“Oh?” I ask, wondering how a person goes from zero to black. “What happened?”
It’s clear to anyone who’s ever been in the presence of one of Rick Parker’s flaming button downs that this Art Direction department head is far more than your everyday “ad nerd.” In fact, there’s not much that Rick is not. A self-proclaimed “oversized flower child,” he has gone from airbrushing the sides of carnival rides to playing bagpipes at the Queen’s Golden Jubilee.
Although his father and grandfather were both in the advertising industry, Rick never felt pressured to follow suit [Rick hates suits]. He learned the basic functions of print production from his grandfather, an accomplished printmaker, and became so proficient that he twice went to the National Vocational Industrial Clubs of America Competition. One year, he took home bronze and the other, a bad hangover, but both were great memories. Still, the industry seemed frighteningly corporate to the carny kid who just wanted to rock.
At the age of 16, Rick started drawing caricatures and airbrushing t-shirts and vending machines at local carnivals. When he grew tired of making money for other people, he took it upon himself to start an independent airbrushing operation at Six Flags Over Georgia, the same operation that is still going strong today.
“I grew up fast but matured slowly. I’m not even sure the maturity process is over yet.”
Rick gives a signature chuckle and grabs his beard.
While his carny days may have been short-lived, the carnival served a surprisingly significant role in Rick’s journey to Portfolio Center. One day, while Rick was drawing caricatures, a man stopped to watch and handed him a Portfolio Center brochure. Having never heard of the place, Rick stuffed the brochure in his pocket until he could find the nearest trashcan.
After a wild period of less painting and more partying, Rick decided to go back to school to hone his skills and pursue a more sustainable career. As he was driving down West Peachtree Street, on his way to apply to a different Atlanta art school, Rick spotted the same icon that he had seen on the brochure months before, this time standing tall against the Buckhead skyline. Be it fate or coincidence, Rick was intrigued.
He climbed the stairs to the top floor of the Center Stage building, the original Portfolio Center location, and was greeted by the admissions director, who happened to be same man who had approached him that day at the carnival. To make things more interesting, the dean at the time had been a judge at the national vocational competition the year that Rick took home bronze and had also had his eye on him for several years.
“I’m pretty sure he actually said, ‘I’ve been watching you,’ which was totally creepy because I had never seen the dude in my life. But I knew from that moment that this was no coincidence.”
Rick signed the papers then and there and started at Portfolio Center the next quarter as an illustrator.
Since graduation, Rick has been back to PC three times as an instructor. Working with students after spending time in the professional realm has offered him a unique perspective into the direction of the industry.
“What has stayed the same is the vibe, the chaos and the energy. The innocence of the student world creates a pure, electric environment and a creative flow that jaded professionals have lost. I’m in a more creative environment here – even doing wall hangings – than I am at any agency. I’ve just never been able to shake this place.”
As he takes another sip of his medium roast, I get a glimpse of the Celtic tattoo peeking from underneath the sleeve of his Harley-Davidson T-shirt.
In between teaching stints, Rick has worked at more than 11 different companies in six different cities. In all his moves, he says Cincinnati was both his favorite place to live and the place he least expected to like. In fact, Rick says he would probably still be there today if it weren’t for the cold weather and distance from his family. Although his roots are now firmly planted in Atlanta soil, he admits that three years in Madrid could probably change his mind.
Rick’s willingness to move put him on the fast track to success, advancing his career and building a book that Ogilvy himself would envy. However, he does say there are some things he would do over again if given the chance.
“My mindset was to always follow the job. If the job was good, you took it and dealt with everything that followed. I wouldn’t recommend that today. Personal life is a very big part of your self esteem and happiness. I made great friends throughout the process, but I woke up one morning and was like, what the hell am I doing in Baltimore? I’m a Southern kid!”
If Rick has learned one thing, it’s that a good agency doesn’t always mean a good job and that, just because a company may be the flavor of the week, it doesn’t mean you should always make the purchase.
“It’s about the people and the environment. I tell students to go into everything with their eyes wide open. If I smell a poisonous agency, I’ll warn them.”
Rick made many of his moves alongside the same copywriting partner he met as a student at Portfolio Center, demonstrating the importance of relationships in school and work.
