Mother New York

Mother New York

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Dangling above the bar is a large collection of copper pots there for purely decorative purposes, and climbing above the kitchenware is a spiral staircase that ascends three skylight-lit stories to the roof that overlooks the Hudson River to the west and Midtown’s skyscrapers to the east. “That staircase and the light at the top of it creates a central core that everyone has to participate in, no matter what floor you’re working on, and that breaks up the cluster a normal floor plan creates,” explains McKittrick.

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Mother New York’s space reflects how the organization simultaneously takes itself seriously and welcomes eccentricity, exemplified by the Damien Hirst painting that hangs on one wall and the framed photos of staffers’ mothers arranged like a collage on another. Each employee also has an image of their mother on their business card. “It reminds us, What would our mother think of what we’re doing?” says McKittrick.

The company’s work matches it’s irreverent style. Mother New York has hosted a dinner party in hot air balloons for Stella Artois, re-imagined iconic Vogue photo shoots using only Target products, and helped Crate & Barrel’s CB2 create the first-ever, crowd-sourced apartment designed by asking fans to vote on what pieces went in each room. As the company develops its projects, it’s typical for Mother New York’s creative department to hang their concepts on office wallboards for everyone to see.mother-7mother-8mother-10

“It creates a more open and collaborative way of working on a project,” says McKittrick. “A lot of times in advertising the creatives will lurk away in a dark room and work amongst themselves. The boards are a way of bringing that creating process out of the shadows and into the open. Everyone can see what is being worked on, even if it isn’t their project.”mother-11

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&Rosàs — Barcelona

&Rosàs — Barcelona

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Other than the sprawling space that would make any city-dweller jealous, the building’s true appeal rests in its relationship with the city and its history. Inside, remnants of the building’s past life as a bank are everywhere, complete with a massive wooden conference table seemingly more appropriate for stuffy bankers than a dozen creatives with laptops. When the company rented the space, however, the team painstakingly rehabbed each room, one at a time. In the process, they discovered a portrait of the bank’s previous owner, which hung in the office until the owner’s granddaughter happened to glimpse it during renovations and asked for it. “It was hers all along, so of course we gifted it to her,” says Rosàs. If the space looks and feels more like a home than an office, that was the intent. “My personal reason for opening this in 2002 was to have a place to work where my children were proud of me, a place where they could come and visit, and it’s a philosophy I try to share with my team,” says Rosàs.

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Left: Jordi Rosàs’ Office “It’s actually my older brother’s bike from 37 years ago. We organized a bike fixing event here so I convinced my brother to give us his to fix. Now I ride it when I go to bars after work,” says Rosás with a laugh.

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Jordi Rosàs, founder of @Rosàs, in his office.

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&Rosàs’ patio. An oasis for creative professionals in the heart of Barcelona.

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Instrument: From 15-Person Production Shop to 130-Employee Digital Creative Agency

Instrument: From 15-Person Production Shop to 130-Employee Digital Creative Agency

Instrument CEO Justin Lewis likens making the jump from a production shop for ad agencies to a full-fledged interactive content studio to tearing off the Band-Aid. While painful, it was the best thing the agency ever did for itself. “Once you tear that Band-Aid off, there is no going back as you do alienate some people from other advertising organizations,” says Lewis. “ But the choice was essential in allowing our business to become something greater than it would have ever been had we been a silent partner for other organizations.”

Today, Instrument is 130-people strong, up from the 15 employees it had in 2010 when it changed direction. Inside Instrument’s 30,000 square foot Portland, Oregon headquarters, the atmosphere feels more like an agency than a corporation due to how Lewis and his Chief Creative Office JD Hooge have constructed their teams. Rather than having a super-sized reporting structure, Instrument has teams of 20-30 people of various disciplines, working as mini-agencies within a larger company. That has allowed them to avoid what they believe is a tipping point of efficiency within a company, growth beyond 40 employees. 

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The Instrument office in Portland was custom-designed specifically for the agency.

That’s just one way the company developed its own identity. The partners of Instrument believe that their company culture needs to be tested (not protected), that visual designers and user experience professionals can be one in the same, and that clients need to leave some room in their creative briefs for Instrument to make magic happen.

