The Creative Resistance: Panel Transcript
The Creative Resistance panel took place as part of Design Week Portland on Tuesday, April 25th at Half Court Studios, hosted by VISIBLE and moderated by Liz Gill Neilson, Co-founder of VISIBLE and Associate Creative Director at The Beauty Shop.
Liz Valentine, CEO, Swift Co. A Possible Agency
Eugenie Jolivett Fontana, Founder, Gather and Garner & , w(HERE), & Programming Director, AIGA Portland
Toni Lee Smith, Owner/Executive Creative Director, Happylucky
Laura Whipple, Founder/President, Scout Books
Liz N: Liz, so we know Swift has been doing this kind of work for awhile. How has incorporating pro bono work changed your company culture and how do you make it work financially, to dedicate resources on top of your other work?
Liz V.:Our Pro Bono work has had a really positive impact on our culture in a few ways. The first and most obvious...it gives our staff the opportunity to support their community and/or organizations they are passionate about through our work environment. It also brings teams of people who don't always work together a chance to get to know each other and collaborate, which makes our community stronger. And, it gives some of our younger staff the chance to lead and grow, so it's great for professional development.
“In terms of how it works financially, it doesn’t really. I wish I could say that it does, but at the end of they day it is a donation of time and a service.”
In terms of how it works financially, it doesn't really. I wish I could say that it does, but at the end of they day it is a donation of time and a service. You have to be in a position to do that and/or require that all of the work happens after hours. That is really hard to do well, so we build it into our work plans and schedules in a way that minimizes impact.
Liz N.: Eugenie, as a Program Director with AIGA, could you give us insight on what's unique or challenging about building initiatives and platforms that turns designers into changemakers or allies of change makers?
Eugenie: Part of the challenge with building initiatives or platforms for designers to become change makers or allies to underrepresented communities, is the lack pushing behind the norm. Awaiting permission to create collaborations with whom is already here. Using the same pool of facilitators who are from the same kind of class, repeating this format in the arena of conferences, talent recruitment, studios, agencies, and companies just continues to perpetuate the cycle. It's much more work to bridging the disconnect and getting dirty. And part of leading the design industry in becoming better creators of a diverse environments is by taking action to seek it out. At the end of the day, excuses can not hold water for too long. Creating design for good, with diversity, is a choice which leads to wonderful narratives of the human experience.
“Creating design for good, with diversity, is a choice which leads to wonderful narratives of the human experience.”
Liz N: Toni, we know you're a lifelong activist and we're curious if and/or how the election has changed your perspective or approach to taking action, the kind of work you're doing, or how you're leading Happylucky?
Toni: After the election we took a stand. As the business owner, realized that our strong stand could potentially turn off clients or current/potential employees. During our lunch weekly employee meeting we talked openly about why I hung an upside down flag outside on our building (to symbolize trouble in the country), why many of us marched with the protesters, why we joined Visible. I let them know that I think it is imperative to use our voice and the way to pour power towards what I believe is the good for us all. We were very clear that this is the path that Happylucky was going to take, and as a business owner it’s a little bit scary because it has the potential to turn off clients, current employees, turn off prospective employees, but for me it felt like it was a worthwhile sacrifice to make and it seemed like something for the good of the world.
So, we became an activist agency. We have a channel on Slack called “Resist” which is basically a way people can find out what’s going on. When bills are in the Senate we can go there and share that information. If there’s other websites with links to take active stands, if there’s a protest, we can share our wins when there is one. It’s just a great place where we can go and share. We also started a space where artists and designers and writers could post their art called Print To Resist. It is free downloable art.
I guess the other thing that was quite remarkable to me was the day after the election results. We were all kind of shell-shocked at our desks and then there was this kind of spontaneous meeting in the kitchen where everyone just kind of gathered and started talking about what was on our minds—their thoughts and their feelings and their fears, and it felt very empowering and it felt very cathartic to be able to share our feelings with one another, but it also kind of made everybody there know that they were in a safe place, and that while times are going to be challenging and there will be people that we need to protect, that Happylucky is a place that protects them. So that’s kind of the three things. I guess the fourth thing is that we changed one of our core values from inspiration to integrity. We have seven core values (laughs)
Audience: What are they?!?
Toni: It’s a long story…anyway the first thing was Inspiration, and the more we thought about it the more we realized that that’s sort of a given for our jobs—I mean we’re writers and creative people and directors and producers, and we should come at our lives inspired and we should bring that inspiration to our job everyday, but integrity—that was something that we weren’t seeing happen in the world. We saw the whole election cycle, we saw lies being communicated out as truths, we saw what we viewed as unacceptable adult behavior being normalized, and then after the election, we now have this guy who, well, I don’t think we need to talk too much shit about President Trump, but we have this guy that acts like a child most of time and he’s surrounded himself with these corporate shills that really only have their own best interest in mind, so it feels very important to me that we, in our own very little part of the world, that we act in that way. So, yes, we changed one of our core values and having that as something that guides us throughout the day, that we act with integrity, that we treat each other with integrity, that we put the focus of the jobs we’re working on as quality over the bottom line, that we try to partner with companies as best we can, that we believe in their products and brand promise, and their people—this is just something that kind of guides us throughout the day. So those are the four things that really shifted about us. The main thing is that we view ourselves as activists.
