Carrie Rengers

A half century after Sullivan Higdon & Sink forms, a new name signals a new direction

Al Higdon always knew the day would come that new leaders would change the name of Sullivan Higdon & Sink, and today — 22 years after his departure from the agency he helped start in 1971— is the day.

Signal Theory is the new name of the company, and it’s meant to signal myriad changes, most significantly that Signal isn’t a traditional advertising agency anymore.

“At this point, the agency really has transformed into something different,” said co-CEO Ali Mahaffy.

She said it began in 2016 when she and co-CEO John January asked employees to be in “a relentless state of beta.”

“Our industry had really started to change,” Mahaffy said. She said they realized they “needed to shift and change along the way.”

Instead of being known as an agency, Signal Theory is now called a brand development, marketing and design firm.

In a statement about the new name, January said something the firm is calling Resonance Branding is the centerpiece of its transformation.

“It combines cultural systems analysis with data science, design thinking, and methods and principles from the social and behavioral sciences to give us more complete and relevant insights into the way people think, behave and make decisions.”

He said biology-based signaling theory says that “all living things signal” whether that’s a rattlesnake rattling or a person showing who they are with overt signals such as clothing or hobbies.

“In fact, most of the signaling people do is not something they’re cognizant of,” January said. “We became really intrigued by it. . . . It became really kind of a guiding idea for us.”

However, January admits to some doubt about the name change.

“It’s almost 50 years of a brand,” he said. “We said, gosh, are we nuts to make this change now?”

A visit to present the new name to Higdon and SHS co-founder Vaughn Sink reassured January and Mahaffy of their decision.

“John and Ali are just taking the company, as they should, in a great new direction with high technology,” Higdon said.

“A name change is a significant part of the strategy,” he said. “Having a name with three former guys on the building just doesn’t make sense.”

January said Higdon told them a change like this could happen only when a company is healthy.

Signal Theory has capitalized billings of $150 million.

The company reports that it is at its highest levels ever of profitability and number of employees, which is more than 170 in its Wichita and Kansas City offices.

“I really do applaud them for that work,” Higdon said.

He said he actually expected the second generation of SHS leaders to make the change, but they didn’t. Higdon said he has no problem with it now.

“Forty eight years under one name isn’t bad.”

Carrie Rengers has been a reporter for almost three decades, including 16 years at The Wichita Eagle. Her Have You Heard? column of business scoops runs five days a week in The Eagle. If you have a tip, please e-mail or tweet her or call 316-268-6340.
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