Volume 43 | Number 2 | Fall 2013

Bill Drake: From 'Frat Guy' to 'Ad Man'

Fall 2013 Issue | By Chris Gabettas

On a hot July afternoon in Boise, it was cool inside the offices of Drake Cooper, Idaho's largest advertising agency. And it had little to do with the thermostat.

The décor in this former warehouse in Boise's trendy BoDo district is sleek, edgy and sustainable. Metal screens that look like hundreds of amoebas welded together grace the main work area. The letter slots in the mail room are made of recycled PVC pipe. And bicycles serve as "company cars" for quick errands around town.

The company vibe is teamwork, respect and collaboration. Don Draper, the ego-driven protagonist on AMC's "Mad Men," the hit television series about Madison Avenue's advertising industry in the 1960s, wouldn't last a day at Drake Cooper.

"We're definitely a 'please' and 'thank you' organization," said Bill Drake, agency founder, chairman and Idaho State University graduate.

In 3½ decades, he's managed to turn a one-man operation into one of the top advertising agencies in the Northwest with close to 30 employees and dozens of advertising awards. For the past two years, Outside magazine has voted Drake Cooper one of the best places to work in America based on company success, work-life balance and commitment to community. Outside ranked the agency 26th in 2012 and 11th this year.

Go East, Young Man

Drake left his hometown of Boise in 1963 to major in economics at ISU. He loved his social science classes so much that he ended up majoring in sociology and taking a minor in economics.

"I had a wonderful undergraduate experience," he said, noting the Pocatello campus was small, but rich in cultural opportunity. He saw the top music acts of the day and enjoyed dozens of foreign films and symphonies that made their way to Bengal Country.

Active in student life, Drake served as president of the Sigma Phi Epsilon Fraternity and chaired the student homecoming committee.

After graduation, he considered entering the U.S. Navy, but a medical condition disqualified him for service. So with a bachelor's degree in sociology and a minor in economics, Drake weighed other options.

"I could go to work for social services in Compton, Calif., tracing venereal diseases... or work as a field representative for the national office of my fraternity," he said. He chose the latter.

Drake boarded a plane and headed to Richmond, Va., where he worked for Sigma Phi Epsilon for a year. He then took a public relations job with the Pennsylvania Institute of Certified Public Accountants in Philadelphia.

"I loved the East Coast. It was a brand new exciting adventure for me. It was a part of the world I'd never seen," he recalls.

It was also a tumultuous time in American history—with war protests and urban riots playing out in the nation's largest cities. In 1969, Drake decided it was time to come home.

Plop, Plop, Fizz, Fizz

He returned to Boise without a job, but an interest in advertising. Drake's East Coast-experience had exposed him to the so-called Peacock Revolution. Trends in 1960s counterculture and fashion were becoming mainstream. Brands like Alka Seltzer, Virginia Slims and Volkswagen were launching cutting-edge campaigns.

Drake soon landed a job as an account executive with one of Boise's top advertising agencies and would start in three months.

"And then I realized, 'I don't know doodley-squat about advertising,'" he recalled with a chuckle. It was time to cram.

Drake checked out every book he could find on advertising and read it cover to cover. He learned all he could about ad strategy, media buys, messaging and design. His tenacity paid off with assignments for clients J.R. Simplot, the Idaho Potato Commission and Provident Federal Savings.

"The business was my mistress without a question. It was my passion. It was my drive. I could see the possibilities," said Drake.

On June 1, 1978, he opened his own agency in downtown Boise after taking out a second mortgage on his home.

"I did everything, including the media plans, the market studies, the research," said Drake. He hired a colleague on a contract basis to do the artwork.

In three years' time, he had a solid roster of clients and enough money to hire three or four employees. The agency continued to grow, landing big fish, including a couple of big political campaigns and regional accounts for McDonald's.

New Frontier

The next two decades brought change and challenges: a merger with a Seattle agency (and subsequent split); the emergence of the Internet and Digital Age; and the Great Recession.

Drake has survived it all, reinventing his agency to keep up with market trends and technology. He says his creative and management team is the strongest it's ever been, thanks to the leadership of business partner and chief executive officer Jamie Cooper.

Clients include Jacksons Food Stores, St. Luke's Health System, CBH Homes, Jensen Jewelers, the Idaho Division of Tourism, and the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation. Drake Cooper employees select a pro bono client every year for a branding and advertising makeover—the company's way of giving back to the community. Past recipients include the Boise Bicycle Project, a volunteer organization that recycles bikes, and Usful Glassworks, a company that re-purposes discarded glass.

Passing the Torch

Despite a busy schedule, Drake, an author and university lecturer, frequently mentors young people who want to enter advertising. His advice can apply to college graduates in any field.

  • Decide what you want out of life.
  • Do it with passion and gusto.
  • Find milestones along the way to measure progress.
  • Don't be afraid to make a change.

Drake, 69, says he'll retire soon, passing the torch to CEO Cooper. He expects the transition to be seamless.

"Besides, if they need me, they can call me," he said.