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Guess who’s coming to dinner?

A few years ago I was visiting the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago with a friend to see their permanent collection. I was quite taken with much of the work but she seemed a bit jaded. The stark minimalism of plain white and monochromatic canvasses left her wanting quite a bit more in terms of detail and execution. It was after seeing the kitschy Jeff Koons photos she could take no more.

“Whatever happened to art that looked like it took time to create?” she blurted.

Well my reactionary friend, that type of work is at the Art Institute of Chicago on loan from Italy. If the addition of the Modern Wing is the biggest thing to happen to the Art Institute in years, the loan of Caravaggio's The Supper at Emmaus is a compelling counterpoint. The painting, like much of Caravaggio's work is far more immediate than the dusty old masters paintings that one appreciates rather than loves.

From the man abruptly rising from his chair, to the wild hand gesticulations of the man on the right, this is a painting that is kinetic while perfectly capturing a singular moment in time. I particularly like how the tray of fruit is perched ever so slightly on the edge of the table, teetering before all hell seems to break lose. It's like the opening diner scene of Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs, minus the profanity and 70s suits.
The Supper at Emmaus is on view at the Art Institute through January 31, 2010. Do yourself a kindness this holiday season and see a majestic work that will likely never be back in the states during your lifetime.

I’m with the brand

A question we often ask clients to gain insights into their brand is, “If you were a car, what make and model would it be?” This not only offers a window to their self perception but does so in a way that forces them to think differently about themselves, often with revealing results. Recently we have taken to augmenting the scope of the question to be open-ended and more cultural, less product-specific.

If your company were a band, which one would it be?

The answers have proven to be quite provocative, often revealing internal fissures particularly when posed to a group of partners. Heated debates over the relative merits of the Who versus the Stones have ensued in our conference room (ie, “We're edgy but not not 'trash the hotel room' edgy).

With shifts in our business culture moving faster than the demise of the compact disc, I'm thinking of reframing the question yet again: If you were a band where would you like to be in three years? A lot can change in that amount of time. The mop top Beatles of 1964 singing “I'm Happy Just to Dance With You” were worlds apart from the eastern influenced hippies of the White Album. In 1989 Nirvana was just a local Seattle bar band. Three years later they were arguably the biggest band in the world. Two years after that they were done, leaving a legion of fans in mourning and a powerful catalog of music.

What band would you like to be and where do you see yourself playing? Would you like to be at Shea Stadium playing to 60,000 fans or at a more intimate venue like the Chicago Theater? Fully amped or unplugged? If you don't think about what you would like to be, it's a safe bet you won't have much control over where you are going to be.

You’re gonna need a bigger boat with a different name

The unofficial mantra of the United States Marine Corps is “adapt, overcome and improvise”. Despite being a pacifist, I've always liked this credo. It acknowledges the reality that things do not always go according to plan and leaders find a way to sidestep landmines and overcome challenges.

Recently, we were handed a dream project for a new client. The scope included a complete brand creation, from naming and brand development to website design and implementation. On top of that, the client was one of the smartest nice guys you could ever hope to work with. After extensive research and exploration, we chose an evocative company name that articulated his value proposition in a memorable and ownable manner.

We were days away from presenting creative designs for brandmarks and web design when the proverbial other shoe dropped. The client attorneys wouldn't approve the name because of a potential trademark infringement with another company. We felt like we had been punched in the gut. This meant not only coming up with an entirely new name, but completely redoing all the identity development that had been created to date, as this work was predicated on the name.

I was reminded of the production of Steven Spielberg's Jaws in 1975. The filming on set was notoriously fraught with problems, not the least of which was a mechanical shark that failed to work properly. After weeks of shooting, most of the shark footage had to be scrapped entirely. To improvise, Spielberg instead filmed from the perspective of the shark, suggesting the impending carnage instead of showing the creature itself. Alluding to the shark instead of showing it proved far more effective and chilling, proving that there is nothing more terrifying than our own imagination. The movie has been remade and ripped off countless times since then, but never to the same eerie effect.

The project is still ongoing and we are back to square one. We may have one shark that failed to launch but we are going to create a blockbuster nonetheless.

Stay tuned.

Branding is not a 9 to 5 gig

In 1887, thirteen year old Spanish cello player Pablo Casals walked into a music store and bought the sheet music for Bach's Suites for Unaccompanied Cello. Casals took it home and practiced for hours. He then proceeded to repeat that practice every day for the rest of his life.

Today, his masterful recording of that piece of music is considered the definitive interpretation, despite the bumps and hisses due to the limitations of the recording technology of the time. Minimalist, passionate and overflowing with emotion, the music continues to be used in film and commercial alike.