Liz N.: We had a similar moment at The Beauty Shop, where we realized we’re going to need to tell our existing clients that we’re doing this Visible thing. And we had kind of a little bit of a scary moment where we sent out this big email to all our clients saying we’re doing this, we’re honoring all your deadlines so don’t worry, but if it gets a little weird for a few days, that’s why. And we kind of held our breath because we wondered—are we going to lose people? And we we’re sort of like, bummer if we do, but you know, it was a moment where we had to think. And luckily, what was so moving and beautiful about it was the response we got from everyone was we’re behind you all the way. We didn’t lose a single person, and that felt amazing. It felt like well, maybe we’re not all in this alone. But it has made us also really think that second or third time in taking on new clients, is this going to be someone that’s behind what we’re doing? So, ya, same as what happened at Happlylucky.
Toni: Yes, it was sort of this thing of like we’re always encouraging our clients to take a stand—to have a perspective, to have a point of view so if we can’t reflect that in what we’re doing, then we’re really not worth our weight. We’re really not doing our jobs, But same thing, as far as I know we didn’t lose any clients, we didn’t lose any employees. There may be some prospective clients, but we felt the same thing, that we don’t want to work with people that don’t share our world view. It doesn’t mean we have to align on every single philosophical point, but just the bigger picture.
“I can’t just sit and let this happen. I can no longer pretend I don’t see it. I have to get up and do something about it, instead of just talking about it.”
Eugenie: I had a friend that told me this phrase about being an armchair warrior. And I’m like, oh what does that mean? And when she explained it to me, I’m like, oh, I can’t just sit and let this happen. I can no longer pretend I don’t see it. I have to get up and do something about it, instead of just talking about it. And aligning yourself with clients that are into what you’re doing or ecstatic about making these moves and pivoting when they need to, it’s just really exciting to see that. And for those who don’t really need to be there, you just have to say you’re not for me. And that’s ok, because you're opening up space for the clients that are supposed to be there, that are supposed to be making the difference. And I think it’s awesome that Scout Books is a B Corporation…
Laura: Not yet! I have to make that clear. (laughs) We are so close, but it’s like the longest last mile. We’re hoping to be there in a few months.
Eugenie: Ok, I’m manifesting that for you! But I really think it’s important—as a creative person, that integrity. Aligning yourself with those you need to be aligned with and not be afraid to just take the jump because you’re going to land on your feet. Some way, somehow, you’re really going to land on your feet.
Toni: I like that—opening space up for those that need to be there…
Liz N.: So Laura, Scout Books is a little different in that you mainly produce physical products. How are you using your business model as a tool for activism?
Laura: I think we had a very similar moment the day after the election—of grief and collective wanting to provide a safe space and reassert what we value. And that wasn’t questioned by the election. That was just tested by the election. So we’ve had a print design-based business for over 15 years and we’ve always approached the business that we do with trying to be as sustainably minded as possible, and trying to make as good of decisions as possible. But also trying and then measuring and trying to be even better than what you measure is what we’re in now, with the B Corp application and just measuring what we’re actually doing. And so the election really brought clarity to what we wanted to work on. A way of reacting to how grief stricken we felt and scared for people who felt threatened because of the results was just to take the day—we didn’t know what to do. We didn’t want to go home, we didn’t want to work on regular work, so we did a creative project and then that became a fundraiser for the ACLU, and afterwards, we thought we should do this more.
We’ve created an Equity Alliance, which is the sort of our official pro bono work, where prior to that, we’d always been trying to give back. Saying “always,” it varied from month to month, and it varied who we’d partner with or sponsor or who we’d give product to, but we’ve not swayed from that, we’ve just upped our game—a lot. Donating more money, donating more time, and donating more physical Scout Books, including the blank notebooks that you could use for a workshop to a custom notebook that would be an exhibit catalog—we sponsored one for an exhibit about the Design of Dissent that happened in Seattle, and that was one we donated our staff and material time to. We have a little bit of a different budgeting concern because it’s not just time. It’s also the cost of the materials, and we’re just trying to figure out how do we keep giving more but have a budget that balances. I’d say it’s always a priority to me to keep giving more that I should, so I’m working out the best way to set a reasonable target and measure against it, and just open it up to the entire team of what we should be working on now. It’s probably going to rotate each quarter with the Equity Alliance projects.
