A creative pioneer

Advertising trail blazer Nancy Rice honored for standout career

Nancy Rice, at 22, was wearing her one and only suit and carrying a hefty portfolio for an interview at Downtown's Knox Reeves Advertising. She was lost and running a half-hour late.

Finally, Rice eyed a sign for the place. But the manager she was supposed to meet had already moved on to other appointments. Along came another art director who stepped in to peruse her work samples.

Rice landed the job as a storyboard writer at the agency barely three days after graduating from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design (MCAD) in the Whittier neighborhood in 1970. That was just the beginning.

Since then, Rice, now 58, has been credited with directing groundbreaking work, paving the way for women in the field and pioneering the Minneapolis advertising scene, now a vibrant creative hub.

To celebrate her accomplishments, she was recently inducted into the Art Director's Club Hall of Fame (ADC) in New York, alongside the likes of Walt Disney, Andy Warhol, Al Hirshfield and Norman Rockwell.

Other Hall of Fame inductees this year included creative director for the New York Times magazine, Janet Froehlich; fashion designer Issey Miyake; photographer Bert Stern; cartoonist and author of Maus Art Spiegelman; and MIT Media Lab founder Nicholas Negroponte.

Rice, the sole Minnesotan and just the second female in the past several decades to receive the honor, was dubbed ADC's first Art Director of the Year in 1986.

Rice, who is now leading MCAD's advertising department, has been a key player at local agencies including Knox Reeves, Bozell & Jacobs, BBDO, Rice & Rice, and Chicago-based DDB Needham, and Ogilvy & Mather.

The legendary creative director co-founded Fallon McElligott Rice now known as Fallon Worldwide, which climbed to &#8220Agency of the Year” in 1981 after opening only three years before, the title bestowed on them by Ad Age.

A love for art and commerce

Rice, who has a slight frame, long silver-white hair and a soft-spoken but strong demeanor, remembers being a young child and digging through her grandpa's desk where he stowed stationery imprinted by various brewers (he was a barman).

As a young woman, she loved to draw and grabbed a hold of all mediums. At school, she could often be found penning posters or performing other creative tasks.

She followed her sister's footsteps to MCAD where she studied graphic design. During her college years, she worked as a production assistant at a studio called Studio West, which attuned her creative process. She yearned to communicate ideas and had a penchant both for art and sales.

Perhaps what motivates her most, though, is an insatiable curiosity for people. &#8220I love people. I am fascinated by people and human nature and why and how things affect our lives,” she said. &#8220I can't think of too many other professions that allows entry to learning so much about so many things that affect people's lives.”

Rice is well known for her creative direction in numerous projects, including a Gold'n Plump Chicken campaign that dressed up real, live chickens for battle against Southern chickens.

Other highlights include the provocative ads she spearheaded for the Episcopal Church, featuring messages such as &#8220God didn't give His only begotten Son to be a spokesman for the moral majority.”

Her standout projects for Rolling Stone magazine and The Wall Street Journal are also widely recognized. Somehow, amid a busy and a rewarding career, Rice has raised two daughters and overcome breast cancer. Having a career doesn't mean sacrificing a personal life. &#8220It's all about having a life,” she said.

Rice loves to cook, and she described her kitchen as a chemistry lab. Gardening is another hobby (she comes from a long line of Victory gardeners) - a passion she's instilled in her 30-year-old daughters. Erin is a floral designer and Kate creates large-scale botanical drawings.

A teacher

Right now, she's excited about providing her MCAD students a genuine understanding of the advertising industry. At the school, more than 50 advertising students are grouped into multidisciplinary teams in keeping with current advertising trends.

Throughout her several courses, she introduces them to advertising professionals. &#8220It's important for students to know their community and eventually the world,” she said.

In a 1996 book called &#8220The Art Direction Book,” Rice outlined her philosophy about advertising. In addition to her advice to be clear, simple and enthusiastic, she said: &#8220As an art director, my most valuable assets have been my ears (I'm a good listener), my eyes (I notice everything and see things differently), my gut (I have good instincts and am not afraid to follow them), my spine (I've got one), my heels (they're round) and my heart (I've got a lot of it).”

After 37 years in the business, she's still eager to tackle new topics and problems. The challenge in creative direction is working with all kinds of personalities. &#8220They're not cookie-cutter people. They're like butterflies. How do you get all of those butterflies to fly in formation?”

Design as weapon

Fred Senn, one of the founders of Fallon had high praise for Rice. &#8220Nancy's work was elegant and impossible to ignore,” he said. &#8220She was the consummate designer and consummate perfectionist. Great design is a secret weapon, and Nancy knew how to wield that weapon better than almost anybody in advertising. There is something in the human spirit that is drawn like a magnet to great design. Nancy's work had that magnetic but hard-to-describe quality: the ability to put art to work in the pursuit of commerce.”

For her induction into the Hall of Fame, Tom McElligott, who is also connected to the MCAD program, lauded her in a piece he wrote, saying, &#8220everyone discovers sooner or later, she will not be intimidated, cajoled, coerced, threatened, lambasted, bribed, begged, bored or even complimented into accepting an idea - hers or yours - unless and until she's convinced of its rightness and originality.”

Bob Thacker, president of Office Max, called Nancy one of the most talented designers he's ever known. &#8220A whole lot of people owe Nancy because she blazed the trail for women to enter advertising, and we're all better for that,” he said.

Anna Pratt can be reached at 436-4391 or [email protected].