ON Advertising has made its mark as one of the oldest, most reputable advertising agencies in the Southwest. Opening the doors on June 1, 1993, ON Advertising has developed and engaged memorable advertising campaigns for its clients and won various awards over the last three decades. As the company continues to grow, the owners and partners of the agency are reflecting on the path they’ve taken to arrive where they are today.
ON Ad Origins
The agency’s story officially began with owner Ron Meritt establishing a public relations firm in 1993.
“The company started on June 1st of 1993 as a public relations firm called NPR Public Relations. We were a PR firm focused on 501 (c) (3) nonprofit organizations. The company has gone through three rebrands in its 30-year history,” Meritt says.
At the time he was still working in television, so there had been plenty of work in balancing his on-air presence while also building his own venture. In 2002, the company changed its name to PRfect Media. Another important change was made around this time, when John Hernandez joined the company as a co-owner.
“It was March of 2002. Ron and I were working together at channel 5 and one day he said, ‘have you thought about getting out of the [television] business?’ I said ‘yes’,” Hernandez says.
“We talked about it a lot and put together a business plan and applied for an SBA loan, got the SBA loan and I went and quit my job right on the spot,” he adds.
At that point, the two owners were all in on their business and began working swiftly to grow the company’s service offerings for clients. This service expansion would later involve acquiring a social media company in 2018 and a PR firm in 2020 as well.
“As we continued to grow, our clients were asking us for different marketing and advertising services and it was at that time, we decided to expand and rebrand the company to a full-scale advertising agency,” Meritt says.
ON Advertising was officially incorporated as the agency’s latest rebrand in May 2013, a few years before these key acquisitions. As for the ON Ad brand name itself, John recalls the company being pigeonholed into a PR firm title and looking for a way to expand their overall image.
“I was sitting on the couch one day and I was going through some names and ideas in my head. ‘ON’ – it is active, you can play with the word, you can have fun with the name, you can do several different things with it, and create different sub-brands with it. I looked it up and it was available. I presented it to the team and everybody was like, ‘yeah, that’s great!’, so we just went with it,” Hernandez says.
“This will be it, we will stay ON Advertising. We’ve rebranded the company three times in 30 years and it doesn’t require anymore rebranding. We will maintain ON Advertising for the life of the company now.” Meritt says.
The third partner and final piece of the ON Ad puzzle came into place around 2018 when Eric Garcia officially joined as an owner and the Chief Creative Officer. While the company had been established for some time now, it was still an ambitious up-and-coming agency with room for change. Eric noticed this when he first visited the agency and had also noted that both current owners were looking for another equally creative leader.
“I remember John and Ron saying, ‘oh my god, we’ve been looking for a person like you forever.’ What they had was just amazing infrastructure and just amazing opportunities,” Garcia says.
He had also brought various years of experience with him, after previously operating his own agency based in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Eric joining the agency also meant that ON Ad’s ownership structure had to change again, in order to accommodate for the latest addition to the executive team.
“When Eric came aboard, we both sold shares of stock to him, so that we are now equal partners at 33 and one-third for each of us,” Meritt says.
Now that the Three Admigos had established themselves, Eric helped in welcoming another important team member to the agency.
“Darren Higgs. I brought him with me, he basically was my right-hand man when I had my agency in New Mexico,” Garcia says.
Current President & General Manager, Darren Higgs has played a key role in helping the agency evolve over the last few years and continues to be a reliable adviser for both clients and team members alike.
The ON Ad Building Process
As the primary owners operating the agency during its initial stages, John and Ron had many occasions in which they had to carry the workload themselves. Office space wasn’t always available either, and the two co-owners once had to work out of an extra room in a shared house.
“We started in the house that I was renting from Ron – a room there. I would literally wake up, get ready, walk to the next bedroom, and that was the office. We did everything. We had a video camera, we had editing equipment, we did all that stuff,” Hernandez says.
They reached an agreement on how the work would be shared, in order to accommodate their professional responsibilities at the time. Ron would temporarily stay on the air as a television meteorologist and John would undertake the main video production role while they built the company together.
“John had a background in videography and he had that kind of knowledge, he knew how to video edit. That’s why we changed the name to PRfect Media. We were still a PR firm but we added the word ‘media’, so we were also doing video work,” Meritt says.
“I learned how to do graphic design, I took some classes on that. We already knew how to write and pitch press releases since we came from the media, we literally did everything,” Hernandez says.
Once the two principal owners had built momentum within the company, they continued to welcome changes that could complement their agency. In this regard, the later addition of Eric’s expertise was a clear benefit for the organization and it helped them thrive in a new direction.
“When I came to ON Advertising, I was able to transfer a lot of my clients from New Mexico here to Arizona and not only continued to service but also expanded services to them. It was a huge win for everybody,” Garcia says.
Visions for the ON Ad Brand
The ON Advertising leadership team has also seen their individual visions for the agency manifest and change over time, while adapting to emerging opportunities along the way. A future concept for the company has existed since its early days and has helped in guiding both growth and development.
“Ron and I would talk about that a lot. We really didn’t want to get too big. We didn’t want to get so big that we didn’t know who our employees were. We didn’t want to get so big that we would lose contact with the clients,” Hernandez says.