“I think that we all have something to give. We can all do better, and we basically all have to do better to overcome what we’re dealing with right now. ”
I think that we all have something to give. We can all do better, and we basically all have to do better to overcome what we’re dealing with right now. So it’s not that you need to feel bad that you’re not doing enough. It’s just, look at what you have. Write it down. Write down what you value and write down what skills you have to work towards that value and then set a goal. Maybe it’s a daily goal with the five calls, or maybe it’s a weekly goal with writing letters or creating an illustration that reflects what you really value, or maybe it’s a team goal to do a project that works toward sharing a message that counteracts what is the prevailing situation now. I just recommend that you step up, and then ask how did that go and should we try that again, or, should we do something else? But keep doing things. I mean, we do things with little books, and we’ll keep doing that. Probably more so as the year goes by.
Liz N.: Here’s a question for all of you to give your take on: In recent weeks we’ve all noticed and in some cases been surprised by a few big companies using ad campaigns to make statements on political issues, for better or for worse. The good ones: Patagonia for environmental awareness (not surprising), Nike for diversity, and even Anhueser Busch (maybe a little more surprising), showing support for immigrant rights during the Super Bowl. This shows a trend of corporations stepping up to the plate just as our political system seems to be losing moral ground. Where do you think this will lead? Is there a role for creatives in this as advisors to companies on their brand positioning and messaging and encouraging companies to “come out” politically? Where’s our power in that.
Liz V.: I think we do have a lot of power in that. And it’s not just the election, but even market research on millennials and Gen-Z's saying that millennial and Gen-Z's care more about the world. They want to make it a better place and they care where their money goes and they want to see companies that they believe have shared morals and beliefs. And it’s true—it’s not just idle research, and something I think every brand is trying to figure out. For some of them it’s a little easier—Patagonia is a great example, I mean that’s their DNA. They’ve built their brand and whole business around that. I think for some companies, it’s an easy proposition because it’s baked into how they’ve always done business. And I think when that’s true, go for it. Use your voice. Have power. Starbucks is our client and they’ve been one of our clients for over 5 years and they’re not a perfect company (no company is), but they treat employees incredibly well. They educate baristas, they’re hiring 10,000 veterans, and they do pretty incredible stuff and can really authentically stand behind that, and they’ve always gotten quite political.
Because of their weight and power, their retail stores, their depth and breadth of their digital / social reach, they can actually galvanize communities. They don’t always do it perfectly, but I do so appreciate the fact that they do take a stand, and I do think they have a little more permission to do it because it truly is in Howard Schultz’s DNA. They would be a more profitable company if they did not send their baristas to college, if they did not provide health care. I mean they’re truly sacrificing profit to help people.
And then I think there are companies that are jumping on the bandwagon that are trying to use the political momentum, the trend research that they’re buying to sell more product and it’s not authentic. And that’s where it gets kind of yuck. That’s where if you work with one of those clients and you can’t back it up, then don’t do it, because chances are you’re going to be outed in like 30 seconds and you’re going to be a laughing stock. I think we’ve seen more of that recently.
I think there are a select few companies that can do that, sadly. I think there aren’t enough companies that can do that and so I think our role is to help them make the right decisions. Before we can help them leverage the social cause they want to tie themselves to, look inside and really evaluate it. Audi is an interesting example. They did this Super Bowl add around equality for women and men and they got a lot of really positive momentum. I saw the ad and I thought it was really powerful, and there were things about it I really loved. But when you dug a little deeper, you realize there’s not one women on the executive team and just 16% of the advisory board are women. So, hmmm. I don’t know how I feel about that ad—maybe they should be focusing more on getting more women into leadership positions. It just ran a little hollow for me when I learned that.
“It’s our job to be the gatekeeper of truth and make sure that brands are selling themselves as they really are, or finding that nuanced aspect of who they are that will appeal to the hearts and minds of consumers, but not to do it in a lying or deceiving way. We’re the gatekeepers. We have to tell them the truth.”
Toni: I was just going to riff off something you just said about that authenticity. As long as it’s in the realm of those in position of the brand, it can work. I mean I think we all thought of the Pepsi ad when you asked the question, and that was beyond backfiring. It was just insulting to the movement and it was just so clear that they were using their trend reports to create this spot that didn’t make any sense. So it can be damaging to brand and I’m sure damaging to the agency that worked on it. I think the other thing you said was it’s our job to be the gatekeeper. It’s our job to be the gatekeeper of truth and make sure that brands are selling themselves as they really are, or finding that nuanced aspect of who they are that will appeal to the hearts and minds of consumers, but not to do it in a lying or deceiving way. We’re the gatekeepers. We have to tell them the truth.
Eugenie: We have to hold these brands accountable. We are creatives, but we’re also consumers and we speak with our dollars on lots of different levels—supporting each other, supporting these brands, not supporting others, so we have to make sure we hold those brands that have more capital or audience accountable for what they’re doing and who they hire. I read an article about three months ago that Hewlett Packard and GM, just prior to the election results, started saying that they wanted to hire agencies that had more diversity and inclusion, and if agencies didn’t have that, then they would be seeking work elsewhere, which I thought it was really good that they were taking a stand. But I also questioned whether they were doing that because of the energy that was floating around. Are they being authentic about it? Do they actually have that within their own company? So I had a lot of thoughts seeing that. And again, that was another fire for me thinking, okay you can’t just sit here la-la-la-la-ing, you know? I have to be accountable too.
