Huge’s office looks like a film set’s idea of a cool advertising agency: racks of bikes in the reception area of an industrial-size, open-plan, chiefly monochromatic space. White, bare walls, polished, concrete floors, variously sized conference rooms—some very full of people engaged in intense conversation, others empty—and, as far as the eye can see, rows of white desks. Seated at each Mac-topped surface are young, slightly scruffy creatives. There are lots of sneakers, beards and T-shirts, and not a suit in sight. But that’s where the central-casting feel ends; visiting there feels like taking a trip to the future.
The Huge website, which looks exactly like their offices (Weston says “a website is a company”), opens boldly with big links feeding directly to some of their clients (Barneys and Xbox for HBO, in this case). It is after all their job to promote their clients’ businesses, but here they’re doing it on their own site. It’s clever and obvious, but not typical. Dig deeper (virtually) into this particular branch of Huge (there are other offices in San Francisco, L.A., London and Rio), and you’ll find a big picture of their office that looks just like the site, a column of live Twitter feed and a clever list of stats:
400 Brooklyn employees
1999 Year the office was founded
30,338 Job applicants in 2001
1 Marriage proposal
Using symbols, pictures and some pretty succinct copy—somewhat over 140 characters, but not dumbed-down, jargon-rich gobbledygook, either (I’ll forgive “iteratively lower churn”)—it actually feels like they’d like you to understand what they do. A voice at the start of the opening video says, “The only thing that an agency is is a group of people you believe in.”
Ross Morrison We just recently started to really delve deep into what I call brand personalities. You know how branding traditionally works: you have a logo, maybe a color palette, the tagline, things like that. But there’s a new part of branding we’re starting to see, this brand personality. That means how you speak to people, like on 101 conversations and involvement through social media. We’ve had the ability to contact customer service or whatever for a while, but right now all that sort of thing can happen live—brand interactions with individuals can play out in real time on social media like Facebook and Twitter.
Lucy Sisman So a brand can have a logo and its official-speak doing one thing, and then all you lot tweeting or sending messages on Facebook that send a different message?
RM It’s about keeping that message consistent. Keeping the tone of what you want your brand to be in all areas.
LS So this is live branding?
RM Exactly. It’s complicated, because you have to be consistent. And you have to have someone with expertise writing it all the time even if you’re selling concrete.
LS How do you do that?
RM Well, it’s kind of like the wild West right now. The way we’re approaching it is that we do a pretty in-depth study—how they want the brand to show themselves to customers, what topics they want to show up in conversations about. Like, for instance, if you’re a company that sells concrete you might want to involve yourself where people are building foundations for homes, even though that’s not exactly concrete. Or maybe just about carpentry in general, because it ties into concrete. So you basically look for different conversations that your brand should be involved with.
LS So they all link up?
RM Right. It all fits into what we call the brand point of view. So, for instance, if you’re on Twitter and you’re just basically retweeting a bunch of stuff, or sending out links, that’s okay, but it’s not great for your brand. Your brand should always have a point of view about what you’re linking people to on Twitter.
LS Can you give me an example?
RM The Huge Twitter is a really good example. One of our tenets is that we always have a point of view. We do a lot of linking. We’ll send people to interesting articles and whatnot, but we always preface it with our point of view. Like, is the article good? Is it bad? Is there something interesting within the article? It’s kind of like writing a lede, a journalism lede.
LS Is everybody at Huge tweeting, or are only a few people allowed to do that?
RM Only certain people are allowed to do it. Sam kind of runs it. I set up the initial here’s-what-our-brand-personality-is-like through social media.
LS So you control certain words you use? Details like that?
RM The only real rule we have is that you’re not allowed to use profanity more than once a week and then only if it adds to the story. Our point of view is not unlike the Daily Show or the Onion. It’s a little bit snarky-ish; it’s sort of like a joke. We use humor, and the reason we use humor is that it’s the hardest thing to pull off. We want to have the highest-quality interactions with people, so we go for a little bit irreverent, but still knowledgeable about the industry, very design-focused, which is where Huge came from.
LS So this presumably plays into who you hire. Are you always looking for those qualities in people?
RM First off, when you write for any kind of advertising—but even more so with digital—you have to be able to write in thousands of different voices. Like, you can have your own personal style, but you also have to be a master of being able to pick up somebody else’s style and go with it. And also to define what the style should be, which takes us back to the brand personality thing.
LS So, for instance. I don’t know if you can talk about a particular job or client, but how many voices are you speaking in here at the moment?
RM Me? At least 10. Anything from pizza to tacos to topical domains. Like dotcom and dotnet—we have a client who owns those two, so we do marketing for them. It’s not exactly tangible, but it’s still a very valuable product. No one’s really tackled before how you sell something like that before. Like, usually, it’s GoDaddy, it’s advertising. You buy them on GoDaddy, but what about the domains themselves? They’re a big challenge, but we’re working through it. You don’t even know where to start. It’s taken us a while, but we’re getting there.
