You’ve heard the spiel before. In-house design departments wield the knowledge, the flexibility, and the speed that brands need in a digitally disrupted landscape. Social demands immediacy. Consumers want relationships with brands, and can smell half-baked messaging miles away.
What’s it like behind the buzz?
We sat down with key creatives at four in-house teams to discuss their jobs, and how their companies are redefining the way design gets done
HOW TO LIVE (AND LOVE) THE BRAND
Giant Tiger Stores
Pat Farley, Senior Graphic Designer—Brand
When it comes to #livingthebrand, Pat Farley has more experience than most. The Giant Tiger senior designer and his teammates develop nearly all materials for the small-town focused retail chain in house, from grocery packages (125 over the last year) and hard goods packages (675), to flyers (52) and store redesigns (44), and not just for Giant Tiger-branded items but also for the company’s sub-brands including active wear line ACX, and men’s wear line Mountain Ridge; his fellow senior designer, Julie Keats, can often be found diving into her own portfolio of sub-brands including Giant Value, juggling packaging assignments with a range of different looks.
More than that though, Farley has on many occasions transformed into the Giant Tiger itself, volunteering to don the mascot costume and rep the brand at store openings and community events. “Until I put on the mask, I didn’t realize how many people knew ‘Giant Tiger’ and how iconic that guy is,” Farley says. Customers were running up to him to tell him how much they loved him and his store. “Being the mascot helped me see a different side of the brand. I work here non-stop from eight to five, and then I go home. But being able to wear the costume and see people’s reactions to the brand itself… The fun, the family [aspect], how community-driven Giant Tiger is—I take that back to work and use it whenever I create things.”
The community focus is more than a PR pitch. While retail outlets across the country suffer and shut doors, Giant Tiger has maintained market growth since its founding in 1961 and looks to open 15 stores a year (it currently operates over 200). Sara Chesiuk, manager of public relations and community activation, attributes much of this success to knowing its audience, focusing on the right locations, and keeping overhead low to maintain the value proposition its customers expect. You’re not likely to find deep coverage of Giant Tiger in the national press, but you’ll spot it in local papers every time it raises money for a community food bank or area chapter of the Humane Society, mascot often in tow.
With Farley’s first child hitting the six-month milestone, he also has another way to live the brand. “I think about it all the time, even while at home, especially now that I have a new family,” he says, learning first-hand what it’s like to shop for the parent-aimed products on Giant Tiger’s shelves. Everything about Farley is on brand. He answers emails with a custom Tiger paw ‘thumbs-up’ emoji, something he designed for fun and that has since been adopted by other departments. His favourite project thus far has an appropriately small-town Canadiana charm—a decal for a local skate rink’s zamboni machine. “[My bosses] were like, ‘Pat, you’ve done such a great job designing all the trucks, would you like to do a zamboni?’ I was like, are you kidding me? Yeah!”
The same neighbourly mentality plays out across the department. With his skill level and brand knowledge earning the trust of his superiors, Farley is afforded an enviable level of creative freedom. “There’s an approval process, but it can be a fast approval process,” he says. And he views his team members as much more than mere co-workers. “When I was working at other jobs before it was pretty much just me, the designer. I didn’t get much support or feedback. But having a team here, they are great people who I look to when I need guidance or ideas. I feel like they’re a family,” he says.
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HOW TO BUILD YOUR IN-HOUSE ALL-STAR TEAM
Jason Cassidy, Senior Manager, Digital & Creative
Cara tested the in-house waters with a pilot social media team in September 2014 comprised of a digital marketing manager, a copywriter, and a graphic designer responsible for creating visual assets for email and online channels including Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. “In our first year, our one graphic designer created over 2,500 unique assets,” says senior manager Jason Cassidy. “We realized that it was a very efficient and productive model that gave our brand teams the control, the speed and the agility they were looking for, especially in the digital space.”
