Devon Gets Creative

December 4, 2006
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GRAND RAPIDS — Rick Devon set out to be an illustrator but “accidentally became an ad agency” called Grey Matter Group.

As Devon recalls, his career in advertising got off to a dubious start. Shortly after graduating from Kendall College of Art and Design, he was offered a job as a production artist at Jaqua Advertising, where he was “squirreled away in a tiny cubicle and forced to do mind-numbingly detailed line drawings of industrial pumps.” He went on to work as a junior art director for Murdoch Advertising and, later, as art director for Berkel Advertising.

“As I moved up the ranks, I started understanding what the craft of advertising was about,” Devon recalled. “It’s a very conceptual medium to work in if you’re with the right agency. I enjoyed that a lot — just that idea of trying to come up with a creative solution to a problem.”

During the five years Devon spent with the ad agencies, he worked on the advertising accounts of customers in the publishing, food service and health care sectors — accounts he said won him “buckets-full of client praise,” as well as a few awards suitable for framing.

In 1991, Devon struck out on his own as “a freelance idea guy.” His plan was to freelance until the right offer came along from an ad agency. Within 30 days of becoming self-employed, he was making too much money to collect unemployment, so he took out a loan, bought some office equipment and set up shop at home. Some of his clients at the time were HarperCollins Publishing, Rehab Pros Physical Therapy and Primerus Law Firms.

About three years into his freelance gig, Zondervan approached him with 14 projects. He hired another designer and moved into an office building.

Landing Zondervan as a client was just like winning the lottery, Devon said.

“When you have Zondervan as a client it’s like having six clients, because they have all these different departments and people feeding you work,” he explained.

A couple of years later, Devon and a friend who was also a freelancer designer won a three-year contract with Davenport University. Devon hired another designer, and also picked up the Bissell Homecare account. In the early years of the company, Grey Matter’s business was built on word of mouth; new clients were generated primarily through referrals from existing clients, he said.

“After a while I felt that I was getting a reputation as a guy who was fast and cheap and did really good work, but I really aspired to be someone other than the guy you call at the last minute,” he said.

To project an image of greater expertise, Devon brought on a partner in 2004, his long-time friend John Sawyer. Together, they broadened the company’s scope and attracted creative assignments. In the past couple of years, Grey Matter’s staff has more than doubled in size to seven full-time and three part-time employees.

“When John and I talk about the idea of growth and the future, we think that if we got to be the size of about 20 people or so, that would be fine,” Devon remarked. “My objective has always been to do good work, whether we’re three people doing good work or 20 people doing good work.”

Grey Matter’s niche is print advertising, and its expertise is in Christian publishing. The company has worked on both national and international accounts for such companies as Tyndale House Publishers, Victor Innovetex and American Eagle Outfitters, and for World Vision and Compassion International, both of which are sponsorship organizations for abandoned and orphaned children in Third World countries.

Devon estimates that 60 percent to 70 percent of Grey Matter’s business comes from outside the local market.

In 2005, Grey Matter Group won 13 local Addy Awards, and of those, 10 went on to win regional Addys. Three of the ads Devon did for Davenport University in conjunction with another designer also won local Addys.

Devon says his vision for the agency remains unchanged: He wants the company to be a premier resource for strategic thinking combined with the kind of creative excellence that gets brands noticed and generates results.

“I think the Addy Awards were proof that this idea of being strategic and creative together is working. That was a bit of a defining moment in our very recent history that I think bodes well for our future,” he commented.

Devon said he’s motivated simply by the opportunity to do good creative work. The company’s recent creative assignment for American Eagle Outfitters was a “blast” because it was a high-profile project, but small local projects are equally fulfilling, he said.

“We have a local client who is a real estate developer who gives us credit with knowing what we’re doing strategically and creatively, so he’s very good about letting us steer the creative process,” he explained.

“With a client like that, we feel creatively fulfilled, and we’re also meeting his needs. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a small client or a large client, as long as we’re able to deliver creatively.”

As Devon sees it, only a small portion of the ad agencies operating in the local market are “really geeked” about doing great creative work, and Grey Matter Group is one of them. He believes the company is competitive on a national level in terms of the quality it delivers.

Devon’s talents extend beyond the field of advertising to the field of music. His hobby is songwriting. He has a recording studio in his basement and is currently helping a friend produce a CD. A few years ago, he headed a band known as Fiction Switch. He entered some of the songs he had written for the band in two national contests: the John Lennon Songwriting Contest and the Billboard Magazine Songwriting Contest. He won recognition for his songwriting talents in both competitions.   

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