LS How do you come to be doing what you do? Have you been in advertising a long time?
RM I grew up in Arkansas, in the South, a very poor state. In my school we took an aptitude test that told you what field you should go into, and mine said “advertising,” underlined three times. So apparently I had topped out in advertising. I’ve always been a writer. I’ve always been obsessed with TV ads and things like that, so I decided then I would go into it. It was kind of an easy choice for me. I did tons of internships after college, and the Internet happened while I was there, so it was a perfect fit. I was totally interested in that.
LS So back to what you call brand personalities.
RM There are a few other agencies approaching it from a we-are-a-social-media-based-agency standpoint, but we are more approaching it, at least internally, from a writing standpoint. Like, if you can’t write this stuff really well, you’re not going to have relationships one-on-one with your consumers and fans that are nearly as good.
LS So there’s been a big swing, hasn’t there? Starting in the ’60s, the image was dominant. Now it’s the return of the word, of the writer?
RM You can blame social media for that. It’s the number-one form of communication right now, between consumers on Twitter and Facebook. You’re also starting to see a lot of funny things happening to writing and language because of the restrictions placed on it by a medium like Twitter, obviously. So everything is shorter, with abbreviations being substituted for words and new abbreviations popping up all the time. Facebook has the same problem. And it’s getting more so—so that you can also communicate with stills [photos, like Instagram], and soon it will be animated gifs; people are starting to combine words with photos because we have the bandwidth to handle that. Two or three years from now we’re probably going to start seeing lightly animated gifs for communication; five years down the line we’re probably going to be shooting videos back and forth.
LS So we’re swinging back to the image again? What has this process done to writing? Has it sharpened copy?
RM I think it’s really good for agency copywriters. For so long you were told by a superior or someone else to shorten it, cut as much as possible, but now people have been trained since they were teenagers to write these succinct messages, so it naturally works its way into headlines and other kinds of copywriting. The shorter the better.
LS So the messages you’re sending out are “disguised” as if they’re from that company? “Real” opinions and remarks about that business?
RM Yeah. Here’s what’s happening in the world of concrete. Here’s what you should be paying attention to in the world of concrete.
LS Is concrete a client?
RM No, but I used to do construction work.
LS What kind of clients come here?
RM The smartest clients are the ones that are huge.
LS These wonderful squiggles/writing on the wall: is this talking to yourself and to others internally, or is this you talking to the client?
RM We have very specific ways we message clients. We have our own take on how we use PowerPoint. That’s typically how we present to clients. We’re starting to use more video, but it’s not just about the presentation—the presentation is barely important—it’s about the person talking in the room. You know how Jon Stewart [of the Daily Show] has a screen behind him showing things; that’s how we use PowerPoint. We’re literally trying to get it down to one word, so it’s just a cue. It’s basically in my head; it’s there so I remember what I’m supposed to be talking about. Occasionally we’ll have something that’s interesting for them to look at, but for the most part it’s guys, it’s face-to-face talk.
LS So you’re not talking to them through bulleted lists?
RM We try to avoid bullets as much as possible. Sometimes it’s necessary.
Sam Weston What we do is very sophisticated. We spend most of our time building digital experiences for clients. It may be very, very large websites, social media platforms, social media presences, mobile locations, in-store visual experiences. All of those are very complicated to build. So they require wireframes [architectural blueprints] for the end result, which could be a website.
LS You mean a diagrammatic plan of your work?
SW And lots of thinking.
LS So you are teaching this concrete firm how to talk to its clients?
LS Does that mean you’re doing all this messaging for clients on a long-term basis, or are you teaching them to talk to their clients themselves?
RM It goes both ways. We’re still in the early stages of defining what the relationship is. At this moment we can take it over completely, and they can simply moderate it; soon, I think, part of the engagement will involve helping them hire the right person or identify the right person within their company who can continue to do that. Which means, basically, that they need a writer, if they don’t have one already.
LS Presumably that means there are people here messaging for the company—who are understanding what the company is doing—but who aren’t actually at the company?
RM Good question. We haven’t really seen exactly how that industry will come to fruition yet.
SW We don’t really do a lot of the content production, because the truth is that it is better that the content is produced by the client organically, within the framework parameters. We work with them on that, when it comes to social media, which is better coming from within the organization. You know, social media can honestly do a lot of different things, and responding to customers with that kind of stuff is more immediate, more effective, if it comes from the organization.
LS Can we define social media? Since people mean different things by it beyond Twitter and Facebook?
RM It’s wherever there is direct communication from the brand to a consumer, one-on-one.
