Sep 16, 2021
Paul McDowall and Catherine Clark were neighbors when they founded ClarkMcDowall, a 21-year-old agency that with “intelligence and imagination” architects growth for “visionary companies.” Originally starting with big clients Catherine “inherited” from her previous employer, the agency had to put in effort to bring on the startups and mid-size companies that keep an agency nimble, fresh, and entrepreneurial – where there is a higher chance of “getting stuff done.”
Paul says the agency’s most productive relationships come with clients that want to think ahead and think differently, make changes and do something different, and push boundaries – that these companies have a “sophistication in the way they think, but also a progressive way of thinking about their own industry or their own business.” Catherine notes that the human side is important to the mix and that today’s clients are far more savvy about marketing and innovation than they were even six years ago.
Brand-architecting involves broad-scope innovation in such activities as creating new brands, amplifying “rising star brands,” and transforming legacy brands for visionary clients by changing brand strategy, purpose, or positioning. The agency’s brand expression work covers verbal expression (naming/ messaging) and visual expression (visual ID, packaging, design across the whole ecosystem, and web, video, and social components). Catherine says, “Architecting a brand is really about getting into what it stands for and then really thinking about how that impacts in all the ways it expresses itself.”
As an example of client work, Catherine talks about the agency’s multi-year effort with the Oklahoma City Thunder NBA team; addressing such issues as – What is their purpose? Why do they exist? How do they uniquely do things? What is it they actually do? – and then thinking how that manifests in the organization’s operations – a campaign, a tagline, player experience, how a new player is greeted . . . or about the arena itself and the experience of the arena. Paul extends the scope by mentioning that these things include the internal culture as well, “how they talk to each other” and “how they hire.”
Although ClarkMcDowall is based in New York City, the 2020 Covid lockdown forced the agency to rethink its organization. Catherine talks about the tension that comes with change . . . and the agency’s decision to “Just go hybrid and start building it.” Today, the agency uses different systems, different ways of hiring, and different ways of working than in the past . . . and has a strong focus on creating a work environment that is less transactional and more about people’s lives. About 25% of the agency’s 25 employees work remotely – across the country.
Catherine says all this change has come with some nice surprises (and these are quotes):
Catherine and Paul can be reached on their agency’s website at: clarkmcdowall.com or on LinkedIn.
ROB: Welcome to the Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast. I’m your host, Rob Kischuk, and I am joined today by a duo, Paul McDowall and Catherine Clark. They’re both Founding Partners at ClarkMcDowall, based in New York City. Welcome to the podcast.
PAUL: Thank you.
CATHERINE: Thanks for having us. We’re very excited to be here.
ROB: It’s very excellent to have you here. Maybe you could start off by telling us about ClarkMcDowall and about what it is that makes the firm unique.
CATHERINE: We call ourselves brand architects. I guess we’ll start there with the unique piece. Just to be tangible for everybody who might be listening in, that means we do a bunch of things. We create new brands, we amplify what we would call “rising star brands,” and then we transform legacy brands for clients that we would consider to be visionary clients who are really looking for some change.
What does that mean? It means we offer services like brand strategy, brand purpose, positioning, architecture. We also do a lot of innovation work, as that is also part of architecting those brands. Finally, we do brand expression work, whether that’s verbal expression like naming/messaging or visual expression like vis ID packaging, designing across the whole ecosystem, web, video, social.
There’s about 25 people in our agency. Our roots and our base are in New York City, but we are hybrid. We also have talent across the country.
I think what makes us unique is – we phrase it as “intelligence and imagination,” and I’m sure Paul will jump in and add to that, but it’s really born from the partnership that Paul and I have. I’m a strategist originally and Paul is a creative originally, and we both own 50% of this business. It’s very much about the fusion of two sides of our business that are usually not seen in equal partnership very much in the agency landscape.
PAUL: Yeah. We got to the intelligence and imagination – for a while we were talking about “we have strategy brains and creative brains working together,” and it sounded a little clunky. It also felt quite limiting as well. It feels as though creatives can’t think and then strategists don’t have a creative thought. It’s just not true.
