Unleashing Creative Inspiration at Landor

It takes constant attention to maintain creative energy, whether you’re an individual design professional or a multinational branding firm. Maintaining your own creative inspiration is relatively easy: You can browse the web for eye candy, or get away from your desk to clear your head.

But if you lead a huge creative team, and you sense that energy is waning and that people aren’t as innovative as they could be, turning the ship around takes initiative and effort.

In 2009, leaders at Landor, the branding agency with 24 offices and more than 1,000 employees worldwide, found themselves in that position, says Steve McGowan, executive creative director in the firm’s large Cincinnati office. The business community had pegged Landor as an old-school brand shop—great for executing logos and packaging but not much else. Employees were going through the motions of creating design work, but weren’t fully investing their own creative inspiration.

Recognizing the need for a top-down infusion of creative culture, McGowan says the firm’s leaders looked to Landor’s past—specifically, to founder Walter Landor, a gentleman and creative giant known for taking risks, throwing great parties (oh, and practically inventing the discipline of branding).

For example, they examined the floorplan of the old ferryboat that formerly housed the agency on San Francisco’s waterfront—and discovered that Landor had employed artists and writers of all kinds, not just ad men.

Beginning in the Cincinnati office, Landor began to rearrange how its employees sat, reimagine how they worked together and relaunch its own creative culture—in an initiative dubbed Renaissance. “Instead of grouping teams by discipline, we started pairing people with complementary passions together,” McGowan says. “Going back enabled us to move forward. We want to work and play like Walter.”

Renaissance has given way to Unleash—a rallying cry for creative experimentation and expression that’s based on the firm’s motto: Collectively unleashing creativity to make a meaningful difference. “We’re telling people, ‘It’s OK to be fearless, it’s OK to fail,’” McGowan says. “But it’s not OK to sit on your ass and wonder, ‘What if?’ Go out there and find it.”

To encourage that kind of creative inspiration, Landor in Cincinnati has green-lighted a couple of employee-led projects.


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Test-Driving Your Own Brand

How cool would it be if you made your own beer? And if you did it at work? And if your company provided some funding, and it became a brand of its own?

Figuring it’d be a way to get the company to pay for their beer tab, employees and amateur brewers Ed Sarge, Travis Gortemiller and Aaron Burghard started making beer on the unused loading dock at Landor’s downtown Cincinnati office, a former department store. They called the setup Dockside Brewing.

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Pretty quickly, McGowan says, the guys hit on a couple of great batches. Dockside currently isn’t available for sale (though that’s been discussed, and the three aspire to make beer their livelihood). Rather, it’s for the enjoyment of friends and coworkers and it’s served at agency parties and local beer events.

It’s not just about free beer, though: Dockside is a case study in brand identity and packaging. Landor’s creative team developed the strong typography, distinctive color palette and graphic imagery that completely redefines what beer packaging should look like. The Dieline and Brand New have lauded the branding and packaging design.

Unleashing Creativity on the World

“‘Unleash’ gives everyone here permission to take themselves out of their comfort zone and create something different,” McGowan says.

And that involves taking creativity outside into the community, and getting exposed to new audiences and ideas. One of the agency’s outlets for artistic expression is the storefront display space that’s a key facet of its Cincinnati office. While the windows formerly showcased merchandise and holiday themes for Shillito’s department store, they’re now blank canvases for Landor employees. Window displays have included fine art, illustration and multi-media exhibits that harness the firm’s creativity and celebrate its clients.

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Landor windows have seen a revolving menu of displays, from an exhibit of work inspired by fashion illustrator Anne Wainscott, to a joint project that paired brand teams with local artists and storytellers. The 110 Experiment, inspired by the building’s address, showcased work created over several days when staffers dropped what they were doing at 1:10 p.m. to sketch, draw, photograph or write.

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In another Unleash project, a Landor team representing the indie band Ohio Knife hit the SXSW music festival in 2012, giving away 100 guitars to conference-goers and fans for an impromptu jam session.

Evaluating Your Best Work

“We strive to create work that’s original, impactful and stunning,” McGowan says. So an the agency set up an internal process that evaluates work from all its offices and judges it against those standards. Quarterly, each office submits three projects through an in-house judging system; McGowan says the program not only spotlights great work that’s worth submitting to major industry awards, but it reveals creative shortcomings among different teams that need to be addressed.

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McGowan says that in the past 18 months as Landor has redoubled its efforts to foster creativity, results are showing up in the bottom line. “People didn’t really know about Landor; they thought it was just a branding giant,” he says. “But the more they get to know us and experience our creativity, the more they love us. We’re more experience-based designers.” That, he says, has allowed the firm to connect not just with brand managers that were the historical client base, but also with marketing executives seeking a broader range of capabilities.

McGowan acknowledges that devoting energy and attention to building creativity is “challenging, especially in challenging times like this.

“But there are ways to foster that kind of creative rejuvenation that don’t cost a lot and encourage work-life balance. The more successful we are, the more revenue we generate, the more we can invest in these experiments to incubate ideas and concepts.”

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