The Egotist Interviews: Leif Steiner of Moxie Sozo
Three months ago, I was sitting in a Starbucks coffee shop in Mexico City. It could have been the same Starbucks that sits on the Pearl Street Mall in Boulder. The posters, music and furniture were identical. Over the past six weeks, I’ve been to Starbucks in Hong Kong, London and California. Somewhere, someone at an ad agency figured out how to seamlessly market to consumers in 49 countries. Blond wood and earth tones.
Perhaps the shadow of global homogeny is upon us. Eventually we will all speak the same language, listen to the same music and watch the same movies. This coming cultural genocide will not happen by force, but will probably be welcomed in the form of a White Chocolate Mocha Frappuccino®.
So, when I sat down this afternoon to do this interview, I chose an independent little coffee shop on Pearl Street and ordered a 22-ounce bottle of hard cider. I parked at a table in the back, popped the cider, poured a glass and immediately attracted the attention of a carefully crafted hipster from across the room. He walked over, sat down, looked at my hair and asked me if I was ‘that guy’ from Moxie Sozo.
Presumably I am.
The following is a mix of questions from you, The Egotist, and our resident hipster.
Is Moxie Sozo a secret project of CP+B?
No. We are independently owned, governed and operated by a benevolent dictator. No investors. No loans. We are free to pick, chose (and sometimes fire) our clients at will.
Moxie Sozo is known for turning away accounts, accepting a select few, and then maintaining long term relationships with the clients that you work with. All client/agency relationships have their rough patches, but you are rumored to have never lost an account. What is your philosophy toward relationships, and how are you able to make them last as long as you do?
The obvious answer: We pick our clients very carefully. We deliver on time. We don’t nickel and dime. Our work is effective. / More importantly, we take excellent care of the clients we have. Sometimes this means servicing accounts in ways that you would not expect. Like seducing strippers. We had a wealthy client in the fashion industry who wanted a particular dancer to model her clothing line. She offered me a large sum of money and a decent operating budget to seduce the girl. That weekend I went to the club. Without a game plan, I simply walked up to the girl and told her exactly what I was there to do. She laughed, drained the budget with an evening of lap dances, and then became a model for the next three years.
How do you coax such great work out of your designers?
Bigger cages and longer chains.
Actually, this is a tough question.
1) It starts with the people. When we hire or bring on an intern, I rarely consider only the resume. One of the best designers we’ve ever had was from India. She showed up for the interview in full Indian regalia, complete with a flowing sari, elaborate makeup and an ornate bindi on her forehead. She hadn’t slept in 24 hours because she had driven to Boulder nonstop from San Francisco, assembling her portfolio along the way. / In general, I search for people who possess an inordinate amount of passion, drive and desire. Smoldering souls who never rest and never give up. It took Thomas Edison 10,259 attempts to create a working light bulb. These are the type of people we hire.
2) Office environment. We have a working office on the second floor of a hundred-year-old building. It is too hot in the summer, drafty in the winter and there might even be a ghost. The walls are covered with an eclectic collection of antique taxidermy, medical prints and signs from around the world. We have one fridge that freezes everything and another one that can’t stay cold. There are supposed to be sleeping bags in the closet for late nights, but they seem to have disappeared. The floors sag towards the middle of the building and cockroaches wander up from the restaurant below. People frequently work long hours, occasionally longer than labor laws should allow. Everyone helps everyone, up and down the food chain. It is a vibrant, collaborative atmosphere that sometimes gets too loud. People are almost always laughing and I’ve never heard a single complaint about anything. It seems to be part of the culture. / Those are the ingredients. I have no idea why it works, but it does.
3) Great clients. We’ve been fortunate; we seem to have a large percentage of clients that say things like: ‘We want to launch a line of skin care products. Go have fun.’ This is smart. I prefer to hire geniuses and point them in the right direction. Whether it is a researcher, designer or programmer, the folks in our studio tend to be very good at what they do. If we are being considered for an account, I usually explain how we operate, and then tell them to go interview other agencies. If we’re a good fit, they come back. The ones that return are looking for work that is out of the ordinary. After a few successes, we’re usually given even more creative freedom. The designers flourish, the clients are happy and the cycle continues.
