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You probably know at least one version of the story: An  evil stepmother abandons Hansel and Gretel deep in the woods. But on the way, Hansel leaves a trail of breadcrumbs for him and his sister to follow home. Alas, birds eat the crumbs. After days of wandering, the starving children come upon a gingerbread cottage with candy windows. An old woman lures them inside with tantalizing promises. Ah, but she is a bloodthirsty witch who built the little house to trick children into becoming her next meal. After being pushed into the oven, Gretel manages to escape. She cooks the witch instead and unearths her treasure trove of gold and precious stones. The children get home and learn that the stepmother is dead and their dear father has missed them so. The three live happily ever after on the dead witch’s wealth.

Before arriving at Gretel, a branding agency in New York’s Gramercy-Flatiron district, I tried to figure out the metaphor, the analogy as it might apply to other design firms I’ve visited. Let’s see: Client lures designers with visions of the next fabulous, Communication Arts award–winning project, only to try to kill their best ideas. Nevertheless, the designers prevail, complete a groundbreaking project, enrich their bank account and win a treasure trove of awards.

That’s the fairy tale. What’s the truth?

The principals of Gretel, Greg Hahn and Ryan Moore, aren’t telling—about the name, at least. Its origins will remain a secret. But it’s no secret that they’ve built an agency that clients seeking exemplary brand strategy and creative are looking for in today’s maze of choices. Competing against the design divisions of global ad agencies, the venerable, big-name branding firms, and the upstarts springing up everywhere, fifteen-year-old Gretel is making its own name a venerable one. That doesn’t come about by fantasizing; it takes systematic organization and teamwork on the part of the most talented people who can be lured from other firms.

It all started in 2005, when, after working his way into a senior design position at VH1, a ten-plus-year career at MTV and Trollbäck+Company, and various freelance art director gigs, Hahn grabbed the opportunity to start his own company. He still seems to relish his reputation as the renegade self-taught designer, the prep-school boy who took off for Colorado and left college after one year to return to New York and intern in the graphics department at CNN, doing what he refers to as “putting a dot on a map where an explosion took place.” Today, he coruns a very smart business, organized into three teams: operations, strategy and creative. Yet he still likes to say things like, “We need poetry in the work.”

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Prior to joining Hahn’s nascent firm, Moore, Gretel’s executive creative director and partner, had been senior art director at Leroy & Clarkson, an entertainment-focused Manhattan branding and production agency. An honors graduate of the digital media program in the University of Cincinnati’s College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning, Moore is a motion specialist who has taught Motion Graphics Portfolio, a studio course for graduating seniors at Manhattan’s School of Visual Arts.

Everyone here wears lots of hats. Designers pitch in on strategy. Strategists critique creative. Project managers help shape decks.” —Ryan Moore

When I ask what makes Gretel different, Hahn and Moore give the same answer: “We are scrappy and nimble.”

“We run lean,” Moore adds. “Everyone here wears lots of hats. Designers pitch in on strategy. Strategists critique creative. Project managers help shape decks. We’re flexible, but we have a systematic way of working.” When not taking part in almost every strategy session, Hahn and Moore are out delivering Gretel’s key message—“clarity”—in prospective clients’ boardrooms and at conferences. “We win them over with our intelligence,” Hahn says.

The 29 animators, art directors, creative directors, designers, motion specialists, producers, coordinators, managers and interns who now share an office floor on West 18th Street attended art schools and universities all over the United States and in their native Australia, Canada, China, Colombia, England, Germany, Hong Kong and Ireland. They’ve won an enviable number of design awards, but are more proud of their forward-thinking, systematic approach.

Strategy director Daniel Edmundson, who attended the University of the Arts in Philadelphia and the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, describes Gretel’s methodology like this: “Our job is to create a foundational brand strategy that has to endure through trends and decades.” He cites the Nike By You campaign, released in 2019, as a prime example. Not unlike many new-car models, the basic shoe is an almost-blank canvas; the purchaser chooses colors for the heel, lining, even the swoosh. “It’s all about co-creation and collaboration,” Edmundson says. “Previously, sneaker customization was pretty limited. You could embroider your initials or a message. Now you’re the co-creator and can say, ‘I’m doing it with Nike, just like LeBron James and Serena Williams. My name is even on the shoebox, Nike by Anna. And of course I’m sharing my design on the [Nike] site and on Instagram.’”

