In the December 2007 issue of Factory Design Labs newsletter, they announce nine new hires. That’s nine hires in a single month, likely totaling more than any other agency in the region. If you turn your head upward and peer toward the highest rung on the agency’s creative totem pole, you’ll find VP Creative Director Steve Whittier and much of reason for the shop’s visionary uniqueness and recent explosiveness. We caught up with Steve on the eve of the New Denver Ad Club’s annual award show, for which Factory Design Labs is poised for performance.
Q: Can you tell us a bit about your background? We know you’ve been at some of the world’s top shops, including McCann Erickson, Leo Burnett, Lowe and Partners, Chiat\Day and Euro RSCG, winning some impressive hardware along the way. How did those shops influence your perspective?
A: Each job I look back on I can pick out small things that made an impact. I started out doing paste up, production work. That made me pay attention to craftsmanship. At McCann SF I worked with Clyde Baird, an old school Art Director from the 1960s NY ad scene. He taught me how light worked on a shoot and how to draw – and how you have to work something until it works. He was brilliant. At Scali/Lowe it was Sam Scali, Kevin McKeon, Al Kelly, Ty Monatague. They were all so calm. It was so laid back. I was freelance at Chiat and Euro and saw that the most talented people are just people. Leo Burnett, Kiev was all about gaining trust and remembering the art side of art directing. The staff was the most talented group of artists I’d ever seen. The writers were philosophy majors. They were so educated and smart.
Q: Give us some basic stats on your agency, Factory Labs.
A: Factory has about 70 people. The creative department is 16 as I write this. We have an agency structure – ACD’s, AD’s, Writers, etc… We promoted Andrew Price to a CD role this past year and he and I manage the department together. He has been here for about 7 years and has played a huge part in our success. We have all our engineering in-house and within the staff we have a total of 9 bands. We do the majority of the music for our work in-house. We can edit here, do motion, 3D. We design and build online games. Our studio people can design. Our Art Directors can do their own production work. We put a high priority on style and flavor. Billings I can’t disclose, but with The North Face win and the addition of Audi collateral it’s getting up there. Our clients? Online agency of record for Audi as well as collateral (new win), The North Face, Winter Park, Scarpa, Boa, Palmer Snowboards, Oakley, Adam Sandler, Sony Pictures, Universal Studios, Jump Mobile, Disney. We’ve done work for Foot Joy and Quiksilver, as well. The list is pretty great. We work for the kind of brands we use.
Q: Tell us about some of the work you’ve been doing recently for your high profile client, Audi USA. Can you give us some details about how the process works with them from concept to completion? Also, tell us how your interactive work lead Audi to name you their brand collateral agency of record.
A: We learn the clients’ business model. How they make money and how they’re evaluated. We understand their goals and how success is measured. Since we live the life of our brands’ customers, those two things together make us relevant. Relevance is key, to the customer and the client. We don’t look to awards for what’s in style with the industry. We look to great work and dissect why it’s great. We talk to athletes, we talk to each other. We do a brief, but I believe we do it from a different perspective. For Audi, we have a total of 30+ Audi’s amongst employees here, some of us two. We know the cars, and we respect that the competition makes great cars as well. The interactive work we’ve created works. It’s measurable and ever since we’ve won the business we’ve seen results. We know the tone of the brand because we drive them and understand why people like or dislike them. When the contract for the collateral business was up, they asked us to pitch it because of our connection to the cars, intimate knowledge and a proven track record online. Plus, we take a lot of pride in how we craft the work.
Q: One of the biggest jabs at Factory Labs we often hear is that much of your work is all style with no substance. Can you address that comment by talking about style and how it relates to concept in your mind?
A: Our customers are buying style. Who buys a snowboard jacket because they like the concept of the jacket and never look at it in the mirror? The problem with the style vs. concept opinion is that it assumes that there is no idea to style. We don’t want ads to look like ads, we want them to have the vibe that will connect with the consumer and give the brand a personality. How many One Show pencils has Burton won? Are the judges their audience? Is that the measure of a great piece of advertising? Do they even understand the audience? The Burton work is brilliant. It built an industry. So when we look at an idea, it better have style to it that is culturally relevant and inspires. We do enter award shows, we believe they bring value to our agency and our people, but that can’t be the measure of what makes you great. You can’t say you’ve “arrived” because you’ve done well in that area. The goal is to have a great idea and execute it right – in tone, style and relevance. It would be an irresponsible idea not to.