The capability to handle various clients’ needs was always part of the main idea but being aware of taking on too many clients was also relevant. While expansion was essential, it would never come at the cost of treating clients like just another paycheck in the agency’s system.
“The same, common problem that we hear over and over is ‘I was treated like a number’ and when you’ve got a hundred employees and 60 or 65 accounts in the agency, that’s going to happen,” Meritt says.
“We’re not interested in really becoming that big, because we want to be able to always look our clients in the eye and talk to them and become friends with them and help them through whatever pain points they’ve got from a marketing and advertising standpoint,” he adds.
While excess growth wasn’t on the radar for ON Ad, the notion of upgrading was always necessary and part of the conversation, especially in the later years with a third partner being introduced.
“Honestly a lot of it was discovery, because it was kind of unfamiliar territory and I never had business partners before. I really didn’t know what to expect but the vision for the company was just simply to grow it, to really elevate their brand, our brand,” Garcia says.
Authenticity has served as a guiding principle for the partners, while assuring that the company’s leadership team prioritizes the needs of each important company stakeholder and employee.
“The three of us always tell each other, ‘none of us could ever do this by ourselves.’ We can not do it without the three of us working together all the time,” Hernandez says.
“As we became friends and business partners and started to mold – it’s not just my vision, it was the vision of two and then it was the vision of three,” Meritt says.
“In advertising and marketing you’re only as strong as your weakest link and that’s why we always look at how we can help our employees continue to grow personally and professionally,” he adds.
Advertising Changes in the Last 30 Years
Advertising and the shared methods of information delivery have changed plenty since ON Ad’s inception. Through the past 30-plus years, each partner has also witnessed the industry and its practices adjust to the nature of an ever-changing society.
“When I started, there was no email. I was having to put together letters, and then you mail the letters to clients. There was no instant messaging. So it’s changed a lot in 30 years,” Meritt says.
“You’re talking about 30 years ago when I was using a typewriter. We were mailing out press releases and everything was manual, to now, Artificial Intelligence,” he adds.
The 1990s may not seem like a very distant past, but the progress made since that era has emphasized the contrast between each passing decade’s main approach to advertising.
“We didn’t have social media. Even cell phones, they were just phones and that’s all they were for. We used to produce a lot of collateral materials. The interesting part about that is, we used to produce a lot of newsletters and mailers and other collateral,” Hernandez says.
“Now you need social media and video motion and graphics that integrate together, combined with digital advertising,” he adds.
The advertising design setting may also be prone to quicker disposal than it has been in previous years and good designs could be constantly disregarded as quick production becomes the new norm.
“It seems like advertising unfortunately has become more disposable, so good designs are sort of pushed to the side,” Garcia says.
“It’s just saturated with design. Evaluating the brand and continuing that momentum is constantly changing,” he adds.
What the Future Holds for ON Ad
The owners are forward-thinking in their approach to the advertising industry’s latest innovations. Although many things have changed in advertising, some proven methods and traditional channels will continue to be useful heading into the future.
“It’s interesting because there’s still a lot of traditional TV, radio, and not so much newspapers. Digital and the ability to do targeted digital advertising to specific demographics is really exciting and will continue to enhance in the future,” Hernandez says.
“We meet every week and we talk about everything and what’s coming up next. We really don’t see any limits to where we can go, as long as we maintain the integrity of the business, the integrity of our partnership, and the integrity of the way we do business,” he adds.
Technology is affecting many business sectors and advertising is no different in the sense that artificial intelligence has already become a hot topic within this space. From public online tools like Chat GPT, to upcoming and unknown AI applications, there is plenty to wonder about regarding advertising’s creative content processes.
“AI continues to enhance and grow, good or bad, we don’t know yet. It’s going to change the way we, as an ad agency, are going to do business moving forward. What does that change look like? I don’t have a finger on that yet and I don’t think anyone does right now,” Meritt says.
But, I am very excited about the possibilities of what AI can do for our clients in the future and for our industry as a whole,” he adds.
However, even the promise of AI’s advancement doesn’t mean that the human touch in advertising will become obsolete.
“Technology has always replaced some professions, but it cannot replace everything. You’re always going to need people that are creative, that can come up with something that AI will not be able to do,” Meritt says.
As a full-time professional artist, Eric Garcia knows very well that the creative aspect of advertising can be just as unpredictable and exciting, as it is important.
“I would say I’ve always loved the idea of really not knowing what’s around the corner and discovering it. That’s what keeps design interesting. Nothing is ever the same, although art has a tendency of repeating itself. Design is different, the reaction to various campaigns is different for each client,“ Garcia says.
More time will pass and ON Ad’s internal structure will remain stable against the shifting advertising space as its leadership continues to follow the guiding principles that have helped the agency achieve its present-day success.
“It’s all about communication. We’re in the communication business. That’s all we do, that’s what we do. We’ve got to communicate to each other, to our clients, to our vendors, to everyone around us, in order to get us from step A to step Z. Not only us as an agency, but our clients as well,” Meritt says.
ON Advertising is the largest Minority Owned Advertising Agency in the Southwest
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