DH 30: A Look at Decade #1 (1988-1998)

DeanHouston is totally ecstatic and eternally grateful to be celebrating 30 years in business!

Much has happened, and much has changed, in our first three decades.

For a little perspective, consider this:

In 1988, we sent our copy to companies like QC Type and Typoset for typesetting. We certainly didn’t call copy “content” back then!

There was no such thing as a PowerPoint presentation. Instead, 35mm slides were the order of the day. And don’t for a moment think you were going to correct that typo or add a last-minute update to your presentation using 35mm slides. Not happening…without a major rush charge.

In 1988, we used an IBM-based word processor system called DisplayWrite 4. We were given a copy of DW4 from a close acquaintance. Shhh, not sure the person was authorized to give it to us (but knew we had no money)!

Macintosh was still finding its way in the world. Apple’s stock price was somewhere between $2 and $4 in those days (should’ve bought some back then)!

In 1988, acrylic paint and gouache were commonly used in hand-painted illustrations for clients. Pen-and-ink stipple illustrations were also popular. So too was airbrushing, a technique in which the illustrator used an airbrush tool to mix air and paint to create a fine mist for application to a surface. Speaking of paint, here are Greg and Pam cleaning the supplies after applying a fresh coat of paint to their first office on Sycamore Street.

Back then, we also used an Artograph, a projector invented in 1947 to help improve on existing methods of sizing and visualizing an art image.

Consider as well that, in 1988, there was no internet, no streaming video, no webinars, no marketing automation, no Hubspot, no cloud-based anything, no smart phone. And hopping on a plane, which we did frequently in our early years (and some of us still do), was hassle-free and painless compared to today.

Yes, much has indeed changed. And thankfully, so has DeanHouston, which is why we remain just as vital, vibrant, and relevant to businesses today as we were in 1988.

Throughout this blog series, we will look at each of the three decades, highlighting the people and organizations that have partnered with us along the way.

Here, now, is a look at Decade #1.

1988 to 1998

Ahh, the summer of 1988, a moment in time when:

  • The music of Kathy Mattea filled the airwaves

Why her?

Well, because she was born in South Charleston, WV, only four miles from the agency in which DeanHouston’s three founders first met! She was also a client of ours!

  • Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman could be spotted at various locations throughout Greater Cincinnati during their filming of the hit movie Rain Man.
  • An unknown, upstart marketing firm with no capital investment dollars, no local business contacts, and no political connections, opened its doors in Cincinnati despite the well-intentioned advice of a local business leader who told the three would-be entrepreneurs, “The odds are stacked against you. Keep your good-paying jobs!”

That firm, founded by Dale Dean, Greg and Pam Houston, would shun this advice and incorporate their business on June 15, 1988, appropriately naming it DeanHouston Creative Group, Inc. (later shortened, legally, to DeanHouston, Inc.). The three founders were 82 years old at the time. HA…that’s if you added their three ages together!

The company would officially open its doors on July 5, 1988.

A little luck. A lot of hard work.

When you have no income and you’re essentially living off modest savings accounts, your dreams may be big, but your tendencies are modest. And modest best describes our first office building at 1208 Sycamore Street, across from the old Diner Restaurant in the Over-the-Rhine district.

We occupied approximately 750 square feet of space on the second floor. Our monthly rent payment was $350. On the first floor was a separate business, through which we had to enter and exit the building. A realty company from which we rented space occupied the first floor. Rarely were the owners/employees ever there, which was great for us because it made us feel as if we had the whole building to ourselves.

Our first project for our first client; a brochure for Professional Accounting Study Systems.

It was in this building that we received the call from a Mr. George “Bud” Dacey. George who? We had no clue…only that he was with a company called Scientific Games, Inc. (SGI). But what that latter piece of information told us was that this call (a couple of days before Thanksgiving) could be the start of something big, if our prior working relationship with Scientific Games, in West Virginia, was any indication.

We also theorized that this call was the result of a letter Pam had sent to Mr. Norman LaMarre, SGI’s president in 1988. Pam’s letter was a follow-up to a conversation she’d recently had in SGI’s hospitality suite at the former Omni Netherland Plaza in downtown Cincinnati. Mr. LaMarre was in town for a major trade show that brought together for the very first time all government-authorized lotteries from the U.S. and Canada. On that October evening in 1988, Mr. LaMarre told Pam that SGI was in search of an agency and invited her to send him a letter outlining who we were and what we could offer them.

The return call to Mr. Dacey – and subsequent flight to Atlanta – was indeed the start of something big (our first major customer). Here’s Greg and Pam preparing for that momentous meeting. Pam is ironing the black drape that concealed a proposed new logo and tagline that would be revealed within the hour to Scientific Games executives.

At the end of our presentation in early 1989, Mr. LaMarre immediately agreed to a retainer contract with DeanHouston of $4,800 per month for services, including 15% commission for all of SGI’s media buys. The agreement sent a jolt of adrenaline through our veins, for we knew that this moment would provide us the critical financial foundation that every start-up needs during its formative, vulnerable early years. It would also ignite a partnership that would last a quarter century.

Up until the SGI contract, Dale, Pam and Greg had been working project-to-project and still had not mustered the courage or confidence to take a DeanHouston paycheck.

It’s ironic that lotteries involve luck, for a little luck (and a lot of hard work) is exactly what was involved in the circumstances that led us to SGI – and SGI to us.

A final point before closing this important chapter in our first 10 years:

Today, Scientific Games is a publicly traded, global gaming powerhouse that provides products and services to lottery and gambling organizations worldwide. It continues to grow both organically and through acquisitions.

