Each time I watch Judd Apatow’s This Is 40, I like it more and more. It’s funny, and it’s true—the way we measure things changes based on where WE are in the continuum. For example, the older I get, the more I see 40 as not old at all. But when it comes to a strategic branding agency, 40 years seems like forever. It’s also remarkable. How did Grafik get to 40?
First off, take a look at the work, as I have this past month. I’m proud of it, and all the people who did it. But I also keep coming back to the clients. An impressive list of names to be sure, but what I was struck by over and over was their willingness to break out, to be different, to have faith in our rationales and act on our advice. Thank you all.
When I came to Grafik in 2001 to lead new business development, we were one of the top design agencies in the region. The creative was inspiring, the people familial, the diversity of clients made every day interesting, and the awards kept piling up. Heading this was Judy Kirpich, our co-founder and my mentor and dear friend. Judy ran this firm with passion, integrity, business smarts, and a never-settle mentality. In an industry rightfully famous for chewing agencies up and spitting them out at an alarming rate, Judy gave Grafik its staying power.
I never told Judy this (until right now—you can bet your house she’ll be reading this), but Grafik’s success and reputation over a 25-year span made my first few years at Grafik easier than I anticipated. Referrals—for collateral, websites, identity work, advertising, and direct mail—flowed in. A dream come true for a BD guy.
Around 2004/2005, our client relationships and the work began to rapidly evolve. While the referrals were still strong, we started to pursue new opportunities. We hired MBAs in addition to MFAs. We were consulting more on branding, on web technologies, and on business as a whole. We brought in seasoned writers and developers to complement the creative firepower already in place. Clients expected us to talk ROI in addition to color palettes.
The timing was fortuitous, for the great recession was soon upon us. Recessions have a way of exposing an organization’s deficits, and our expanded expertise was a hedge against being viewed as nice-to-have rather than a need-to-have as belts tightened everywhere. We used the downturn to push even harder, seeking to make ourselves and our clients something stronger than we were pre-recession. We stressed three key things:
These three actions impact all aspects of one’s business and are hallmarks of any successful brand. I believe the visionary clients who allowed us to leave an imprint on their business during that particular and fraught time came out of the economic rebound even stronger. So did we. And we’re still working with many of them over a decade later.
But more evolution is needed. I see the agency model as virtually unchanged since long before Grafik’s birth. The current spate of mergers and consolidations are adding little to how agencies and clients can work smarter: how we should share the risk/reward of our collective efforts; how we can truly hold ourselves accountable; how we can better leverage data and technology to inform our strategies and executions.
In This Is 40, Leslie Mann’s character has an epiphany: “We’re 40 now. We’re going to blink and be 90. We have to make a choice to do things better. I’ve made a list. It’s the do better list.”
I’m proud to say that Grafik has always had a do better list. It goes back to Judy’s never-settle mentality. And because there’s still work to be done, this list continues to evolve. So will we.