The idea of intelligence and imagination is something that we do collectively as a team. It’s not one team, one person owns that. It’s everybody, whether it’s the strategists, whether it’s the creatives, but also whether it’s our client experience team, whether it’s our marketing team, ops team, whoever it is. That’s how we think and how we approach life. It’s a broader philosophy which has stood us in good stead for the last, gosh, 21 years, Catherine.
CATHERINE: It’s been a journey.
PAUL: Yeah. Awesome journey.
ROB: Congratulations on that alone. That’s quite a journey. You mentioned building brand architecture. When someone goes to your website and looks at the range of brands that are on there, we see quite an array of impressive top-level name brands. How does that play out? I imagine you can talk about some of those brands that are on the site. What does brand architecture look like for one of those examples that we might see looking at the firm?
CATHERINE: I could pick a couple of examples. Architecting a brand is really about getting into what it stands for and then really thinking about how that impacts in all the ways it expresses itself.
One client we like to talk about a lot is the Oklahoma City Thunder NBA team. We worked with them for a number of years, really helping define their purpose, why they exist, how they uniquely do things, what it is they actually do, and then thinking about how that manifests in all kinds of ways. It could be a campaign, a tagline, some visuals. It could also be the player experience. How do you greet a new player when they show up at your team? Or it could be about the arena itself and what the experience is like.
PAUL: Even their internal culture as well, how they talk to each other, how they hire. It’s from the inside out. Sorry, Catherine.
CATHERINE: No, no problem, Paul. This is our two heads thinking together, like we do. [laughter] So that’s how we would talk about being brand architects. It’s actually a little bit like an architect thinks about creating a building that is influencing the way people live their lives, the way they interact with each other, the way that building leaves a mark on the landscape. It’s really bringing a lot of things together.
Another manifestation of our work might be some work we did with Starbucks, restaging Evolution Fresh, which is their juice brand that was doing really well. They had this incredible, beautiful design, actually, that won some awards. But then the whole landscape changed around them. That’s what happens when we get brought in to do brand transformation. It’s like, “Hey, we’ve got this thing. It was doing great and now it’s hit a wall.” We would help them from the get-go in terms of understanding, what is the problem? Who is your audience? How do we change the way you position yourself and tell your story? Then we’re able to bring it to life.
In that particular instance, it was mainly packaging. The packaging was their main source of communication; they didn’t have any advertising. So that’s where we applied all our efforts, into the visual expression, and it turned their business around. They went from major decline to double-digit growth.
PAUL: They were getting delisted. Even from their own Starbucks stores, they were getting delisted. That’s how dire the situation was. Through the work we launched, they were doing double-digit growth. They had the biggest growth I think they’d seen in the brand itself, and actually outpacing the category itself. So a pretty dramatic transformation.
ROB: What was the timing of your engagement with Oklahoma City? Were you there right when they were moving and that transition? Was part of the brand design around the new team name? Or was it downstream from there?
CATHERINE: Downstream. We came in at the Kevin Durant free agency time. I can’t say too much about all of that, but you can imagine that that team was going through a lot of soul-searching in terms of what they stood for, and if that player was going to leave – which he ended up leaving – how do you make sure you define that team so that it has a real sense of purpose, regardless of the outcome they can’t control?
So we came in at that point and really helped them articulate what makes them different. And as Paul was saying, impacting their culture internally. They made this incredible bounce-back as soon as he left. And they’re always changing and there’s always players coming in, coming out. How, with a brand like that, do you help them to find what they stand for, agnostic of the players that might be there, knowing that the players are actually a huge part of the experience? So trying to create some stability and a sense of agency, if you like, for themselves outside of wins and losses and players.
PAUL: I think it’s interesting. They have a very progressive team way of thinking. I’m impressed with the GM, who we worked closely with and Catherine has a very good relationship with. He’s super thoughtful about everything, not wanting to be just another sports team or thinking like another sports team.
I think they’re the folks that we do really well with, those clients that really want to push the boundary, thinking ahead – not just reflecting the status quo – and wanting to do something different, wanting to make a change, wanting to think differently, wanting to think fresh. There’s a sophistication in the way they think, but also a progressive way of thinking about their own industry or their own business. We create wonderful, productive relationships with folks that are wired that way just because we’re wired that way as well.
