Dave Snyder: Art is Not Design”

Don’t let the title mislead you. In this interview with Firstborn’s SVP, Executive Creative Director, design and the digital landscape are only part of the story. This is a revealing look at how the company views their responsibilities to their clients and to the industry at large.

“We wanted to focus on being able to build out the capability to reshape businesses.”

Read the original article here.

In this follow up, we reached out to both Dave Snyder and the author of the original article, Dave Benton, with hopes of learning more about Snyder’s perspective and the insights gained from the original interview. Kicking things off, Benton shares what he believed to be the most important takeaway from his interview with Snyder.

TBD: So what’s something about Snyder that can’t be gleaned from the article?

DB: The most valuable thing about Snyder is that he’s amazing at balancing client expectations, while not ignoring craft. That’s a really prominent conversation in our industry usually from “there’s never enough time … there’s never enough budget … this is the goal … this is what we’re doing.” Their craft is what they excel at.

TBD: How much of that is Snyder and how much of it is the team he’s built?

DB: He exemplifies the culture that Michael Ferdman helped to create at Firstborn. They answer the question “How are you adding value to do this project?” with a combination of strategy and craft. The craft is table stakes for Dave.

With Benton’s comments in mind, we spoke with Snyder to see what else he had to say regarding the art of design as a business differentiator.

TBD: Benton mentions “the one thing that sets Snyder apart is that he looks at the strategy it takes to get somewhere without losing sight of the craft that’s necessary to make it what it should be. Marrying those two things with client expectations.” Do you feel like that’s what sets Firstborn apart from competition?

DS: It’s a differentiator within the vertical of e-commerce specifically. We approach this kind of work differently than most. We don’t walk in talking about the placement of the “add-to-cart” button. Instead, we talk about what goes into the site and what it will say about your brand.

One client recently told us that they’d seen tons of these new business pitches over their career. Out of all the agencies that pitched, we were the only one that talked about branding while selling e-commerce. In their words, everyone else was very IT-centric, while we were the only agency in the room talking about marketing communications and the feeling the site and content gives you.

TBD: Describe what you mean when you say “design is a business strategy.”

DS: Well, it’s a riff on a quote by the business strategist Philip Kotler. Paul Rand used to quote it all the time. Kotler claimed that “design is a potent strategy tool that companies can use to gain a sustainable competitive advantage.” Meaning that both the aesthetics and purpose of your brand — how the two manifest themselves — are a powerful strategic differentiator for your business.

It helps to understand the context and the timeframe from when that quote was made. It was a long time ago and there were very few designers then. The greats had access to the c-suite table with only so many that were apt enough to translate high-level brand-meets-business conversations into the abstract side of design, form, user experience and the emotional benefits of a brand. I’m trying to get my people into this more classic way of solving problems.

You have to be great at the aesthetics — that’s table stakes — but designers need to learn how to actually understand businesses and solve those problems through their aesthetic lens. R. Buckminster Fuller put it like this: “When I am working on a problem, I never think about beauty but when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong.”

I’m worried most designers have gotten overly siloed and are consumed by what this button looks like, missing the larger picture of what really matters. That button doesn’t really matter. Who cares that it performs .025% better? Like, at that point you’re a cog in the machine and you’re doomed. Instead, think about what you are ultimately trying to do and how you’re using design within your organization. I encourage designers to hold onto the ability to think and actually solve real problems that map back to business needs.

TBD: How do you work with CMOs that may have an established plan that doesn’t align with the strategy you believe is in their best interests?

DS: That’s a tough one because if they’re dead set on a vision you have to respect them and their vision as the CMO and then make the business call as to whether or not you as the agency want to be a part of it. If we, Firstborn, don’t align on that vision, we’re probably not going to be working on that project. So it doesn’t come up too much, but there’s always a give or a take.

CMO’s are smart people too, so you have to question whether or not your own nose is too far up your own ass. They know more about their business than you do. That’s where being a little bit more humble and respectful fucking takes over. Sometimes you can find yourself so deep into it with a client that you can’t walk away from it. In that worst case scenario with the team burnt out on the project, but financially the agency can’t walk away, we’ll bring in freelancers to release that team. I never want to lose good talent over a bad client or project. Restaffing is hard, especially good talent.

TBD: The industry has been in a race to the bottom for decades. How has Firstborn worked to innovate its revenue growth?

DS: We’ve tried new revenue models that tie us directly to measurable ROI, but it is actually a hard sell for a lot of our clients. In fact, it very rarely comes up. Are we open to it? Yes. Across our entire network, there is a push for new revenue streams. For us, one thing that will be different this year is that we’re going to be releasing our own IP in a variety of areas, one of which is VR Gaming.

There’s such a crunch right now on agencies to figure out those extra revenue streams. Especially when clients are putting a full court press on our margins. So yes, we (probably everyone), are looking for new ways to grow revenue while still having fun.

TBD: Are you feeling the pinch with the talent exodus in NYC abandoning agency life in favor of the way of freelance?

DS: We’ve lost some people to freelance, but we have a lot of tenure at our company. I think it’s a trend, but fucking-A dude … NY is a scary fucking place to be freelance. I know people who have dabbled in it, but I also know people who are in it that hate it. They’re stressed. I feel like the “freelance is the way” mantra is mostly hype: preached by the vocal “social media design celebrities” that exist out there. Not sure it’s the new normal. #DesignTwitter

I think a lot of people toy with it, but it’s a lot harder than they realize. A lot of people in the bay area will do the colo model where agency X will bring in a new hire and then explain that they’ll actually be working at Apple for the next six months turning agencies into “placement agencies.” I don’t think that’s a good look either. Long term, I think a lot of those agencies have too much revenue in that basket and over invested in it.

TBD: Knowing the current landscape and being able to draw on past experience, if all bets were off, what do you build today?

DS: So boom. I have a safety net and I could go and do my own thing again? Oh dude, it’s hard not to say open a bar.

Here’s the thing, the service industry is tough and that’s what those of us in this business are all in. I think I would want to go to a place that’s more focused on brand and brand building and translating that into the digital world. I think you’ve got the consultancies coming in taking a very MBA-like approach that relies on very stiff, corporate-like systems. Then you’ve got ad agencies trying to say they can do digital and digital agencies trying to say they do advertising. I wouldn’t do anything that would put me in competition with Droga. I wouldn’t do anything that’s for hard core products where you’re just brute force iteration on whatever it is.

I would probably be more in the zone of brand consultancy meets digital transformation. Answering the questions of: “What are you? How do you want to grow up? What are the strengths? And what does that look like?” Tangible vision type stuff. I wouldn’t want to manage it or do the tech build. I’m not even sure what it would be, but something like a modern branding agency. But, I’d probably still have the bar. It’d just be on the bottom floor.

Hard to beat that as a closing. If you’re curious about what the Firstborn team is up to, follow them here. For Snyder’s personal perspectives, be sure to follow him @EpicallyHarshed.

We'd love to hear your thoughts and perspectives @tobedisrupted