Visual skills, technology key for ad agency’s hearing-impaired co-founder
Geoff Akins sees things others don’t.
The Newport Beach visual arts entrepreneur, who co-founded advertising agency AkinsParker 10 years ago, has been the creative force behind campaigns for brands like Toyota Racing Development, Tiger Woods Foundation and Lexus F-Sport.
Akins is profoundly deaf. But he says he can sense what clients and audiences are feeling and translate that into his work. He’s adept at picking up on a client’s actions in subtle visual traits.
“My hearing impairment makes me uniquely skilled at some things as well,” he said. “For example, I’m pretty in tune with body language and unspoken communication, especially interpersonal communication.”
According to research at UC Davis and UC Irvine, deaf people are quicker at recognizing and interpreting body language than those who can hear.
David Corina, professor in the UC Davis Department of Linguistics and Center for Mind and Brain and graduate student Michael Grosvald, now a post-doctoral scholar at UCI, measured the response times of deaf and hearing people to a series of video clips showing people making American Sign Language signs or “non language” gestures, such as stroking the chin.
“The real surprise was that deaf people were about 100 milliseconds faster at recognizing non-language gestures than were hearing people,” said Corina, whose work was published in the 2012 journal Cognition.
“Deaf people show us that language can be expressed by the hands and be perceived through the visual system.” It’s a benefit, Akins said, that has helped interaction with his team of employees and the cultural dynamic of the office.
“I love being able to answer a question before it is asked,” he said.
“He’s one of the best listeners,” said Jeff Parker, co-founder of the business.
Akins has always been a visual person.
While growing up in Laguna Beach, he’d spend time outdoors, exploring nature or surfing at Salt Creek and Rockpile beaches. Though he was born deaf and couldn’t communicate, his mother guided him toward learning how to read lips and speak instead of using sign language. And because his family was made up of art enthusiasts, Akins found himself growing interested in learning more about graphic art. He studied at Westmont College in Santa Barbara and secured an internship as a graphics artist.
When technology merged with the arts, Akins worked in the advertising industry, where he met Parker. The two had worked alongside each other for seven years and thought about establishing their own agency. After sharing their ideas and comparing notes over lunch, they took the leap.
Since 2005, the staff has grown to 14 creative minds, working on projects for Jesse James of West Coast Choppers, the Anaheim Packing House, Vanguard University and Ezekiel Clothing. Their new headquarters in the 90-year-old Pacific Building at Third Street and Broadway in downtown Santa Ana. The two-story, brick commercial building’s interior — decorated with records, aged wood and the original doors — was designed by Parker, who has a passion for architecture as well as antique stores and museums.
“If it’s rusty, Jeff will buy it,” Akins joked.
“We have an understanding,” Parker added.
The business partners’ road to success started long before some of the new technology that makes it easier for the deaf to communicate existed. Akins remembered having to rely on his wife to call and schedule interviews.
“One time my wife did the interview for me on the phone and made me look really good,” he said. “And of course she landed me the job.”
He said the influence of email, texting, social media and iChat are improving opportunities for the disabled.
“Before all this existed, I had to rely on others for communication outside the office,” he said. “These technologies have leveled the playing field completely.”
Clients are just as satisfied with Akin’s communication abilities.
Casey Ueberroth, senior vice president of marketing for Preferred Hotel Group and nephew of former baseball Commissioner Peter Ueberroth, has known Akins since childhood.
“He is someone I really respect,” Ueberroth wrote in an email. “Even as a young guy, he was a great role model. Now, he always brings maturity to doing business, with a thoughtful and humble style. I always appreciate his ideas and creativity, but even more, I respect his ability to problem-solve. He listens extraordinarily well, despite being deaf, and he always comes back with creative concepts.”
It’s a testimonial that Akins and Parker wish to continue.
“We want to look long-term and have an eye on the length of the relationship with the client,” Parker said about the next 10 years.
“We talk about that every day,” Akins added. “We want to keep adding value to the company and continue to do great work.”