Instrument was never supposed to stay long at the 13,000-square-foot warehouse that served as an aircraft hangar in World War II. The Portland, Oregon, agency set up shop there in 2011, following a fire in the mixed-use building where it had been a tenant, ignited by an illegal firework that landed on the roof during Fourth of July festivities. Once the fire was doused, Vince LaVecchia, Instrument co-founder, partner and general manager, rescued the firm’s backup servers and QuickBooks files. He spent the night at Instrument’s partially damaged office because the blaze left it vulnerable to looters. In an e-mail to staff, he wrote something to the effect of “We’ll clean up for a couple of days and be back in here soon.”
Three and a half years later, the independently owned digital creative agency has yet to leave the cavernous warehouse with its 48-foot-high ceilings, branded the Outpost by Instrument partners because they felt like nomads. During what turned out to be a transformative period in the agency’s relatively young history, Instrument went from designing and building websites, thanks largely to subcontracts from ad agencies, to creating a range of digital properties directly for clients. This includes immersive apps for the likes of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and The Daily Beast, digital campaigns for Levi’s and Nike, and an e-commerce design for Alternative Apparel. “The fire was one of those unfortunate situations,” says LaVecchia. “But as it turns out, our hardship led us to a way, way better place.”
Much larger than Instrument’s previous digs, the Outpost enabled not only physical expansion, but also a use of space that cultivates the agency’s collaborative-minded culture. With the physical expansion, the agency was able to accommodate a surge in growth, from about 40 people at the time of the relocation to 90 at present count. And the open-space concept has continued to cultivate a sense of community even as Instrument’s staff count has risen.
The middle of the warehouse serves as the social hub, with a 20-foot-tall tepee, built from reclaimed wood by visual artist Mark Warren Jacques, as the focal point. The tepee serves as a meeting room; it comfortably seats five people and is soundproof and equipped with video conferencing. “The tepee symbolized our attitude of, ‘All right, we had a setback, but we’re moving to a new place and let’s make the best of it,’” says LaVecchia. The tepee became key to the agency’s brand identity and publicity, illustrating to clients and potential recruits that Instrument looks for solutions to problems (in this case, no meeting rooms in the warehouse) that fluidly blend creativity with functionality.
Forging Instrument’s approach are its three co-founders and partners: LaVecchia, who is the operational “heart and soul” of the business; Justin Lewis, executive director and director of digital, who heads the development and usability team; and JD Hooge, executive creative director, who oversees design.
Looking to go out on his own following a marketing career at Burton Snowboards, LaVecchia started Instrument in 2005 out of his apartment in Burlington, Vermont, and soon brought on software designer and developer Lewis. They moved the business to Portland to tap into the city’s stronger developer community, where they started working with Hooge on a freelance basis. “Then in 2009, we moved in together, and in 2011, we got ‘married,’” says LaVecchia of Hooge’s becoming a full-time staffer and then business partner. “[The Outpost] was like our first child together.”
Lewis says the partners’ different strengths complement each other. “You don’t realize how important that diversity of skills is until you really get the business up and running,” he says. Yet the partners are bonded by a united vision: to challenge existing industry norms. “The original business plan was to break the agency model. I had seen a lot of friends, graphic designers working for big agencies, stifled creatively,” says LaVecchia. “I felt as though we could do it differently, encourage more freedom and creativity by watching what most other people are doing and find an alternative.” Hooge adds: “I worked at a design studio for several years and as a freelance designer for several more years, which gave me a window into dozens of companies, big and small. One of the things I learned was that to push a business forward, you have to try different things, and if one thing doesn’t work, then try something else and then something else again.”
