If you draw jobs out of a hat, Valerie Morris has probably done all of them. Before starting her own firm five years ago, she worked as a financial analyst, trained as a chef at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, and locked down the position of vice president of communications and marketing for Caesar’s Entertainment. While those careers might seem to be polar opposites, they’ve each contributed in their own way to the creation of Morris Marketing Group (MMG). “You have to have the business background to be able to run a restaurant,” says Morris, “and then the marketing and PR industry is also part of the hospitality industry, because they’re all sales. Which piece will resonate with each different advocacy group? They all go together, and I could not do one without the other now.”
As president and CEO of MMG, Morris took the firm Downtown to 456 Tennessee Street. An old hay storage building from 1912, the structure still holds one of the original steam pipes in the lobby. Beyond the entrance is a gallery’s worth of paintings, photographs, and posters, all featuring local artists like Ron Olson, Ken Lecco, Allison Loyer, Michael Mannis, and David Lynch. “My mainstay is that any of the offices that our employees are in,” says Morris, “they can put any kind of art they would like, but I would prefer it to be local. That’s something I really believe in.” Beyond the professional works, a few of the paintings were done by the staff as team-building exercises. Meanwhile, a plethora of Addy and Vox awards, among others, speaks to the studio’s drive and excellence.
MMG shares the building with S2N Design and an independent photography studio. With all the tenants pursuing creative endeavors, Morris wanted that kind of energy in the office space. “The whole building is a creative space, so I thought our offices should reflect that and look fun.” In the back, a large event space allows MMG to host parties for clients or happy-hour excursions for professional colleagues.
When Morris built her team, she sought individuals with strong work ethics who could cover multiple facets of the business. While someone might specialize in graphic design, they also had a knack for writing, could utilize social media, and comprehend all the various digital platforms a client might need. “I like being the concierge boutique agency that does really good work,” says Morris, “where we become a part of our client’s team and a part of the family.”
Rather than making cold calls, Morris and her group created an innovative approach to speaking with potential new clients. The “Foot in the Door” campaign involves Morris picking up a high-heeled shoe from Goodwill, decorating it with a theme (sometimes tailored to the potential client), and including candy and a sales kit in one handy gift basket.
The shoes are decorated differently for every visit, which reflects MMG’s diverse client base. A row of shelves along the office’s back wall contains merchandise from many of the agency’s clients, ranging from Melissa Cookston, “the winningest woman in barbecue,” to Medtronic. “We like having lots of different types of clients,” says Morris. “We’re not just hospitality, not just financial, not just healthcare. It’s great for my team, as they get to have fun thinking about different ideas all the time rather than just focusing on one industry.”
Inside Morris’ personal office are decorations that speak to her ideals as a professional. Behind her desk is a vibrant portrait of Downtown Memphis, which she had commissioned by Michael Mannis in 2014 when she started the business. Celebrity portraits of James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn, and Elvis provide inspiration. “These are all my icons, they have a reason for who they are,” says Morris. “In some way, shape, or form, they were catalysts and made a difference in their careers and to other people.”
Morris’ own professional growth can be traced visually through a collection of Barbie dolls she keeps in her office. “They’re a representation of me through all my different careers, whether I was a chef, a business person, or even my time participating in pageants,” says Morris. For an explanation as to the bicycle Barbie, one need only look at the framed Marathon de Paris medal hanging by Morris’ desk, from just one of many races in which she’s participated. As for the Wonder Woman figure gifted to her by employees? A fitting mantle for someone who’s worn so many professional hats, runs marathons, finds ample time for charity work, and sustains a continued desire for her clients’ success.
As the final piece of the puzzle, Morris keeps a day-to-day unicorn calendar at her desk. The page from January 1st, which she keeps up on the wall, reads: “The smallest goal and the biggest dream can be achieved with planning and hard work.” Why unicorns? “They’re mythical creatures that are always happy and really thinking about how they can be the best they can be for everyone else. I try to approach my job every day with a positive attitude and [by asking myself] how can I make someone’s life better and do the best that I can.” For all the clients that MMG has worked with over five years, Morris might just be their unicorn.
Click on the photos below for more information about the office.
photography by Madison Yen