Design Agency Insider: CHIEF Washington, DC

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Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt from the HOW Fall 2017 Marketing and Promotion issue. This is part 3 of the 4-part series Design Agency Insider featuring firms from Washington, DC. Grab your copy of the magazine today!


A surprising fact: Cushman & Wakefield recently named DC as the third-best city for tech employers, behind Silicon Valley and San Francisco. And more than half a dozen sources have ranked it as the top city for women in tech. In and around the Beltway, women comprise 41% of the tech workforce—almost double the national average—and their salaries represent 95% of their male counterparts’.

“From a design and business perspective, this city offers a lot,” says William Colgrove, one of the founders of Threespot, an agency that creates websites for nonprofits and government agencies. “There are digital startups, nonprofits and government agencies—and design firms that are built to serve all of them. In New York it’s all advertising; in San Francisco it’s all product; and in Silicon Valley it’s all tech. But DC is like a buffet, which makes it a really good place to be a young designer—if you’ve got the stomach to job hop, you can get a lot of broad experience really quickly.”design agency CHIEFdesign agency CHIEF


A few feet from the heart of Dupont Circle you’ll find CHIEF, once a small offshoot of Rock Creek Strategic Marketing that has since taken over the agency’s brand with a boldness you’ll find in its tagline: “Be Brave.”

CHIEF is another agency with a clear focus on nonprofits and government work with clients like the Army National Guard and YWCA. But with a staff of 120, it’s also been able to compete with agencies on the coasts: When a friend of CHIEF’s creative lead, Chris Lester, recognized that Priscilla Chan Zuckerberg was less than thrilled with another agency’s efforts branding her comprehensive new educational concept, The Primary School, Lester offered to tackle it within 48 hours on one condition—he had to present in person. And it worked. The relationship even led to a playful holiday card with the Zuckerberg’s dog Beast as the centerpiece and a suite of ongoing work for the $45 billion Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.

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The agency hosts dozens of events for the design community, from Drupal Meetups to Good Gov UX, WordPress DC and SheSays DC, as a way to bolster staff recruitment efforts and unearth business-development opportunities as well.

“One thing I love about DC is that I’m able to find the most serious, professional people who will challenge me in one direction and then the most creative people who will challenge me in the other direction—and if one of them is missing, I get out of balance,” says Lester. “This city used to be all about its professional culture and power—lawyers, politicians and lobbyists—but there’s a strong youth culture and creative class that’s growing like a weed, so we’re hitting both ends of the spectrum, which creates a different kind of energy and a unique outlook that you don’t get anywhere else.”

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That creativity is finally making its way into more government communications, thanks to a growing expectation that digital experiences should be engaging whether a URL ends with a .com, .org or .gov. CHIEF is currently working with clients including the Federal Trade Commission and the US Mint, which is looking to modernize its brand in an era where it must engage younger generations who aren’t nostalgic over coins and currency.

“For the longest time our federal clients would see some of our new ideas and respond, ‘But we’re the government,’” says Lester. “But now they know that lines are blurring [in the eyes of the people they serve], and they’re hiring a lot of new, younger people who are open to new ideas. So we’re able to achieve what we’ve done for the National Park Foundation, and we’re tapping into emotion and experience with the Army National Guard site. Whenever we present to our government clients, we try to throw them a curveball, to show them what’s possible. We may end up back where they’re comfortable, but we’re always going to show them a picture of what’s possible.”

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