HELLO, DIG.

A conversation with the cofounders of Eleven’s Design & Innovation Group (DIG)

ON APRIL 1, 2021, ELEVEN ANNOUNCED THE LAUNCH OF DIG, A DEDICATED TEAM THAT DELIVERS HIGHLY SPECIALIZED DESIGN AND BRAND INNOVATION SERVICES TO CLIENTS ACROSS MULTIPLE CATEGORIES. FOLLOWING IS A CANDID Q&A WITH THE GROUP’S FOUNDING LEADERS, TED BLUEY AND RYAN KU.

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DIG_Founders_Ryan-Ku

DESIGN HAS NOT ONLY BEEN A SERVICE, BUT A CORE STRENGTH AT ELEVEN SINCE THE AGENCY STARTED. SO WHY CREATE A DESIGN GROUP NOW?

TED BLUEY You’re right. Eleven has been in the design business for 22 years, so I wouldn’t say we’re creating a new group. It's more like formalizing and expanding on something that’s part of the agency’s creative DNA.

I also wouldn’t say we’re creating a design group, because that’s much more limiting than what DIG was created to do. Our ambition is to bring innovation to life through the application of brand and design.

WE’LL RETURN TO THAT, BUT THE QUESTION REMAINS: WHY NOW?

RYAN KU The world has changed. If you think about the relationship of design to consumer culture over the last twenty years, it’s gone from a thing that only the most enlightened brands embraced to—well, I won’t call it table stakes, but if there isn’t solid design embedded in your brand at this point, you’re toast. Consumers have become far more appreciative and educated on what good design is, and they just expect more from their brands now. 

TED The role of design is very different now. It’s much more results oriented. Companies today recognize what good design and design thinking can bring to their products, their brand value, and their customer experience. That kind of design requires different skills and different processes. DIG is Eleven’s way of committing fully to those skills and processes.

YOU SAY DESIGN HAS CHANGED, SO LET’S BACK UP A MINUTE: WHAT DO YOU MEAN BY THAT WORD, “DESIGN”? WHAT DOES IT ENCOMPASS?

TED We think of design as a verb, versus a noun. It’s not a collection of artifacts; it’s a business strategy for creating brand value, and in that sense, again, it’s always been foundational to what Eleven does.

Design helps new brands get started—not just by creating an identity system for them, but also by developing a strategic brand platform that they’ll be able to build on for years.

WHAT DO YOU MEAN BY “BRAND PLATFORM”?

Think of it as a set of instructions—strategic, visual, verbal—for getting a brand’s unique narrative out into the world and helping it find its place in popular culture.

And this isn’t just something for new brands. At the other end of the spectrum, mature brands inevitably reach a point where they’re starting to feel a little tired or stagnant. A brand platform that’s rooted in design thinking can be key to making them culturally relevant again.

COULDN’T YOU SAY THE SAME THING ABOUT ADVERTISING? WHERE DO YOU DRAW THE LINE BETWEEN THE TWO?

TED This is overgeneralizing a bit, but advertising is in the business of selling people something: a new mattress, a preferred hospital, the idea of owning an electric car—whatever it is that the brand is selling, right? I think design’s role is to build a little bit of a walled garden around that brand. We like making things that people fall in love with.

RYAN Design creates desire. It creates that innate coveting that makes the consumer economy run. It creates that sense of attraction and desire and the irrational need that we all feel for things, because we are attracted to things of beauty.

TED Or think of it this way: advertising creates a promise in the consumer’s mind. That promise might be explicit or just implied, but it’s a promise either way. Design, on the other hand, is concerned with delivering on that promise—sometimes through a physical object, and sometimes through an experience.

OKAY, THAT’S DESIGN. THE WORD “INNOVATION” IS ALSO RIGHT THERE IN THE DIG NAME. INNOVATION’S A PRETTY BROAD CONCEPT, SO WHAT DO YOU MEAN BY IT?

RYAN Our framing for the word is brand innovation—creating new brands, new sub-brands, and new product lines. It's about understanding where consumer culture is going and creating new brands to sit within that change.

TED 19 Crimes is a good example of that. For years, American wine consumers associated Australia with cheap “critter” brands—you know, the wines with kangaroos or koalas on their labels. Very cute. Very cheap.

So when Treasury Wine Estates came to us, they had a pretty big business problem to solve. They had a surplus of quality Australian grapes—but wine enthusiasts, and millennials, in particular, weren’t buying quality Australian wines. We were asked to create a new brand that could turn that situation around.

SO WHAT HAPPENED?

RYAN Everyone knows the Millennial generation has been hugely influential on almost every aspect of culture, business, and life. But it’s also extremely fractured with lots of tribes and sub-tribes. So instead of trying to invent a brand for the masses, we showed Treasury multiple brand concepts, each designed around something we had learned about a specific segment of millennials.

One of those concepts targeted people with an appreciation for heritage and authentic storytelling. That was 19 Crimes, which took its name from Britain’s history of deporting criminals to Australia back in the late 1700s. There actually were 19 criminal acts that were punished that way, and we built a brand around that story.

It was an immediate hit. It grew like crazy, and industry experts now credit 19 Crimes with reinvigorating not just the entire Australian wine category, but with creating a new playbook for new brands in the industry. So that’s a far cry from just being asked to design a new label.

TED Which, by the way, we did. We designed the case packaging and displays, too—even the corks. And Treasury has taken the ball and run with it in a number of interesting directions ever since—a short film, an AR app, a Snoop Dogg spin-off. Everything around the brand has a role in telling the 19 Crimes story. But the truth is, we didn’t even start designing until Ryan had landed on a strategy for concept development and a psychographic breakdown of the people we were designing for.

