Sea-Change at CJRW

by Jennifer Joyner ([email protected]) 269 views 

Editor’s Note: Darin Gray, named president of Cranford Johnson Robinson Woods in February, was previously the owner of the Northwest Arkansas Business Journal.

Cranford Johnson Robinson Woods is ushering in a new era.

The 53-year-old advertising and communications firm has repositioned itself in the market and thus created a conduit to clientele it hasn’t reached in several years.

Staff-wise, CJRW has brought in some fresh blood — although, technically, it’s not fresh.

A big part of the agency’s effort to bring in a new dawn has been a deliberate harkening back to what made the company successful in the past, and that includes bringing in key players from its heyday, said Darin Gray, CJRW president.

In 1998, Little Rock-based CJRW merged with Blackwood/Martin & Associates, a Fayetteville-based advertising agency with a strong focus on consumer promotions, a product marketing field which gears advertisements toward their target customers. From there, CJRW’s Springdale office was born.

At some point, however, the consumer promotions aspect and also the use of shopper marketing — which places an emphasis on applying insights about consumers to marketing strategy — tapered off.

As a result, “we missed out on some clients,” said Gray, who has served as president since February, after resigning as CEO of Gray Matters LLC, the parent company of the Northwest Arkansas Business Journal.

 Now, the largest advertising firm in Arkansas is looking to reclaim its niche in the realm of shopper marketing and consumer packaged goods.

The first step? Hiring team members who specialize in the field, and, for CJRW, that includes bringing back personnel from Blackwood/Martin.

Brian Rudisill, president of CJRW’s northwest market, is one of those employees. He began his marketing career 18 years ago as an account executive at Blackwood/Martin and then CJRW. At the time, he was the point person for one of the company’s biggest accounts, Tyson Foods Inc.

“It’s a great honor to come back,” Rudisill said.

In between his departure from CJRW in 2004 and his return this May, Rudisill worked for eight years at JWT Action (now Geometry Global), an affiliate of J. Walter Thompson, one of the largest marketing agency networks in the world.

From 2012 to 2014 he served as director of the Bentonville office for Inward Strategic Consulting, a Boston-based brand engagement company which focuses on internal marketing, a service CJRW is now adding to its repertoire.

Internal marketing is a tool businesses use to define the value of their brand to their own employees.

“Many times, companies are rushed to get their product to shelves,” Rudisill said, adding it is imperative first to clearly communicate throughout the organization about the product in order to effectively market it.


The Right Fit

CJRW still does its fair share of traditional marketing for clients like the City of Springdale, Oaklawn Racing & Gaming and Komen Race for the Cure. However, to Rudisill, bringing back an emphasis on shopper marketing makes sense, based on the company’s proximity to Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and the 1,300 vendors that have set up shop nearby.

It’s one of the benefits of being based in the Northwest Arkansas market, Rudisill said. The other is that “we know exactly the right people we want to bring in.”

Director of operations Denise Davis started in May as well, also leaving Inward Strategic Consulting, and she, too, previously worked at Blackwood/Martin CJRW, serving as traffic director from 1986 to 2005. She then worked for a six-year stint at MARS Advertising Inc., which specializes in shopper marketing.

Vice president of account services Maxine Williams, who started in October, is also a veteran of Blackwood/Martin CJRW. She worked as consumer promotion manager from 1998 to 2002 and then also worked at JWT Action for four years.

Williams said, upon her return to CJRW, “A lot had changed but it was, in some ways, still the same place.”

And, in the past few months, she said it has increasingly felt like the CJRW she knew in the past.

“It’s coming back full circle,” she said.

These are some of the throwback hires based in Northwest Arkansas, but CJRW did the same thing at its Little Rock office. The new hires who are not CJRW veterans have a strong background in shopper marketing.

Donna Williams started as creative director for the company last August. She became a heavy hitter in the ad world in 1998 as founding partner and executive director of ThompsonMurray, which became Saatchi & Saatchi X. Between 2004 and 2013 she ran her own marketing company, Pink Fuzzy Slippers Inc., and also spent more time with her family.

“It feels good to be back in my wheelhouse,” she said.


New Playbook

Amid the staff changes, CJRW has seen some departures recently. Although the resignations were few, they were high-profile players, including founder Wayne Cranford, who served on the board of directors; his sons, executives Jay Cranford, Chris Cranford and Ross Cranford; Denver Peacock, vice president of public affairs; and Scott Caldwell, who was based in Springdale as senior vice president of marketing services.

This is how Gray explains it: “It’s like when a team gets a new coach. The other guy might have been a passing coach and I might be a running coach … I brought in a new playbook.”

And the employees who no longer fit into the game plan moved on.

But CJRW throughout the years has managed to retain much of its key leadership, including several of the company’s namesakes. Founder Wayne Woods still serves as CEO and chairman of the board of directors, founder Shelby Woods is still part of the executive leadership and founder Jim Johnson is on the board of directors, as is Ron Robinson, former president of CJRW.

And although there’s a shift in focus, CJRW is not venturing too far out of its comfort zone.

The new emphases have not been completely ignored in recent years, Donna Williams said. “Shopper marketing can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. A lot of what we have been doing at Tyson is like shopper marketing, but it’s called something else. And it was on a small level.

“Now we’re going full-throttle.”

But there are core values of CJRW that the leadership says will not change.

“For 53 years, CJRW has long been known for its integrity, its work ethic, and its loyalty, and that is the key to what we are going to do in the future,” Gray said. “The people who work here love the state and love working with the clientele. 

“It’s one of the true, longtime, Arkansas-based success stories.”


Looking Within

CJRW is dedicated to instilling in its team members the values that helped it earn success, using the internal marketing strategies it recommends for clients.

“We are reengaging our staff, letting them know who we are and, sometimes more importantly, who we aren’t,” Gray said.

A big part of that effort is reminding staff that each one of them has a vested interest, as the company has been employee-owned since 1998, he added.

Gray, who lives in Northwest Arkansas, has also dramatically increased the interaction between the Little Rock and Springdale offices. This has created a camaraderie among the employees and has also provided a chance for both offices to leverage that relationship, Gray said.

“All that translates into a better experience for clients,” he added.

The firm has two new, major clients it seems enthusiastic to be working with, but the team cannot yet publicly reveal the relationships.

“I’m very excited because [the new emphasis on shopper marketing] is going to give us the opportunity to work with a lot of iconic brands,” Donna Williams said. 

The Springdale office now has 15 active clients, while the company as a whole has 153. The branch is relatively small, with 13 employees, versus the 71 based in the Little Rock office.

For 2014, CJRW is on-track to bill just shy of $67 million, Gray said.

From here, the firm intends to continue growing its client list, in Arkansas and abroad, as it has resources in Dallas on which it aims to capitalize.

“Our team is in the best position right now. The core leadership is in place,” Gray said. “This is the new face of CJRW.”