LS And blogging about things on the website?
SW This is part of a large transition that our clients are making. More and more, they’re figuring out that their brands are their digital presences and not what someone proposes for a TV ad. And, yes, for a long time a brand has been an advertising message that’s been seen on TV or in print, but now it’s a real-time experience that people have with the company’s digital interface—its website, its Facebook page, its Twitter account—which obviously makes writing critically important. And it means that all companies, as they figure out how digital is important to their businesses, are grappling with becoming publishers of content.
LS How do you get a company, say a pizza company that’s steeped in cheeses and boxes and delivery times, that isn’t quick, smart, funny or snappy, to deliver that kind of mindset?
RM Humor is not for everyone. Humor is just for specific types of brands. So the first thing we do—everyone has a common idea of what their identity is. You kind of have to look at the history, look at the people who are making decisions, and look at how they want to be perceived in the customer landscape, and you work towards that. And you work with them to come up with the ideal sort of point of view they would have as a company. It’s sort of, what is, like, their personality? It’s basically like figuring out a personality for a character if you’re writing a script in a movie or something like that. So what’s their history—what would lead up to them making certain kind of decisions? This sort of thing is the same with brands, it’s just figuring it out, and you work with a client to identify that. And then we make recommendations for all the different directions you can go in. But the important thing is to stay consistent when you make that decision.
LS So when you’re presenting in this Jon Stewart way, with boards behind you—and you’re not exactly ad-libbing, but you’re not talking from a script either—is there a point where you’re giving a client something written and tangible that they go away with and keep?
RM It depends on the circumstances, but, typically, if we’re really making a lot of strong recommendations—if it’s beyond just a pitch sort of situation—we will have more of a leave-behind-type document. That could be a memo, or it could be like more complex, with bullet points in PowerPoint. Something that basically you know maintains what we just talked about even if it differed from what went on inside the room. It’s on a case-by-case basis. It depends on what we’re doing.
SW One of the products we might do for a client is a style guide, which would include words, greetings, even examples.
LS Do you advise people about what to say on the phone too?
SW More and more clients now have approved types of responses they can use. When you think about it, there is no fundamental difference between responding to customer service and customer service in social media, except that on social media your response is public.
RM Yeah, everything is being recorded [on social media] and anyone can look it up immediately.
LS There’s a huge element of trust for a client to come here and put themselves in your hands, aside from the exchange of money. How do people not come here terrified? Because it’s a very exposing thing for a company to do, isn’t it?
RM We’re known for our collaboration skills. They’re huge [sic]. We would work closely with clients. It’s never us taking over anything, it’s always, like, working together to figure out the right thing, so we try and keep the fear to a minimum.
LS Presumably there are some kind of clients who wouldn’t come to you? Clients where you think, hmm… that’s going to be a hard one to pull off?
SW There’s no such thing as a boring client.
LS Not boring, but with extreme views, perhaps? Or very generic and middle-American?
RM Well, that’s an interesting thing. When we were talking about social media, and that Sam is in charge of public relations, and it’s merging to a point where you have to basically get your PR stories straight and we have to work super closely together to make sure that things don’t go off the rails. Whenever there’s a difficult client, who may have a controversial angle, or maybe had trouble in the press, that’s when PR is seriously involved with social media.
SW I think what you’re trying to draw towards is what happens when you have a client who’s not as familiar or progressive, let’s say. Let’s say you’re working with that concrete company. I think a lot of our projects start by transferring, in some cases creating, the brand for that company online. Usually it’s a digital project. It’s often the case that someone will come to us because they need a new website, or a new mobile application, so the project will start there, but it can often grow. And in doing that, the way we work, we do a lot of research with that company’s customers, as well as with people who work at that company and really understand what’s spectacular about it, in terms of what it offers its client or customers, and what’s great about the company itself. Usually we’re building the brand from the ground up with the company in order to get them very excited about the vision, the future and everything they can do, and so in that way we’re all leaning forward. They’re talking to us and working with us because they want to get good at this stuff. We help them see the opportunity and get excited about it. And in the cases where they don’t have people on board who are writers, well, they’re hiring those people. Every company is hiring them now, because to be functional you need to fill those digital positions.
LS Presumably those are hard people for a company to find. I mean, here, you’ve got people working on multiple brands at the same time?
RM We like to mix it up. We specifically hire writers who can handle a lot of voices. You’re not worth much if you have a single style in an advertising agency and keep writing in that style.
LS Do you sometimes take over the visuals for clients, too?
RM It depends on what we’re talking about. If we’re talking about a website, or a customer purchase path, or something like that, then, yeah, we’re absolutely the visual design experts. But visuals, as I said before, are becoming more and more prevalent in communication through social media, and it’s only going to get more so in the future. We still do the majority of our take on things from a visual standpoint, and we’re adding the written communication as well. So there isn’t that division between writing and visuals. It all works together.