CATHERINE: Just to build on that, a lot of agencies in our business are used to helping their clients narrow down their bull’s-eye, target audience and all those good things. We’ve had to do the same thing over the years and say, “Hey, what kind of clients do we work best with?” Because you can’t be everything to everyone.
That’s really been the thread: people who we consider to be visionary, who really want to do something different, transcend their category, push the boundaries, but at the same time have this very human side to them. We’re a very casual agency in terms of how we present ourselves and how we work with people. So there’s a real human side. We know we do better with clients that want that very personal, intimate relationship versus clients who are maybe looking for a big agency with lots of fancy style of working.
We’re in a category where there’s lots of different people doing different things, and if you can really define your niche, you’re more likely to be successful and be able to focus on that.
ROB: Right. There’s a big piece of the story there that I would like to come back to, because I think you look at a lot of the brands you’ve worked with, and I think a lot of agencies would look at the overall top-level brand and say that that brand is untouchable, that you really have to be a big holding company shop to engage with them.
But I’m going to put a pin in that for a moment. I want to get back to the origin story a little bit. Clearly, you two teamed up and you’re combining worlds of your own strengths. But how did ClarkMcDowall come to be in the first place? What’s the origin story?
PAUL: [laughs] This is a story that we actually didn’t tell from the get-go because I think it would’ve scared our clients, but we were literally next-door neighbors, literally over the garden fence. Catherine was running the UK side of a London branding company and I was doing my own thing with somebody else. I was very dissatisfied; I was on the creative side/design side, very limited. Wasn’t really allowed to ask a lot of questions. I’d inherit a brief and then respond to that brief.
Catherine was on the flipside, doing all this incredible thinking with innovation thinking, strategic thinking, and then it would be mistranslated or turned into – just lost, just melt into the ether and never see what happened to it.
We had a conversation one day – I think our spouse and partners were like, “The person next door, you should talk! They do what you do!”, whatever. And eventually we did. I remember Catherine sharing her insights. Catherine is extremely eloquent, as you can tell already. Very intelligent, bang-on. I just exploded and was like, “This is incredible.” It opened my mind to things. Likewise, Catherine, different side, “Here’s a creative that thinks differently about the industry and is dissatisfied and doesn’t just want to be a designer,” all those sorts of things.
It was literally a meeting of the minds. It was happenstance. It was one of those magic moments in your life that is transformational. And I mean that in the biggest sense of the word “transformational.” Then we built the business from there and basically shared thoughts and insights. We started in the East Village because that’s where we lived. As your audience will know, running an agency is a 24/7/365 job. We had babies at the time, or babies to come, so we wanted to stay close to our families. The human side, as Catherine touched upon, is super important to us, and recognizing that and trying to make it work for people.
By the way, Catherine, jump in at any time. You’ve heard this story a thousand times. You don’t need to hear me warbling on.
CATHERINE: But you tell it so romantically. It’s amazing. [laughter] I think what Paul’s saying is incredible because we ended up having two girls, two boys, they were the same ages, they all went to school together. It became kind of like a family thing. The company never felt like a family business, but there was definitely a sense of community.
We were very proud to have an office open on E 11th Street between A and 1st back in 1999. It was a complete scary neighborhood, and we were like, “This is where we live. We love it. We’re doing it.” Our clients were a little freaked out at first, and then as soon as they got into our office, or past the front door, they were like, “This is awesome. I feel energized. I feel like I’m part of something.”
I think we really stuck to who we were, and that’s carried us all the way through. Then we ended up in various spaces on the same block. We couldn’t really expand the space. At one point we had an apartment, we had a storefront, we had a studio, all literally on the same block. We called it our little village. That’s how we grew.
We started with some big clients that I’d inherited from my previous employer, Unilever – that then turned into Mars that then turned into other companies – just literally following people around. So we started really having what I would call big clients right from the get-go, and then over time actually had to work to try to get smaller clients – which is the opposite of maybe the journey a lot of other agencies take. They start with the smallest startups and then make their way up. We started literally with the big corporations and had to make an effort to go and acquire startups or mid-size companies that are actually really important to work with also, because they keep you nimble, they keep you fresh, they keep you entrepreneurial, and you have a higher chance of getting stuff out the door and published and all of those things. But it’s been definitely a very organic journey for us.
