It was a bold move when the founders of Instrument, an independent digital creative agency based in Portland, Oregon, decided to change their business model from a production shop servicing the needs of global advertising agencies to a full-service creative agency. They made, as they put it, “A really distinct choice one day,” where they said, “We believe in ourselves, and we believe enough to break away from that model and go direct to clients.” The confidence to take full control of the projects clients sent their way was not only innovative, but has also allowed them to fulfill their need to create “the purest, most beautiful, most perfect product” they could possibly make.
That decision was made in 2010 when the entire firm was only 15 people. Fast forward to 2016 and Instrument are a solid feature in the city of Portland, with a 30,000 square foot meticulously thought-out purpose built office space designed to accommodate and inspire their 130 employees in a haven of creativity and collaboration. By creating teams of 20-30 people of a mix of disciplines they have essentially created mini-agencies within the larger umbrella and avoided what they believe is the tipping point of efficiency within a company: growth beyond 40 employees. The building is designed to ensure people collide throughout the day to allow for ongoing collaboration, which is what Marissa Mayer called the “peanut butter cup effect”. Company-wide willingness to stay fluid and flexible in the face of change is the status-quo.
We sat down with CCO, JD Hooge, and CEO, Justin Lewis, to find out why it is so important to them to own control of all content creation, the values they hold that create the iconic culture Instrument is known for, and how their process truly works.
Instrument went through quite an evolution before it became the company we see today. Tell us a little about that?
JL: There are three chapters to Instrument. It started with Vince LaVecchia and I in Vermont under a different name and with a different partner where we got our feet wet as business owners and realized that we were headed down the wrong path in a market that wasn’t big enough for our aspirations. We moved the business to Portland and hit the reset button there and got started as a development and production shop, really taking other people’s concepts and ideas and putting intellect and muscle behind them. The biggest gift was getting a good inside look at Wieden & Kennedy and learning a lot about what we did and didn’t want to be. I had known about JD for some time and realized that he had moved to Portland. Really Instrument as it is today began as a conversation JD and I had about partnering up and doing some projects: That’s when we were able to fully offer people a true end-to-end services. Today we are a full service creative agency, this is our third act.
I think we all three (JD, Vincent, and I) had aspirations to have something greater than a production shop for global advertising agencies. That’s a great living for a lot of mid-size agency owners, but we made a really distinct choice one day where we said, “We believe in ourselves, and we believe enough to break away from that model and go direct to clients.” It’s a bold day. You make the decision and hold your breath but it was something that we really believed in and once you tear that band-aid off there is no going back as you do alienate your relationships with some people in organizations. But the choice was essential in allowing the business to become something greater than it would have ever been had we been a silent partner for other organizations.
We believe in ourselves, and we believe enough to break away from that model and go direct to clients.
JD: I think even after we got together and had been collaborating for a long time, we were still really good at execution. That was our thing. We were still working through agencies for a while, but there was a moment when we decided that we were going to start a strategy discipline and start doing content — meaning copy writing, photography, script-writing, and video content. This was probably in 2010. We realized that frankly Justin and I were doing the strategy work and not charging for it and that we needed to add it as a service and start charging people for it. I think when we started doing content and content and brand strategy, that’s when we started to completely bypass agencies all together. We have never looked back and never worked through an agency for five or six years now. It’s a lot more satisfying if you are able to inform the content and the ideas of the thing that you are making. It wasn’t even so much a business decision as a belief that we could make a better product at the end if we were involved in all of it. It all happened very organically.
It wasn’t even so much a business decision as a belief that we could make a better product at the end if we were involved in all of it.
JL: We also had a philosophical notion that you should meet the people doing the work. You bring a project to Instrument, and you will get to meet the people who are doing the work. We don’t send it right out the back door. There is a lot of pride in that. So part of that break was, “What do we believe in?”. It felt good and right to make that leap when we did.
Another big leap you have taken, was building your own 30,000 square foot building from the ground up. What was it like to literally build your own agency?
JD: It was born out of functionality. We had already built out a space in 2009 that was 5000 square feet and had that experience of custom creating the space for exactly what we do. Then there was a fire and we got booted out overnight on the 4th July and realized we wouldn’t be moving back in for months and moved into a giant warehouse that was a great fun event space but it was really the opposite — it really wasn’t designed for what we were doing. It was a company moment when everyone had to really hunker down and tough it out.