Toni: And your buying dollars, and like Liz was saying with Starbucks, it doesn’t help their bottom line to make their decisions. But it does, because I think people do look to that kind of stuff. They are watching brands. They are watching how they’re treating their employees and, obviously they’re watching the imprint they’re making on the world, but I think it does help their brand to do that stuff.
Laura: I agree. We should be more accountable. The companies we buy from should be more accountable, the causes we believe in should be more accountable. And I also believe in iterative change. So, no one is perfect—everyone’s on a path to, hopefully, getting better and more honest about what we’re struggling with here. There are going to be fumbles along the way and some places have been doing it longer, so they’re going to have an easier time, like Patagonia, and that’s always nice to have role models. But I don’t want to hold everyone else back, those that maybe have been doing a poor job, and say they won’t ever get it together. Maybe this is all a wake up call, so companies and individuals and organizations all have a collective wakeup call.
Liz V.: After the Wells Fargo DAPL debacle, and Wells Fargo was exposed as one of the major funders. I had banked with them for 20 years and I called them up and I closed my accounts and it was really interesting because they were amazing and I was like, what am I, number two, three of the day? How many people are calling? And they said there had been dozens and dozens and dozens of people closing their accounts, and the very nice person on the other end of the line had a list of all the changes they were making—more accountability, more this, more that—and it’s great that they’d done all those things, but it’s really because people moved their money. Seattle moved their money, major major institutions… I think this idea of accountability is everything. The fact that this random customer service agent had the list of everything they were doing is pretty powerful and indicative of how you just speak with your dollars and your actions.
Liz N.: Are there ways in our industry that we’re contributing to the culture that led to the outcome of the election—this is sort of the other side of the coin—and how are we a part of “the problem” (if anyone wants to define “the problem” feel free).
Eugenie: The answer is yes. We are all guilty. We have all been asleep during some portion of our career, I’m pretty sure of that. And when you do wake up and realize that and try to make those changes, do your best or navigate through that—whether it’s your own agency or your own business or a business that you associate with, then ya, the answer is we’re guilty. But you don’t have to beat yourself up for it, and I think once you realize that you’re a part of the problem and start making changes to find the solution: whether that be creating more diversity…I lucked out not knowing that until after a few years when I looked back that I had a really diverse business, considering I started in the beginning of the dot-com (I’m dating myself now). I didn’t know I was doing that at the time, but from the beginning we were all pretty diverse—I was a woman, I just happened to be a black woman, and my partner was from South America, and I had another guy that was Asian, and we created diversity and didn’t know that it was happening because I was living in LA and again, I didn’t really completely think about. But now that I live here, I can see it. I’m like oh, I did that I was only x-y-z age. And now, reflecting and seeing my career over time, I make sure that I mentor somebody that’s of color and I try to go out of my way to make sure there are other designers in school or high school. I’ve only encountered a few, but I think that’s a point we really need to address and start getting them really young. My mom’s a teacher, and even in elementary, it really starts young. And being mentors to them, and if you have children, being aware of what you’re giving them and how they see that. Even if they’re creative, how they talk amongst their peers. Be aware.
Laura: Talking about the elephant in the room, how are we at fault—I think that although we were all in shock and grief stricken, unfortunately, it was not terribly surprising that this was the outcome after seeing all these institutions start to deteriorate. I feel like it comes back to what we are spending our time doing, both at work and free time, and I think that’s where we have the most guilt. What do we do with our time and how do we spend it? Are we putting our energy towards things that give people like Trump power? Like the social media types of interactions that he was engaged in, the tv shows that he was gaining notoriety from—are we giving them our energy? If so, why don’t we just redirect it. It’s not that hard, and I think small changes add up to a collective cultural shift, and so that’s what I feel guilty about. Not even knowing how much energy I was giving. Not that I would watch or follow or pay attention specifically to him, but just generally I think the discourse and the attention to things that really truly matter had faded. Maybe we got complacent, and are complacent, because we’re in a consumer-based economy and advertising and marketing and branding is tasked with selling more of that so really, I’m not sure what the way out is from a political, economic shift, but I do think that if we can all take a pledge to write down what we care about and then write down how we can spend more time doing things to support that, I feel like we’ll make a change that ends up having a political impact. And people that have a lot of smarts with political organizing, I want to borrow from what they’re recommending too, because I don’t feel knowledgable enough. But what I’ve been trying to do is writing what I care about, because I think I’ve been distracted.
Even if I’ve got the best of intentions. So that’s what I’m trying to do: not be distracted.
