical, and the process is very logical. That’s understandable, but the way that audiences experience things is actually very emotional, so music has been my forever partner in terms of thinking through different ways that things might feel, or the tone.

RBS: What work have you done individually in your career that got you noticed or you’re most proud of?

CH: The first piece of work that I did that seemed to cross the noise sound barrier was John Clayton’s “This is Sportscenter” commercial, when I was a copywriter at Weiden+Kennedy. “This is Sportscenter” is a really important campaign to me; it’s kind of what drew me to the industry in the first place, so to have a chance to be a writer on that was an honor and also intimidating.

As an executive creative director here, “Home Alone Again” for the “Make Google Do It” platform that we created for Google Assistant was also a highlight from a piece of work standpoint. And also “There’s No Place Like Sports,” the ESPN brand campaign that we created. How that’s become a point of view for them on social and far beyond broadcast has been really great.

RBS: What shops in Richmond have been getting your attention or whose work you appreciate?

CH: I would say Martin, for sure. It’s been really inspiring to see Familiar Creatures also start up in these past few years and make some really great things. Overcoast, I think that the bar that they’ve kept, it seems like they’re always really close to really great things. Similar with Mondial Creative Labs. I would count them, as well as Spang.

RBS: Speaking of The Martin Agency, we previously spoke with Danny Robinson, Martin’s chief creative officer, and he had no reservations in describing your two agencies as competitors. There’s also been a lot of movement between the agencies in terms of talent and staff. How do you see Martin as a peer and competitor?

CH: We haven’t really been across the table from each other in client things. My point of view on it is they’re so much a part of our story, I just have so much gratitude and awe and so much respect for Kristen (Cavallo) and Danny.

We’ve had people move here that wouldn’t have moved here if Martin wasn’t here, and then Martin’s had people move here that maybe wouldn’t have moved here if we hadn’t been here, so it’s great to have, from a talent standpoint, multiple options in town, inclusive of some of the other places.

I have nothing but good things to say and a lot of gratitude, because I don’t know that we would exist if they hadn’t created the community here over the years.

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Sean Stilwell
Sean Stilwell
2 months ago

Some of my absolute favorite clients work for Arts + Letters. Not surprised by their success one bit. Seems like a firm with a great culture from my experience.