Growth from Within

Eugene Morris’ firm was nearing death’s door. Billings at Chicago-based E. Morris Communications Inc. had plummeted 41.6% to $18.7 million in 2002, causing the company to fall off the BE ADVERTISING AGENCIES list. Making matters worse, automaker GM retired its Oldsmobile division, which represented 40% of the firm’s business. As EMC hemorrhaged clients and sank deep in the red, nearly half of the firm’s employees had to be let go.

Some entrepreneurs might have called it quits. Some might have given in to the trend to sell or partner with a general-market agency. But 65-year-old Morris chose another route. He spent the next two years scraping and clawing his way back into the black and back — after a one year hiatus — onto the BE 100S. He did this by landing new clients, keeping a tight lid on the company’s books, and, most significantly, building new business with existing clients to get a bigger slice of their advertising dollars. From 2003 to 2004 billings rebounded to the tune of 38% — despite continued weakness in the industry.

Morris’ work is far from over though. In addition to growing his own business, he is positioning himself as an agent of change by leading the charge to form the Association of Black-Owned Advertising Agencies Inc. The organization, composed of 10 advertising agencies and marketing communication firms, hopes to leverage their collective power to further their success in the advertising industry.

For turning his company around, repositioning it to play in the general market by handling a range of high-quality public relations, advertising, and marketing assignments, Morris demonstrates the true spirit of entrepreneurship, earning EMC the distinction of the 2005 BLACK ENTERPRISE Advertising Agency of the Year.

Success is often a rocky road and it doesn’t get much bumpier than EMC’s. GM’s decision to abandon its Oldsmobile line left EMC in a serious bind. “It’s hard to replace 40% of your business. Not only did we lose our largest client, but we lost some smaller clients — so we basically lost over 50% of our business,” says Morris. In the African American marketing segment, hard times always “weed out the pretenders,” he says. “When times get tough you know the people who said they had a black commitment are going to be gone, and we had a couple of clients like that.” Then, with clients jumping ship, 9-11 came along, which had a devastating impact on EMC.

With layoffs looming, things looked down, but Morris was not out. “On a business level, I’ve never had to do anything as painful as cut 25 people. In a business this small, you know how many kids they have, whether they are a single mother … that’s heart wrenching,” says Morris. “I didn’t have a good night’s sleep for months knowing that I had to reduce the staff. I kept thinking maybe something will happen, let’s wait; I waited a lot longer than I should have.”

Fortunately, cost controls and other financial measures helped the company stay afloat without having to sell or