It’s perhaps only appropriate that Rick and Liza Looser are being mum and low-key about the 30th-anniversary celebration for their global brand strategy, integrated communications and business development firm, The Cirlot Agency. After all, the Flowood-based company has rather quietly gone about its business, partly due to the nature of its work and the types of clients Cirlot represents.
However, it is also a reflection of the Loosers themselves. The firm’s headquarters on Airport Road are well-appointed yet conservative, offering an ambiance that says success without yelling it. And the Loosers match the decor — Rick in his neat pink button-down shirt open at the neck and Liza in a stylish, understated black dress. Both seem relaxed and confident, yet humble.
“People ask me all the time if working here is like on the show Mad Men,” said president and COO Rick Looser. He added with a grin: “That always makes me laugh.”
“I heard a coach or someone say one time that if you’re doing what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life,” said Liza Looser, who started the firm with less than $100 in her pocket. “I sometimes can’t believe I’m getting paid to do this.”
The Loosers’ reluctance to talk about their success is more noteworthy when the firm’s history is revealed, a story of meager beginnings, love and marriage, team work and a lot of determination.
It begins with Liza, a Mississippi native and graduate of Mississippi University for Women and the Harvard Business School. She worked at The Clarion-Ledger before going to what was then the state’s largest advertising agency and spending time in the political arena during the Reagan/Bush era working as communications director of the Mississippi Republican Party.
In 1984, Liza decided to go her own way, and with a $78 tax return check launched The Cirlot Agency. Her last boss told her she would never make it in the advertising industry. For a while, Liza wondered if he was right as she turned long hours working alone from her home.
“I was meeting with my clients during the day and doing the work myself at nights. Sometimes I would go 48 hours without sleeping,” she remembered.
However, Liza persevered, and four years later she would find a partner. Rick grew up in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, forging a career in the public relations field, particularly in the area of crisis management.
The couple met at an American Advertising Federation Conference and struck an immediate bond. Rick flagged down a photographer at the event and told him, “Take a picture of the night we met so I can show our children.”
“I wonder how many times he had used that line,” Liza said with a laugh.
At first, there were no plans for Rick to join Cirlot. However, they quickly realized that Liza’s brand strategy skills and Rick’s PR/crisis management background were a great fit. In fact, it would be key in the Cirlot’s watershed moment.
One day, the firm received a phone call from Ingalls Shipbuilding with a problem. The largest employer in Mississippi had a brochure project that was in trouble. Could Cirlot help?
The team scrambled and got a proposal together. It would have represented a six-digit project, but at the last minute Rick, a 2009 inductee into the Mississippi Business Hall of Fame, began to worry that the cost was too high. So, they managed to get the price down to under $100,000, though Rick was still concerned about sticker shock.
“We laid out our proposal, and they loved it,” Rick said. He cringed when they flipped the page to see what Cirlot was asking. “I thought, ‘Oh, gosh, here we go.’ They glanced at it, and said great. The contract negotiation took all of 10 seconds. I thought, “Oh, what have I left on the table?’”
“I remember one person said, ‘I can’t believe you can do this for this little bit of money,’” Liza said with a laugh.
The Loosers can laugh about that now because it proved a turning point for Cirlot. The firm subsequently landed Ingalls as a full client, and when Northrop Grumman purchased the shipbuilder, Cirlot was retained. That led to more defense clients such as ATK, Bell Helicopter and Elbit Systems of America.
A short list of other clients includes Sanderson Farms, Mississippi Power Co., Entergy, Mississippi World Trade Center, BancorpSouth and The Taylor Group.
Some of the firm’s noteworthy projects includes working with NATO during the Bosnia crisis to raise awareness of the danger of unexploded landmines; serving as the lead agency in the 2008 presidential debate at the University of Mississippi; and the creation of Mississippi Believe It!, a campaign that highlighted Mississippi’s achievements and people and was delivered to every public and private school, as well as every college and university in the state, for free, representing a donation of $500,000 in time and resources.
Over its 30-year history, The Cirlot Agency has won more than 1,000 awards and is now noted as one of the top three defense agencies in the country.
As impressive, the firm that employs a staff of approximately 30 workers and operates an office in Washington, D.C., has never laid off a single employee, even in 2008 when the recession hit. Cirlot offers a three-week sabbatical to all employees who have been with the agency 20 years or more. The firm just awarded its sixth sabbatical.
“We have been blessed with great people,” Rick said. “We had our best year ever in 2013, and we’re on pace to better that this year. Having an experienced team is crucial to our success.”
Those people will take center stage during the Cirlot’s 30th birthday celebration, set for Aug. 14 at the River Hills Club in Jackson. Passed that, the Loosers are silent, though they are quick to say that they have their sights set on tomorrow, not yesterday.
“We have no long-term debt, and we’re still having fun,” said Liza of the firm’s future.
For more on The Cirlot Agency, visit www.cirlot.com.