Liz V.: Just to build on that—I think you hit something there…what Swift creates often times is largely digital and social, and I can’t tell you how many times we get a brief that’s like “we have to make our point in 6 seconds,” and you’re thinking you can’t actually be thoughtful or make a point in 6 seconds, and that is kind of where the industry has gone. I fear that that has actually had a really big impact in how people assess and evaluate and are influenced and make decisions, and so I think for me, it’s just giving more time to things, and I think probably the thing we lack the most is time. Actually reading The Atlantic, like READING things. Not scanning and thumbing through things, but deeply studying things. I remember, I’ll just go back to this Wells Fargo story, I mean I had read “Wells Fargo=bad,” “Wells Fargo=bad,” “Wells Fargo=bad,” and before I made the call, I thought can I really be articulate, can I really say exactly why I’m moving my money and I thought no, I need to do a little more research and look at all the arguments. I think this industry that we’re in, marketing, advertising, data, whatever it is, we’re all dumbing ourselves down to just nothing in terms of time and we just have to step back and ask more of ourselves and more of our clients and try and put more thought into what we’re doing, and just try and push people to really back up their opinions.
Liz N.: Use our wisdom.
Liz V.: Yes. We’ve always had it. We just seem to have gotten down to this 6 second habit and it’s not healthy.
Liz N.: We have one more question and then I think we can move onto some Q&A. How do you think that the political client is aesthetically influencing design right now? This is kind of whole other area—how is it influencing our creative work, our process, our enthusiasm, and even just literally the elements that we’re choosing; color, type, and…What do you guys see in that vein?
Eugenie: I know it’s happening and I can see it. I think we’re definitely becoming more thoughtful with the choices we’re making. I mean again, November was a little bit of a gray sky and after we had our mourning session over it all, I think we’re now a little bit more ready to make moves and speak through design and architecture and all of those facets.
Liz V.: I’m not a designer or a writer, I’m more of a business person actually, but what I love about this is that there’s so much verbal expression. Like anyone can design right now. If you look at the March for Science or the Women’s March, I was down on my hands and knees with my kids making posters and I was like, I haven’t had to create something in so long! I’m kind of a finance person running a creative agency, but it’s so cool that there’s just so much out there. There’s so much communication. There’s so much expression. I’m loving just how many powerful, strong words that I’m seeing, and so it’s not just from the design perspective for me. It’s amazing. I feel like we’re flooded with communication in a way that lets anyone can get involved. My seven year-old has something to say and can get it out there. There’s all these new outlets. Especially living in Portland, there’s just so much to see, so that’s been pretty cool.
“People are not only active and they’re hitting the streets, but they’re bringing their creative voice to the conversation. It’s sort of like insider or outsider graphic design art or something. I’ve been inspired by so many slogans, and the connections people are making in their minds graphically and visually is super cool. I think it’s fantastic. I think it’s going to do a lot for graphic design. I think it’s humbling and liberating all at the same time.”
Toni: I was sort of thinking the same thing—that there’s this torrent of energy coming from everywhere. I was thinking of it as the democratization of design. We’re all schooled in design, with these high falutin educations and people are just out there expressing themselves in this really artful, beautiful way. It just really unbelievable, it’s sort of incredible. That’s sort of my favorite thing about what’s happening. People are not only active and they’re hitting the streets, but they’re bringing their creative voice to the conversation. It’s sort of like insider or outsider graphic design art or something. I’ve been inspired by so many slogans, and the connections people are making in their minds graphically and visually is super cool. I think it’s fantastic. I think it’s going to do a lot for graphic design. I think it’s humbling and liberating all at the same time.
Laura: I think it’s really cool that art supply sales are way up, since the election—like between 30 and 40% for foam core and paints, and it’s really great. Just the chance to make an art project—that doesn’t happen for regularly for everyone, and that’s really cool, and it’s going to have that DIY quality to the aesthetic. And then, I had this interesting experience where my mom handed me a poster roll the other week and she’s like, “It’s the We the People!” and I was like, what is she talking about? I knew what “the We The People” meant from Scout Books working on a project called “We the People are Powerful,” and so I didn’t quite connect immediately that it was the Shepard Fairey series, and this one was the muslim woman and I don’t remember the phrase, but I just thought that if my mom is buying these to share with all of her children, then it’s speaking to her (and she’s not typically buying contemporary posters), so obviously there’s been a saturation and this is working. Iconic illustrations from someone, who prior to the election he’s made iconic political illustrations, but it was a good moment—the feeling of the resistance becoming mainstream as an aesthetic moment.
Liz N.: Well thank you all so much, and now if anyone has any questions.
