MessageMakers Celebrates 40 Years

A red glow peeks through the cracks of an old photographer’s darkroom fifty-some years ago. Just west of Detroit, a young boy helps his father as he patiently dips and slowly swishes a tray of chemicals, and brings memories to life as he develops a picture.

“Those hours spent with my father in a darkroom sparked a dream inside me,” said Terry Terry, now president of the creative firm MessageMakers, celebrating its 40th year. “Visual storytelling was part of how I learned to understand the world. I remember when he gave me a copy of ‘Around the World in 1,000 Pictures’ by Milton Runyon and Vilma Bergane, I knew it was my dream to tell stories.”

Terry started with freelance work while teaching at Michigan State University, helping people with video and photography. He fell in love with the idea of being able to help people tell their stories and communicate their ideas, but wasn’t sure how to start a business.

“When you love what you do, things have a way of working themselves out.” said Terry. “My bank account was empty when I landed my first contract. That was a problem, because I was supposed to fly around the world to produce videos for international schools in Central and South America, then Europe, Africa, and Asia. But that first client – specifically a gentleman named Burt Fox – paid me cash on the on the spot for my future travel expenses.”

Four decades and 50 countries later, MessageMakers has worked around the globe telling stories and producing programs in twelve languages. That body of work has included the Governor’s Economic and Education Summit, a rebranding campaign for the City of Berkley, Michigan, graphic recording to communicate the nature and purpose of major change initiatives at General Motors, as well as work for Harley-Davidson, GreenStone Farm Credit Services, Herman Miller, Habitat for Humanity, the American Red Cross, Michigan Virtual, and a wide range of other businesses government agencies, associations, educational institutions, and non-profit organizations.

Non-profit involvement has been an important part of the story of both Terry and MessageMakers. In 1984, Terry founded a non-profit that would evolve into the Michigan Institute for Contemporary Art. MICA was first focused on local impact in the Lansing, Michigan’s “Old Town” – producing music and art festivals that would grow to attract thousands to the downtown neighborhood.

In 2014, MessageMakers collaborated with the MICA to produce the feature documentary “Second Shift: From Crisis to Collaboration.” The film was recognized with an Emmy nomination.

Over the past 40 years, MessageMakers has earned over 100 awards for quality. Terry was named Small Business Advocate of the Year Award in 1999 and Outstanding Small Business Award in 2008 by the Lansing Regional Chamber of Commerce. In 2015, Terry was presented with the Distinguished Alumni award from James Madison College. During his acceptance remarks, Terry encouraged students to “be tenacious in pursuit of your dreams. The notion of being fully responsible and accountable is my definition of freedom.”

Today, the work of the MessageMakers team is in many ways the realization of Terry’s childhood dreams. “I’m very happy to be working with good, smart people who want to make a better world.” said Terry.

“It’s hard to predict the future, but I know that in another 40 years we’ll still be storytellers,” said Terry. “The form of those stories may change dramatically as technology and society evolve, but narrative will continue to connect the many facets of our creative work as MessageMakers, and also in turn connect that work to the world. Regardless of the medium, we’ll push to tell stories that are category-defining, and based on strong relationships with our clients and our community. We’ll help people to learn and connect with purpose, hopefully making some kind of social impact. That’s who we are today, and that’s who MessageMakers will be for years to come.”


Heather Zara, Founder + CEO of Zara Creative, recognized by DBusiness; 30 in Their Thirties

Founder and CEO | Zara Creative, Troy | Employees: 9 | Revenue: NA | Michigan State University

Heather Zara’s friends thought she was crazy to quit her 10-year sports broadcasting career to open a video company that specializes in TV commercials, branding videos, philanthropic films, and weddings.

“It’s funny because I never thought I’d be an entrepreneur, but I was always fascinated with why people became successful,” Zara says.

She started with zero funding but, in just over three years, Zara Creative has grown to serve more than 500 clients ranging from nonprofits to Fortune 500 companies. It has nearly doubled its sales every year.

Zara estimates that weddings make up about 35 percent of her business. They’ve taken her and her crew to far-flung destinations like Cancun and Miami, and in Michigan to Petoskey and Glen Arbor. Because her business has grown so much, Zara recently turned over supervision of the wedding portion of her firm to one of her employees.

Zara, meanwhile, maintains direct responsibility for the rest of the business. “It’s really cool because it almost ties back to my days as a reporter,” she says. “Every time I work with a client I get to learn about their business.”

The video storyteller prides herself on always trying to push the creative envelope for clients. One client, a lawyer, wanted a commercial shot in his library, with him standing in front of shelves of law journals.

“After he told us what he was looking for, I asked him if he was married to that idea,” Zara says. “I just thought we could do something more creative.”

Instead, she made a commercial intended to make the attorney’s target audience laugh. “The lawyer wasn’t even in it,” she recalls. “He ended up getting a ton of new business and we won a national award.”

Zara says her philanthropic efforts are a driving force in her life: She works with more than 30 Detroit-area nonprofits, serves on committees for the Boy Scouts of America, and is one of the sponsors of the newly-relocated Ronald McDonald House at the Detroit Medical Center.