Road Ranger (FASCO)

Warning: I share this experience cautiously. The business lessons acquired being priceless while the work ended up becoming career torture to swim through. It’s client accounts like this one which summarizes adaptability—and knowing when to stand ground by firing a client.

Road Ranger, an Illinois based chain of convenience stores and truck stop fuel stations, initially contracted me via a local ad firm, DesignWerks, to lead the design on their company’s H2 Hummer for event marketing purposes. Worked directly with the late CEO and his executive marketing team. There were many cooks in the kitchen from the get-go with bad ideas spiraling out of control that myself and two of DesignWerks’ account executives couldn’t reel in. I was outnumbered on creative direction, ethics, and respect by executives in cheap Bergners suits the entire time, though managed to have the last word.

It was one of the most bizarre first/bad impressions made by a corporation and their executives that I can remember. We were there to impress them, in theory, but that was far from the case. We were there to be told what to do with little room for ideating. I remember my stomach siren going off in the main lobby before the meeting. A waiting area filled with company branding materials and nationalist brochures mixed in with Evangelical/religious propaganda pamphlets and postcards declaring George W. Bush Jr. (then president) as America’s savior. Let’s see: “Hmm, Fuel, Jesus, Bush. I see what’s going on here.” My siren was right once again. First impressions matter, yes, but the ability to adjust and accommodate polarizing ideals and dichotomies is one of my stronger skills. Politics and religion don’t belong in business, unless your business is politics or religion. Fuel has nothing to do with religion nor politics, in theory—but not in America. Its influence on everyone is blinding, its influence on the environment is tragic. Anyway, insert sad laughs.

I knew from the get go this was going to be a disaster of a campaign (on my end at least). They brought in a few toy model remote control cars that they had produced for the late CEO. I was impressed, yes, but like a child is in a toy store (not a fuel corporation). All toy remote cars featuring Road Ranger brand decals. They informed us that from that process, the development of those tiny race cars, that they decided to buy a fleet of real H2 Hummer SUVs to travel to events with for marketing intents.

There was a moment when I considered packing up my binder to politely step out—I wasn’t feeling any of it—but I didn’t want to leave DesignWerks’ AEs sitting there alone in the crossfire of bad brand ideas. I feared they would/could make worse on blind promises to close the deal quicker if I didn’t speak up when I could. We secured the work after a second meeting which featured far less executives and two decision makers who wanted to make clear that it’s very important we do as the CEO suggests. Ok, easy enough.

The first round of model Hummer concepts didn’t go well. I took the approach of a comic book superhero look to dress up the H2s with. During the pitch, their team was demanding that I come back with specific patriotic and biblical ideas to impress the late CEO: “Fire! Lightning! Military Plane! America!”. Note that I’m being kind with my memory; it was far more absurd than what I recall.

I didn’t hold back with design direction, and when asked for an opinion I clearly remember stating out of frustration: “You’re an oil company—I don’t think lightning, fire, war planes, oil, gasoline, and any fuel for cars that you sell to your customers makes common sense to put on marketing materials let alone a fleet of expensive Hummer SUVs. Seems like an extremely flammable idea. That’s my two cents.” My two cents sort of worked. I was able to steer them away from fire, but not lightning.

I got paid, DesignWerks took their cut, and everyone but me was happy with the end result. This is a great example of Art Direction gone wrong in my book. Road Ranger’s executive team clearly didn’t understand my creative perspective, and I didn’t understand their company’s base. In the end, they were right: They understood their target consumers: America, freedom, lightening, war planes, and gasoline. Insert strange laughs.

Road Ranger’s executive marketing director contacted me again a few years later to direct and produce “white trash, eco-friendly merchandise”— as he put it to me. He was a real piece of work. My instincts warned me to not agree to the work, but it was the recession and I needed the work. So I did: I produced a creative pitch for “white trash, eco-friendly merchandise.”

They loved all of the ideas and demanded I turn over all designs and source files for the price of one. The Exec. Marketing Director and the late CEO each made valiant efforts to undercut me on services and license rights. Their Exec. MKTG Dir. went as far as legally threatening me to turn over all of the designs for the cost of one. The campaign didn’t go their way—I had everything documented and demanded they cut a check for the pitch and concepts if they were unwilling to select one of the ideas to test market first. To make the point clearer on a breach of terms they executed, I handed over a complimentary file set of low resolution thumbnail jpgs; nothing being press-ready and up to industry standards. They cut me a check for the pitch and concepts, and then swiftly tried to have each idea manufactured by a merchandising vendor based in Atlanta, GA to supply their retails stores. Road Ranger did exactly what I baited them into doing. The vendor immediately contacted me to ask about whether source files existed, and if I would be willing to send them over. I explained the situation and said either they, the third party vendor, or Road Ranger still needed to pay for exclusive rights for source files.

Road Ranger didn’t want to pay for exclusive rights, and neither did the vendor (of course). The vendor complimentary told me that this was normal behavior on Road Ranger’s behalf, and that they had attempted this path before with another creative services provider. Items that I created were never reproduced and sold for retail due to Road Ranger’s negligence to honor business ethics and service rights.

A few months after this contract opportunity went sour, the Exec. Marketing Director surprisingly called me to rush a few billboard ideas together for placement in Southern IL and Texas. I said no, he asked why, I told him why and that was that.

Thinking my bad business lessons with Road Ranger were over, a local ad firm owner, Jay Graham, called me up to meet for coffee. I agreed to upon which he cornered me with an uncomfortable statement: “Why are you trying to take my accounts? I’ve worked hard to build my business.” “Excuse me?” I added, and he responded, “Road Ranger.” All of a sudden my coffee went cold and I grinned, paused, and collected a proper thought to toss at him, “They called me because of DesignWerks contracting work to me. I don’t want your business or their business—and they’re bad business. Have at it. I gotta go.” Got up and left, never been on his good side since.

And that’s that—the client is always right until I say they aren’t. My tolerance level for negotiating with American idiots has a creative breaking point—keep the change.

ClientRoad RangerServicesDirection, Design, Signage WrapYear2005-2008Linkroadrangerusa.com

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