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Sizing up nearly three decades of creativity at Gard Communications

Sizing up nearly three decades of creativity at Gard Communications

It’s been close to 30 years since John Plymale first joined Gard Communications, but he still remembers his first day in the office as a burgeoning production artist and graphic designer in 1993.

“I remember being shown to my space – a tiny little nook outside the art director’s office. More of a shelf than a desk that hung at the intersection of two cubicle walls,” he says. “I remember everyone being really nice and welcoming. I also remember learning more in my first few weeks of agency life than I had learned in the previous year at school. Baptism by fire.”

Fast-forward three decades – including a five-year break from Gard to open and run Portland’s first dog daycare – and John is now Gard’s seasoned Creative Director, a title he’s held since 2006. A lot has changed in that time, both at Gard and across the entire creative industry. Gone are the days of working by hand with razor blades, wax and rubber cement on big “Mad Men”-style drafting tables. No longer are there daily print deadlines for the Oregonian or rush jobs delivered by messenger or FedEx.

But while the means may have changed, John says the end – along with his approach to creative work – has not.  

“The same basic rules apply,” he says. “People want to be entertained, informed and engaged.”

Heading into his 26th year with Gard, we asked John to reflect on his time here: why he left, why he came back, what he’s most proud of and what his dream project would be. (Hint: It involves lively song and dance.)

What first brought you to Gard 25 years ago?

Gard (then called Gard Strang Edwards & Aldridge) was looking for a production artist/entry-level graphic designer. They reached out to the dean of my school, and he recommended me for the job. I started out freelancing (before even finishing school) and the work increased enough that working in the office made sense, and they offered me a full-time position.

You left after seven years. Why did you leave?

I told (company founder) Brian Gard that if I was to ever leave it would be to start my own business in the world of dogs (my other passion). I had big ideas. We ended up opening Portland’s first dog daycare in 1999 (with my wife at the time), and I would go and open it, head to work and then finish the day out there assisting dog training classes and closing up. They were 12-hour days for nearly two years. Business was so good that we decided to expand into another building, which I would run. Gard had bought Gerber Advertising, and as the two agencies were physically merging, I took it as my time to start out on my own. I guess you could also call it my 7-year itch.

What brought you back to Gard?

It was made clear to me that the door was always open for me to come back. I did freelance design from time-to-time during my years away. Those were the days when I never looked too far ahead, but I think it was always an option in the back of my mind. After five years, we decided to downsize the dog daycare. Shortly thereafter, a VP at Gard called me because a Senior Art Director was leaving and asked if I wanted my name thrown in the hat. Again, the timing was just right.

The very first piece John got to design himself. “My, how things have changed,” he says. “Good ol’ Copperplate font.”

What have been some of your most memorable clients and/or projects?

I started out working on car ads (Lexus, BMW and Cadillac) and show ads (Sportsmen’s, Home & Garden, etc.). That work made me thrive on deadlines. So they stand out. Then lots of work for OHSU as they rebranded, grew and expanded into neighborhood clinics and new service lines. Transportation Safety has always been near and dear to my heart. Coming up with new ways every year to say drive sober, buckle up, slow down and much more is a constant, fun creative challenge that gets me to get in the heads of our audiences and to drive positive change (no pun intended). Probably my favorite project is getting to write, produce and direct musicians for the Park Your Phone campaign for ODOT’s Distracted Driving program. And getting to shoot in Oregon’s beautiful forests for OFRI. But there’s so much, I could keep going.

What have been some of the biggest changes at Gard and in the industry?

Everything has changed. PDFs, digital cameras, remote video editing, computers that can handle the work without giving you the spinning wheel. I think it takes fewer people to do the same amount of work now because of advancements in technology. I do miss the tactile side of design sometimes, since the world is so digital now. The hands-on of artwork. The smell of a freshly printed piece at a press check. But it was great to get those traditional skills – it gave me the attention to detail that carried through to everything else.

What would you say you’re most proud of from your time here?

I’m proud of solving tough problems. Always working within some kind of box but pushing it to its limits to do the best work we can. I’m always proud of the work we’ve done with real people with incredible stories, like cancer survivors, and having them enjoy the experience as much as I do. I’m proud of helping to make small behavior changes for Transportation Safety that have moved the needle over the years. I’m proud of all the pro-bono work I’ve been able to do over the years for all kinds of amazing organizations. And I’m proud of making clients happy on a daily basis.

What kind of advice would you give to someone who is maybe just starting out at Gard?

I always say work at Gard is what you make it. If you have a passion, you can kind of carve your own path and there is always support for it. That the people who do well ask lots of questions and really dig in. And we’re always open to new ideas and new ways of doing things. Everyone’s ideas are valued, from process to creative, so don’t be afraid to speak up. It may spark something amazing.

After 25 years, what kinds of goals do you have for yourself at Gard?

I’m trying to focus more on lifting others up and letting go (of control) a bit. Obviously, I won’t be around forever, so I’m hoping to give more opportunities for growth in the creative area. I’m hoping to be able to add another creative team member at some point. I’m excited about doing new work for new clients, as well as always changing it up for those who have been with us for a long time. The collaboration, fresh ideas and new ways of doing things (with new technology and possibilities) always excites me.

Is there a dream project you would want to do but haven’t gotten to yet?

I’ve had an idea for a few years to create a full musical, bringing my knowledge of behavior change to my love of stage production. Coming soon (in the next decade, maybe?) to a middle school near you.