PAUL: Yeah. And it’s not being afraid to evolve, I think. It’s interesting because even after 21 years, we’ll stop and do a brand refresh or want to choose our narrative or whatever it is, and we go back to those original core tenets, those values. Maybe the language around them changes, but the essence of those things, what we believe in, is still really true to who we are – this idea of being original, this idea of evolving and problem-solving and going with the times, this idea of having an optimistic outlook, because you have to in order to keep in business and keep going. The idea of community, the idea of taking care of people, nurturing people. Those things were baked in from the start. They weren’t things that we made up. They’re just true to who we are as people.
I think that’s something, if any of your audience are new business owners as well, really doubling down on what you believe in and your values and being brave and sticking to them. When you start off, you’re a bit insecure. You think you need to be something else than you actually are. We had that, right, Catherine? We said, “Oh, we need to be like this agency,” and in the end it took a couple of years to be like, “No, people are buying ClarkMcDowall. They’re not buying the other agency.” Then it was like, “Oh, we are who we are.” You embrace it more and you really go with it. That quirky little storefront we used to have or whatever it might be, it becomes part of you, and then that’s what you build upon.
ROB: It’s really a key point. Maybe since you’ve made it through 21 years and probably continue to actually refine your authenticity – sometimes you think about building up layers; it seems like it’s almost the opposite sometimes. It’s peeling away the layers of what people made you think you were supposed to be and finding who you can authentically be. How have you figured some of those moments out? Because it’s really, really hard when you think about the expectations that people have upon you when you say, “This is us, this is what we do. We’re in the market.”
CATHERINE: There’s something about knowing your values. I think it was helpful that Paul and I met as people and shared values, so it’s easy for us to return to, if you like, as opposed to maybe people meeting through a business lens. We just genuinely wanted to do work together and respected each other’s ways of thinking. So there’s a human side.
I will say the tension comes when you want to change. For example, when 2020 hit, we were really quick to say – I think it was like April or something, a month or two after lockdown – “You know what? Just go hybrid and start building it. Whatever that means, we’ll define as we go, but let’s commit to that.” So we’ve changed in the last year and a half probably more ways of working than we’ve ever changed. Basically moving everything to Google, using different systems, different ways of working, having maybe 25% of the company remote.
But somehow, I feel like we’re even truer to ourselves in our values. We’ve really doubled down on the way that we treat people, the way that we integrate into our community, some of the pro bono stuff that we’re doing. So there’s this weird thing that the more you innovate, in a way, the easier it is to be true to yourself. You have to change a lot in order to really notice that anchor that you have.
ROB: Have you hired in a particular secondary location, or has it really been anywhere, everywhere, or maybe just North American time zones? What’s the range?
CATHERINE: We’re in North American time zones. We have had some team members go abroad for a month or so, and that’s fine, as long as it doesn’t exceed let’s say the 5- or 6-hour time range. But in general, it’s across the U.S. We have some people on the West Coast, which is great because we have some business over there as well. But there are some other people in places where we don’t have clients.
What we’re noticing, though, is there’s a fair amount of movement. Everybody’s like, “Do I want to move?”, or they move and then they miss New York and they come back. I think what’s been nice for people is that they’ve felt that they had the freedom to go and explore and not feel like, “I have to not move because we’re going to have to go in the office next month” or something. We’ve allowed people to also discover what works best for them, and I think it’s going to take a while to settle, because we’re still in this very unexpected, volatile time.
The more we allow people to try to find their own rhythm and their own environment, the more we’re able to retain them and get the best out of them. That’s our attitude.
ROB: It’s been an exciting opportunity. To your overall point, I think it can almost help when you’re not trying to choose “Who’s the best person we can find that wants to commute into the East Village?”, and instead you say, “Who’s the best person that aligns to our values and needs who wants to work remotely?” It’s a different question, and I think the numbers are bigger. The candidate pool is bigger. In our experience, at least, you can hire faster in a lot of cases.