If you're good enough and disciplined, you inevitably become more successful at what you do. But it requires rigorous devotion and unwillingness to compromise. In the same way, the best brands are ones that are diligent in every application of their brand, not just their visual identity. Everything from how you answer your phone, to your email signature to the signage in your company is a tangible manifestation of your brand, one that clients remember. Your brand is something you need to consider every day. If you're hardworking and fortunate, your brand may one day be considered a definitive classic, like the Casals suites.

Although you can't slack off. When Casals was 93, he was was asked why he continued to practice the cello three hours a day. Casals replied “I'm beginning to notice some improvement.”

Caught up in the moment

If you've ever lost yourself in the moment of staring at autumn leaves or thrown stones into Lake Michigan, caught up in the moment of interacting with nature, you have some inkling of the art of British artist Andy Goldsworthy. Andy Goldsworthy is a an artist unlike any other, although artist does not quite capture the scope of his work. Instead of clay or paint and canvas, Goldsworthy collaborates with nature, using the proverbial sticks and stones to create his pieces. With nothing more than found materials, he plays with them, building, connecting and ultimately creating stunning sculptures that can last anywhere from minutes, in the case of his ice sculpture, to years, in the case of his rock walls.

But the real subject of his artwork is time itself. Watching him work is to see someone completely lost in the moment, what Zen Buddhists strive for in sitting meditation, where there is no past or future, but the simple elegance of the present. To know that most of his constructions will be destroyed by nature itself, through wind, tide or storm, makes their beauty all the more ephemeral and poignant. Thus, the real artwork is the moment of creation itself, something you can be privileged to see in the documentary of his work, Rivers and Tides.

Watching Goldsworthy work is akin to staring out the window of a train, not thinking of your destination, but merely taking in the scenery of the moment, ever changing with each passing station.

A building by any other name

What’s in a name?

Would Huckleberry Finn be the great American Novel if it’s titular character were named Milhouse van Houten? Would Luke Skywalker be the same pensive Jedi if he were called Stuart Bupkus?

To that same point is the Sears Tower the same building now that it is called the Willis Tower? Put aside the cheap jokes for a moment. (ie, “What’chu talking about Willis?”, “Bruce 'Don’t Call Me' Willis” or the Anglophilic “Big Willy”) Let’s also put aside the fact that every cab driver in Chicago still calls it the Sears Tower and it will be another year or two before the name takes a proper foothold in our collective vocabulary.

Is it the same building?

From a material standpoint, of course. From a branding standpoint, not at all. Words in general but names in particular have incredible weight and significance. Generating a name for a new company is one of the most daunting tasks we perform for our clients. The name is rightly one of great personal significance to the client, akin to naming one’s firstborn. Whatever resonance the Sears brand has lost in the past decade, the name still conjures up an era and allure within the context of the building.

Big. Durable. Enduring. Sleek. Hardworking. No B.S. In short, Chicago.

Willis Tower conjures up an empty thought balloon, vacuous and void of meaning. You can rename it what you will but to a large segment of Chicago, Sears Tower will always be Sears Tower. It’s no different than that ballpark on the South Side that will still be called Comiskey Park long after U.S. Cellular Field has sold naming rights to the next brand on the block.

So what does your company name say about you and your brand?

Designing Relationships Part Two

Think dating is tough? Professional relationships can be just as daunting. Continuing our list of the perils and parallels between personal and professional relationships in the creative world…

4. Mind Your Manners
The surest way to not get asked out a second time is to forego good etiquette and politeness. Not saying “thank you” after a dinner date or being rude to your waiter or waitress are leading indicators as to what someone is like at their core. Always make it a point to include a hand-written note or a kind word along with the final invoice to a client, letting them know how much you enjoyed working with them (assuming you did of course.) It never fails to surprise me how favorably clients respond to a genuine word of appreciation for their business. You would be shocked to learn how infrequently this happens.
5. Be Honest If It Isn’t Working
Everyone has either said (or heard), “This was great, let’s do it again sometime.” And very often, it wasn’t great, it was dreadful and you have no intention of doing it again. So don’t give someone the false impression that things are going well and you want to continue the relationship. If a client (or designer) is not a good fit for, let them know that and part ways amiably. Be professional, be polite, but be firm and let them know specifically what about the working relationship is problematic.
If they are an ethical and upstanding client, but just not appropriate for you because the work is unrewarding, either financially or creatively, it’s fair to part ways. If you know a design resource more suited to their needs, make the introduction, as it will help out both parties and leave them with a good feeling about you and your firm.
6. Be nice to your exes. They have friends.
Breaking up is hard to do according to Neil Sedaka, but staying on good terms shouldn’t be. If there have been challenges that have caused you to sever professional ties with a client, ill feelings do not have to be an inevitable consequence.
We developed a corporate identity and collateral campaign for a client who had different expectations of the design process than what we were accustomed to. It was when his wife began faxing us her ideas and sketches that we knew it was time to part ways. The client was clearly looking for a set of hands to execute his ideas. At that point in time, it was time to say, “It’s not you, it’s me.”
Which always means, “It’s you”.
We had a long chat and settled up with the fees that had been incurred to date. Upon handing off the files that had been created, we shook hands and pleasantly parted on good terms. Since then, he has referred three clients to us, none of who has a budding designer for a spouse. Just because someone is not the right partner doesn’t mean you shouldn’t stay friends. Similarly, just because someone is not a good client doesn’t mean they’re not a good person.

