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From Accident To Success:  Howland Keeps IBIS Communications at an Upward Momentum


A Start by Accident

In 1988 while working in New York as the International Copy Manager for Time Inc.’s Corporate Circulation Division, Mary Anne Howland started doing freelance work after hours.  Even though she was responsible for direct mail creative for Time’s international and domestic publications, she still needed something to do with her time and talents after 6pm.

Mary Ann Howland


Eventually Howland was putting in 30 to 40 hours a week doing freelance projects for non-competitors.  As the freelance business continued to grow, it became so demanding that she knew she had to make a decision.  “I thought that if I put out 80 hours for myself, I could make more money.”  So Howland decided to leave Time Inc. and step out on her own.  After announcing her plans, Time Inc. became one of her first clients under this new role as a full-time freelancer.  Operating out of her apartment with only a Fax machine, computer and phone service, within a year she had doubled her salary to six figures. 

While she initially had no intentions of launching a business, the overwhelming demand for her services made this decision inevitable.

A Slight Downward Turn

The freelance venture grew as more projects were received from other companies. Howland’s services expanded beyond direct mail to include brochures, newsletters and other marketing materials.  Then the recession of 1991 hit and the first budgets companies were cutting was in marketing.  Sitting in her apartment with no income and now eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, Howland was faced with another major decision: return to Time Inc., work for another company or relocate in a city where African-American businesses are doing well.  “I didn’t want to get another job; that was not an option.  I knew I had to have an open mind and consider moving to another city.  So after reviewing an article in Fortune Magazine on the top ten cities, I chose Nashville.”  Within a month’s visit to Nashville, she had secured a contract with Meharry Medical College.

Meharry hired her as a PR person to assist in marketing the institution.  Admittedly, she had never acted in this role before, but using her passion for writing performed outstandingly.  With this contract in hand, she continued to work on her freelance business by joining the Chamber of Commerce and becoming an active member. “Since I didn’t know anyone in Nashville, this organization enabled me to quickly learn the lay of the land.  Who were important men and women in the local business community? The Chamber was an excellent resource for networking and launching the business.  I needed to meet and link with people who would support my business.  And starting from scratch in a new city, the Chamber provided excellent grounding that fulfilled this need.”

The Upward Momentum

The recession lasted nineteen months and once the economy began to recover, Howland’s old clients returned, new ones were added and she found herself commuting from Nashville to New York.  Since she always felt that she would return to New York, Howland kept her apartment for three years. But with a baby on the way, she was forced to hone her energies on the Nashville operations and gave up the idea of moving back to New York.


By 1993 she incorporated as Ibis Communications and hired her first employee in 1994, using her savings.  In 1995 the second full-time employee was hired and Howland proudly admits she offered competitive salaries and never had to take out a bank loan to move her company forward after incorporating.

Ibis Communications currently employs eight professionals and has been honored as one of the top fastest growing companies in Nashville for five consecutive years.  In 1997, Howland earned the prestigious honor of an invitation on Capitol Hill for a White House tribute to the nation’s women business leaders.  And in 2000, Ibis was entered into the Music City Future 50 Hall of Fame, the first African- American company to ever reach that goal. 

The company’s portfolio now consists of global clients throughout the world, such as Pitney Bowes, Coca Cola and SESAC .  Howland says that once you get your company’s name out there, the business opportunities become easier.  Therefore, based on this premise, it’s understandable how 95% of Ibis’ business is through referrals.  Howland also enjoys the perk of serving as a travel writer for Hawaii travel guides where she visits island hotels, resorts, restaurants, shops and attractions each year to update the travel books.  She has also done travel writing in Jamaica, Bermuda, Turks & Caicos and Japan.

Howland has consistently given back to the community by serving on numerous boards such as Nashville Public Television, Tennessee Performing Arts Centers, Village Cultural Arts Centers, the High Hopes Center for children with special needs, Nashville Ballet, African-American Business Initiative Task Force and the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce.

When asked what challenges she had to overcome in order to achieve success, Howland says, “I know racial barriers exist; but that’s their problem, not mine.  If they say no, I’m looking for the next yes.  We just have to move on.  For the majority companies, getting contracts is a whole lot easier. They fall into them.  But we probably have to work harder to grow our businesses since we don’t have those connections.  There is a discrimination factor, so that tells me that I’ve got to knock on more doors. For me that’s fine.  It fits my personality anyway.”

Although Ibis Communications is one of five African-American female-owned advertising agencies in the country, according to data obtained from Black Enterprise, Howland says Ibis is commonly mislabeled as a PR firm.  “Probably because there are more female-owned PR firms; whereas advertising agencies are a male-dominated industry.”  Being one of five makes Ibis Communications a unique entity in a non-traditional field of business for minorities. 

Whether you start a non-traditional business or not, Howland’s advice is to enter a field where you have a passion for the work.  Where you will not throw in the towel during the rough times.  Where you have a sharp focus on what you want to achieve and clearly understand that you can’t do it alone.  You must surround yourself with “good” people who will help your business grow. She says if you do what you love and stick with it, things will come together for you.  Although the company started by accident, Ibis Communications is a successful example of this philosophy in action.

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