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What do you get when three ad-world renegades start a creative company from a place of total optimism? You get a company that doesn’t fit neatly into a box on a P&L. You get a pioneering company for pioneering companies. An ideal creative partner for true change and lasting impact. In short, you get San Francisco–based Chapter.
HOW talks with the team at Chapter to find out what it’s really like to be a pioneer in this day and age—their wins and losses, their lessons learned and their daily rewards. You’ll find more in this Q+A than a perspective on championing creativity in business—you’ll find inspiration for whatever kind of creative life you are living.
A New Kind of Creative Company
HOW: Your website mentions that you’re “building a new type of creative company. One defined by the impact [you] make, not by the types of output [you] create.” Can you tell us more about that philosophy, and whether that has anything to do with how Chapter presents itself to the world?
Chapter: The three founders of Chapter are all renegades from the world of advertising: a strategist, designer and interactive producer. As much as we loved, and are grateful for our past experiences, we all felt the same concerns about the creative constraints of our agency lives—the muscle memories of our companies were defined by the type of output our agencies were best known for, and requested to make. Too many conversations played out like: “Here’s your TV ad, now let’s figure out your business problem.” But the three of us understood that while we can ultimately turn a hand to anything a client may need, unless we know why we’re making it, and what the business problem is that it needs to solve, it won’t serve the purpose it needs to.
So, in some ways, Chapter started as a reaction to the world we came from.
But, more importantly, we started the company with a hugely optimistic point of view. We are trying to build a place for pioneers, makers and independently minded entrepreneurs. We believe there has never been greater opportunity for design to solve fundamental commercial problems, something @JohnMaeda points out again in his latest ‘Design in Tech’ report. We just need to remove the constraints and silos around creativity. We’re strong believers that the experience designed between a company and people is the only sustainable advantage in business today, and that means we have to be expansive in our output if we are to create an outcome that solves the business problem in the most ingenious, interesting and effective way possible.
We don’t fit neatly into a box on a P&L—we aren’t an ad agency, a strategic consultancy, a digital shop, experience designers or an innovation company, but rather all of these things, some of the time. We have found, however, that pioneering companies appreciate our ability to break down the walls between product innovation and brand communication, and that for clients who really want change and impact, we’re an ideal creative partner.
Chapter has been in business for a little over a year. How’s it been?
It’s been all the things you’d expect—immensely rewarding, a huge learning curve, massive highs and crashing lows as we go through the normal emotional cycle of business. But we truly feel like we’re living every day, not just operating on autopilot. There’s a Mark Twain quote about heading out to sea and casting away the security of harbor, being out at sea and being exposed to its unpredictability. We can identify, but have never felt more alive.
We feel incredibly lucky to have been given opportunities by some brave clients to work on some critical briefs for some great companies. If you asked us before we started if we thought we would be working with the likes of Airbnb, PayPal, Twitter, Converse and Salesforce by our second anniversary, we would have laughed out loud. We are thankful every day for the faith our clients have shown us.
We feel incredibly humbled that a bunch of folks have taken a chance on us (and themselves) and believed in our mission enough to come work with us. And we have been amazed by the generosity of our peers to help our company get going. We won’t forget Darrell Whitelaw at Siberia giving us desks in their office to work from for free in our first three months, or folks like Jon Lax or Gary Briggs giving up their time to offer us advice about how to build the business. We hope we can pay that favor forward to others some day.
What’s the biggest lesson you and your team have learned this past year?
We exist today because of the relationships we’ve built, and the lesson learned there is that the world does want you to succeed. And learning that lesson brings a lot of creative freedom. [Editor’s Note: If you’re tired of hearing the same old restrictions, you’ll love the creative freedom offered by Creative Anarchy.]
We’ve also learned that speed makes the work better. We now apply weeklong sprint methodology to all of our projects with weekly goals and weekly output. It helps us get to points of success or failure quicker, as well as reducing the emotional ties that sometimes form around ideas when they are allowed to live for too long. And it gives us the freedom to take the path less traveled with mitigated risk.
It also helps us build much stronger relationships with clients. They are closely involved in shaping the work, week in and week out, and the energy created by the process has worked well to ignite clients’ internal teams.
Your recent “Chuck Hacks” project arms “hackers” with steps for bringing the weather forecast to their feet. What was your biggest challenge with this project? And what sort of response has it gotten thus far?
Making digital stuff take physical form always seems easier than it actually is. A table covered with Arduino parts, cables and Chucks may look simple, but getting the experience to work in the way we wanted took a lot of time and a lot of tweaking of code. But the important thing was we learned a lot and had huge fun making it.
It’s picked up some good press, and we know it’s gone down well with the maker community on hacker.io and the creative community that forms the heart of the Converse brand. We are seeing people “hack the hack” and it’s been a fun thing to show off to prospective clients. It’s proof we have a maker and breaker culture.
What are your hopes for the future of the firm? Do you plan to stay small or keep growing?
Our hopes for the firm are measured less by how many folks work here, and more by the impact we have out in the world and the diversity of the problems we are tackling—and therefore the quality of the work we make. We really never want to do the same thing twice.
The foundational beliefs of the company have directly impacted how we are structured and how we scale. No predetermined solutions mean no predetermined teams or outcomes. We have a core group of designers, strategists, writers and producers whom we augment through a network of brilliant partners to build the right team for each task for the right amount of time. We are anti discipline silos and anti the relay race that inhibits traditional models. We are pro helping our clients grow their businesses in the most efficient, smart and effective way possible.
A Look Inside the Walls of Chapter
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Chapter: We have an office dog, Reggie, soon to be joined by another German Shepherd pup, Rayna. We also have an eclectic set of Anthony Burrill, Draplin and Olly Moss posters. A number of our friends have helped us furnish the office, from our neighbors at Ohio Design and Heath Ceramics, to Cast and Crew and Garza Marfa, who we got to know on our first team road trip to Marfa, TX. We’re most proud, however, of the massive sugar maple tables one of our strategists, Michael Whitten, designed and hand-made for us.