Audience Q: Bringing what you were talking about at a business level, at a more personal level, I had similar insights after the election, and I decided I wanted to shift my life and do work at the intersection of strategy, writing, and social justice, and I’m trying to figure out how to position myself right now and it’s been an exercise in self-branding and I decided I would freelance until that job presented itself to me. But as I’m talking to different prospective employers, I sort of feel myself doing this dance where it’s like if you’re only interested in social justice than we’re not going to hire you. So as people who hire people and are talking about this and manifesting it if you don’t have it, how would you advise around positioning yourself if you want to go that direction, short of going to New York for 2-3 weeks and picking up some clients.
Liz V.: I don’t have a perfect answer—I mean it’s a really interesting intersection. I have a friend with a similar background who is trying to figure that out as well, and so I’ve been having this conversation with her and there’s some amazing agencies that are focused around building social movements, they just don’t happen to be here, and so maybe it is about finding businesses that are dedicating time and are supporting their employees who want to do that kind of work. Maybe it’s not always your sole focus, but maybe you’re given time to cultivate that and build that and maybe even change the organization that you’ve joined. So that’s kind of one initial thought, and my second is: start that agency here. I mean I don’t know, it’s viable. It’s happening. There are businesses trying to figure it out. There’s the resistance and I was the least likely person to start a business and end up being successful, so really, if you can dream it and you have the resources and the background, you might pull it off. It’s interesting, maybe that’s a conversation you start to have, of build it. And you really just need to start with one client, so maybe you start your freelance business and see where that goes.
Eugenie: Don’t resist it. If you have to go to New York, you don’t know if that’s the connection you need to make the other connection to get you where you want to be. You might want to think about how that person or that company or client may pivot you into that stream that you want to be going down. Maybe you start it, but it might not be right here, right now, but it could be in six months. Really just jump. Don’t overthink it anymore. Just jump. You’re going to be fine.
Audience Q: You guys have talked about how you’re working on pro bono projects and going after resistance things. Are you also finding that you are perhaps, is it changing, who you’re going after for paid clients? Are you talking to different people? Are you pursuing different sectors? I’m curious if it’s had an impact in that area as well.
Toni: One of the other reasons why we changed our value to Integrity was we had a new business guy who was pursuing a manufacturer of guns and rifles, which goes pretty much against all my core values, and to me, I’d rather shutter up the shop than work for somebody like that. And so I think as a brand, you have to know what type of people you want to work with, and like I said, believe in their brand positioning, the people that they hire, and the products that they make. Every company, especially these larger corporations, they’re not all perfect, but they’re doing the best they can, I guess. So I wouldn’t say exactly that we’ve shifted who we targeted, but we definitely know who we want to work for, if that makes sense. We’ve also sort of viewed it and have always viewed it as our paying jobs let us do pro bono jobs. That allows us to work for free when we have to, so it’s sort of about that balance.
Liz N.: I also think that companies that you would want to work for, when they see that integrity, that makes them choose you over someone who’s not especially. And we’ve had that situation when we’ve talked to prospective clients on the phone for paid projects and they’ve said, tell us a little about your studio. And we say well we’re like this and we started a resistance effort, and we’ve heard them go, ya I know. And we started realizing they were actually coming to us because of our efforts in other areas. So it draws people as well.
“I don’t want to be a company that censors. I want to be an open platform. I want to be engaged in dialogue and I also want to make sure that we’re making work we believe in, and so I’m still figuring it out and we’re all still figuring it out as a team. But in one instance, we took all the money from a project and donated it to a cause that we felt directly counteracted the project’s cause, and that felt like the best move to not be censoring or rejecting.”
Laura: I’ll speak to it since we’re a little different since we’re a product and a service. Many times we are not actively soliciting work. We are receiving orders, and so we’ve had some instances in the past few months where we’ve received orders that are making us uncomfortable and we’re trying to figure out what is the right way to respond and not be, well, reverse discrimination. I don’t want to be a company that censors. I want to be an open platform. I want to be engage in dialogue and I also want to make sure that we’re making work we believe in, and so I’m still figuring it out and we’re all still figuring it out as a team. But in one instance, we took all the money from a project and donated it to a cause that we felt directly counteracted the project’s cause, and that felt like the best move to not be censoring or rejecting. It was not an offensive project. It was just the work that the company does that was hard to palate.
And that’s where it’s a little different, because when we’re really actively trying to get work from someone we admire, the reason we admire them is because they align with our core values. Or the reason we want to work for an organization is because we’re inspired by what they’re doing. But when someone seeks us out, well, it’s just a fine line. When do you reject? And when do you take that as maybe that’s their one degree shift into doing something better because they’re choosing a more sustainable product? I’m still figuring it out because it happens when I’m least expecting it and then it’s like, oh, them. What now? But most of the time, it’s like, ah, awesome, this is who we get to work with. And when we donate, we’re also choosing the places that align. But it’s interesting, because I sure don’t want to discriminate.
