When Charles Marshall co-founded Signature Advertising & Marketing Solutions with Mark Henry in 1994, the two were the firm’s only employees.
Eighteen years later, the agency boasts more than 40 team members, a slew of industry awards and a portfolio of large, Memphis-based companies.
That’s why Marshall recently helped guide a major renovation at Signature’s office at 1755 Kirby Parkway. The firm purchased the 33,049-square-foot building in 2007, investing in the space it had called home for years.
“It was something we wanted to do for a long time,” Marshall said. “It’s funny, we design things for big clients, but we’re a terrible client for ourselves. By knocking down walls and giving people access to each other, it’s really paid a lot of dividends already, just in how our people interact and how they work together. It’s also gone a long way to helping redefine who Signature is.”
As chief idea officer, Marshall helps oversee the creative output of Signature. The firm’s big-name clients include FedEx, Hilton, International Paper, ServiceMaster and Morgan Keegan, which was Signature’s first-ever client and is now a subsidiary of Raymond James Financial Inc.
“I try to poke holes in some of the strategic thinking that goes on, and then I wind up helping put out fires when they occur,” Marshall said. “I came up as a copy writer, so I still get the opportunity to get my hands dirty from time to time.”
Marshall graduated from the University of Memphis with an English degree before working at Memphis Magazine. He had some contract technical writing at FedEx Corp. before joining the in-house marketing staff at Goldsmith’s department stores as a copy writer and then Marsha McDonald & Associates as creative director.
But one of Marshall’s favorite past times is that of a comic book writer. He’s written more than 100 comic books for Marvel, the group behind The Amazing Spider-Man, Iron Man, Hulk and X-Men.
“I was a fan growing up and I just got pulled into writing a few,” Marshall said. “At the time I left the last agency, I was making more money writing comic books than I was working as a creative director. It actually helped make the transition to Signature a little easier because I didn’t have to go without a paycheck for years.”
To Marshall, generating creativity for comic book writing has its parallels with strategic thinking for a television commercial or print ad.
“It’s all words and pictures and telling a story,” Marshall said. “It’s about holding someone’s interest and moving a narrative along.”
As far as the next chapter of Signature is concerned, Marshall is focused on growing the digital side of the business, including work on websites, Web applications and motion graphics. It’s an area in which the agency invested heavily in early on and what Marshall deems a big factor in its success.
“We’d like to continue building up our resources in that area and make sure that we’re up for any challenge or any opportunity that a client puts in front of us,” Marshall said. “Those are the things that we’re being tasked with now and we want to be as strong or stronger than anyone in that world.”
In fact, Signature is more focused on results than recognition. The firm has received an array of ADDYs, all of which are housed in an unusual spot at the newly renovated office at Poplar Avenue and Kirby.
“We like to think of ourselves more as problem solvers who are focused more on results than awards,” Marshall said. “I told (that to) a prospective client in a meeting at our offices one time, and he said, ‘Well, I see you display your awards out in your lobby like everybody else.’ That afternoon, I went out and bought a big steel trashcan and that’s where all our awards have been ever since.”
Signature still enters the annual advertising awards “because creative people like to play in that world,” but as an agency, doesn’t take them too seriously.
“The clients and prospective clients that come by and see the trashcan full of awards, it’s a great conversation piece,” Marshall said. “But it makes a statement about something that’s pretty important to us as well.”