JL: There was an idea of having an agency that was a fixture of Portland. A sort of creative fixture, or hub. As we bounced around from office to office, we asked ourselves, “Is this that hub?” “Is this the kind of destination that people want to walk by and say “Hi”? And so this space felt like the realization of that dream. It’s really dialed from a working standpoint and a beacon of design on the east side of Portland. Just to have that fixture in the city feels awesome and it’s the combination of a lot of years of moving through different spaces and striving to be something to Portland.
JD: We put three years into it from start to finish and were extremely involved in the whole design process from inside and out. We had an idea from the beginning to take the best things from our warehouse space, such as the character and spirit, and the idea of a giant, open space. We wanted a giant open space in the middle that forced people to have unplanned collisions throughout the day and interacting with people they wouldn’t normally interact with. We pushed the architects from the beginning to be able to see everyone from everywhere. We wanted a really open line of sight. The character all came down to materials and finishes and trying to provide a raw space and balance new and polished and shiny with raw and organic and gritty. Those were the considerations going in. We knew we wanted all different types of work spaces and people have different ways of working throughout the day and we wanted to provide for that. We have stand-up tables, everyone has a sit-stand desk, and cubbies where you can focus on solo activities. As your mood or needs shift, you have different options.
Instrument is known for having a strong culture. What tangible steps have you taken to create that?
JL: The culture is a value proposition and you find that at times people want to protect their culture. We believe the opposite, A culture needs to be durable and tested and beaten up and bruised from time to time. It needs to reflect the needs of the people in the organization, not the organization itself. A great culture is one that does shift to fulfill the demands of the people that come and spend time there every day. You have to be willing to give up some control. But you have to believe in something, and that belief structure has to be valued and shared and if it is, it takes on a behavior that you are proud of.
How does having visual designers lead the UX affect the outcome of the product and how does this affect your project deliverables?
JD: The by-product of that is awesome but the upfront work we have to go through to hire for that is painful! It’s like we are self-inflicting pain on ourselves making that such a strong requirement when hiring. But the by-product is beautiful because there is no hand off between someone who cares about user experience and someone who cares about the visual design. It’s also more efficient, because when someone who is a strong visual designer is creating wireframes or creating user experience flows, they are also thinking about the visuals and that comes through and accelerates the process much sooner. It’s not such an imagination leap that the client has to take when they move on to the next step. That goes all the way through to prototyping. Right now we are using every single prototype tool that is on the market. Even on the same project!
JL: When you really move away from the paradigm from constantly working towards the deliverable and start working in a direction of trying to uncover what is right for the final deliverable of the product, then you start to work in this looser fashion that is more about using all the tools to uncover good ideas as fast as possible. Yes, it would be more convenient to say, “Ok, step one is wireframes…” but does that make the end result better? We don’t think so. So you have to get your hands dirty, learn a ton of different things, and be able to move in and out of different tools rapidly to find good ways to visually communicate the best idea.
move away from the paradigm from constantly working towards the deliverable and start working in a direction of trying to uncover what is right for the final deliverable
How do you manage expectations with clients when you are not providing the typical deliverables?
JD: Our client services and producer team is incredible and set the stage for the client and do a lot of listening and assess what the client needs. That’s where we start from: what is going to make them the most successful. We are super straight up about it and tell them that: “This is the team that you need. These are the milestones of this project.” We try to build a super custom offering for them with a team, and let them know that maybe there are a couple of phases, here are some deliverable types that we will need to achieve, but it’s more about the problem we are going to try to tackle in this period, and these are the deliverables that you can expect. We set the expectation that they have to trust us and we are going to work together to work it out.
JL: We really made this wonderful pivot in the organization at a certain point and worked hard to put some air into the relationship with the client. It’s really easy in this world to get to a point where there is nothing left to chance in the relationship between the agency and the client, but then there’s no room left for greatness! When there’s no space other than A, B and C, the chance of finishing the project is great, but the chances of uncovering something amazing are slim because you’ve tried to over-rev on the creative process where no surprise can ever happen. Where’s the room for magic to happen? Our process has allowed us to have amazing results but to also work hand-in-hand with the client to steer and work with business needs in the moment and it creates a real-time working relationship that everyone feels makes us partners.