We recently sat down with Hooge and Lewis to find out more about how their holistic view of digital content separates them from the pack and how facetime with their clients like Google Design, Stumptown, and The Metropolitan Museum of Art makes all the difference.

Why evolve from a production shop for ad agencies to becoming your own full-service agency?

JL: We had aspirations to have something greater than a production shop for global advertising agencies. That’s a great living for a lot of mid-size agency owners, but we made a really distinct choice one day where we said, ‘We believe in ourselves enough to break away from that model and go directly to clients.’

JD: There was a moment when we realized that we were doing the strategy work and not charging for it, so we needed to add it as a service and start charging people. When we started doing copywriting, photography, script-writing, and video content in 2010, we started to completely bypass agencies all together. We have never looked back and never worked through an agency for five or six years now. It’s a lot more satisfying if you are able to inform the content and the ideas of the thing that you are making. It wasn’t even so much a business decision, as a belief that we could make a better product at the end if we were involved in all of it.

JL: We also had a philosophical notion that you should meet the people doing the work. You bring a project to Instrument, and you will get to meet the people who are doing the work. We don’t send it right out the back door. There is a lot of pride in that.

“We believe in ourselves enough to break away from that model and go directly to clients.”

Instrument is known for having a strong culture. What tangible steps have you taken to create that?

JL: The culture is a value proposition and you find that at times people want to protect their culture. We believe the opposite: A culture needs to be durable and tested and beaten up and bruised from time to time. It needs to reflect the needs of the people in the organization, not the organization itself. A great culture is one that does shift to fulfill the demands of the people that come and spend time there every day. You have to be willing to give up some control. But you have to believe in something, and that belief structure has to be valued and shared. If it is, it takes on a behavior that you are proud of.

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Creative work being done at Instrument.

How does having visual designers lead the UX affect the outcome of the product and your project deliverables?

JD: The by-product of that is awesome, but the upfront work we have to go through to hire for that is painful! It’s like we are self-inflicting pain on ourselves making that such a strong requirement when hiring. But the by-product is beautiful because there is no hand off between someone who cares about user experience and someone who cares about the visual design. It’s also more efficient, because when someone who is a strong visual designer is creating wireframes or creating user experience flows, they are also thinking about the visuals and that comes through and accelerates the process much sooner. It’s not such an imagination leap that the client has to take when they move on to the next step. That goes all the way through to prototyping. Right now we are using every single prototype tool that is on the market, even on the same project.

JL: When you really move away from the paradigm from constantly working towards the deliverable and start working in a direction of trying to uncover what is right for the final deliverable of the product, then you start to work in this looser fashion that is more about using all the tools to uncover good ideas as fast as possible. Yes, it would be more convenient to say, ‘Ok, step one is wireframes…’ but does that make the end result better? We don’t think so. So you have to get your hands dirty, learn a ton of different things, and be able to move in and out of different tools rapidly to find good ways to visually communicate the best idea.

When working with clients, how do you strike a balance between them giving you a clear assignment with your designers having the necessary room to use their imagination on a concept?

JL: We really made this wonderful pivot in the organization at a certain point and worked hard to put some air into the relationship with the client. It’s really easy in this world to get to a point where there is nothing left to chance in the relationship between the agency and the client, but then there’s no room left for greatness! When there’s no space other than A, B and C, the chance of finishing the project is great, but the chances of uncovering something amazing are slim because you’ve tried to over-rev on the creative process where no surprise can ever happen. Where’s the room for magic to happen? Our process has allowed us to have amazing results but to also work hand-in-hand with the client to steer and work with business needs in the moment and it creates a real-time working relationship that everyone feels makes us partners.

“You have to get your hands dirty, learn a ton of different things, and be able to move in and out of different tools rapidly to find good ways to visually communicate the best idea.”

To what degree does it require more face time with clients to earn their creative trust?

JD: It depends on the client. For example, right now we are working with a client in LA, and one of their designers has been here for a month and we’ve been down there three times this summer. They’ve had various people coming up here and there are three of them here today. In some sprints we have meetings every two days on video hangouts. We text with them, there are no barriers: We are an extension of their team and they are an extension of ours. When we have in-person meetings we do whiteboard full day sessions, and when we are on video chats we will open up Sketch and show them where we are at. Same with Nike. We have people go out to Nike twice a week who are fully working side by side with their creative directors. With other clients it can be totally different. It comes back to this ability of being flexible and having a lot of tools at our disposal.

