Agency Tour: Wolff Olins Talks Musical Chairs and Mad Men
Wolff Olins is the global brand and innovation firm most known for its breakthrough work on behalf of clients like GE, (RED), Unilever, Mercedes-Benz and more. Todd Simmons, Executive Creative Director, takes us behind the scenes of this ambitious brand and innovation consultancy.
NYEgotist: How do you introduce new employees to the Wolff Olins way? Are there initiation rites?
TS: At Wolff Olins, new team members get inducted by the head of each discipline who takes them through our unique culture and way of working. New employees are given a cross-discipline buddy so they have someone to have lunch with and help them to get oriented when they start. Once they get the lay of the land, we do have a few cherished rituals. For example, every Thursday evening we gather together for “Share”, where we invite employees, friends and the like to present their tech/digital/media/creative worlds over food and drink for inspiration, discussion or to tell their story. We're all very open and comfortable with each other and really enjoy spending time together. The new kids are encouraged to introduce themselves and put it all out on the table. They often present humorous, special (or embarrassing) anecdotes that help bring us closer together.
Another interesting thing we do is shuffle the seating deck every six months. We start by picking a number out of a hat and then select new seats based on this order. This "musical chairs" seating arrangement gives everyone in the office the chance to sit across from new faces in different disciplines. We find this fosters collaboration, and some of the most interesting ideas we have start from casual sidebar conversations.
NYE: You recently created a campaign for New York City. Do you approach branding something such as a huge, luxurious city, the same way you would approach, say, Mercedes Benz?
TS: We start each project by asking the client what they want to accomplish, and from there we decide the best approach. We don’t have imposed processes, and all of our relationships and strategies are tailored to the client’s ambition. At the core of our approach is the belief that it’s essential to start out understanding what the brand, product, service, company or destination stands for in the world. We help clients get to the truth behind their offer and enable them to define that truth through their brand story and vision. It has been remarkable to work with so many different kinds of organizations spread across a wide range of industries. The unique approach to each job makes it even more exciting.
NYE: Who are the Don Draper, Peggy Olsen, Pete Campbell, Roger Sterling, and Burt Cooper of your office?
TS: It's hard to choose just one person for each character. Karl Heiselman, our CEO, is definitely the most like Roger Sterling. He's the seasoned, cool, elegant, left and right brained — icon of the office – type of guy. Sam Wilson, our Managing Director, is our Burt Cooper. With a cool hand, great style and slight eccentricity, she’s ultimately the conscience of the office. Although she lets us keep our shoes on. It's a three-way tie for the part of Don Draper between myself, strategy director Nick O'Flaherty and creative director Jordan Crane. Nick is the handsome one with a sexy South African accent, but we all pride ourselves on being the idea guys. I'd say we have a lot of Peggy's here — the entire design and strategy teams are just like Peggy. Everyone has that young, excited, wide-eyed, hungry look. The same with Pete Campbell. Pretty much every account director is like Pete, but cooler.
All that said, we’re not an ad agency.
NYE: How are you being innovative in the digital space?
TS: We don't think of digital as a “space.” It affects everything we do because almost everything is digital, whether it's a deliverable or not. Recently we created Whtespace, a collaborative, design-driven email digest that enables users to personalize their content feed and share it socially, which is up in Beta now. Everything we work on has a digital implication – changing the way we express our ideas.
NYE: What’s the best unusable/offensive idea you’ve ever come up with?
TS: Some of the best creative ends up on the cutting room floor, but in the end this only helps us. What we can't use for one client often ends up as inspiration for another idea or a big learning we take on board as we approach our next client.