A business partnership is like a marriage, but with far worse odds.
– Ken Mills
The world of 1980s production was madness, just like today. Long days, late nights, carry out from Frisch’s Big Boy or GD Ritzy’s, business dinners at The Bistro or Jai Lai (a Woody Hayes favorite).
The ad agencies, unions, and unknown Columbus corporations such as AEP and The Limited spent half their weeks in production companies cranking out videos like this, with no sense of what their futures may hold.
One of those production companies was The Media Group, where Ken Mills and Cameron James were employed, Cameron as Sales Director and Ken as a Producer.
Cameron had already grown the business six-fold in four short years. His success was due in no small part to his “leadership” role at the Advertising Federation, where among other things, he would wear a gorilla suit around town passing out bananas to convince agencies to join AdFed (“Go Ape Over Advertising!”).
Cameron remembers the first time he saw Ken. The Media Group had a steady flow of projects in Detroit, but the owners only trusted themselves to travel up there for the work. Cameron saw the new guy Ken heading out the door for Detroit and thought, “He must be pretty good.”
Opposites in almost every way — Ken an introverted book-nerd and Cameron a man comfortable in a gorilla suit — they hit it off right away. They worked together through impossible deadlines, often surrounded by the inevitable media prima donnas that would come to shape their philosophies. Through it all, they learned to act like they didn’t mind. But their passion was dwindling. Twice Ken quit The Media Group. Twice, the owners talked him out of it.
Gradually, after a lot of back and forth (mostly Cameron talking Ken into things, establishing a 36-year trend), they decided to go for it.
On May 1, 1984, they opened their doors, with the full knowledge that there’s a fine line between being self-employed and unemployed. They called the company Mills James only because “James Mills” sounded like a person’s name.
The company began in an apartment building, the Canterbury Towers, with just a few thousand dollars and no existing client base. What they did have was a great love for the production industry and good reputations. They also had a doorman at their apartment complex, so it was almost like they had an employee.
And on their first day, the phone rang.
A client from their previous employer had tracked them down. They had their first job in business, and it was… rough. They were asked to provide services for an employee recognition event. Easy enough, but they couldn’t send the doorman to do it. Ken and Cameron had to subcontract the job to a firm. The final project came back, and the audio sucked. Cameron’s charm saved the day and kept the client. Still, they quickly realized it took a little more than passion and reputations — especially when a majority of their jobs required freelancers and sub-contractors until they found their financial footing.
Ken and Cameron ran the business as two independent producers, but many jobs overlapped or required a crew. They knew the risk of losing client relationships to the outsourced services, but they flipped perspective. Every business experience became an opportunity to learn about a range of business practices and philosophies.
To manage cash flow, they got resourceful—reusing cellophane tape dispensers and only calling long-distance after hours. And most importantly, they were kind to the doorman. Who remained their honorary-almost-employee, greeting visitors, and accepting packages. Business was no guarantee, and they knew this. That’s why they controlled what they could: their attitudes.
In reflecting on the early days, Ken reminisced about their neighbors at the apartment complex. Most were elderly, retired residents with early bedtimes. Ken and Cameron would hang around the community room playing bridge with the residents, and once the room cleared, they would turn it into a production studio.
One of their elderly neighbors often mistook Mills James for a coffee shop. She would come knocking every morning requesting a coffee, and again in the afternoon. And every time they would deliver. Not once did Ken mention any annoyance or question why this woman wouldn’t just get the hint.
She even came to visit them after they moved into their first purchased office building in 1985. There was no more doorman, but they had their first official employees and a rapidly growing client list. They also had a building that was prone to flooding. Then in 1988, Mills James partnered with Discovery Systems and moved into Discovery’s headquarters in Dublin, Ohio. Their employees doubled, they added post-production and graphics to their services, and suddenly they were operating a million-dollar operation.
Still walking the tightrope of early business ownership, Ken and Cameron had to calculate every risk. Especially those they hired. They wanted the kind of people who would patiently serve a visiting elderly woman coffee. They wanted a team of opposites with strengths where they had weaknesses. After all, that’s what made Ken and Cameron such a powerful combination in the first place.
They interviewed a lot, always asking the same questions of their interviewees: share three successes and three failures. The latter was how they’d assess people’s authenticity. And wisdom.
But there was often one more question, one Cameron would ask. “Are you a good speller?”