Owner and head creative Bev Ryan has grown, evolved and changed—and built a strong team—right along with the city.

Walking into Bev Ryan’s office at Ologie, the space hits you all washed pink light. A corkboard wall offers glimpses into what she’s been thinking lately—arty clips from magazines, ruminations on the state of the world, an image of her son when he was small. On her desk sits a photo of an intense young woman—her—with her jaw set in determination. It’s there to remind Ryan of why she started all this.

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When she founded creative firm Ologie in 1987, Ryan had nothing but her curiosity, her sense for design and that attitude. “I was a young woman and it was 1987. There were no loans—I didn’t even think about it. It didn’t even occur to me,” she says.

She set up shop in an office in a century home on Jefferson Avenue off East Broad Street, where nonprofits had already begun to coalesce into a neighborhood of sorts. BalletMet, Thurber House, Council on World Affairs, ProMusica.

“There were fledgling nonprofits, and I was a pretty good deal for them. It was $50 for this, and $100 for that, and my rent was $345 a month,” she says. “I didn’t even get a Mac until my second or third year in business (and it cost her a staggering $4,000). I was pasting things up—people don’t even know what that is here [today, at Ologie]. So I don’t talk about it much anymore because it makes me seem old.”

Ryan, at 55, is far from it. She watched Columbus grow up right along with her. The Westland High School grad spent the Saturday mornings of her childhood in community art classes at the Columbus College of Art & Design, and she went on to the graphic design program there. In the early days of her business, which originally was called Method, as she did work for those nonprofits, board members started to take notice. “They were running businesses in Columbus or higher up at bigger businesses, and they said, who’s doing this work? It’s really good.”

Her clients grew beyond nonprofits—many of them influential commercial real estate developers: Frank Kass, Ron Pizzuti, Don Casto, Continental Office, The Limited. She did all the marketing for Pizzuti’s Miranova and its growing portfolio of warehouses south of the city. “They were intense,” she says. “They were moving and shaking and moving mountains in Columbus. They were building Columbus, literally building Columbus at that time. And they still are.”

To do business with the city’s power set was a challenge that stoked Ryan’s drive to succeed, but she’s not a person who gets to that point and cashes out.

“Sometimes, I used to drive 670 and I would look at the downtown skyline. And in my head, with that chip on my shoulder, I’d say I can do this,” Ryan says. “For some reason the Columbus skyline represented making it, you know, like I can make a business here and be successful. I can do this. The skyline back then was pretty to me—it’s amazingly pretty now. But you’ve never really arrived, right? Because everything is shifting sands under your feet. You can never sit down.”

That restless disposition—that continual search for what’s next, to see new angles—manifests itself physically in Ryan’s office, which she’s always moving, rearranging, redoing, reimagining, recreating. “As a company we can’t keep sitting back on how we’ve always done things, which drives people crazy here. I’m constantly questioning how we do stuff and making people really uncomfortable.”

Adapting to change

One of the images on Ryan’s office wall is a quote attributed to physicist Stephen Hawking: “Intelligence is the ability to adapt to change,” with numbers in place of several letters, forcing the reader’s brain to adapt. That is the very challenge now facing institutions of higher education, which today make up 80 percent of Ologie’s business—it’s worked with about 180 of them nationally.

Colleges and universities are facing enrollment declines, brand confusion and a sea of sameness as they attempt to differentiate themselves in a marketplace where many students can’t afford their sticker prices. And their value is being questioned more than ever as America’s anti-intellectual mood deepens—though research continues to show the average person with a college degree earns significantly more over their lifetime than someone without one. Add to that technological disruption and increasing building costs, and the need for new tactics is clear.

New tactics, as in true innovation—and that takes guts.

“Sometimes our clients are afraid,” Ryan says. “Our job is to be bold in our work so that what they’re putting out to the marketplace actually breaks through. We could be super safe, and it would be wasting your money. It’s a better use of money to break through in the marketplace. I always tell them: You don’t have the budget to be safe. You don’t have the money to rinse and repeat in front of a customer 1,000 times.”

Hartwick College, set in the pristine Appalachian hills of eastern New York in a city called Oneonta, seems like a classic New England school, with 1,200 students and an annual sticker price of $61,000 for tuition and boarding. But 44 percent of its students receive Pell grants, and that average price they actually pay to attend is closer to $23,000 a year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Affordability is important to Margaret Drugovich, its president, who introduced a “Three-Year Degree” program to help students graduate sooner, saving families money. She sees the institution’s long-term sustainability as dependent on its success in placing students in careers they love and creating a university that contributes to the economic development of the surrounding community.

Drugovich first hired Bev Ryan and Ologie in the early 2000s, when she was working at a different school, and their relationship grew to trusted adviser status.

“I will tell you why I seriously considered Ologie,” Drugovich says. “Because I looked at the way Bev branded her own company, and I said to myself, anyone who can that clearly market their own company, they’re the ones who will be able to help us. [Bev is] very smart. She’s very clear. She’s very focused. And I think that that makes her company extraordinarily successful.”

With Ologie’s deep experience in higher education, the relationship has gone beyond the traditional role of a marketing firm. The company is helping to propel Hartwick’s strategy. “Bev has tremendous insight because of all the work that she’s done with other institutions. Her view is rich—there’s nothing about her work that’s a template.”

