Langton Creative Group: The Execution of Digital Branding
On today’s episode of fjorgecast, Tim is joined by David Langton, the founder of digital branding agency Langton Creative Group. Tim and David discuss the unique intricacies that come with logo design, as well as the challenges that come with selling designs and ideas to new clients.
Tim: Thanks for joining us on fjorgecast, I’m Tim Barsness, founder of web and mobile development team fjorge. Today on our show we will be talking with David Langton about his digital branding agency, Langton Creative Group. Welcome to the show David.
David: Hello, it’s nice to be here.
Tim: We’re glad you could make it. David, can you tell us a little bit about the Langton Creative Group.
David: Well, the Langton Creative Group is based in New York City. We have been here for 22 years, and we started as a group that really wanted to do branding and started in the old world of graphic design but have transitioned into digital marketing methods.
Tim: I understand based on the name that you’re founder of the company.
David: I am the founder, yes.
Tim: Twenty-two years, quite a run.
David : Yes.
Tim: Can you share a little bit about how you came to found the Langton Creative Group.
David: Well, I always wanted to run on my own design firm. It was always a passion of mine to do graphic design and to be able to work with people that I want to work with and do the work that we want to do. I think that’s something that we’ve been able to do over the last 22 years, is work with people who we mutually want to work with.
Tim: How do you know when you meet someone, or what is the process to understand whether you want to work with them or not?
David: That’s a tough question but I think that what happens is we always encourage people to look at our portfolio, and look at the kind of work that we do. Not that we want you to look like our work but we want you to know that this is the caliber of work and the style of work that you can expect from a firm like ours. We also think it’s really important that we have a conversation where we talk about what is it that you’re looking for in a design partner. What are you trying to achieve. Through that conversation, we learn about each other and I learn about them and I learn about the questions that I ask in the work that I would want to do for them.
Tim: How big is the team today?
David: There’s five of us.
Tim: Twenty-two years ago when you founded the company, what was the vision for where you were going?
David: Well, I founded the company 22 years ago with Norman Cherubino and there were two of us. We were both [inaudible 00:02:31] graduates, we had worked about five years in the industry in New York for various entities, small studios. I actually worked at Home Life Insurance Company where I was the manager of graphic design. I had a sense of what it was like to be on the corporate side.
We used to start by saying that we finish each other’s sentences, we had that partnership so that was the beginning of the process. We shared values, we shared the fact that we both wanted to do good work at a fair price and that was an important part of our process, it wasn’t like — We came from the same background.
Tim: Got it, very cool. At some point your partner separated off?
David: Yes, Norman left about two years ago to pursue his own things and I continued the firm. At this point, we’ve actually gone more digital. That was one of the things that we wanted to do in the last couple of years, more website development, more social media work. That’s something that’s become a real passion of mine.
Tim : What is it about Websites digital work that you’re so passionate about?
David: Well, I think it’s really interesting that you can take the basic brand principles that work whether you’re in print or whether you’re experiential, in a sign or an exhibit and apply it to a digital world. Everything is digital first, mobile first. When I talk to my kids about what’s going on in the world, it all has to do with online. I want to be there because that’s where the communication is happening.
Tim: Got it. Can you tell me a little bit about the transition to go from what it sounds like was a more traditional or print design group or brand design group to a digital group.
David: Well, what I think is really interesting is that the core precepts of design which are sometimes called design thinking are the same. When we start to pick apart what’s happening today in the digital world or you look at some of the leading companies that are in the digital space, companies like AirBNB which were founded by graphic designers, you start to see that the process that we learned at school 25 plus years ago is a process that’s still valid in the digital space.
Tim: Can you maybe explain a little bit about what that process looks like?
David: Well, part of the process is just looking at — It starts with, in a formal sense empathy. When I say when I meet with somebody first I’m trying to get an understanding of where they are with their brand and with their product or service, and where they want to be. A lot of it is identifying with the client in their challenge to meet usually their client. A lot of it’s B to B, so I’m working with a client who has to reach another client. The first process is always empathy, then it turns into a problem solving process. How can we solve the problem now that we understand you in your marketplace and focus on your client together, and that’s really where design thinking comes into play.
Tim: Do most of your clients understand that process when they come to you, or is that something that you end up explaining to them throughout the process?
David: I think it’s a mix. I think there’s a natural tendency to understand the whole empathetic approach but I think what is under sold in graphic design is the ability to solve problems. There’s still a great bias against the fact that people just think it’s all about looking good and visuals and style. Certainly, visuals and style are part of the process but that’s not the endgame and that’s not even the core beginning game.
