Building a creative agency legacy

By MiresBall

MiresBall Brand Design Creative Agency

A conversation about opportunities that open doors, fostering long-lasting client relationships, and building a legacy.

Host of Journey Map podcast, Dave Hale, recently invited MiresBall principal John Ball to discuss life in the creative agency world over the last three decades.

As reflections often do, the conversation led back to family: the influence of parents and grandparents in a career journey and the words that live long after they have left.

It traveled cross country from John’s early days in San Diego, to art school in Colorado, into the heart of Manhattan, and back—with a detour into his lifelong music obsession and getting a project approved by a Beatle.

Listen on Apple Podcasts >

This conversation originally aired on Journey Map. Edits to the following transcription were made for the sake of brevity or clarity.

DAVE HALE, HOST: Welcome to Journey Map, the Craft & Crew podcast where we dive deep into the professional, and oftentimes very personal, journeys of leading entrepreneurs, marketers, creatives, and technologists. John Ball of MiresBall, thank you for joining us today. You said that you’ve been living in San Diego since the 5th grade. What is it for you about the city of San Diego that has kept you for most of your life?

JOHN BALL: I’ve left a couple times, to go to school and later to work in New York for a few years. But I always came back. It is just the loveliest place to live. The climate, the relaxed ambience of San Diego. It’s a wonderful place to live. If you can do your work here, there’s nothing better in my opinion.

DAVE: And you do some wonderful work in San Diego that we’re going to get into today. First, let’s go back to that 5th grader. What were you like at that time? Were you interested in design? What were your passions at that stage of life?

JOHN: Most of us who become graphic designers probably liked to draw as a kid, and I was no different. What might be a little interesting is I would find myself drawing things like maps. I probably always had this slightly technical or infographic mentality about that. As you go along in school, you’re taking art classes. I found I was less interested in pure art classes and more in the graphic arts where you’re doing screen printing and photography and things like that. Also, for a period of time, I was a huge comic book fan. There was one point in time I thought I could draw for Marvel Comics or something. But at a certain point you realize, “Oh, I can’t draw as well as some of the others can.” You move along. Ultimately going to art school was what really clued me in to what a graphic designer could be.

DAVE: I grew up in a place where there’s only 1,600 people. It’s so important for people to expand their horizon, especially if you’re exceptionally talented at something. Being exceptionally talented at something in a town of 1600 people, you can develop a big ego quickly. Then, you take a step out into a larger market and realize that you are a D-. Two things can happen then: retreat or rise to the occasion. You spent a couple of years in New York, the mecca for designers and creatives.

JOHN: It was a great experience. My future wife was in school there. I had been working in San Diego for 8, 9 years, so had a little experience, but still working on a fairly small scale. I took it as an adventure — I’ll go to New York! — and was there for two years. What an eye-opening experience, and I think it shaped a lot of things for me. I got a job at a design firm back in the days of printed annual reports. Companies had to send a report to all their shareholders. It was a big deal. There were SCC deadlines, and it was an intense experience of doing these documents with all the financials on a rigid deadline. Here I am in New York, in my late 20s, and the folks I worked for are taking me to these meetings in all these midtown Manhattan towers. I sat there, and I just didn’t know how to be in that conversation. But it was really shaping. It told me there were things beyond graphic design that I needed to be better at understanding. There’s a bigger picture here that I need to be better at understanding. Take in a larger vision. That experience of working, and the experience of just being in New York, and all the super energy there, it was a great formative experience. It really taught me a lot.

DAVE: When you went to college, what was your plan? What was your academic experience, and what did you think you would wind up doing at the other end of it?

JOHN: My academic experience actually wasn’t academic. In my last year of high school, I was deeply into graphic arts, called commercial arts at the time. I graduated high school at 17, and two weeks later I was in art school five days a week. One class a day for five hours. One day is typography and one day is life drawing and one day is color, surrounded by people just like me. It was great. I had found this thing where I belonged. Although, with a couple of people in the class who were talented illustrators, I quickly realized I wasn’t. So I focused on typography and immersed myself in that. Two years later, straight through, without a single academic class, I graduated. High school English was my last academic class.