CATHERINE: Absolutely. We’ve also experimented with different hiring models, getting people on short-term contracts so that they’re more willing to say, “I’m usually freelance, but I’m going to try to have this full-time experience for a period of time, but I’m not fully committed,” or people working part-time. I don’t know that we’ve cracked the code yet, but we’re very much in an open mindset around different ways to engage people, and that’s been super successful for us. We’ve been able to attract people and retain people that maybe in the past it would’ve been like, they’re not local, they don’t want to work on these hours, and we might’ve passed them by. And actually, they’ve contributed tremendously to the business.
PAUL: It’s like constantly learning. Same with the space as well, like Catherine said. We gave up our lease. The timing worked out. We’ve got other pals who are big agencies who are locked into leases and they’re like, “Gosh, what do I do with this now?” I guess we were in a fortunate position of being able to give that up, which means that we can experiment and we can learn and beta test.
We keep saying we could never imagine – if you were to create an office from the get-go, there’s no way you would put people in desks side by side, 9:00 to 6:00. You just wouldn’t build it that way. So we’re thinking about if and when we have the space – don’t even want to call it an office, but what would that space be? What’s its role, what’s its function? How do we design around people? How do we design around the team? How do we design around people’s lives? Because it’s not just about work. It’s not a transaction. I think work can often become, or has been in the past, a transactional relationship. We want to make it much more integrated and thoughtful in that sense.
So that’s the sort of experimentation. Do we have the answers? No, not at all. The same way Catherine said we don’t have the answers on the hiring. But we’re super open. We’re not afraid of testing things, and we’re not trying to be rigid because “That’s the way it was.” It’s, “What could it be?” And then we’ll try to figure that out.
ROB: It’s fascinating that you were able after 20 years to hold the office lease even somewhat loosely. But I’m sure maybe because you’ve moved around so much, it’s been possible to recognize that there will always be someone who will let you sign a lease when you show up with a signature in hand. But this moment is unique in what you can learn from it.
We talked a little bit about some other lessons along the way around peeling those layers back, but Catherine and Paul, what are some other key lessons you’d say you’ve learned along the way that if you were rewinding 21 years, you’d tell yourself to consider doing differently on this journey?
CATHERINE: Maybe I won’t answer fully the doing things differently, but one thing that has been a big thing is how much brands have changed and how much our clients’ needs have changed. For a long time – I would say for at least 10-15 years – I remember we used to do some work for a client, a big corporation, and you’d be educating them on this innovation process. They’d never done it before. Then six months later, you work with somebody else in the same company and they also don’t know anything. The years would go by. I’m like, when are they going to figure out that they keep learning the same stuff?
And suddenly, all of a sudden, I would say maybe five to six years ago, we started to see a shift where a lot of our clients became very sophisticated. They in-housed a lot more things, and all this stuff that we tended to have to educate them on, they know. What it means is you really have to make sure that you’re adding value on top of what is basic 101 for everybody now. So the level of sophistication has really increased in the industry – which is great, actually.
Different agencies are going to bring different things. For us, it’s really about joining the dots. I think having a company that’s owned both by somebody that comes from a creative background as well as someone who’s coming from a business and strategy background has meant that we’ve created this culture where one doesn’t trump the other. We don’t have a design-led culture where strategists are post-rationalizing, or the opposite. That confluence of thinking, of different minds, is really, really rich.
We find that harder to replicate in-house for clients just because they’re not built that way. They’re coming from a business perspective. So we’re able to maybe crack things, join dots between things in ways that really add value, and we understand that process really well. But every agency is going to need to be finding how they add value over and above clients being much more educated.
So if you ask me what we would do differently, I don’t know if I have an answer to that other than just keep staying ahead and making sure that we’re always attuned to what our clients really need and where the gaps are for them.
PAUL: Yeah. I think about doing differently, maybe things to avoid is avoid limitations. Don’t feel as though one has to behave and operate within a box. You can define that box yourself. I think there’s more – well, not just you’re able to do it; there’s more need to do it, to really redefine what those parameters are. I think that is super important, whether you want to call it evolution or whatever it might be. And not just talking about services. That’s a part of it, but how you do business is really important as well.