Q: From what we know of Factory Labs, it seems you look outward quite often beyond your staff to help create the best client solutions. Tell us about the collaborations you consider most precious to your success right now.
A: We look at ourselves honestly and ask the question whether our skills are in line with the culture of our clients and their consumers. Too many creatives, in my opinion, think because they can design they are the ones to do it all and their talent will make it good. We collaborate with artists and photographers that mean something to our consumers. As an example, we used Evan Hecox for Copper. I was in a snowboard shop and this kid asked me how I got Evan to work on the poster. The kid knew his style, he was familiar with his work for Chocolate Skateboards and knew his name. (My answer was I paid him). We’ve used N8 Van Dyke, Dave Kinsey from Black Market, Kris Frye from the 400, Embry Rucker brought credibility to the youth market for Brine because of his work with Nixon and Quiksilver. John Huet who shot ”The Soul of the Game” book for the Denver Nuggets project. We need to remember we are Art Directors and we direct who we need to make it right, not do it all ourselves to prove we can.
Q: The four pillars of Factory Labs are design, culture, technology and music. Design and technology are self-explanatory. Tell us how culture and music play into what you do.
A: Culture is what our clients come to Factory for. We know the culture of their brands. You won’t find anyone here working on a snowsport client that doesn’t ski or ride. Music is what our clients’ customers are into. Like I said, we have 9 bands represented throughout Factory. We started Beatport, now the world’s largest online retailer of dance music in the world. We launch hip hop soon. Jonas Temple [Factory’s founder] is a resident DJ at Vinyl. We owned a label at one point, too.
Q: What is some of the work you’ve done at Factory Labs that you’re most proud of?
A: It’s hard to pick out pieces. What I’m proud of is the consistency and everyone’s pride and commitment to give it all on everything. When I started here, Jonas (the founder of Factory and now Chairman as well as CEO of Beatport) kicked my ass over a BRC card and the design of it. He and I spent a whole day on that card. That taught me to craft. That piece changed how I design. It’s not in our portfolio however.
Q: What is your assessment of the current state of Denver’s ad and design scene?
A: I think we have some serious talent here. I feel a good energy, as well. I was an award show whore for a long time and that held me back. I think people should put aside recognition as a goal and put great work as the goal. Don’t try to be the next anything. Just do what you believe will work for the client with style and a great idea. What I don’t like is people claiming not to be a Denver agency. The moment you say that, you are that.
Q: Why do you think Denver has yet to achieve the creative hot bed status of similarly sized cities like Minneapolis and Portland? What do you think the agencies here can do to change that?
A: Quit worrying about it. It’s like trying to talk a girl into liking you. Do great work and send it out with some humility.
Q: What shop in town, other than yours, do you most admire and why?
A: Collective International. They are an in-house shop for brands like Airwalk, Vision and Sims. The work and execution are flawless. It’s not the kind of work that wins an Addy. It’s the kind of work that creates a brand.
Q: What are the top five places/things you go back to again and again for inspiration?
A: Magazines, a lot of them. I find it easy to explore design and ideas that way, I get distracted on the web and start watching YouTube or playing with the retirement calculators. Of course, if it’s when I’m working on an online project, I go online to see what’s going on. Bannerblog.com.au and design sites galore. I like Flickr for photography.
Q: What are the enemies of great creative ideas?
A: Forgetting who your audience is. Also justifying bad design by saying the work is conceptual. Formulaic solutions. I’m really disappointed with the work I see coming out of ad schools. It’s the same one copy line and a visual solution that’s clever and tricky. Is it responsible to give the same executional style to each of your clients?
Q: Describe your ideal client for us.
A: One that doesn’t want “an agency.” One that just wants to talk about what we’re going to do together to solve a problem and lets us show them what we’re thinking.
Q: Where do you hope to take Factory Labs in the next year? The next five?
A: We don’t want be huge in staff numbers. This market has proven it’s tough to find hundreds of people – you have to devote so much time to looking. We want the next wave of Factory people to produce great work. It’s their time. We have promoted some people lately and given them the reigns. As we say, we don’t want a “B” team. Just a handful of great clients that give us the opportunity to let our people shine.
Q: What do you want to tell everyone in Denver and far beyond who read all the way to the end of this interview?
A: Thank you. I am fortunate to work with really talented people I respect. All departments, all levels of experience. Every day I learn to look at things in a new way. Thank you Jonas, Tim, Jeff G, Trevor and Eloy – the best group to do this with. And of course, Jim Glynn.