DALE: While attending that education, what would you say was an experience that you had that you are reminded of? The lesson that stands out?

JOHN: There is one that happened towards the end. There was a class where we produced real projects for clients. The project was the cover of a local community college catalog. My design was the winner of that, the one we produced. It was a photograph of the building. I remember bringing it back to the instructor, and had the type on there, and the type wasn’t lined up with some aspect of the building or something. And he questioned me on that, and I said, “Oh, why would I do that?” And he said, “Well, that’s ALL it has going for it. If you don’t do that, what else is there?” That was a clue that every little thing makes it what it is—and can make it better.

DAVE: I tell my kids this mantra that the difference between good and great is all in the subtlest of details. There are so many people who are good at what they do, and so few people who are truly great. It’s in the obsessiveness about the minutiae that separates.

JOHN: For those who know me, I’m well known to eagle-eye the details. I also realized that I wasn’t always going to know in advance which of those details were going to make a difference and which ones weren’t. So, I decided I would do them all, because I wouldn’t know till later which ones really mattered. If you don’t know, you better just do them all and make sure you’re covered.

DAVE: Did you cofound the agency, or did you join?

JOHN: I joined about a year after it was formed, quickly working my way to be instrumental in the business. Where things really took off for us was in the mid 90s. We got a project from a large Fortune 100 tech company; and afterwards, they invited us to compete for their annual report. I had done that work in New York, so it was natural for me to lead that. We won the project. It was another transformative experience, presenting to their senior leadership. That was the start of a 20-year client relationship with that company that took me all over the world, from Africa and the Middle East on photo shoots and trade show work in China and Europe.

DAVE: Since that transformative experience, have there been others? Something that you look back on and say, “Wow, had that thing not happened, the rest wouldn’t have happened.”

JOHN: If we hadn’t won that competition to do the annual report, it would’ve been a dead end. In those days, the annual report was highly visible throughout the company. People started asking, “Who did that?” Soon, we were very visible within that that corporation. Other folks called, and we spread like wildfire throughout that company. It became a major part of our business for a long time and helped to build our creative agency.

DAVE: You’ve had about a dozen-year working relationship with Shure, the audio brand. What I see behind you is a bit of a record collection. Are you an audiophile?

JOHN: I’m probably an uninformed audiophile. And a big shout out to Shure—if I sound good at all today, it’s thanks to the Shure microphone that I’m using right now. I’ve always been a huge music fan. The first time I bought a vinyl record, I took my mom’s car before I had a driver’s license and drove to buy a record. When we were approached by Shure, that was a thrill of a lifetime. A dream client. As a company, they focus on the minutiae when developing products. It was a natural fit to work together, and it’s been a wonderful relationship. We have good friends there and have had great experiences. We’ve been backstage during some big concerts and photo shoots with both well-known and lesser-known musicians. A couple years ago, we designed commemorative microphone packages. There was a Paul McCartney edition and The Who edition. That was a thrill—how often do you get your work approved by a Beatle?

DAVE: What maintains these long-standing relationships overtime?

JOHN: In our industry, client engagements are often short—so we’re deeply proud of our longstanding relationships. It goes back to having their interests at heart. Things may not always work out the way we want them to, so bending a bit is key. We are passionate about the work we do, but we’re also passionate about the relationship. Sometimes those two things pull you in different directions, and that’s a tricky thing to navigate. There are three legs of the stool that are important for us. The first one is creating a good experience for the client. We want them to walk away feeling great about whatever happened. I prioritize that at the top. Right behind that, the second stool is doing work that we’re proud of and excited about. And the third stool is creating a financially sustainable business. I look at them in that order.

DAVE: In my partnership, there are three of us who own the business. Each brings a fundamental belief that is in contradiction with the others. That is what makes our partnership work. For me, relationships matter more than anything else. Your work could be a six out of 10, but if the relationship is 10 out of 10, you’ll have the business. My partner, Chad, is the inverse: all that matters is that we do great work and everything else is secondary. And our operational partner, Phil, is about running a good business. There are lots of people in our industry who don’t run a good business, and Phil sees that as what’s most important. Our success is built on this dynamic.