Cara’s restaurants include popular brands like Harvey’s, Swiss Chalet, Milestones and Kelsey’s. The initial in-house pilot program handled social media marketing across five of those brands—since becoming an official department, it has expanded to eight, and its purview has grown from strictly digital to include print as well. Three additional designers have been hired so far, working on everything from direct mailers and coupons to menus, videos and cinemagraphs.Since he’s starting from scratch, Cassidy has been careful about how he builds the team. His first hire was an experienced creative director formerly of Shop.ca. The two designers who followed had a bit less experience and were raised in different environments one coming from the agency world, the other from the client side. “I was looking for skill sets that were complementary,” Cassidy explains. Educational foundation was most important, and from there he looked for specific technological abilities, whether with InDesign, Photoshop, or After Effects.
Fostering a collaborative spirit has been of the utmost importance. Cassidy says that having a sole designer look after an entire brand can lead to potential challenges, from fewer ideas to even eventual burnout. “We wanted [the designers] to be very well versed in all the brands and all the channels in all the dimensions that are required,” he says. “I think as you add new members to the team, it actually strengthens the bond and increases the quality of work. You have that internal competitiveness, and they have the job enrichment of working on multiple brands.”
While the short-term mandate of the pilot team was to resize and repurpose existing visual assets as needed, “in doing so, they’re also creating a lot of new and unique concepts.” For example, a newly designed Milestones menu system unveiled in March features five regionalized versions, each with three visual variations that feature different photos and food positions, as well as 17 variations of a bar menu to account for regional pricing and local craft beer offerings. Thirty-two menus in total, clocking in at 10 pages each. There was also a real-time Twitter push for Harvey’s where consumers tweeted their fav burger toppings and Cassidy’s team collaborated with a chef to cook the custom burgers, photograph them, and then send the lucky consumers a personalized image of their creation with a $10 gift card—all in a matter of minutes.
Communication, “over communication” even, as Cassidy puts it, has been key. The team has multiple conversations daily about establishing and improving their processes, though this has lessened over time as work starts reaching completion with less and less friction. Looking ahead, Cassidy says, “I think the opportunity is there for our designers to have a big say and a big impact on the way our creative and our branding look… There’s no reason why they won’t, over time, have some sort of seat at the table.”
HOW TO BALANCE WORKLOAD, STAKEHOLDERS, AND THE NEED TO LEARN NEW SKILLS
The City of Toronto
Shannon Olliffe, Supervisor, City Clerk’s Office, Design Services
City branding can be one of the toughest design gigs out there, where the audience is grouped by geography and abstract ideas of identity instead of age range, tax bracket, shared interests or values. Shannon Olliffe’s team at the City of Toronto may have any number of internal or external parties watching its work closely or waiting for results on a project, ready to critique or impose their own particular vision of the city. While those stakeholders shift from job to job, there is always one constant: the taxpayer. “There is an element of optics that I think may be unique to working in government,” Olliffe says. “Ultimately, we are accountable to the taxpayer, and so our clients will often want to pull back on what might appear as slick design for fear of raising questions about costs, even when the costs aren’t a factor at all.”
While tailoring work to suit each and every stakeholder is nigh impossible, she likes to keep a few umbrella concerns in mind for each assignment: is the quality high enough that it meets client goals while also being something the design team can feel proud of? Most importantly, will the work alienate anyone in the city? In recent years, Design Services has been able to further address the breadth of Toronto’s population by bringing on an expert in accessibility and inclusive design, making sure all files meet AODA standards. “In a city this diverse, it’s important to bring this lens to the work we do,” Olliffe explains. “Internally, it’s been a great asset to us and our clients to offer a voice of authority on the subject as it relates to communications.”
One of her main challenges is managing workload, navigating and refining internal processes, and balancing that with the need to learn new skills. Given the pace of the job, the in-house group is often in reactive mode—just trying to move forward through traffic and keep clients happy—but Olliffe knows that bringing in new capabilities like digital and video is key to keep work from being outsourced. A focus on learning is one of her team’s priorities this year, but she’s realistic about the challenges ahead. “It is a monumental effort to fight against complacency in this environment,” she says.