We did share that we were donating in their honor, and I haven’t heard anything back so it may not be a longterm relationship. We’re pretty vocal as a result of the election. I think we’re making more of a political stance in how we share via social media about our projects, but I want to keep doing that, so it’s not anything we’re hiding. In fact, we’re trying to be very public, and then if they choose to work with us, what can we do with that value? Does it get put into our pro bono projects? Can it go directly to a donation? Is it funding a business that’s trying to be inclusive, diverse and kind? I don’t want to naively say we can just wash it away because it’s a conundrum. We are in a business and we want to be open, not closed.
Audience Q: I’m a writer and strategist and as a writer, messaging is exciting because anytime you put a message out there that’s in alignment with your core values and you build the understanding and unity, that feels really powerful. But the flip-side, from a strategy perspective, is you’re almost casting the message across the aisle and not knowing how many concentric circles that message of unity or understanding or empathy, reaches. So the question I’ve been asking is how, as advertisers or marketers, can we continue to unify and bring together rather than otherize or villainize? So I’m curious if you’ve had any client engagements or projects that have been particularly successful or inspiring to you as projects that have built bridges in a way that feels relevant to building a shared movement, not just one resistance.
Laura: We have a lot of cool things we’ve been doing, but a long time ago, we made the US Constitution into a Scout Book. It was one of our first content—I mean we obviously didn’t write it—but we thought we can put content in this as an example, and it’s an important document. This was a project that was re-issued because we ran out, and just seeing who that was appealing to was wide. It’s non-partisan. And someone wanted to order them that was in London that was a retired Air Force general and I was like, you know, if he wants to order 200 to share, that means we’re not only talking to the people that want to hear what we have to say, and it felt like a good example. I really do want to not be closed. I have feelings of animosity, but I want to try to move past that to be able to take to people that don’t share my political opinion or view and find a way to work together to protect what we all hold dear. The Constitution was pretty universally appealing and I’d like to do more things that have that broad appeal to reach the purple states and red and blue and non-partisan, because it does feel so divided. It’s kind of unbearable.
Liz N.: I think that’s the best question of all, really, because that’s what we’re going to have to do here, really. Not just say what we’re against, but bring people together. That’s the challenge.
Liz: It’s amazing when you have the luxury of a client who, as an advertiser or marketer, has a point of view and is willing to put it out there, and in an effort to foster dialogue, and I guess I look at it more than bringing two people together but just getting the conversation going, and so I think that Starbucks is probably the best definition for Swift in that they are so politically active. And we worked with them on the “Come Together” campaign when the government was shutting down and they were petitioning. I think we had 1.2 million people signed a petition to get back to work and get the government running again. These kind of things are super polarizing and intended to galvanize a certain community, but they’re always open to the dialogue that comes from it. I don’t know that, as marketers or advertisers, that we’re going to get people to come together, but at least we’ll get the conversation going. It’s always an incredible opportunity when you get to participate in that. And for us, it’s always about just trying to get to the core, to get to the humanity in it, and try and really speak to people on an emotional level. Whether or not they agree with the political view, it’s about getting them to relate from an emotional level and feel something, whether they feel angry or happy or agree or disagree, it’s about getting people to dialogue on some level.
Eugenie: Tell a great story, whatever you’re doing, that makes the connection. That keeps it authentic, and it’s something I’m relearning again and discovering. We tell stories, my background is theater and theater is a form of telling stories. That’s how we used to communicate, that’s how we would market to each other, that’s how we would buy products from each other. Because you know, the Italian guy’s on the corner and he’s selling you this apple, but he’s going to tell you this story about his great grandma, and that’s why you’re buying that apple, because it’s such a great story. So ya, it’s about telling a great story and making those connections.
Toni: That’s a hard question because we’re not very often in conversations with people that are on the opposite end of where we’re at. But we have an opportunity to have a conversation or open up the dialogue, like Liz said. We had a job recently where we were able to do this activation around women speaking their voice, giving their mantra, and sharing it around the world, and that felt good, but it’s not exactly outside the realm of possibility. But it was something that we did have to push pretty hard with the client and encourage them to make donations off every one of these mantras, and they could’ve taken that dollar and it could’ve gone into their larger profits. So being an agency that’s coming to the table with these ideas that are maybe outside what’s in their internal conversation, it’s a really great position to be in when it happens.
Liz N.: I feel like the more we hear individual voices, the more we allow people to speak their truth but also discover that there are common truths, and that’s the power of story telling.
Audience Q: On the point of corporations glomming onto cause or activation, is there a way that agencies can help those corporation that maybe don’t have that already in their DNA. So for Audi, I’d use the example: we want to create this piece, but you need to hire more women on your board. Is there a way that we could create that resistance with corporations as partners.