In 2007, Instrument tried something else with Nike, securing a long-term relationship with the brand, which is headquartered in Portland. Now the agency has a client team dedicated to various Nike projects, including the Nike Community Forum, the first social network owned by the athletic brand. Launched in 2012, the forum is for athletes to make connections and help each other achieve their goals. As the community grows (there are currently 20,000-plus athletes on the site), Instrument continues to refresh and optimize the platform with new features. Yet despite the long-standing relationship, Instrument does not identify itself as an agency of record for Nike—in fact, it doesn’t identify itself as the agency of record for any of its clients. That’s by design, as Instrument prefers a project-by-project relationship most of the time. “We watched what happened to other agencies that dove deeply into a specific vertical or with one or two clients, and so we’ve worked really hard not to get caught in the trap. That’s not easy to avoid in Portland,” says LaVecchia. “For us, it’s about picking and choosing the best projects from our clients and maintaining the relationships that bring us the type of work we most want to do.”
As a result, Instrument has 25 to 30 client projects going at any given time, spread among five multidisciplinary teams. Instrument’s partners studied the team model pioneered by Big Spaceship, a digital agency in the DUMBO section of Brooklyn, in which staff members are physically grouped together by project rather than by department.
“We’ve experimented with having 18 to 24 people on a client team because you can keep the communication loop tight while still having that sense of camaraderie,” says Lewis. “Initially, we had two teams, then four teams, but three is working for us now. We may change it again.”
In addition to Nike, Instrument also has a team on a range of assignments for Google, from a new site it created to showcase the Internet company’s Android tablets—Nexus 9, Nexus 6 and Nexus Player—to a skydiving simulator called Map Dive, developed for the Google I/O 2013 developer conference.
In addition to ensuring that the agency isn’t dependent on just a few accounts, Instrument resists signing with clients as an agency of record because the agency wants to keep its staff’s new-business pitching skills well honed and its thinking entrepreneurial. “We think structuring a relationship around project work is actually better for keeping the relationship between us and the client hungry,” says Lewis.
Instrument made another shift around the time of its relocation. The agency increasingly began taking on advertising-driven projects, yet was usually leveraging assets (photography, images and copy) from a brand’s advertising agencies. “We really felt like we had the ability to start creating content ourselves, but we didn’t have anything to prove we had the expertise,” explains Hooge.
To test these skills, Instrument invested in its own project in 2012, The Build, an interactive documentary about motorcycle builders in Portland. The agency followed with 2013’s This Place, a film and an interactive journal exploring the Pacific Northwest coastline, and then 2014’s Rivals, another immersive content piece around the theme of rivalry in sports.
“It is an example of us going out on a limb with our own high-production content,” says Hooge. “We knew we could get a great portfolio piece that we could share and then push the mash-up of content and marketing.”
The interactive pieces were produced by Labs, Instrument’s in-house innovation incubator whose members and projects change quarterly. Labs develops portfolio pieces that highlight the agency’s sometimes-untapped expertise.
Labs has ushered in a recent boom in experimentation and the creation of prototypes that can be applied to client work. The Build, This Place and Rivals, for instance, influenced Instrument’s solution to a campaign for Levi’s Commuter clothing, designed for those who bike to work. The digital campaign features three short films, as well as a lookbook and social assets. Instrument also spearheaded a partnership with Visual Supply Co (VSCO) in which 30 photographers shared photo stories of their commutes. “We want to do more transmedia campaigns like Levi’s Commuter, to be able to orchestrate the strategy as well as the architecture of a campaign,” says Hooge.
The Labs’ structure has itself become an experiment. “It used to be a dedicated team, and now it is a rotating one,” says Hooge. “We’ve always made very deliberate decisions to experiment in all parts of the company.”
Instrument will be on the move again later this year, when it finally departs from its temporary home. But this time, it’s of the agency’s own volition.
The growing enterprise has partnered with a real estate developer on a new building in northwest Portland. The facility will boast more than 30,000 square feet of space, with meeting rooms plus sound recording booths, video editing suites and a photography booth to enable more content creation. Inspired by the Outpost, working areas will still be open. The social area in the middle will feature a staircase as its new focal point. (The partners have yet to decide the fate of the tepee.) “We knew we eventually wanted to move into not just a bigger space,” says LaVecchia, “but a more functional one.”
You could say that in 2011, Instrument arose like a phoenix from the ashes, transforming itself from a web development shop to a lively agency of digital content creators. Fervent experimentation continues to drive the agency’s evolution, and this next move will surely add fuel to its fire. ca