LS So PR isn’t out on its own just doing damage control?
RM Sam is everywhere.
LS Presumably internal communication has to be really good. If somebody has tweeted a message saying one thing, then you have to know about it?
SW There’s a difference between what I do for Huge and what I do for a client. I try to be aware of what everyone is working on. Let’s step back: when it comes to managing Huge’s social media presence, the Twitter account, we have a system where every morning we send out links that we think are interesting and relevant to what we do. We source the type of copy that Ross was talking about before by the people who work here, people who want to be part of writing. So they’ll take a crack at writing a tweet for a link, and I’ll send it back and say yes or no, depending on, you know, whether it’s appropriate and meets quality standards.
LS Could this be about something in the neighborhood, or a job you’ve done?
SW Yeah, all that kind of stuff is fine, although it usually has to be focused on something that’s relevant to people who work here or something they put out, or to the wonderful disciplines that we do in design technology, marketing and business strategy. So we wouldn’t want to go around screaming about the new cake store opening in Dumbo, because that’s not relevant to 99 percent of the people who follow us. And the rest of it is being very aware of what people here are sharing and tweeting about.
LS It’s interesting, this renewed interest in writing.
RM Classically, writing is a lot of rewriting. You spend a lot of time with something, you get it just right and then you send it to your editor, who sends it back and tells you it’s all wrong. But in this case, it’s all an improvisation type of writing—and also you have to deal with, like, is it okay to say this or not when you’re dealing with a brand. So you’ve got “is it okay to say this or not?” and you’ve got “I have to be improvisationally interesting during conversation on the spot.” And it lasts 24/7. So it’s pretty advanced from a writing standpoint.
LS So you have to be very careful, while not being cautious?
RM That’s a good way of describing it. I should write that down.
SW Everybody needs to be very engaged. My job in PR is to always be on the lookout for something that needs responding to, a potential problem or something good that I need to capitalize on.
LS Does this mean you walk around and peer over people’s shoulders?
SW The larger takeaway is that, you know, now a company’s brand is—it’s not just a building they work in, and it’s not just the print ads—it’s actually the digital interfaces that they have. For most people, a company’s website is the company. That’s how they will interact with that company, how they find it through search engines or going to Twitter to see what it is, and through the living presence of those ads on the different social media channels, and in many cases the daily experiences they have through the application. It means that people are responsible for writing, because you can bring it back to life on a constant basis. It’s fundamental to be part of today’s digital world.
LS So if you’re doing the social media for a client, and the client is working with other agencies, how can you prevent it if you feel it’s going off-brand?
RM We usually don’t pass a lot of judgment on current things that are already going on. We definitely make our conditions for going forward. We may not be able to do anything about the current campaign, but you have to be smart enough to work with that, and to make sure that what you’re doing on social media doesn’t blatantly contrast with the messaging they’re doing through other avenues, whether it’s broadcast or print or whatever. It’s a delicate process to make sure that everything meshes, even if something is going wrong with, like, the tone or whatever of their last ad campaign. You’ve got to twist that over again to the current social media, so it’s not completely different from that tone, but still graduating or evolving it to where you think the tone should be.
LS Is this work only for people under 25?
RM I think anyone who is involved in this sort of world is probably someone who has never stopped learning, even if they aren’t necessarily in school or in a place where they have to. So generally the people we would hire would constantly be learning and understanding how language is evolving, and understanding word usage and idioms and things that are just becoming a thing, for instance. I wouldn’t put an age range to it. I mean, we’ve found it’s kind of random. They could be 106 or 18. Being young doesn’t make you good at social media.
LS And being a good writer doesn’t necessarily make you a good writer for social media?
RM Yeah. It depends how you define “good writer.”
LS How might you define it?
RM There’s a thousand different ways to think of it. What we look for is someone who is a master of English language, who has idioms memorized, is a freak about usage (like not getting that and which the wrong way round). And we’re looking for people who are fast and can write in multiple voices, sometimes at the same time. There’s a certain amount of pride in being able to accomplish all that, and if they’re not interested in the results, or not doing it well, it’s not going to work.
SW We had a kid on the office administration team whose job it was to help make sure the fridge was stocked and clean up the meeting rooms. He would write the best emails to the staff about lost keys and stuff—they were funny—and he was a really good writer. The emails were story-based. He didn’t just find someone’s keys. There was always a story to it. Or he could write an elaborate poem about the upcoming holiday, or whatever it was. So we immediately got him on the Huge Twitter account, and it didn’t take long for him to graduate to the actual copy teams. So now he’s a copywriter, basically. He had a specific talent for that kind of writing.—LUCY SISMAN