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A New Model Agency: Grip Design
by Julie Prendiville Roux

With a core team of the two principals, senior designer Joshua Blaylock, designers Camay Ho and Jenn McHale and producer/strategist Lonnie Tapia, the group is buttressed by a roster of many, trusted freelance artists, designers and writers. A Grip team leader takes ownership of a given project, which might range from product design to stylized apartment and lifestyle complexes to a medical brand launch. The “thing” really doesn’t matter. What matters is to take the client’s problem/opportunity to the next level of profitability, in whatever way that works. It’s telling that McConkey says, “To get hired at Grip, the only skill you need is the ability to learn new things.” A Grip project may take a team of four or a crew of one hundred; each scenario may employ set construction, design, photography, illustration, film, a manifesto, a blog or something else entirely.

Blaylock says, “The gamut of projects that we work on for each client is so expansive that, as a designer, we are given this great opportunity to take ownership of a brand in its entirety. With this we also take on a great deal of accountability for their success.” Tapia adds, “Everyone at Grip has an x-factor that makes our work stand out. For the designers, it may be their innate skills in typography or illustration. As a strategist, my x-factor is empathy. In the business world it helps me understand a client’s drive, desires and/or fears, in addition to the actual words exchanged. For me, empathy is about knowing what people really want and need—clients or studio mates—then helping make those things happen.” The clients who come to Grip pose questions infused with potential. As examples—“I’ve got x amount of square footage. What can I do with it?” “We’re underperforming in area x. We’d like to increase transactions by five percent. What should we do?” “How can we re-envision Valentine’s Day?”

For AMLI River North, reframing the voice of how condo-living is marketed was a tall order—injecting humor was an even harder sell.

One such challenge, for fee-based client AMLI Residential, was to position a Chicago apartment development in a neighborhood called River North. Formerly a bleak sea of abandoned factories, the district, just north of The Loop, one of the city’s main traffic hubs, was evolving into what is now a magnet for galleries, celebrity-chef restaurants and popular shops. But at the time, selling the area was just as important as marketing the complex. Grip took an editorial approach, educating prospective renters, but also, as a secondary target, informing the neighborhood itself on what it could become. It was a 360-degree view of living, not just inhabiting four walls. Tagging AMLI River North as “a lifestyle worth living,” Grip redefined the district as “the only true 24/7 neighborhood in Chicago.” Taking a distinct left turn from typical housing marketing materials, Grip advised that AMLI pieces show local night spots, galleries, shops and more.

On the fashion front, Grip developed the brand positioning and web presence for, a partnership between online designer brand retailer Bluefly and A+D Labs, a noted fashion eye-wear developer and manufacturer. “One thing we knew about designer frames—it’s really hard to have more than one pair because they’re so expensive,” McConkey says. “And yet they’ve become a huge fashion statement. Athletes show up at press conferences wearing frames with no lenses just to have that look.” So Grip decided that the marketplace was ready for high-end eyewear at medium-ish prices, which would allow buyers to pair frames with lots of different outfits. Employing street-style photography, lookbooks for men and women, on-trend fashion pairings and suggestions, and even a “Virtual Try-On” feature that shows a shopper how she would look in a frame, is more a fashion destination and idea generator than a glasses purveyor. Which is why it works.

Encouraging the purchase of multiples and repositioning eyewear as a fashion accessory
instead of a medical necessity drove this line extension for Eyefly.

Most striking in many Grip campaigns—the deliverable is simply a PDF showing their ideas and execution, rather than film, video or elaborate storyboards. Grip gets hired for what it does best, which is to strategize from the inside out. “I’m into habit loops and influencing emotion,” McConkey says. “To us, the next gene-ration of great agencies is to relate to the consumer. If you’re talking to a plumber, talk like a plumber. Own it. Really get into it.”  

For Grip’s clients, this means working with a design firm that is its own brand, whose value proposition is to put its clients’ successes and profits first. McConkey says, “In the slippery world of business, we’re here to provide traction.” ca Prendiville Roux
Julie Prendiville Roux is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles, contributing to magazines, public radio and other venues. She is owner and creative director of julieroux&company, which creates and produces radio, TV and print advertising. Julie has been writing profiles for CA since 1987.