“Brands can’t be a success in the market if people don’t understand what the brand is all about, what it means,” Edmundson adds. “We are relentless and obsessive about understanding and communicating the core truths of each brand.” He gives the example of Inua, a restaurant in Tokyo that serves local, seasonal delicacies. To develop branding that would resonate locally and internationally, the team had to absorb the meaning of the word inua, which in Inuit mythology means “the invisible life force that binds the natural world in unison.” They studied the lore of the Inuit Indigenous peoples of North America and built a graphic system inspired by the natural forms of the region. The work helped launch the client into the competitive global restaurant market; since its opening in June 2018, Inua has garnered two Michelin stars and was named Arrival of the Year by the World Restaurant Awards.

Nathan Frisch, a strategist who previously worked in finance and at Wolf & Wilhelmine, a Brooklyn shop that closed in 2017, goes even deeper into the concept of foundational strategy when he explains how Gretel is approaching the global rebrand of a Japanese publishing company that has “countless” logos for all its divisions and subbrands. Frisch demonstrates how before even one pixel indicating a color or typeface hits a screen at Gretel, they fill many screens with flow diagrams that illustrate how various branding systems might come to life. “Do we give each brand its own, independent identity, or do we organize all of them under one banner?” he asks hypothetically. “Our job is to clarify, reduce, simplify and make something that will be flexible and yet endure.”

“We spent two weeks in Japan on interviews and learning about manga, Japanese comics and graphic novels,” adds creative director Sue Murphy. “And now we’re crystallizing all this”—she points to a complex diagram of company operations—“into a unified mission, key themes and sub- brands, each with its own personality yet part of the same kindred spirit.”

We are relentless and obsessive about understanding and communicating the core truths of each brand.” —Daniel Edmundson

At the other end of the airy, white-on-white loft space, project manager Claire Banks, motion director Ben Nichols and senior designer Andy Keating are reviewing a presentation for a network brand refresh that illustrates the details of the typography and color palette and the speed of the animations. “The brand is more expressive now, more fun, with more presence,” Banks says. When I admire the presentation, with its flowing, evolving movement, Nichols emphasizes that the backbone of everything at Gretel is animation. Presentations are created and delivered in Keynote, an Apple app that allows for real-time collaboration and workflow. “Once the brand guidelines are in clients’ hands,” Keating says, “our templates allow in-house teams to quickly create new ideations from the elements.”

At Gretel, every project is a fresh challenge, and many offer opportunities to get ahead of the curve in a new industry or field, to become known as a master of that category. With all their expertise in TV and media, tech, retail and finance, the partners are now envisioning an entry point into New York’s big performing arts scene—the theaters and music venues and opera companies. In January 2020, Gretel unveiled its rebrand for Stefanie Nelson Dancegroup, a local performance ensemble that produces original work in partnership with performers, visual artists and composers. “The posters and ads express the specific geometry of movement of this dance company’s signature style,” Hahn says. “The design is a riff on body movements, and it answers the question, where do you put the tension in design? The type is always moving, leading your eye to the next place. It’s about taking a blank page and making type sing”—just the kind of answer you might not expect from a self-styled, self-taught designer.

And then there’s their work for VICE’s channel VICELAND, launched in 2016, “a TV space where ‘high meets low,’” according to Moore. “The work is real, nitty-gritty, unslick, no-bullshit. There’s a punk quality. We stripped away the artifice and even gave viewers direct access, a phone number instead of a website, so everyone could pick up the phone, call and reach a constantly shifting prompt to leave a voicemail that would get broadcasted.” Other projects in the works, which are still confidential, have the potential to make Gretel known as a category expert in the worlds of fashion and real estate.

What’s not at all confidential is that Gretel is building its own not-so-little house in Brooklyn’s gentrifying Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. Bed-Stuy isn’t a place where notable creative firms have traditionally been located, but it’s much closer to where Gretel’s employees live. After a long search, they bought a two-story building that, among its many previous lives, was an auto body shop and a girdle factory. They’re in the middle of an extensive yearlong renovation project, down to the studs and concrete floors, headed by Hahn, who’s living there now. “We are pioneers,” he says simply.

Clearly, they are pioneers in more ways than one. It’s exciting for Gretel to see where the next big challenge will lead them, and it will be exciting for the rest of us to watch our screens and experience the results. ca

Ellen Shapiro (visualanguage.net) is a graphic designer and writer based in Irvington, New York. The author of The Graphic Designer’s Guide to Clients (Allworth Press) and nearly 200 magazine articles about design, illustration, photography and visual culture around the world, Shapiro has been contributing to CA since 1991.
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