Describe the motivation behind your trip with employees to Peru last fall, and tell us an interesting story that happened along the way.
I drive our accountant crazy. Wandering around San Francisco a few years ago, I found an antique taxidermy hippopotamus for sale. I bought it for the studio. Have you ever tried to depreciate a dead hippo for tax purposes? / Peru was another spontaneous purchase. I was returning from lunch, and decided to stop by a travel agent. I walked out with tickets for five people in our office. They deserved it, and that was the only motivation I needed. We announced the trip during an office lunch a few days later, but didn’t tell anyone where we were headed. It was a big secret until we got to the airport. After landing in Lima, we rented a truck and drove 2,100 miles through the Andes and into the upper reaches of the Amazon. Most of it was on unpaved roads. We stayed in $6 rooms, ate guinea pig and one of our designers had his chest licked by a Peruvian midget. It was good trip.
Moxie Sozo receives thousands of internship requests and you review hundreds of designers for a single position. The firm is also known for working 80-hour workweeks. What do you look for in potential interns/employees?
When we hire, I look for people who want to achieve greatness in this profession. Becoming the best is a full-time commitment, requiring time and dedication well beyond the traditional forty-hour work week. Greatness does not know the time of day, or the day of the week. Greatness is a mentality and a way of living that permeates everything you do; it is not a part-time job.
We’ve had many designers come through the doors of our studio. Some of them don’t last, but others thrive and flourish. Those that do, understand what it means to be great. These are people who do not look at the clock, waiting for the end of the day. Rather, they are a rare breed of individuals who approach life and work with an unbridled passion.
There are many agencies that are 9-5 affairs. I know this, because I’ve seen their offices at night. There is nothing wrong with these agencies, but as far as I am concerned, they are just businesses created to make a profit. The owners drive nice cars and go home to nice houses at night. But to what end? Someday they will wake up 70 years old and rich, wondering what they did for their whole lives.
The people who work at Moxie Sozo are cut from a different mould; these are people who could probably be successful in any pursuit, but they chose design. They do not work hard because of unrealistic deadlines, or because I’ve told them to stay late. They work hard, because in some people – truly great people, there is a commitment to excellence.
Over the past year, we’ve stopped looking for designers ‘off the street.’ Instead, we have a pool of interns that we occasionally hire from. Indeed, there are only three people in our office (out of seventeen) who did not start as unpaid interns.
One of our current designers spent his first year interning full-time and working the night shift at Home Depot. Nate Dyer. He didn’t start out as a great designer. In fact, he didn’t even have much of a portfolio when he started. But he had an unwavering desire to be good, and he never gave up. In the past six months, his work has been featured in Japan, Germany, Hungry and Argentina. As I write this, it is Sunday afternoon. He’s working on a line of juice drinks. While the rest of America is watching TV, he’s in the office swinging for the fences. He might strike out, but he might – just might – hit a home run.
Success in anything requires an extraordinary amount of work and sacrifice. Nothing less.
I hire people who want to be successful.
In one sentence, what is the secret to managing an office full of creative people?
Creative people don’t like to be caged.
What do you hope will be the most important contribution you achieve during your career?
We re-packaged a brand of raisins. Their revenues jumped from 5 million dollars a year to 25 million. But I believe ‘success’ means a lot more than making money.
After Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, Moxie Sozo organized an international collaboration of artists and designers from around the world to help raise money for the victims. Over 180 different limited-edition series of posters were produced, raising about $50,000. Many of the posters won major design awards, and the effort has been profiled in numerous publications. Exhibitions of the show have appeared around the country and in Europe. Additionally, many of the posters are now in permanent collections of several major museums, including the Library of Congress and the Louvre.