Liz: I think by just calling them out when there’s something in a brief or it’s an idea they have and you’re hearing them talk and you’re like, oh my god, this is going to bomb. Ideally you get to a place with your clients where you’re just super honest and you can say you can’t do that, for whatever reason. If you know them quite well, if you’ve worked with them for a while you, can typically know when they’re trying to do something that’s not true or authentic, and so that’s one way, just stopping it in its tracks. But then the further upstream you get with clients and the more you become a strategic partner, as opposed to just a vendor, you can start to influence their business practices and the ways that they go about and do business. That’s been an effort we’ve been trying to make over the past three years. How do we not just influence marketing and advertising campaigns, but how do we influence business strategy, and I think that is hard. Once it gets to the brief for the campaign, all the decisions have been made, and so we’ve built out a brand and business strategy practice at Swift that is really about getting upstream and trying to influence not three months down the road, but three years down the road. I think that’s just one idea, but it’s been cool to see when you get that far up and you can start to influence overall strategy and distribution and product design and development, you’re like, ok, you can actually make a bigger difference there.
Laura: It seems like an opportunity for just training. It seems like strategy and social justice is a service that, for a business who may not know what to do for themselves but knows there’s an impulse to do better, as a community, we could provide better tools to make transitions and to set those goals. It’s almost like the businesses need a mentor of who’s doing it in a better, more authentic way. Even if their initial reasoning is because of a business motivation, if they’re making the change and then it starts to influence overall how the business is going to be structured for the future, I kind of don’t care. I know that sounds a little jaded, but it’s getting to the ultimate goal. They will transform through the process, so even if their motives are less than ideal, they’re still moving in a direction that’s going to have the impact we want. I think that there’s opportunity.
Audience Q: I wanted to touch briefly on something we talked about earlier that as Portlanders, it’s really our responsibility to not just go the extra mile, but really think outside the box in terms of hiring practices and clients we work with. I know an agency who’s mission was to increase diversity at the company, and they actually had to hire somebody from another city to try to fill that. I think we haven’t done such a good job at figuring out the resources we need to attract people here or ways to engage with communities of color or other clients…
Eugenie: So w(Here) We Are is another thing I’m doing regarding this issue. There really are people who are natives here. They’ve left, they’ve come back to Portland, they are people of color, they are LGBTQ+, they’ve come back home and they want to be here and they want to be a part of the process, the voice. So we have to stop excusing that—agencies and hiring agencies—making more connections, making a better effort. Again, we all know somebody who knows somebody. So making a special, more proactive effort to listen and being like oh, this is so and so, oh she’s a person of color, maybe she’s a designer, maybe she’s this, outside of wherever you met that person. And opening your eyes to see that. Make an effort. I keep saying effort because it is really an effort, because people really are here that want to be a part of the design community, like be in leadership positions, not just be like, oh I’m here freelancing. They really want to be an active part of what Portland is about, or Oregon is about. There’s a lot they have to offer. I’m an outsider, and so seeing the natives that are here and hearing their voices, and hearing them want to stay, not leave, has been really inspiring because I came here not knowing if I was going to stay, and now it’s been 8 years and I’m still here in the Pacific Northwest. I didn’t go back to Cali, so I’m here to help. I’m here for the long haul for the natives that are here that really want to be in leadership positions, that really want to be at the table with amazing agencies, all female agencies, diverse agencies, whatever it is, they really want to be a part of that, and it’s really about being open—other people being open to letting that conversation happen, no matter what it looks like.
Laura: Would you recommend we contact you if we’re trying to hire as a way to connect and truly reach a bigger audience or have more diverse applicants? Because I sometimes feel that saying that diversity is a concern in Portland, that it’s such white place, is denying who is here that may not identify as that, and so I just want to make sure that I’m not missing opportunities to connect. So if people are hiring or have openings, we should make sure to reach out. Does that seem like good advice? I just mean if there’s a way to share the word better…
“One thing I haven’t said that’s the big elephant for me, but one of the things that really irked me living here is people saying“Portland is so white,” and I’m like well if it is, let’s do something about it. I don’t want to hear about it anymore. I want people to do something about it. To make an effort to do something about it.”
Eugenie: Yes. Absolutely. This issue is not just about Portland, it’s beyond that. I have a mentor and when I talked about this idea, he was like, you know, it’s actually a global thing. I’m like, I’m not really ready for that. I live here and I need to start here, and I think this is a great place for me to start making bridges and connections and helping if I can facilitate—I know somebody who knows somebody who knows somebody—to start that dialogue and not be afraid. It’s really about everybody just being like hey let’s try this. One thing I haven’t said that’s the big elephant for me, but one of the things that really irked me living here is people saying“Portland is so white,” and I’m like well if it is, let’s do something about it. I don’t want to hear about it anymore. I want people to do something about it. To make an effort to do something about it.
Liz: I just read about this yesterday but there’s I believe an internship program that the CEO of eROI started. It’s an internship program for 16 and up called ELI and it’s for interns, largely people of color. And I read about this and I was like, we need to be doing this. You have to set goals for yourself and make a concerted effort and I was just reading about this program that’s just someone who just took the initiative to make their company more diverse. It’s a great example of if you don’t like what you see, change it.
Eugenie: Yes, I’d like to say keep that in mind. Take the initiative and really make an effort.