THAT BRINGS US TO YOU, RYAN. WHAT’S YOUR ROLE IN DIG? WHAT ABOUT YOUR BACKGROUND PREPARED YOU FOR THIS ROLE?

RYAN I had a bit of a winding, nonlinear path compared to a lot of people in our business. Advertising has been one corridor of that winding path. I've also worked for cultural labs and managed an innovation firm in San Francisco for three years. Having a diverse background like that helps me understand branding, understand consumer insights, and understand go-to-market strategies. I can have at least a halfway intelligent conversation on business strategy and modeling.

My role is to lead the innovation side of our work in partnership with Ted who leads the design side. But maybe the better question is, “What’s the role of strategy in DIG?” My own view is that strategy is at its most useful when it creates an opportunity for inspired creative thinking to solve a problem.

LIKE WITH 19 CRIMES.

RYAN Exactly. JSX is a good example, too—an entirely new brand identity that sprang from a redefined brand strategy. Or going back to spirits again, there’s Theory Gin. Our partnership with that client didn’t just result in the launch of a new brand of gin. It defined a platform of experimentation that’s since guided them in launching a whole series of new flavor infusions—one after another, five to date.

YOU’VE BOTH WORKED WITH A LOT OF COMPANIES AND BRANDS OVER THE YEARS. IN YOUR EXPERIENCE, WHAT LEADS TO THE BEST RELATIONSHIPS AND THE BEST WORK?

TED The willingness to put something out into the world that might alienate someone—it’s such an important quality, both in designers and their clients. You could call that courage, but it’s actually just being realistic enough to accept that any creative expression that’ll be loved by a lot of people is bound to be unloved by some. That’s the price you pay for originality. I’m sympathetic to the fact that it’s my client who’s taking the bigger risks, and not me—but let’s face it, the only alternative is creative work that’s not very creative at all. It’s safe, but isn’t going to do much in terms of advancing the brand. Most people won’t notice it, and those who do won’t remember it. I’ve done my best work with clients who get that.

RYAN I also believe that, deep down, our partners on the client side are motivated by the same human desires that we are: we all work hard and sacrifice a lot for our jobs—and at the end of the day, we all want to leave something in our wake that we're proud of—something that we can point to and say, “I had a hand in that.” It makes those hours that we all spend at work much more valuable and meaningful. When a CMO or brand manager feels that way, it changes the entire client-agency dynamic. It goes from a review-and-approval relationship to a shared feeling of excitement and anticipation. You just can’t wait for the world to see this thing. When your work day is grounded in that kind of energy, your life gets profoundly better. But it takes a lot of trust to get there.

IT’S ONE THING TO ASK A CLIENT TO TRUST IN A CREATIVE IDEA. BUT IT’S QUITE ANOTHER TO TRUST IN THE THINKING WHICH SUPPORTS THAT CREATIVE IDEA. HOW DO YOU EARN THAT KIND OF TRUST?

RYAN You have to be an active listener. Hear somebody's question before you give them an answer. And they may not be actually saying that question out loud.

But really, the key to trust is always honesty. I don’t spin the facts. Ask me a question and I’ll give you a very authentic, very transparent answer whether I think it’s going to land well or not. I’ve had clients who may not want to go out and have a beer with me, and that’s fine—but when they have a vexing question, they'll call me because they know they'll get an honest assessment. I think a lot of business leaders are surrounded by people who tell them what they want to hear. But these leaders are smart enough to know they need at least a few advisors in their lives who are going to tell them what they need to hear.

NOW THAT DIG IS ITS OWN THING, WHAT IS YOUR GROUP’S RELATIONSHIP WITH ELEVEN AND THE ADVERTISING COMMS WORK THAT IT DOES?

TED First of all, even though DIG has its own staff and areas of focus, we are still very much a part of Eleven. Comms is one side of the house, and DIG is the other side of the house—but it’s still one house.

Second, we’ll continue to partner with Eleven Comms in developing brand platforms that inspire and creatively support every kind of storytelling: advertising, social campaigns, filmed content, and so on.

There’s another set of circumstances that brings our two groups together. From time to time, Eleven is chosen only to create a company’s advertising, because the branding had already been done by someone else. But sometimes that branding doesn’t hold up so well in practice—maybe it was created by designers with little experience in anything that falls outside of their own comfort zone. Or maybe the client’s design team just isn’t comfortable collaborating with its ad agency. So we’re brought in to help.

I want to add that Eleven Comms has some incredibly talented staff designers of its own, and they bring an amazing level of design sensibility and experience to so much of what Eleven does.

LAST QUESTION: THE BAY AREA IS HOME TO A NUMBER OF GREAT DESIGN FIRMS, AND HAS BEEN FOR MANY YEARS. WHAT WILL BRANDS GET FROM DIG THAT THEY MAY NOT FIND ELSEWHERE?

RYAN Ted sort of touched on this just now, but I can address it more directly. This is not a knock on any of the design firms, but they tend to work in a bit of an isolated environment where design is a specific answer to a very specific question. Thinking through how that particular design will support or fit in with everything else a brand is doing just isn’t in the wheelhouse of a traditional design firm. Without that broader context, you can create some beautifully designed packaging or identity systems, but I don't know how deployable they are. And that’s not just from a technical—“Does the logo scale up and down?”—kind of perspective.

DIG emerged from twenty-plus years within Eleven. It’s in our DNA to understand that our design output will need to succeed in a lot of different environments, and be deployed in every which way imaginable. We have a long history of collaborating with advertising teams in developing really clear, really flexible, really durable brand platforms. I think that’s how clients get the most bang for their buck these days.

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