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An Instrument project with their Portland-area neighbor Nike

Tell us about how you organize your teams, as Instrument has grown from an indie agency into a 130-person office.

JL: When we were at the 40 person range, we made a decision to turn the company into team model making vertical teams that are multidisciplinary and run by a person that is a producer in nature, but also a business person. We reorganized the company into that model and have never really looked back from it. Take a designer from Instrument and they would be on one of four teams they would identify with — that enables us to be fluid as an organization and reduce the scope of what an employee is doing and caring about. An organization tends to lose its efficiency when it moves past 30 or 40 people, but that is typically what we have on our teams now, so it gives you that sort of family unit and strength of having 30 really talented disciplines in one group.

JD: The teams sort of operate as independent agencies with this leadership umbrella team above it. The benefit is that they can have access to other team resources if needed. We have a bartering system where, if one team is light on a certain element, they have access to these other teams. You have your team family, your discipline family, then the whole Instrument family. Each team has their own logo, and events, and happy hour and off-site trips and rituals. They all take pride in taking on their own identity.

There are no barriers: We are an extension of their team and they are an extension of ours.

What are the biggest changes you see in the future for both Instrument and the field of digital design?

JD:  I feel like we are at the one percent mark of web design and digital services in terms of design and technology and where they meet. We are so at the beginning and it’s really wild-west. That’s why we are doing this. There are zero rules and we are just making it up as we go along. 

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The Upside to Being a Designer Outside of New York

The Upside to Being a Designer Outside of New York

Design firms may dominate big cities like New York, Los Angeles, and London. But people with innovative, creative ideas and the skills to execute them come from all over. Who says you have to open your business in a major media market in order to be successful?

Sure, if you’re in New York, Los Angeles, or Chicago, you may be positioned down the street from the world’s biggest companies. A pitch meeting is a subway or taxi ride away. However, if you’re in Cleveland, Omaha, and even Anchorage, you can still get your firm’s portfolio out there and attract business from major players.

Here’s how firms like Nottingham Spirk (Cleveland), Grain&Mortar (Omaha), and Spawn Ideas (Anchorage) make their zip code part of their gig-winning culture.

First, they turn their physical location into an asset.

In Cleveland, Nottingham Spirk co-founder John Nottingham pulls into the parking lot of a converted landmark Christian Science church overlooking the city’s University Circle education, arts, and medical district. His 60,000 square foot, neo-Roman building with an ornate rotunda ceiling contains his company’s entire “innovation center,” from research and development, to engineering and crafting, all the way up to executive offices.

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A bird’s-eye view of the Nottingham Spirk office, looking down from the rotunda.

While Nottingham Spirk has been innovating for major brands like Sherwin-Williams, Unilever, Mars, and Cleveland Clinic for over 40 years, it has only been in its current location for about a decade.

The look of the building is one thing, but the space is central to Nottingham Spirk’s success. Everything is in-house. That means consumer researchers, focus group moderators, industrial designers, mechanical engineers, prototype producers, production designers, and those who source materials are all under one roof (something not always possible in cities with sky-high rents where certain departments are pushed off-site). Having focus group rooms upstairs from industrial designers pays off when a morning focus group gives criticism and then designers refine a prototype that wows the afternoon focus group.

“That’s real-time product development,” says Nottingham.

Codie Costello, the new business director at Spawn, talks with prospective clients while looking out a large window onto the Cook Inlet, where she can often spot Beluga whales breaching. “You can see their white humpbacks come out of the water,” Costello says.

While Spawn works on local campaigns, like a successful re-branding effort for all 31 Alaska-owned and operated McDonald’s franchises (highlighting “locally-owned and operated since 1970,” on bags, cups, and trays), the agency also hones in on something every Alaska resident appreciates.

“We’re focused on leveraging our outdoor experience,” Costello says. And it makes sense that a company across the water from Sleeping Lady, a mountain in the Alaska Range, has contracts with gear-maker Mountain Hardwear and Intrawest, a major North American ski resort operator. Spawn looked at Mountain Hardwear’s mitten and glove offerings and realized there were two missing sizes: XS and XL. With those new sizes came growth. For Intrawest, Spawn boosted season sales by helping to refine the “M.A.X. Pass,” which allows skiers to access 39 mountains for five days apiece throughout the season.