Columbus business coach Jan Allen sees the same incisive, courageous, call-it-like-it-is strength in Ryan.

“Bev has the ability to truly capture the emotion and importance of any brand and lift it up and creatively express it into the world,” Allen says. When Ryan built the branding and marketing collateral for the Women’s Fund of Central Ohio as it was launching, “she was able to really discern and understand the promise of that organization and bring it to life,” Allen says.

Building a culture

Allen has watched Ryan build Ologie with partner Bill Faust, and this is how she describes it:

“Uplifting. Fun. Crazy smart. Everybody’s all in. … It’s a creative juice factory—you know the minute you walk in, you feel it.”

Allen’s coaching influence has helped create that atmosphere, Ryan says. “She’s helped me— I’ve always been an empathetic person, but I had a little bit too much of an edge around the work part. She really helped me balance that out,” says Ryan, who is known for frank, but respectful, conversations with employees about performance. “I’m a truth teller, and I want to hear the truth,” she says.

She’s worked to create a culture of loving transparency in the organization, keeping Allen on retainer to counsel Ologie’s people managers, who receive regular training and support. Ryan knows ultimately, people don’t stay forever. But she’s proud of where they end up. “We have a lot of longevity here, we really do. It’s impressive. But you know, the younger generation, they’re not going to stay in one place forever. So my goal was always: What kind of ripple effect are we having on communications and design in the community and where they landed?” Former Ologists, as they say, have risen to prominence at Root Insurance, Nationwide, Abbott, and many started their own companies.

With four generations all under one roof (or on one Zoom call), people must learn to understand one another, Ryan says. But so-called “genius assholes,” who damage others’ confidence, aren’t tolerated. “How I coach people here is, as a leader, your job is to give people confidence with people.”

Some of it feels like parenting, she says. “I’ll apologize in advance—OK, we see an issue, and here’s how I want to solve it. Another one is, ‘Hey guys, this is what’s changing in the marketplace. If we don’t get ahead of it, we’re going to be in trouble. So we’ve got to make a change.’ ”

Puzzle pieces

A Pittsburgh native and Ohio State University industrial design grad, Bill Faust worked for big companies like Kodak and eventually found himself back in Columbus at a company called Fitch, which is one of the industry’s foundational firms here. But with the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, and recession, Faust went looking for somewhere else to land. That was Ologie. He met Ryan through a friend of a friend, and she was a great fit because she was nothing like him. “I wanted to look for somebody who was actually kind of the opposite of me, because I’d learned from Fitch that when I was paired up with my opposite, we did good things together,” Faust says. He’s more left-brained strategy and research, “and when I got paired up with a really smart, creative leader, good things happened.” That was Ryan, he says.

“And she said hey, he fits all the things I’m not,” Faust says. “He likes to go out and meet new clients and travel around the country and introduce them to who we are. And he’s good at research and strategy. So we kind of figured out pretty quickly that we were puzzle pieces.”

That was 2002. They joined forces as partners, and 18 years later, Faust says the arrangement still works. What does he admire about his partner? “That’s easy—high standards, she just won’t give up on them.”

The future

Ryan is always thinking six months out. She called the threat of the pandemic early on, making the decision to send her staff home before some others. The firm’s work has shifted to virtual not just internally, but also with higher education clients, who have needed a lot of support in carrying on operations under a new paradigm.

With consolidation in the industry in the past decade swooping in on smaller independent firms like Ologie, Ryan feels like any potential deal has got to be the right deal, where values are in alignment—but she has no plans for an exit anytime soon.

“Always it’s in the back of your head. Why did I start this? I wasn’t trying to make something that I could transition out of, or monetize. I’ve been in the building mode for 30-some years. Remembering why I started, to me means: What am I making? What am I communicating? What kind of impact am I having for our clients?

“I’m never going to be done making this thing, making this company. I’m never going to be finished because we’re always making it, every day. It’s never finished.”

Q&A with Bev Ryan

A group of fledgling nonprofits and real estate entrepreneurs cut you your first breaks, hiring you early in your business. What was that like?

I’m grateful and I’m flabbergasted that they gave me all those opportunities. I just felt like those leaders in Columbus were trying to give someone a chance. I love that. I mean, I had to deliver. But I did. I worked really hard. And as years went by, I looked back on it and thought, what were they thinking?

On the thought of ever selling Ologie:

I think about it being really strategic. So to me, it’s so much more than a monetary exchange. Both parties have to really benefit—it has to make sense. It can’t just be so someone else can bundle it and make money (industry consolidation). None of that inspires me.

Can you speak about the evolution of our Columbus institutions?

One example is the Greater Columbus Arts Council and the role that they’ve had in reshaping how the arts are funded. And we did do that campaign. [Columbus Makes Art, Art Makes Columbus]. Our community has been trying to fund the arts for 30 years. I feel like we’ve got traction now. Now this is a community that values the arts.

On former CCAD President Denny Griffith, one of Ryan’s mentors:

He was just such a genuine person, and to see who he was as a person and what kind of ripple effect he had on everyone around him. How he just raised people up. He gave me huge confidence— Denny kind of looked right into your eyes and into your soul. When I was on the [CCAD] board, I was a little bit younger than everybody else. And I think there were maybe three or four women out of about 20 people. It’s changed a lot now, but back then he made me feel like, hey, you have a seat at the table.

Katy Smith is editor of Columbus CEO.