July 10 2013 12:00 AM

MessageMakers founder looks back on 35th anniversary

MessageMakers, a Lansing-based media, event planning and PR firm with clients from Old Town to Africa, has taken its founder and president, Terry Terry, on a wild ride through four decades, five continents, one elephant charge (in Lusaka, Zambia) and umpteen revolutions in technology. 

Despite the distractions, Terry and his staff have made it 35 years by clamping onto every message like a bear trap on a field mouse. Observe the master.

“I guess I should talk about what we actually do,” Terry offered as we settled into his second-floor conference room overlooking the 19th-century brickwork of Old Town. “I say we make people cry, laugh, imagine and act.”

I glanced at a coaster on the table in front of me. It read, “cry, laugh, imagine, act.” Ditto the business card. Clamp.

Whether Terry and his staff are orchestrating Gov. Rick Snyder’s inauguration, a high-energy rally of Harley-Davidson owners or a heart-tugging video for the American Red Cross, they see themselves as storytellers. After 35 years, Terry has some stories of his own.

In the 1980s, Old Town was a honeycomb of trash-heaped alleys, empty buildings, prostitutes, junkies and bats; Terry was jobless and broke, and this conference room was his crash pad. Now it’s the heart of a funky maze of offices, studios and high-end equipment, a bastion of Lansing’s information-age economy and the longest-lived emblem of the renewal of Old Town.

Terry (who declined to give his age) was born in Detroit and grew up in Dearborn. He helped his father, a photographer, work in his darkroom as soon as he could see over the table into the trays of chemicals. He was fascinated by a book his dad gave him, “Around the World in 1,000 Pictures.” 

He started hitchhiking around the U.S. and Canada in ninth grade. On one trip, he ended up fighting forest fires in British Columbia, where he was dropped by helicopter into mountain woods, armed with a pickaxe and chainsaw, and told to find and cut away red-hot timbers before they could start another fire. We could fill this page with Terry’s hitch-hiking stories, but let us jump, for brevity, to Michigan State University’s James Madison College in 1969, where he studied “Plato and Aristotle and all that” between myriad creative excursions. He created multi-media shows for Abrams Planetarium, joined an experimental theater company called Intermediary and co-produced a cable TV show, “The Electric Way,” made with the first porta-pack video cameras in town.

“It was all experimental,” Terry said. For one show, the cameras were turned 90 degrees and viewers were told to lay on their sides as they watched. To make ends meet, Terry did more conventional work in MSU’s instructional media department, but he wanted to run his own show.

He started MessageMakers in 1978, running the business in his spare time from the 24,000-square-foot former bowling alley in the basement of the now-demolished Michigan Theatre, 217 S. Washington St. in Lansing. (The rent was $100 a month, including utilities.)

A big break beckoned when William Keough, superintendent of the American School in Iran, asked Terry to be the media program director of the Tehran-American school system. While in grad school, Terry had worked in a school in Nepal.

That prospect evaporated in 1979, when Keough was one of the 52 Americans taken hostage in Iran. Counting on the Iran job, Terry had already quit his job at MSU. Michigan’s economy was in terrible shape.

He borrowed money (at 23 percent interest) to buy a camera and put everything into MessageMakers. He went to Washington with almost empty pockets to solicit work from the Office of Overseas Schools.

He got the contract but didn’t have the money for a taxi back to the airport. What to do?

“You don’t tell your client you’re broke,” he said. Fortunately, the client whipped out a roll of cash and gave him all the expenses in advance.

“Six months later, I’m snorkeling in Jamaica, doing videos,” he said with a grin. The trip took him to three continents and led to decades of work for the Office of Overseas Schools.

Then, as now, the business entailed a relentless technology chase, and Terry had to think on his feet to keep up. At a trade show in 1980, he spotted an early video deck system he wanted but couldn’t afford. Over drinks in a Sunnyvale, Calif., bar, he persuaded the vendor to swap out a unit for a training video and manual telling people how to use the daunting contraption.

“So I had the first video editing system in town, and we went on from there,” he said. The office now boasts fiber connections, blue and green screens, and state-of-the-art recording equipment. The latest toys are 3-D cameras and TVs used in work for the Sinto Corp., a huge foundry operation in China and Japan. 

At 35, MessageMakers has 12 full-time employees, some part timers, and a large talent pool of independent contractors who specialize in illustration, songwriting and more arcane arts.

In politics alone, the client list is wildly diverse, ranging from Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero to Edward Mahama, a candidate for president of Ghana. A famous 1990s spot produced by MessageMakers showed State Sen. Joanne G. Emmons shoveling horse manure on camera.

One of Terry’s biggest accounts is training volunteer leaders of Harley-Davidson owner clubs, revving up the tireless juggernaut of Harley culture around the world. Harley Owner Groups, or HOGs, have about a million members, up from 450,000 when MessageMakers took over the account in the 1980s.

High-pressure live events give Terry his biggest headaches. (Video and audio can always be edited, even on a tight budget.) Snyder’s inauguration on Jan. 2, 2011, was broadcast live and had to run on time, but the speakers got on the dais too soon. The proceedings couldn’t be rushed because Air Force jets were timed to fly over in a few minutes. Terry got on his walkie-talkie, called a staffer on the dais and told her to ask for a rescue from Detroit Mayor Dave Bing. Bing went to the microphone and called for an unscripted moment of silence for those who have fallen in service to the country.

“That bought us a few minutes,” Terry said. The rest of the event went like clockwork.

Although he’s been to over 50 countries, Terry has never been tempted to leave Old Town. 

“I love Lansing,” he said. “We’ve got a good transportation system, clean air, not much traffic to hassle with, a great university. It’s a great base.”

A long line of events he has  spearheaded, including Old Town’s JazzFest and BluesFest, have kept Terry woven into the ever-brightening fabric of his neighborhood. To mark MessageMakers’ 35th anniversary, Terry launched a grant program for nonprofits that will offer “up to $50,000 in total grant support.” The application will be released this summer.

In the coming years, Terry would like to see MessageMakers produce its own films and other media, but he’s coy about the subject matter. 

“I’d like to move beyond the operational side of things,” he said, but don’t picture Don Vito Corleone feeding the fish in Michael’s office. Independent film production could bring Terry full circle, back to the client-free days of experimental video. Prepare to turn your head sideways.