Large corporations are often looking for concrete goals and output numbers, ways of judging success that prove to be less-than-useful metrics when it comes to design. “We can always look at the number of jobs, but it’s a very superficial story… It’s my role to walk the line and keep the balance between delivering on the numbers, while not losing the focus on our collective potential. I believe if people feel trusted, they feel empowered and then can really engage and transcend their desk and their job description. If people are constantly poked, prodded at and measured, they stop winning. They stop collaborating. They stop caring.”
That said, Olliffe has witnessed the reputation of the Design Services team grow over the years across the entire corporation. “More and more, I see clients engaging us to leverage the value that good design can bring to their communications.” One of its recent successes was the TO Budget, a communications assignment whose up-to-theminute nature had a way of bulldozing through established processes and skyrocketing past the number of revisions typically needed. Content could change at the last second and was often of a sensitive nature, kept from public eyes until officially launched. “I think it is key to our success to be able to deliver on this type of project,” Olliffe says. “The public response [has been] very positive and these things go a long way to help citizens grasp what the City is doing.”
HOW TO GET THE WORK TO COME TO YOU
TD Bank Group
Laurent Roy, Creative Director and Senior Manager, Creative
With over 15 years at TD, Laurent Roy knows how to play the long game. While other in-house groups can often struggle to establish themselves in the eyes of their organization—advocating for the creative team’s value so it will be trusted with work that may normally be sent to an agency—Roy prefers a more strategic approach. “When I started out, I was one of those people who was fighting to bring the work in,” he admits. “But I’ll tell you what I learned. If I fight to bring work in and people are not 100% on board, it can really come back to bite you.” In a sense, fighting for work can sometimes set one up for failure, considering the organization at large felt uneasy about the proposition all along. Ideally, internal partners will ask his team to take work on, rather than his team jostling for assignments. “It’s pulling, not pushing,” he says.
That means shifting focus away from convincing others that the creative team is capable, to focusing on finding all the ways the creative team can be helpful. “I try to make people’s lives easier so that they will feel comfortable bringing stuff in house. It has been a long term approach,” he laughs, alluding to the length of his tenure, “but I think it has worked.” It makes sense then that he doesn’t refer to his associates within TD as ‘clients.’ “I have value that I’m adding,” Laurent says. “[Saying ‘client’] makes it sound like we’re here to service you, but we’re not, we’re here to work with you.”
That's one of my criteria for taking on additional work: is it worthwhile? Are we producing things that have a business purpose?Laurent Roy, TD Bank Group
By solidifying this let-us-help approach and being careful about how he defines his team’s role, Roy is now at a place where he can view projects objectively. Some work, he acknowledges, is a better fit for external agency partners. “For me, it’s about doing the right kind of work. There are things an agency really should be doing, where they have the infrastructure to manage it… That’s one of my criteria for taking on additional work: is it worthwhile? Are we producing things that have a business purpose?”
Roy’s team doesn’t support the entire bank; it works with businesses within the bank, including MBNA, TD Securities’ events, and the top 50 advisors at TD Wealth Private Investment Advice—consultants for high-net-worth elites who turn to Roy and team for marketing services including quality custom brochures, newsletters, and other communications materials targeting their top-heap customers.
As an example of one of his big wins, Roy points to a creative refresh five years ago that brought the materials for the top 50 advisors to new levels of sophistication. The project is a prime example of how the long game can play out. “Once we’d evolved the look a bit, my boss came to me and asked me to look at all of Wealth, and how we could elevate the look and feel of the Wealth materials as well,” Roy explains. The Wealth redesign followed the same clean, black and white approach as the previous project. Then, two years ago when Leo Burnett, TD’s agency of record, kicked off a redesign for the Retail division, it followed the same aesthetic. “It really resonated with the audience,” Roy says, a significant feat in a historically impersonal category like banking. “It was tailored and trimmed down. When we tested it, people felt very comfortable and felt that it really embodied the essence of TD.” An essence captured by those who knew the brand best.
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of Designedge Canada magazine.
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