In our 25 years, DeanHouston walked arm-in-arm, side-by-side, and shoulder-to-shoulder with Scientific Games. The relationship embodied the very definition of partnership. The two of us accomplished much together and we’d be remiss if we didn’t acknowledge the many SGI individuals (too numerous to name) who stood with us during our formative years. If you’re reading this and are one of those people, please know that you will forever hold a special place in our hearts.

The 1989 and 1990 advertising campaigns for Scientific Games. The ’89 campaign shined a spotlight on the “Lottery Wise Customer Driven” people behind SGI’s products and services. The ’90 campaign showcased the lottery industry giant as a progressive, visionary company.

With SGI now a customer, we decided it was time to move to a larger facility ­– 3,000 square feet of space on the second floor of 2228 Gilbert Avenue in Walnut Hills. Our monthly rent was $1,000.

It was in this building that we first began working with an ad agency whose key clients included a nearly 100-year-old B2B company discreetly headquartered on Ohio Route 747, just off the I-275 outer-belt north of Cincinnati.

The agency used DeanHouston for one reason: technical illustration. It was a service we would provide the agency until it unexpectedly folded in 1991. While the abrupt closure of this established Cincinnati-based agency cost DeanHouston about $4,000, what it eventually would mean to our business was priceless.

When the account was put up for review, DeanHouston tossed its hat in the ring – along with three other agencies. The client in search of a new agency: OPW Fueling Components.

Now then, here’s the kicker: In addition to the three agencies that stood in our way, DeanHouston had one other hurdle to clear. As far as OPW was concerned, DeanHouston was an illustration/graphic design studio; how possibly could it provide the breadth and depth of services OPW required?

So that was our first, and, in retrospect, our greatest challenge:

Convincing OPW that DeanHouston was not a studio.

Our target: Mr. Frank Ruth!

Why Frank?

Because he was the OPW’s advertising gatekeeper. And to appear before the OPW evaluation committee, an agency first had to receive Frank’s blessing.

The veteran advertising manager eventually agreed to meet with us at Chester’s Road House in Montgomery. We stated our case. Frank listened. He advanced us to the Final Four. We presented to the committee. And on December 5, 1991, DeanHouston was named agency of record for OPW Fueling Components.

A client to this day (virtually unheard of in the marketing business), OPW is part of Dover Corporation, a diversified global manufacturer with annual revenue of approximately $7 billion. Hard work and proven results cemented our relationship with OPW and would soon earn DeanHouston referrals to work with other Dover operating companies. And yes, that’s Dale showing off an OPW nozzle on the cover of Petroleum Marketer’s 1994 directory!

Today, Frank Ruth resides in Mansfield, Ohio. And while you will not find his photo in a Google search, you will find him in the heart and soul of our company, for had he not opened the door to our agency pitch at the “eleventh hour” in the fall of 1991, DeanHouston would not be the company we have since become.

With now two major customers on our roster, you might think we’d move immediately to a higher rent district. That did not happen. We are, by nature, a fiscally conservative company.

But in 1995, our desire for change was in the air. We wanted a facility that represented the character and makeup of our business: tasteful, but not ostentatious. By December of that year, we would relocate the business to the Flatiron Building at 401 East Court Street.

It is in this building that we would grow our staff from 8 to 12. And it is in this building that our third and fourth major accounts took root.

First, the West Virginia Lottery, a $4 million account we would serve for three years, beginning in June 1997. Although we proudly listed West Virginia as a customer, technically, Scientific Games, through a unique Cooperative Services arrangement with the Lottery, was our customer. It was Howard Roath, with key support from Jim Culver, who invited DeanHouston to be the advertising agency component of SGI’s West Virginia bid in 1996. Both Culver and Roath were huge and critically important proponents of DeanHouston. Each of them, including Messrs. LaMarre and Dacey, hold a special place in our company’s history because of their unfailing support.

And last, but certainly not least in our first decade, is the LSI Industries story. Technically our work with LSI began at our Gilbert Avenue location, where we designed and produced an occasional brochure for the company.

Then along came the retirement of Frank Ruth (awesome DH-hosted party included) and our subsequent hiring of him on a part-time basis. Make no mistake: Frank was connected. Among his many strong connections were Don Whipple, one of LSI Industries’ co-founders, and John Page, Senior Vice President of LSI’s Petroleum Lighting division. Through these two gentlemen and Frank’s gentle, persuasive nudges, we would eventually get an audience with key executives of the company, including Mr. Bob Ready, CEO and another of the co-founders of LSI Industries.

The meeting went well. Unfortunately, at that moment, not well enough, for the bulk of LSI’s account work would remain with its then-longstanding agency. That would change in 1998 when, almost imperceptibly, more and more work from more and more divisions began transitioning to DeanHouston.

What began as work for a single division – the petroleum/lighting division – would ultimately expand to include work for all nine divisions of LSI Industries’ lighting and graphics business.

As fast as scratching a Scientific Games-produced instant lottery ticket, as fast as refueling a car with an OPW vapor recovery nozzle, and as fast as flipping a switch to turn on and off an LSI canopy lighting system at a local convenience store, our first 10 years flew by just as quickly.

Looking back, it seems like yesterday that a respected, well-intentioned small business consultant advised the principals of DeanHouston to avoid the temptation of entrepreneurship, to keep their ‘good paying jobs,’ and to NOT venture into business for themselves.

Thankfully, we discarded that wisdom. We believed then, as we do now, that if you have a dream, and you believe in yourself, and you have the passion to live that dream, then nothing should stand in your way.

As our unofficial corporate motto – which we adopted back in 1988 – reminds us (below): Risk is the price of all worthwhile rewards.

To learn more about our story, we invite you to visit deanhouston.com.

And stay tuned! More historical highlights that helped shape DeanHouston will be posted in our next blog: DH 30: A Look at Decade #2 (1998 – 2008).


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