Play Nice with Others: How to Build Creative Community

by Ken Neiheisel

Creative agencies can look to a community engagement strategy as an effective way to take on business challenges with one fell swoop.

According to research by Communispace, consumers see companies that establish roots in their local community as authentic and reliable, helping to establish long-term loyalty with a positive public reputation. Building an authentic connection to the local community is also a powerful tactic for design agencies in attracting business and talent, engaging in better design practices and encouraging a collaborative company culture. By undertaking a new strategy that goes beyond pro-bono work, employee volunteer programs and fundraising sponsorships, design firms can arrive at more holistic, community-driven approach.

Building Collective Collaboration
Building a creative community was an initiative recently undertaken by my design firm, Marsh, Inc. in Cincinnati, OH. Our efforts resulted in the 8th Street Design District, a group of creative firms located just on the outskirts of Downtown Cincinnati’s Central Business District that hold a wide range of creative talent—architecture, photography, graphic design, advertising, branding, urban and LEED building design, and interior design. Collectively, our goal is twofold: 1) to enhance and strengthen the business and creative community, utilizing our collective influence and creative expertise to become a recognized resource for design and 2) establish a vibrant, inspiring community in which to live and work.

Design leaders interested in building a collaborative community can start by cultivating relationships with other neighboring firms. Invite local leaders from other creative agencies of all genres to attend a brainstorm meeting to discuss “How can we use our proximity as a resource?” and “Can we benefit from working together?” Chances are, these discussions will highlight shared business strategies related to growth, creativity and recruitment. It is helpful if these discussions involve executives from participating companies, who will naturally serve as the board of directors. Approach the newly established District or creative community as a new brand launch—complete with an identity, competitive research, strategy and positioning. Challenge each firm to articulate their own core competencies and how these can serve the creative community. Develop a “new business” presentation that articulates the goals and strategy in an effort to recruit more agencies and even engage local government agencies that may be interested in lending support and help to validate the collaboration to the local community. Once this is complete, launch a public relations campaign announcing the formation of the community and goals.

Key to the success of a company’s participation will be the engagement of employees, who can embrace the concept of the design community. Allocate a budget and time for employees to take the forefront in organizing committees for joint events such as an outdoor concert series, beautification efforts, networking happy hours and design competitions.

Delivering Business Results
Our own participation in the 8th Street Design District has exceeded our expectations, and I believe other creative agencies will see similar results—helping to more clearly define the company’s brand, values and place within the local community, even delivering:

  • An authentic sense of internal community: providing opportunities for managers and employees to socialize in a positive atmosphere and establishing a sense of pride and purpose among the staff.
  • Increased dialogue among neighboring firms: providing a forum to share design practices, management strategies and access to a larger and more diverse pool of design thinking.
  • Heightened visibility of the business: resulting in attention from local media and other business owners, elevating the company’s reputation and position within the local market.

As many creative professionals already understand, collaboration is key for creativity and the challenge is sustaining an inspired culture with fresh, collaborative practices. Establishing roots in the community by partnering with other creative firms can benefit the entire organization and further the practice of design.


Design firms often engage in pro-bono work as a way to contribute to their communities. But connecting with other agencies and establishing a city’s creative hub can generate powerful impact.

Image courtesy of Marsh, Inc.


Quick Tips

1. Invite your creative neighbors to a joint brainstorm meeting to evaluate the potential program.

2. Build a holistic strategy that authentically engages employees by aligning with company culture and core competencies.

3. Build the program as a brand with an identity, objectives and positioning.

4. Identify/create programs that further that idea and program within the local community.

5. Give time and resources to the effort and allocate an employee team to oversee the program.


Dig Deeper!

UrbanCincy: “18 entities join to form 8th Street Design District, kick off month-long concert series

American Planning Association: How Arts and Cultural Strategies Enhance Community Engagement and Participation

See how designers and firms in NYC are collaborating for the good of nonprofits in their community: DesigNYC


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