The Hurricane Poster Project consumed several thousand hours of effort, but it was one of the most satisfying things we’ve done as an agency. After an article appeared in the New Orleans Times Picayune, we had dozens of calls from people who had lost everything. Some even sent us handwritten letters. To know that you’ve touched a life or made a difference in the world is a lot more satisfying than being able to buy a faster car or bigger house.
Moving forward, a dream client would be villagebanking.org. Having spent a lot of time in the developing world, I’ve seen first hand the impact that a few dollars can make in someone’s life. The next time you buy a coffee, remember that two-thirds of the world’s population lives on less than three dollars a day. Microfinance – the ability of the working poor to get loans and have access to capital – is a simple concept that produces enormous results. / Have we contacted villagebanking.org? No. But given the opportunity to work together, I’d throw the full resources of the agency behind the cause.
On a more serious note, how do you get your hair to stand up like that?
Polyvinylpyrrolidone and other chemicals produced in New Jersey. Moxie Sozo was the first design and advertising agency in the world to become carbon neutral, zero waste and powered by renewable energy. At this point, my hair probably causes more environmental damage than everything else we do combined.
We picked up Computer Arts, a British design magazine, and noticed that Moxie Sozo was named ‘Studio of the Month’. At last count, you’ve been featured in twelve books and magazines in six countries this year. On the other hand, you avoid the award shows and abhor the hype that other agencies chase. How do you explain this dichotomy?
I can’t stop a book, blog or magazine from writing about us, but I can avoid the hype. We entered an awards show several years ago, and won. That was that. Since then, we’ve never entered another. Many agencies love to enter award shows, but awards are not given for effectiveness; they are given for aesthetics and creativity by industry-insiders who like to stand in a big daisy-chain and pat each other on the back.
That is not us. The only validation I need: In ten years of business, we’ve never lost an account. The vast majority of our clients would refuse to work with any other agency.
When agencies win awards or start believing their own hype, they get fat and relax. And then they lose their clients to the hoards of younger, more agile agencies who are willing to work a little bit harder, stay up a little bit later, and push the boundaries a little bit further.
I will not let us fall into that trap. There is a Persian term: یارکی // یارکی is a state of readiness; alert and hungry, but not weak. یارکی would be a good description of Moxie Sozo.
This August, we passed the 10-year mark. Most of our office wasn’t even aware of it. I don’t care where we’ve been – I’m focused on where we are going. And there are many miles to go before we rest.
What is the future of Moxie Sozo?
In London, I bought a beautiful tablet of finely ruled graph paper. 35 squares wide by 50 squares tall. With each square representing one day, the average human lifespan can be represented on 16 pages of paper. 16 pages of paper.
We’re here to be a world-class, world-renown agency.
And if it takes all 16 pages of my life to accomplish that goal, so be it.
Any parting thoughts?
Two years ago, I was in North Africa. It was the last day of Ramadan, and catching a ship across the Mediterranean was unpredictable. I needed to get across by 3:30 p.m. in order to catch a train. My ship had an oil leak, and then a fire. Or maybe it was the other way around. Other passengers were anxious and irritable. The crew seemed to have disappeared. While everyone else was huddled together inside complaining, I climbed to the top of the boat and lay out in the brilliant sun. I hadn’t eaten in almost 36 hours. If I missed my train, there was a decent chance that I might miss my flight the next day… yet there was nothing I could do, but enjoy the moment.
Several hours later – still savoring the peace of my solitude – the big smokestack above me belched a giant cloud of black smoke, and then the ship was off. I wandered around the enormous mass of iron and steel, curious as to where everyone was. Eventually, I found the entire lot of passengers at the very front of the ship anxiously watching for the tip of Spain. As if watching for it would make it arrive any faster.
So I made my way back up top. And with an azure sky above, turquoise waters below, North Africa behind me, Europe in front, a whale jumping off to my side, and a train that was leaving me behind… I realized that I was the luckiest man in the world.
Leif has agreed to help us take advantage of this two-way forum we have here by monitoring comments under this post and responding to any additional questions you’d like to ask that he finds interesting. So ask away. He’s out out town for a week starting Friday, but will add his thoughts when he’s able.