Described by namesakes and founders Catherine Clark and Paul McDowall as “a progressive team of brand architects with a passion for making brands future-ready,” clarkmcdowall has spent the last 20 years cultivating their ethos of intelligence and imagination.
We caught up with Paul this week for our first company spotlight of 2023!
How was your company born and where are you based?
clarkmcdowall is a New York City based company with a hybrid model, so we have team members spread across the country. This allows for diversity of thought, as well as a wider pool of talent.
We were born through a shared vision of breaking down silos between strategic and creative - we actually don’t know of another agency with a 50/50 partnership between strategic and creative founders. We call this foundational idea ‘Intelligence and Imagination’.
What was the biggest challenge to the growth of your company?
In a word, pigeonholing. Certain clients tend to put people into certain boxes - design agency, strategy consultants or innovation specialists. We are ‘brand architects’ who leverage the strategic and creative. Over the years some people have a hard time understanding the huge added value that can really bring.
However, once they get it, we can open many doors in an organization. There are also ebbs and flows in the types and number of projects that come through, so managing the incoming work and how much outreach to do is always top of mind.
Which was the first huge success that you can remember?
Our first client was Unilever, and we were their AOR for innovation. As some clients left Unilever, they brought us to new companies. That led to our very first project with Mars on M&Ms innovation which in turn led to many successful years of brand creation, innovation, and design work, working across pretty much all of the Mars portfolio and with the Mars family themselves.
What’s the biggest opportunity for you and your company in the next year?
We can help our clients navigate the potential financial downturn by being proactive thought partners and innovating more efficient ways of working so budgets go further while they continue to grow. Thinking entrepreneurially and acting with agility is the key.
Can you explain your team’s creative process? What makes it unique?
There is no one set process that solves all problems. We think like architects. Each challenge is unique as it depends on many factors. Our approach starts by asking questions. We come together as a cohesive team to think through the issues, challenge the brief so we truly understand the objectives and avoid jumping to executional answers.
From there, we use creative tools to help guide the conversation, making things tangible. We build towards an answer ensuring the strategic intent and brand character is consistent. Depending on the challenge at hand we align on a big creative idea, develop assets then deploy across the ecosystem - packaging, name, visual and verbal ID, branded content etc.
How does your team remain inspired and motivated?
It's a part of our culture to inspire each other - not just design but the world around us, the world of brands, things of cultural interest. The creative team themselves have weekly team meetings where they talk about what excites them, things they want to work on, work that they’ve seen.
We also hire talent engaged in their disciplines - they bring passion, commitment and fresh thinking - it’s where we get our energy from. Everybody at CM has a voice and is asked to lean in. Through that, we provoke conversation and share ideas.
How has COVID-19 affected your company?
Like most companies, the pandemic forced us to embrace technology quickly. We adapted to remote working and began immediately innovating on the way we work which has made us more efficient.
Our hybrid/ remote model also means we are no longer geographically tied to our New York base so we’re able to hire talent from a larger pool or allow team members to move around the country.
Which agencies do you gain inspiration from? Do you have any heroes in the industry?
We gain inspiration from agencies that uphold standards for the industry and do not devalue the industry by offering free work, undercutting prices just to outbid. This just commoditizes what we do as specialists. Our expertise is of high value to clients.
What is one tip that you would give to other agencies looking to grow?
Don’t try to do too much too quickly. That’s how you will overextend yourself. Focus on what you’re really good at and build from there. Make sure you establish a strong culture that is championed at the top and brings value to your team. Reputation is your most important asset internally and externally.
How do you go about finding new clients/business? (Pitching, work with retainers, etc.)
Over the past 23 years, we’ve worked with some incredible marketers, design managers, CMO’s, business owners and entrepreneurs across a breadth of much-loved brands and organizations. We work hard to do the best we can for their business and careers. Over time we have developed a solid reputation in the industry.
99% of our work is down to this reputation - old clients bringing us to their new organizations, continually connecting with our network and expanding our relationships. We never really do cold reach outs - it’s about building those relationships, connections, partnerships, and trust.
To stay top of mind with our network and to make new connections we invest in a strong marketing system that pushes and shares our POV, award wins, and news. There is a huge amount of competition these days so being present is critical for growth.
What’s your one big hope for the future of the industry?
As a creative industry we have the opportunity and ability to help our clients solve huge global problems. We want their businesses to thrive and sell their products, but it must be done responsibly.
As an agency, we have our role to play and a responsibility for the community for health and for the planet. We have the responsibility to influence, challenge, create, be brave, call BS when necessary and collectively do the right thing. It’s an existential challenge.