Designing Relationships Part One

You’ve no doubt heard it time and again: Managing your business is not unlike managing any other relationship. From tentative flirting, to steady dating, up to and including the inevitable fight and occasional breakup, the parallels are quite telling. Without trying to alienate current and valued clients, here are some guidelines that will serve anyone in the creative industry looking to achieve better success in their relationships, be they personal or professional.

1. Avoid the crazy ones

Or as my clever Uncle Paul used to say, “Why are the pretty ones always insane?” A colleague at another agency managed a Fortune 100 consulting client with whom every creative firm wanted to work. They had huge budgets, a well-known and well-executed brand, and an exciting body of projects on which to work.

They were also a complete and utter train wreck.

It was not uncommon to have a brochure in the advanced production stage of reviewing proofs, and the client would arbitrarily change the design and content entirely, so one more or less had to start from scratch. Obviously, they charged extra fees for this additional time, but it was crippling to the morale of the creative team. More than a few talented designers and art directors left the agency as a result. One team member observed that the client was like the incredibly beautiful woman (or man) who knows the power of his or her allure and lords it over all suitors.

Everyone wants to date this Aphrodite or Adonis, but once they do, they realize that it frankly is not worth the headaches. Sometimes in business, as in dating, some people are not worth the drain it takes upon your spirit.

2. Relationships Take Work

Someone once said, “Falling in love is easy. Staying in love is the trick.” If you’re not vigilant, it can be like that with clients and their brands. When a new client relationship begins, the ideas are fresh and there is an energy that sweeps both parties along (affectionately known as the “wine and flowers” stage). After the honeymoon is over, inevitably there are going to be challenges and missteps along the way. Work through these. The surest way to lose a good client (or partner) is to take them for granted and let the work grow stale by phoning in the creative as opposed to keeping it fresh by continually pushing yourself and challenging expectations. If you don’t, there is always another suitor waiting who will.

3. Be Yourself

A friend who was a smoker began dating a young lady who was vehemently opposed to cigarettes and would never consider dating a smoker. During the entire first month of their courtship, he never smoked around her and made a point to avoid having a cigarette before seeing her, so there would be no trace of it on his person. Needless to say, once they got beyond the seduction phase, he began smoking in her company, trouble flared and they split up. Clients generally expect and appreciate the type of work for which you are known. Always push yourself, always challenge the ceiling of expectations, but don’t ever try to be something you are not, in your work or in your brand.

Values are a *bleeping* valuable thing, you can’t just give them away

A young man is selling M&Ms to raise money for his high school baseball team outside a downtown Border’s bookstore. An older businessman walks past him, ignoring the solicitation. As the businessman moves past, the youth utters a mild expletive under his breath, which the businessman overhears. He turns his head, offended and surprised, but thinking better of escalating an unfortunate encounter, continues on his way.

The frustrated youth didn’t lose just a sale that day. He made the market toxic for everyone who was making similar entreaties for his cause. He treated a potential relationship as a transaction. Any time the businessman is pitched to donate for a similar cause in the future, he is presumably going to remember that unpleasant incident and think better of it.
How are you treating your customers who aren’t responding to your sales and marketing efforts? While you (hopefully) are not cursing them when they reject your efforts, are you reaching out to them in ways that don’t just serve your own agenda? Or do you approach them only when you want something from them?
During a recession, it’s easy to lose sight of the values and virtues that sustained organizations when times were good. However, those very qualities are what will be most important as we move into more profitable and productive times. Successful organizations and brands continually reach out to their customer base, not merely to generate a sale, but to engender loyalty, create awareness and plant the seeds for future opportunities. By thinking of the long term, it’s easier to build relationships that will sustain organizations long after missed sales and hard economic times have passed.