We really need to find out what the precepts are that you’re trying to achieve and the themes that you want to articulate before we can start picking up our pencils and drawing or going to our computer screens. I think that that still gets lost, I think there’s just a bias against design. People think it’s easy because they see it everywhere, they don’t understand what the thought that goes into it.
Tim: That sounds unfair.
David : [laughs] Yes, well, that’s a challenge too.
Tim: Totally. I think those critics or those people who think it’s easy, everything seems easy if you don’t know the work that goes into it and those people probably haven’t actually designed something effectively before.
David: Well, it’s true because even something as simple as filming a video and watching it be filmed 20 times to get that right moment that you can edit into essentially what’s a 20 or 30 second video, it’s a lot more work intensive than you would know if you didn’t do it.
Tim: Right, let’s go back to David 22 years ago who it sounds like was working in a corporation and decided to take on a partner and start his own design firm. What was going through your head at that time?
David: Well, I think there was a little bit of a step in between. I was at the corporation, I left the corporation to go work for another designer where I was going to be the creative director. And, I got this weird sense like the first day on the job. I had no desk, no computer and I wasn’t introduced to anybody. I thought, “Oh, this is odd.” I started telling everyone, “I’m the new creative director.” And they all nodded and go, “Oh yes, sure you are.”
I remember thinking, “Oh, this is not starting off the way I thought it would.” About a month in I realized that this was just a bad fit, this was not going anywhere and what I thought was working for someone else was giving me some security. I realized when I was at this place I had no security. I thought, “Well, I’m not going to have any security I might as well do this by myself.”
David: That’s what led me to go off on my own, and then when I was able to land a large project I needed help getting it done and then I reached out to a colleague of mine Norman and said, “Hey, we could do this together.” We did, that was our first project together. Then about a year later we said, “Hey, let’s make this official.” and we became partners.
Tim: When you started did you have a backlog of work, or was your first step to go find something to do?
David: Well, I started with — I had one project which was an annual report which was a big project back then. I had a project to start on but what I’ve learned over and over again is that there’s no guarantees. You have to continually be looking for the next project. No matter how long you’ve been in business, you can’t just focus on the project that’s in front of you, you have to always be planning ahead.
Tim: Do you find that extremely challenging?
David: Yes [laughs]. I wish it wasn’t but it is, it’s always challenging but it’s also part of the whole process of always looking ahead.
Tim: Totally, it’s interesting. When you said that one of the things I thought about is the only thing more important than the project you’re working on is the project you’re going to be working on next.
David: It’s true, and sometimes — I remember starting off thinking that I was only really working when I was working on a graphic design project. I’ve totally changed that, now it’s like, “No, doing sales, doing a really good blog post that promotes your organization that’s work too.” It’s not just design, it’s the whole process of running the business that’s part of the job.
Tim: Right, are you still a creative director as well?
Tim: Got it, very cool. All right, let’s transition into a little bit more about the team, what you guys do, how you do it so well. What makes your team truly unique?
David: Well, one is that my design director Jim Keller has been with me for over 15 years. We have this very tight relationship in terms of understanding how we work together and a real comfort that — Jim’s super reliable and we know, what we can expect from each other. We can egg each other on to do better work, understanding that everything we do here has a certain standard. There’s a process for how work comes through so when a project begins, we will do a deep dive research into the project and we all work on that together and then we break out.
We call it working together, working apart. We work together on establishing what the core project is all about and then we separate. Go our own way, brainstorm, sketch, do some personal research and then get back together again and do like almost like mini cricts. It’s pretty much like you would in school in the sense that there’s a lot of critiquing but you’re all working on the same project together, you’re not competing.
Tim: Got it, interesting. What is the outcome from that?
David: Lots of crazy ideas in the initial process. What we like to do is invite our clients in to see what we call a sketching session. We will take the work that’s not final and categorize it, present it in a logical manner but will show them a lot more than like three to five logos. We will actually show them walls full of creative concepts and different ways that they can think about their brand.
Tim: Very cool. How is that typically received?
David: It’s usually great because the clients come in, they have coffee and maybe some donuts and muffins and we sugar them up a little bit and they get a sense of what the process is like. Because we’re thinking about their their product or their service or their company in a way that they haven’t really thought of. I sometimes equate it to like a therapy session because what happens is you trigger a lot of things that the client may have been thinking about and they come out in the process, because when you’re designing an identity or brand for somebody what you’re really doing is reflecting what their future is going to be.