What are you most proud of through your accomplishments with MiresBall?

JOHN: I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished, the body of work, as well as the relationships we’ve built. That all has to mean something. The culture we’ve developed. The people on our team—what they’re learning and their experience working here. I want that to continue somehow. I look at people like Milton Glaser who worked till he was 90. Not sure that’s me. I’ve got a good number of years doing this, and it’s as if I’ve finally figured it out. You’re always learning new things. It’s not that things are always easy, but they’re not as hard as they were at one point. All that experience is powerful. I know how to navigate this now, and I don’t want to waste that.

DAVE: I think about legacy a lot. I am 34 and I’ve been doing this since I was 21. Mid-thirty is the average age that people start agencies. Now I feel like it’s retirement time, after a dozen years in a mildly grueling industry. We have some excellent leaders on our team, and at what point do we let them take over and run things? Do you think about legacy?

JOHN: I do. We’ve had so many people over the years who have come through our office and gone on to do great things. Hopefully they’ve taken a little bit from us, learned a bit along the way. I’m proud of all the people who we’ve had with us at different times. I also think back to people who helped me along the way. One of my first jobs was working in house at an electronics company in my early twenties. I didn’t know anything, and after a year or two, my boss said, “You need to work somewhere where there are people better than you. People who challenge you.” That was one of the best things somebody could have done for me. I did go and work for another firm that was full of great designers. I learned a ton there, and it sent me in the right direction. I hope to have a positive impact and have people who go on to do their own thing, but take something from how we do things.

DAVE: My mom passed away about eight months ago. She had a big life as an early childhood educator. She owned a daycare where 200-300 hundred kids passed through her care. When she passed, the sheer volume of outpouring from most of those kids was wild. For a few weeks, there was an intense feeling about the legacy this person has. Now, eight months later, I realize that legacy is hard to keep intact, even for someone with a big personality.

JOHN: I have a similar experience. My grandfather was an architect and builder in a small town in Kentucky. He built homes for people, the church, worked there his whole life. Ten years after he passed away, someone came up to me and said he worked for my grandfather. He said, “He was a perfectionist. If someone put the cabinets in wrong, he’d pull them out and redo them at his own expense.” That was the legacy of somebody who had the right values and did things right, no matter what.

DAVE: I started writing this idea for a book. The concept was “family business.” We had gone through an intense three-year business planning exercise that matured the company and got us in a great rhythm with a very clear vision and execution plan. Finally, after a decade of building a business, we had 10-year, three-year, one-year, and quarterly plans detailing who’s accountable for what. Going through that exercise, I realized we do all these things in business that we don’t do in our lives. I was on this mission to bring business planning to family life. Legacy comes through codification, and businesses are great at that. People in general are not.
Next few years, what does that look like?

JOHN: We’ve got a lot of momentum right now and are working on a lot of cool things. I also have personal projects that I’ll get to one day. Right now, I’m excited to keep our team together and doing what we’re doing.

DAVE: Our producer Laura found you from your recent three silver awards and three honorable mentions in the Graphis Design Annual 2022 competition. Are you finding the momentum that you’re experiencing is coming on the heels of some of those awards?

JOHN: We’ve always done decently well getting recognition in various award programs, shows, and books. That’s always been part of our strategy. These all contribute to our profile. It’s nice to get that right. It makes you feel good, and it makes the team feel good. It’s an energizing experience to be recognized. Maybe it goes back to the fact that I finally figured it out, and the momentum is coming from that. I finally unraveled the mystery, and I know what to do now. I don’t want to waste that.

DAVE: Very inspiring. It makes me want to push through and stop getting distracted by these silly side projects and legacy worries, and just keep going and figure it out. Mr. John Ball of MiresBall, thank you so much for joining us today. We’re going to include links in our show notes where people can find you, learn more about the agency, and check out the amazing work that you do.

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Journey Map podcast is the audio experience that deconstructs the career paths taken by some of the world’s most interesting people. Hosted by Dave Hale. Produced by Craft&Crew.

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