Russ Williams, CEO of Archer Malmo, has emerged as the most fluent advocate for the downtown core and the creative millennials who can shape its future.
It’s a role that surprised many people, but not those who have been paying attention.
After all, in the 15 years he has been at the helm of Archer Malmo, his marketing firm has been the equivalent of the canary in the coal mine as it recruited more and more talent to the downtown core at the same time that so many companies were moving out.
Williams’ strategy for “accelerating the downtown office market with a vibrant creative core,” is built on “three underlying economic truths”: 1) millennials will transform our economy, 2) creative millennials are essential to Memphis’ ability to compete, and 3) creative millennials are urban creatures.
Customarily, talk about creative talent comes from mayors, researchers, wonks, and economic development officials, and it dates back 13 years to when Memphis led the conversation. Then, Richard Florida, author of The Rise of the Creative Class, and urban expert Carol Coletta convened the Memphis Manifesto Summit, which in three days produced the priorities for cities competing for creative workers.
Unfortunately, the Summit did little to set in motion a serious, comprehensive plan to keep and attract creative workers, but Williams’ businesslike approach gives Memphis the chance to regain momentum. Today, millennials — larger than the Boomer generation — are driving everything in their paths, and in recognition of this fact, Williams says he launched his crusade for a vibrant downtown core populated by creative millennials.
His approach is equal parts urgency and strategy. One, he’s not taking on all of downtown, but the area bounded by Riverside, Madison, Second, and Gayoso. Two, he’s focused on the core, which is often overlooked as bordering neighborhoods get attention. And three, he’s building on the existing strengths of the 350 creative workers in the target area at companies like Sullivan Branding, Red Deluxe, StartCo., Lokion, and Archer Malmo.
In a speech several years ago to Leadership Memphis, Edward Glaeser, economist and author of Triumph of the City, said, “Regional economic growth is highly correlated with the presence of many small, entrepreneurial employers — not a few big ones. There is much to be said for the strategy of focusing on the quality of life that can attract smart, entrepreneurial people. The best economic policy may be to attract smart people and get out of their way.”
It is an opinion modestly echoed by Williams — named 2016 CEO of the Year by Inside Memphis Business and recipient this year of the American Advertising Federation’s top award. “We need to empower, encourage, and support creative millennials and get out of the way,” he says. “That’s been a big part of my success at Archer Malmo and it can be the same for Memphis. I’m saying that as a community and as a city as we try to make the right decisions and place the right bets, we have to put our chips down on this strategy. Memphis has affordability and accessibility, and just the right amount of funkiness and eccentricity. There is already early momentum and the tipping point could be closer than we think.”
To move toward that tipping point, Williams calls for moving Josh Horton of Creative Works to the target area to develop a co-working space where entrepreneurs, startups, and small business teams can produce the creative collisions that drive innovative breakthroughs. In Williams’ opinion, it is about “intentionally designing a community to attract creative millennials and the people to do that are creative millennials.”
The direct leadership of millennials is crucial, Williams says, because they are often frustrated by the lack of access and support they get in Memphis.
“Action removes doubt,” he says. “We’re not economic development officials and real estate developers, but we are ambassadors for the creative community. It’s about the power of action and taking actions that inspire others. We need a dense urban area where creative millennials spill out of their offices into pubs, speakeasies, and public spaces, and where they collide with their peers and bounce ideas off each other. If they are more visible in the urban core, and we have all these exciting young people filling up the core, it will get noticed and build on itself.”
More than anything else, it’s about our downtown taking charge of its own destiny. “Do we really have an alternative?” Williams asks. “We have to build a vibrant creative community in our urban core to compete in the new economy.”