It starts to reflect on them like, “Oh, I don’t know if I want to go that way or maybe I do.” You hit some spots and that’s part of the process because you want to make sure that whatever identity or brand that you develop, really resonates with them personally.
Tim: Sure. I know for us a lot of times the most challenging client is the one who says, “Well, I’ll know what I want when I see it.” And they struggle to just describe it and I’ve fallen into that category unfortunately on creative projects at times. I’m curious how you deal with that.
David: Well, we try to present concepts on a visual basis but also on an intellectual basis, and we do ask for our clients to go through an exercise of answering questions and a little mini survey that we do, so that we’ve established a creative brief that when you evaluate a brand or a communication project you go back to the brief and say, “How does it meet these four or five things that we agreed on before we started the project?”
They can change and they can be interpreted, but it gets it away from “I like it when I see it,” or “I have to ask my wife or my partner to weigh in on this.” Because that’s not the audience. We also go back to, who is your audience? One of the biggest challenges is telling clients that you are not your own audience because that’s the key, can you get it, a design is going to meet your audience.
Tim: That’s a good point. I think having — Making sure that the person is willing to take the authority to make a decision as well that’s another thing that we’ve run into and decision makers, I mean especially design by committee or decision by committee can be extremely challenging.
David: Definitely. A lot of times what we do in that first stage is define who are the decision makers and can we make sure they’re in the input session, because a lot of times what happens is you work with people then you find out, “Oh, the CEO is going to stop by and make a decision on Tuesday.” And you’re like, “Wait a minute. She hasn’t been involved in the whole process that’s not a good sign, we need to know who’s going to be making the decision so we can tap into their expertise and show them the ground work that’s being done.”
Tim: Can you describe a time when the Langton Creative Group created I guess great success with a client.
David: Sure. One of my favorite projects is a project for Renaissance Capital. Renaissance Capital is based in Greenwich, Connecticut. They are research firm that invest in researches IPOs. They do a lot of research for the financial communities, and they had a logo that was like an old English R and we had to point out to them that well that is old but that’s actually what the Renaissance rebelled against.
We’re saying let’s come up with an identity that supports the history that you have in your name but projects forward. We were struggling with that because we were like, “Well, why I have to call your company Renaissance, like you’re about IPOs, you’re about Facebook, rolling out and e-bay and all these new companies that are coming to market. Why are you called Renaissance Capital?”
After a few meetings with the principals we were able to understand that they felt that the people who ran Google and e-bay and Facebook were the Renaissance people of today, and it was a really important revelation for them that that’s why they named their company this way. Then we used that as the inspiration of something that’s Renaissance oriented, but actually points to the future. That identity has been very successful for them.
Tim: Starting with a clear identity is important to having a solid design?
David: Yes. Understanding what the identity is supposed to reflect because it’s also important to understand that your brand lives in the hearts and souls of your audience not in you, and that’s a distinction that’s important to point out to clients because that’s — We get that from Paul Rand who always talked about how logos get their meaning from the quality of the thing that they symbolize.
Tim: Interesting. Let’s go into that a little more, what what does the word brand mean to you?
David: Well, to me, the brand is ultimately what other people think of you. The brand lives in your audience and it’s what they think of you and their experience in their minds and that’s a hard thing to tell people. Marketing is me telling you how great I am and the brand is you thinking, “Hey, I heard you’re really great.”
Tim: [laughs] I love it. When you have a solid brand, how do you leverage that to create impact?
David: Well, one of the basic things is the model of consistency. How do you promote that brand across all the platforms and channels and places that you are in. Simple test that is, does your brand appear on your business card, looks like it belongs to the website that you promote? It seems basic but it’s amazing how many times that test can’t be passed. Are you consistent in how you deliver information on print in your signage, in your exhibits, in the way that you promote your brand and then how do you look online, how do you look on social media.
Are you consistent visually but more of the point, are you consistent in the story that you’re telling and how you express your brand? Because it doesn’t have to be literally the same logo size in this position, in this color, it has to do with how you present your story and how you present your messaging across all these different platforms.
Tim: Got it. I heard you mention business cards. I’m curious, are you saying that as things like collateral are becoming less and less relevant that what a brand means is changing?
David: Well, I think what a brand means may be changing but it’s very interesting as the positioning of print is different than it used to be. There was a funny example when an Occupy Wall Street was such a sensation here in Manhattan. All these rallies and all these protest movements. One of the things that they did to make themselves more legitimate was put out a newspaper, and you wouldn’t think that something like that. Like here is something that’s a new age protest going on against the the old financial networks but that’s what gave them credibility, and print still has this credibility factor that online doesn’t.
