Previous and former Grafik employees photoshopped next to luggage in a train station

The more things change, the more we keep the good stuff.

Grafik is about to turn 40 (which I’m told is about 135 in agency years), and I’ve been here for 28 of those years. We are a decidedly different organization, offering a greater array of services, yet for all the changes we are remarkably the same. It’s easy to get to the root of the changes. They are driven by the same technological advances that have changed literally everyone’s lives—computers, the internet, smart phones, virtual reality—but magnified when it comes to an organization whose main responsibility remains communicating. So, as the anniversary approaches, I wanted to look at what has remained the same.

Our approach to client relationships

Doing our homework: It’s easier than ever to get information in today’s data-driven world. But the more there is, the more important it is to interpret it all correctly. Heat maps and backlinks can tell you a lot, but so can talking to a human being. Knowing who you are—not just on the surface, but deep within your organization—is essential. This is even more important (and this may seem counterintuitive) when working with a new client in an industry in which we have a lot of experience. I have always found it odd how much emphasis is placed on related experience. I think that’s why so much marketing is “me, too.” It is precisely in those cases where we have an existing knowledge base that we have to be doubly sure we’re looking with fresh eyes. We build on what we know, but also use it to challenge our observations.

We become the client: I can’t tell you how many times in the midst of these deep dives into an organization I suddenly say “wow, they’re a lot like us.” It may simply be that empathy is an important part of the process, or that we actually end up with like-minded clients. The answer to this chicken/egg problem is less important than the fact that it occurs so often, and how it contributes to working as “we,” instead of client/vendor. Sometimes, the client even becomes “us,” joining Grafik, and broadening our perspective to everyone’s benefit.

Telling the hard truths: That “we” relationship creates the trust required to tell a client something they may not want to hear, but that can change everything for the better when it comes to moving a business forward. Our clients challenge us with their business problems, and we challenge them with new ways of thinking.

Don’t be afraid to say goodbye: Grafik has always been picky, seeking clients whose business we believe in, whose people exhibit a shared respect—simply put, clients we believe are worth the valuable energy we invest. Grafik will not take on projects or clients that any one of our employees may find offensive—no matter how lucrative. Every now and then, you start an engagement with a client you just can’t team with. When that happens, say goodbye quickly. It’s not a short-term monetary decision, it’s a long-term viability decision.

Finding and keeping the people who make this place what it is

Hire people more talented than you: We didn’t invent this approach, but we have painstakingly followed it throughout our history. When you find talent, grab it. It can be elusive, but if you really do seek it, there is an abundance of talent in the world (and a lot of it right here, IMHO).

Find work/life balance… today: Maintaining work/life balance in today’s 24-hour connected world is a challenge, but it’s imperative that individuals be allowed to decide how that balance will be achieved. It makes for a place people want to be. You see it in our full-hearted support of maternal and paternal leave so new parents can focus on their most important work. When you have a team who cares so much about doing good work, you won’t be asking folks to work more, you’ll be taking them aside and questioning if they’re taking enough time away from the job.

Look for “fit”: The last thing in the world I want to jeopardize is the camaraderie I see each day. There has always been a “lunch bunch” here at Grafik. There was one when I walked in the doors 28 years ago, and there’s one here today. Different people, same spirit. Someone who thinks they’re better than everyone else can destroy that chemistry. Ours is intact.

Preserving culture is not easy. It takes work. It’s a conscious decision, whether learning new skills, hiring people with new skills, or changing processes, keeping your core means knowing who you are and where your heart is. The foundation for this was laid, explicitly and in a more intuitive way, by Judy Kirpich, who started Grafik in 1978 and recently gave up active management to blaze a new trail as a textile artist.

I can hear her voice in each of the approaches above. But while those gave us a way to grow, a solid foundation on which to add new capabilities yet stay who we are, what I literally hear in my head as we start out on new engagements may be the biggest contributor to continuity amidst all the change. At the end of sometimes grueling downloads, on-boardings, critical strategic and creative reviews, Judy would always say the same thing. And to this day, as I walk out of a conference room, I hear it: “go be wonderful.”

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