“Our friendship made our professional work that much stronger. We’d buy a 12 pack of cheap beer, usually Schaefer, and concept until the wee hours of the morning.”
When it comes to office space, he prefers the grease-stained walls of a garage over any fancy, highly-designed corporate lounge. “I like dank, industrial areas. The smell of gasoline and concrete. Knowing I can spill a cup of coffee and not ruin somebody’s expensive carpet. I’m also really uncomfortable around pointy objects.”
He taps the corner of his desk and winces.
Rick received a diploma in Education for Ministry from The University of the South School of Theology, while he pursued the Anglican priesthood, which, he makes it a point to mention, doesn’t require celibacy. He’s been fascinated with the questions of religion since the age of seven or eight and cites it as one of his three major interests, along with art and ridiculous stunts.
“I’m definitely not your ordinary religious sort, and I’m pretty sure the average religious person is convinced I’m going to Hell.”
If Rick does go to Hell, it will likely be on the back of a Harley. An officer in the Atlanta Chapter of the Harley Owners Group, Rick is a motorcycle enthusiast and last year checked off a venture on the bucket list of all hog heads – the South Dakota Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. With over 750,000 motorcyclists in one town for two weeks, Rick describes the trip as “a magical voyage into the rip-roaring raucous world of Wild West insanity.”
He takes this time to show me a blog he created to document the journey and the characters he met. Ask him about “Crazy Mike.”
In addition to Bibles and bikes, Rick also plays the classical piano and the Great Highland bagpipes, sings baritone in his church choir, and is an accomplished archer.
Having trained under a colonel in US army, who learned his techniques during the Korean War, Rick longed for Olympic gold. When puberty hit, girls and cars, or “fumes and perfumes,” came into play and he lost focus. Now looking at the 11 bows decorating his living room walls, he kicks himself thinking about how many girls and cars he could’ve snagged as an Olympic athlete.
“That’s kind of when you want to punch your 15-year-old hormones in the face.”
Although Rick credits music as having the most influence on the way he creates, he says that it’s not the hobbies themselves that are important, but that every creative person has a lust for life and a desire to learn.
“Get into racing cars, horseback riding, painting… go sing, go become a fly fisherman. Develop passions. This is the only life we get. I was that kid who got fingerprints on everything. I’m still that kid. I want to touch everything in the room. I know how to rebuild my car, not because I’m a mechanic, but just because I want to be able to.”
The same applies to advertising, he says. Art directors and writers should not have to write code, for example, but they should have at least a basic knowledge of it so that they can understand what it takes for developers to bring their ideas to life.
“If you live that way, you can talk a lot more knowledgeably than if you live your life between the covers of an ad annual.”
Rick may not dwell inside an ad annual, but he has certainly been featured in enough. With spreads in publications like Art Direction Magazine and Print Regional, he has more than 40 ADDY, TELLY and EFFIE Awards to his name, and was voted Best in Show at the Portfolio Center Alumni Awards. Needless to say, Rick’s bows and arrows are in good company on the wall.
For Rick, the rewards are not in awards. He says that the desire to create often eclipses what is best for the client and that elevating the creative possibilities of a brand can be a tricky process. Every client is able to move at his own pace. The result may not end up exactly where the creative saw it going, but it may far surpass where the client thought it could go – and that’s gratifying.
“At the end of the day, it’s all about that relationship. I’m not in the business of offending people for awards. You can’t be a bully. I have been brought to tears watching a client being bullied and not being able to do anything about it. It’s frustrating and it’s wrong.”
The most rewarding experience of Rick’s career [besides teaching the remarkable students of PC, of course] came in the form of a recommendation letter written by the Tennessee Department of Transportation to another prospective client on the behalf of Rick’s agency.
“I’ve never received a greater honor. It was so much better than a box of One Show pencils. That is what the business is all about.”
So what’s left for the man who’s done it all? Rick still wants to run with the bulls in Pamplona, but says it may not be the most rational decision at his age. However, it’s become pretty clear that Rick has never been a slave to reason. He also wants to take the Trans-Siberian railroad from Russia to China and ride an elephant into the jungles of Thailand to stay with the Tanglick people.
“If I get those done, I really will be out of ideas.”