When somebody sends you something in the mail and you open it look at it, it might sit on your desk for a couple of days or even be on there for months or weeks and e-mail is gone in a flash and it’s so easy to just get rid of e-mail. There’s definitely a role for email marketing but there’s also a role for direct marketing and for particularly well put together print pieces. I think it’s important to look at all those things from a branding perspective and make sure your campaign has a little bit of both.
Tim: Got it, great point. Let’s transition into a couple of new stories here. We’ve got two articles both by David. The first title, A doctor, a lawyer and a minister walk into a local development development meeting. David, can you tell us where it goes from there?
David: Yes, I was planning on this old joke of a doctor, a lawyer and a minister. It came from the idea that we’ve actually worked with all these types of professional groups, and they’ve become archetypes for how you present your work to a client. So what we found is that doctors have a very difficult idea imagining who you are.
They’re really fact-based, and they’re supposed to be. That’s why they’re doctors. So they want statistics. They want to know what the proof is. That’s a certain type of client whether you’re a doctor or not. There are people within business or within your client range who are going to have that analytical approach. Lawyers tend to be argumentative, which is why my son wants to be a lawyer. There’s a lot back and forth. When I present to lawyers you need to have a reason for everything that you just did, and you need to be able to come back at them.
It’s not a passive process. It’s actually a very active process. These are kind of cliches. But these are based on true experiences with these groups, and there are types of personalities that fall into these groups. Ministers tend to be more empathetic, and they’re more listening, and they’re more hearing and thoughtful, and they certainly value visuals. But there’s a challenge there too, because sometimes they say, “Having a little bit of a knowledge can be even more difficult to work with.” So, go ahead.
Tim: Does your team use these personas as you’re thinking about how to work with a potential client even if they’re not in these industries?
David: That’s a great idea [laughs]. Maybe we should start doing that. We don’t particularly use these personas. The persona names came just as I was reflecting on some past work. But when we make a presentation, we make sure to have analytics and reasons and visuals that touch the heartstrings. We make sure we hit all three of these categories in every presentation.
Tim: Totally, great. Our second story also by David titled The risks of toxic brand partnerships – David, I’m curious, can you give us an example of a toxic brand partnership?
David: I think the one that would probably be hitting the news right now is anybody with the Weinstein companies. One in particular would be Lexus, who has very successfully worked with the Weinstein brothers to produce a series of short films. You’re in this situation that you probably didn’t anticipate of being with a toxic brand as your partner. That’s what led to this idea of, how do you evaluate your partnerships.
Tim: Got it. What does your team do to evaluate potential partnerships?
David: It’s the same process that you should go to if you are going to make a partnership with somebody. I think a lot of people take the brand partnership part, and they don’t take it as seriously as they should. What I’m talking about in this article is I’m comparing it to when you’re getting ready to marry somebody. You really want to make sure you have the same values. It’s a long-term commitment. It’s not something you just do for a short period of time. So, if a company is going to essentially combine forces in a marketing in a very public way, they should make sure that they share values beyond the immediate sell or the immediate what looks like a great combination.
Tim: If you’re a corporation considering a partnership or even any group and considering a partnership, how would you go about evaluating the potential partners values?
David: I think it’s actually important that the CEOs get together and actually talk out what their plans are. When you talk about companies like Starbucks and Barnes and Noble, they have a lot of shared values. Starbucks actually made sure that if their coffee was going to be sold in Barnes and Noble, that the Barnes and Noble people were willing to train their employees in the Starbucks way.
Because they knew that over the long haul that if Starbucks stores or even the Starbucks brand is embedded in a Barnes and Noble store, and that store does not act in the proper Starbucks manner, it’s going to hurt their brand all over the place. They had to have that talk and they had to actually have an evaluation process to say, “Is this who we want to work with?”
Tim: Do you believe that the Lexus-Weinstein situation that you called out was avoidable?
David: Yes, I do. I think if Lexus sat down and looked at how the Weinsteins have been running their business for a long time and really took a hard look at whether they wanted to have a Hollywood partner, I don’t think it actually plays to a long-term dependable brand like Lexus.
Tim: Yes, absolutely. We’re out of time so that’s it for today in fjorgecast. Thanks for being on the show today, David.
David: My pleasure. Thank you very much.
Tim: Absolutely. You can reach David by email: email@example.com, or visit his company website at the same, langtoncreative.com. Thank you to the listeners for joining us on fjorgecast. You can download episodes of the program by going to fjorgedigital.com/fjorgecast, or subscribing to the show on iTunes, Stitcher, SoundCloud, and iHeartRadio.