Over half of Spawn’s employees are not from Alaska. They know it is a risk to move from a city like Denver or New York. So Costello says Spawn likes to promote risk-taking. If potential clients don’t like a non-conformist pitch, so be it. “But I’m going to take that step,” he says. That might also mean crafting a pitch that shows the client not just a finished product, but the original sketches in an effort to welcome them into the creative process.

Costello admits that deciding to move to Alaska for a job is a big step. She knows, since she did it herself after living in Northern California and New York City. But Spawn offers some key creative recruits a unique opportunity: It will fund a try-out period. Pack a small bag, and get your feet wet in Alaska, while you’re getting your feet wet with the agency. If it’s a good fit both ways, the employee is welcome to take the plunge and hire a moving company. If Anchorage is too remote or it’s not a good fit, no hard feelings.

 “It sounds kind of weird. ‘Why don’t you come try it for three weeks, a month?’ We’ll have you come work on a project with us, see what you think,” Costello says. “So many people have this idea ‘I want to come to Alaska.’ But it’s dark for most of the winter, and some people don’t like that. While it doesn’t always work for every person in every situation, it certainly has worked for us.”

For a young strategy and branding company like Grain&Mortar in Nebraska, it’s impossible to discount the long runway that comes with opening a business in a city like Omaha, which has a cost of living score of 88 on Sperling’s Best Places calculator. (The U.S. average is 100. Santa Monica, Calif., on the other hand, checks in at 294.)

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Inside the Grain&Mortar office, which is located in downtown Omaha, Nebraska.

Creative director Eric Downs and his partners used to pitch against each other as freelancers working out of a co-working space, until they realized they would be stronger together. So they established their 5,000 square feet headquarters in the Mastercraft Building, an old furniture factory which still features original pulleys, pipes, bricks, and valves.

Downs knows the firm loses projects to competitors in the big cities. “There’s some merit to having people a little bit closer,” he says. “But on the flip side, there’s no way we could do our jobs and not be on top of each other if we were somewhere else. We know what the rent is in those big cities, and quite honestly, it’s not manageable.”

With a little extra space in Omaha comes a chance to use the space creatively. The firm hosts design society events, which boosts their local profile and serves to scout local talent. It also leases some space to a calligrapher, who has her own client base but is always on hand if Grain&Mortar needs some exquisite lettering.

As a progressive design firm in a city where big companies still go for billboards over social media, Grain&Mortar is the go-to designer for major Omaha events, like the Big Omaha conference. It’s an event that brings together hundreds of entrepreneurs and Grain&Mortar insists on a seat backstage and at off-site dinners and cocktail parties. Downs and his colleagues then get to pick the brains and network with people like Refinery29’s Amy Emmerich, Twitter’s Evan Williams and Google Ventures’ Kevin Rose. The networking has so far helped them land business from Google, Twitch and Hudl. 

“They’ve seen what we’ve done in Omaha and a lot of them have turned into clients themselves or became a referral source for us,” Downs says.

Salaries in these cities are lower than they would be on the coasts. But all three subjects say they ask their employees to enjoy their lives outside of the office – youth soccer games wait for no one, after all.

Downs even encourages his employees to work fewer than 40 hours a week if they have gotten their work done. “I think a lot of companies work more hours than we do,” he says, noting that employees at plenty of businesses have 50-hour work-weeks but a 40-hour salary. “We’re adamant that our teams go home at 40 hours.”

For some clients getting out of a big city bubble is an asset. Cleveland’s “middle of the market” reputation actually helps Nottingham Spirk, believes Nottingham. “They feel like we have a better feel for the customer they’re going after if they’re selling something in a Wal-Mart, Target, or Dick’s Sporting Goods,” says Nottingham. “They think we are closer to that consumer, and I think they are right.”

In the end, Spawn, Grain&Mortar, and Nottingham Spirk know that their home towns provide both advantages and disadvantages. But they’re enjoying their unique position in their market.

“If you’re marketing anything, you want to market yourself in a market that’s not crowded,” Nottingham says. “If Nottingham Spirk were located in a New York, L.A., or Chicago, I don’t think we would have been as successful as we are now.”

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