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Greenville Business Magazine

Ad Man Comes Home

Jun 01, 2017 07:54PM ● By Makayla Gay

By Emily Stevenson

Photography by Amy Randall Photography

Multiple career changes are the norm in today’s ever-evolving world, but Con Williamson’s jump from the Army to advertising seems more drastic than most. Still, he insists it was a natural flow.

“I could always draw,” he says. “I always did tattoo designs for my buddies. I was a paratrooper, and I got really good at drawing skulls and airborne wings. That was the start of my advertising career, doing artwork for people’s bodies.”

His career has flown a long way since his Army days, and his artwork is a little more sophisticated. Williamson is now chief creative officer and co-president of EP+Co., working with national brands such as Denny’s, Lenovo, Tumi, and Verizon.

In addition to giving him an outlet for his love of art, he credits the Army with helping him succeed in his chosen career.

“In a weird way, the Army was the foundation that helped me,” Williamson says. “It’s the Army side of me that gave me some managerial skills. I love to draw and create, and I knew I was always going to do that at some point, but having the discipline in the Army helped me create a new path forward.”

After attending the University of South Carolina and Creative Circus, an advertising and design school, Williamson accepted a job in New York City and never looked back.

“I never imagined coming back to the south,” he says. “I still had that New York City thinking, that you have to be in New York to do advertising.”

He built his career working for such agencies as Fallon, JWT, Euro/RSCG, and Saatchi & Saatchi. After about fifteen years of the grind, he was married with children.

“I thought, ‘How long can I keep doing this?’ ” Williamson says. “I wanted to keep doing advertising, but I wanted something different, something I could help grow and build.”

Williamson, a South Carolina native, had been introduced to some people at EP+Co. When he found himself in town for a family wedding, he asked about the building and reached out to the then-CEO, Joe Erwin. About a year later, he received a call from Joe Saracino, then-president of EP+Co. He describes that as the start of a “three-year courtship.” and he began tossing around the idea of moving to Greenville.

“Joe [Saracino] came up and said, ‘We’re doing some big stuff, Verizon, Denny’s,’ and more and more I started to think, ‘Could it be possible?’ ” he says. “They finally convinced me to give it a shot. You start picturing yourself doing the things you do in New York, but with a backyard and nicer people.”

After convincing his wife to move and wrapping up their New York life, Williamson officially took the helm in September 2016. He works alongside veteran co-president Allen Bosworth, one of the firm’s original three partners, who he describes as “the best thing that ever happened to me.”

“It’s almost like having a set of training wheels,” Williamson says. “He knows the lay of the land, he knows all the secrets of stuff, and he’s let me run, but he’s made my job a lot easier. I ask him what’s possible.”

At EP+Co., though, just about anything is possible. The agency recently moved into its new loft-like digs on Court Street in downtown Greenville, with picture windows, pods for collaboration, and furniture made in-house at the company’s Taylors Mill workspace. With 170 employees in its Greenville office and 40 in its New York office, the agency has capabilities to do most any facet of advertising in-house, from TV spots to furniture building.

Though he’s worked on such famous campaigns as Dos Equis’ “The Most Interesting Man in the World,” Williamson says the most interesting thing he’s done is his current work with Denny’s.

“Every day I come to John [Dillon] with an idea, and he’s like, ‘That’s cool, but what else?’” he says. “You rarely get that partnership with a brand. The responsibility to always be creative with those guys is immense.”

EP+Co does everything from app-building to menu creation to television commercials for the Spartanburg-based restaurant chain, but Williamson says that’s unusual. He’s never worked on a brand where his team does every single aspect of advertising. Because of that, his job can’t be easily defined.

“I’d say my job is less about being a creative director as much as an idea herder, a ringmaster,” he laughs. “This is a three-ring circus that is cooking all the time.”

The company recently changed its name from Erwin Penland to EP+Co., a subtle but important shift that reflects all of the employees who make it successful.

“For the first time in my career, it’s fun again,” he says. “Everyone is so good, I don’t have to parent anyone. I just encourage people to always be making, always be creative. You can feel the hum of this place.”

In moving to Greenville, Williamson hopes to change the perception of the area and the quality of work coming out of it.

“I want to dispel the myth that regional agencies are only good at regional work,” he says. “I don’t think you have to be in L.A. or New York to be a big agency. I don’t ever want to feel big, but I want to compete with any agency, anywhere in the world.

EP+Co. is well on its way to achieving that goal. Currently, the agency does all global advertising for Tumi. Still, Williamson admits, being located in Greenville does have its challenges.

“Less direct flights,” he says immediately. “It seems like a silly thing, but it matters. It’s a challenge getting clients who live in L.A. or other big cities. They hear about Greenville, they read about it in the press, but it’s weird what a deterrent it is to get somewhere if they have to have a connection and a layover.”

To tackle the issue, Williamson and his team do the trekking out to clients on the West Coast and other places that don’t offer direct flights to GSP. And the benefits of being in Greenville outweigh the negatives. Cost of living, climate, and a good economic environment are just a few of the benefits – along with a slower pace.

“We’re doing it better because you don’t feel that pressure of being in New York, of competing with everyone,” he says. “You pay the price, living in New York City. You have to live hard a little bit. I don’t work less hard here, but I enjoy it more.”

For one man, at least, Greenville can compete with New York City – and win.

“I grew up here, and went out and saw the world and never thought I’d come back,” Williamson says. “Now, I can’t believe I’ve waited this long.”