And then going back to the transactional nature of business – and we see it with other agencies. I know great agencies. I’m not going to name anybody. They do fantastic work. But what we hear is they’re still in a transaction with those folks. They have slots, they have people, they do the job, they go, they quit, they stay, whatever it is. They do great work.
We believe that’s really shifting and it’s really putting the human being first. You need to craft a different kind of relationship with the folks that work for you and work with you, and putting those at the center, and then how do we build around those needs and how do we support those needs? Because if they’re doing well and they’re feeling fulfilled and they’re feeling really good and energized, then your work product, what you do, your clients and your experience, is better as well. I think that’s how we think about our business tool.
ROB: It’s healthy. Definitely, as you get the team in there and aligned, it really lightens the load as well as they become more capable. You don’t have to always fill every hat that you’ve been wearing since the year 2000 or 1999.
CATHERINE: Yes, that’s definitely – and that’s probably been our biggest challenge, getting to a team that is really empowered and that works well together. I look back over the years; we’ve had incredible talent, but it takes a lot of time and effort to get to a place where you can look at your leadership team and the rest of your talent pool and go, “Whoa, what an amazing bunch of people, and they work really well together.”
Actually, we have an all-female leadership team at the moment, which is amazing, and they’re really empowered. We have a Head of Client Services, a Head of Creative, a Head of Strategy, a Head of Operations, and a Head of Growth, and they have incredible relationships with each other. A number of those people have been with us a long time and some of them are newer.
I think what’s been really amazing is exactly what you just said, finding ourselves not having to wear absolutely every hat every day. I think when you do that for too long, it’s hard to have big ideas when you’re running around basically taking care of millions of different things. As an agency owner, allowing a team to grow under you that can really take some of the responsibility and ownership is huge.
I think Paul and I spent a good 10 years running around like headless chickens. [laughter] Suddenly we hit a wall and it’s like, “We have to have a reorg,” all these kinds of things that we had to do 10 years ago. But we’ve really managed to build this incredible team under us, which enables us to do things like this and reflect and think about where we want to take the business.
PAUL: It’s an old adage, but hiring people that are really good at what they do and in certain things are better at you. There are certain disciplines where I’m happy to hand that over because you’re really good at that thing, and you’re going to make us better and up our game.
Advice to anyone starting a new business is don’t be afraid of that. As business owners, your ego – you say, “Oh my God, I’ve got to be the best at absolutely every single little thing.” You can’t. Nobody’s that good. Nobody can do that. A lot of it is just trust and support and letting those people do what they do, and letting them shine as best they can.
Like Catherine said, we have an awesome leadership team as well, a bunch of very intelligent, motivated, lovely human beings that I think have really helped us think about our business and move our business forward about the way we do things. Right, Catherine? And brought ideas to the table that we said, “Wow, we never thought of that” or “That really helps,” or building on ideas that we have and going with it. We call it “yes, and-ing.”
That really energizes you, and it pushes us all forward. It’s exciting when that happens. You get off one of those calls, those sessions, like “We just did something really good. I feel as though we’ve made steps forward here. I feel really good about this.” Those are great moments.
ROB: Gosh, all sorts of lessons in there. I’m grateful to have you both on the podcast here. Paul, Catherine, when folks want to get in touch with you and when they want to connect with the firm, ClarkMcDowall, where should they go to find you?
PAUL: If you go to our website, clarkmcdowall.com – that’s “McDowall” with an “A,” not an “E” – you’ll have contact details there if you want to get in touch, for talent. And then there’s also LinkedIn as well. We’re happy to connect with people.
ROB: That’s excellent. Paul McDowall, Catherine Clark, congratulations on what you’ve accomplished together, at the meeting of the minds known as ClarkMcDowall. Thank you for sharing your journey, and I wish you all the best moving forward with this new hybrid adventure as well.
CATHERINE: Thank you for having us. It was a great conversation. We also appreciate the forum that you have for other agency owners and talents to hear about agencies and get a little bit of an insight into the underbelly of these different companies. Really appreciate that focus on the industry.
PAUL: Totally agree. Thank you so much.
ROB: That’s wonderful. We all need each other. Thank you, and be well.
CATHERINE: Take care.
PAUL: Awesome. Thank you so much. Take care. Bye.
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