Forbes: Chicago Women
Business Leaders

Gerard: The human side of branding and business success

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The room crackles with her energy and enthusiasm when she walks in. It’s a relaxed intensity, if that’s possible to imagine. It puts you at ease rather than keying you up. When she gets down to business, she doesn’t dominate. She steps back. Lets her people take over.

Carolyn Gerard’s genius is people. Her interest in them. Her talent for perceiving what they need to be happy. That, and her drive to be the best.

Talent at an early age

It started years ago, when she was hired as a student to help out around the design firm that served the company her father led as president. She did filing, proofreading, answered phones. Then someone asked her to try her hand at cold calling to develop business for the firm.

She was just a kid, really, but she did some research, developed a list, found out whom to call, and within a few weeks had meetings scheduled for the firm’s principal at three of Chicago’s largest companies to discuss their annual reports.

It’s her experience here that planted the seeds for her unique approach, and it’s here she met her future business partner and husband, designer Kenton Gerard.

A different view of client success

Just like in any firm, Carolyn and Kenton will tell you that they measure their company’s success by the success of their clients. But to Carolyn, that means focusing first on helping the individual client succeed. Kenton explains, “Under Carolyn’s leadership, we’ve grown by spending more time than most agencies getting to know our clients personally, seeking to understand how they like to work, looking to find ways to make them happy that they hired us and striving to deliver results that make them shine.”

Doing more with less

A big part of that is award-winning work in a wide range of branding and marketing projects for clients like OfficeMax, Tellabs, Elmhurst Memorial Healthcare and Navistar. Equally important is the Gerard agency’s keen awareness of the economic times we live in. “Our mantra here is ‘Do more with less,’” says Carolyn. “We’re not necessarily the low-cost provider. The level of talent we bring to the table isn’t cheap. It’s just that we always look for ways to over-deliver within our budgets.”

This attitude extends to other aspects of budget management. Unlike the vast majority of creative agencies, Gerard does not believe in marking up expenses. “That 20 percent does nothing to advance our clients’ goals,” says Carolyn. “I decided that we needed to act less like a vendor and more like a partner. And in these times of tight budgets, eliminating the markup makes a significant positive impact on the value we’re able to deliver.”

Quote MarksGerard is the best company that I’ve worked with in my 20-plus years of working with agencies. I know that Carolyn and her team are going to make me look good, every time. And they do.”
Rock Fraire Senior Director of Brand Strategy, OfficeMax
The human side of excellence

Carolyn GerardFocusing on serving people rather than just clients has been a huge factor in the steady growth and success at Gerard. But not the only one. The people-first approach is also evident within the culture of the agency. People here are happy. Empowered. Passionate and loyal to each other.

Carolyn explains her philosophy as an employer. “I would rather be a leader than a manager, she says. “Set the vision and direction, hire great people and turn them loose. When you trust good people, they bloom.”

And they don’t leave. Just four employees have left the firm in the 20 years Gerard has been in business. At the office, on walls and shelves filled with creative awards, you’ll see a number of “Best Places to Work” plaques recognizing the company.

The bottom line

But before you get too warm and fuzzy, Carolyn—and anyone else you talk to at Gerard—will remind you that this is a business. “There’s always a bottom line,” she says. “And it has to be excellence. Quality. Results. That’s what makes our clients look good, the only thing. It’s what motivates us, and we know that delivering the best results is the only way we’ll continue to thrive.”

From integrated marketing campaigns to websites and multimedia, print ads to brand strategy and corporate identity, one look at the work on Gerard’s website gives you the impression that Gerard is a firm that will continue to thrive for a long time to come.