How often do you meet face-to-face with your clients?
JD: It depends on the client. For example, right now we are working with a client in LA, One of their designers has been here for a month and we’ve been down there three times this summer. They’ve had various people coming up here and there are three of them here today. In some sprints we have meetings every two days on video hangouts. We text with them, There are no barriers: We are an extension of their team and they are an extension of ours. When we have in-person meetings we do whiteboard full day sessions, and when we are on video chats we will open up Sketch and show them where we are at. Same with Nike. We have people go out to Nike twice a week who are fully working side by side with their creative directors. With other clients it can be totally different. It comes back to this ability of being flexible and having a lot of tools at our disposal.
Why did Instrument add content production as a service? How does it affect the way you work?
JD: It was never a financial decision, it was way more like, “We are making these beautiful, strategic tools for people, and someone is going to fill these things with content. If it’s not us, then we lose some control and the end product that will hit a user is out of our control.” We liked the idea of influencing that more. Early on we didn’t really have any experience to show we could do it, so we ended up having to make up our own stuff to create a portfolio. That’s what the build film was — us showing our capabilities. Eventually that transitioned from us showing stuff that we made up ourselves, to showing client work as we are busy doing content for clients full time.
The lead designer of the app was the same woman who directed the live action shoot in the MET.
Everyone here has a little bit of Steve Jobs in them here, wanting to make the purest, most beautiful, most perfect product that we can possibly make and if we are leaving the content out for someone else to make, you don’t really get to have that experience.
We designed and developed the app in collaboration with the digital team at the MET. We talked about how they would market the app, and their default solution was to go to the New York marketing firm they had been going to for decades, so we campaigned to them to do it ourselves. It was the right thing to do, and they gave us the green light. We ended up creating a campaign and shooting a live action video inside the MET which is almost impossible and it worked out really well! It was a great example of us crossing over and it being a benefit to the client as we didn’t have to translate the vision and content and utility of the app we had created to a different group of people. The lead designer of the app was the same woman who directed the live action shoot in the MET.
How do you organize teams at Instrument and how does this affect the work?
JL: At a pivotal moment in the company when we were at the 30 or 40 person range, we made a decision to turn the company into a team model making vertical teams that are multidisciplinary that are run by a person that is a producer in nature but also a business person. We reorganized the company into that model and have never really looked back from it. Take a designer from Instrument and they would be on one of four teams they would identify with — that enables us to be fluid as an organization and reduce the scope of what an employee is doing and caring about. An organization tends to lose its efficiency when it moves past 30 or 40 people, but that is typically what we have on our teams now, so it gives you that sort of family unit and strength of having 30 really talented disciplines in one group.
JD: the teams sort of operate as independent agencies with this leadership umbrella team above it. The benefit is that they can have access to other team resources when and if needed. We have a bartering system where if one team is light on a certain element, they have access to these other teams. You have your team family, your discipline family, then the whole Instrument family. Each team has their own logo, and events, and happy hour and offsite trips and rituals etc. They all take pride in taking on their own identity.
What are the biggest changes you see in the future for both Instrument, and the field of digital design?
JD: I feel like we are at the 1% mark of web design and digital services in terms of design and technology and where they meet. We are so at the beginning and it’s really wild-west. That’s why we are doing this. There are zero rules and we are just making it up as we go along. When it’s figured out, we are going to be done! But we are never going to be at that point I think.
Instrument has always had an organic nature to it and we’ve always prided ourselves on embracing change. We are not trying to cling to the past or fighting change or saying we are experts on the industry or how things should be done. We are in a permanent experimentation mode. If you apply that to your question, “We’ll see what happens!” is the answer. We’ve had to make some decisions around headcount because we made a built in, so we feel pretty stable on our size.
JL: We are going to stay adaptable and fluid and flexible to what comes next. We have collectively been a part of this world since almost the beginning, so the fluidity you have to have to stay relevant won’t change. We will just continue to carry those values forward and see where that puts us. One thing is for sure: we have such a passion for great work and excellence and will chase those desires wherever they lead us and not necessarily worry about hanging on to anything. There’s a courage at Instrument to abandon just about anything and move forward to what’s next and that’s a value that has made the organization what it is.
We are going to stay adaptable and fluid and flexible to what comes next.