It turns out that Radiohead figures prominently in the success of creative agency North. Formerly Johnson Sheen Advertising, the Portland, Oregon, agency was looking for a new creative director in 2006, a heavy hitter who would be willing to leave an established agency and bring street cred to a lesser-known, boutique-sized shop in the artsy Pacific Northwest city-town. Two different sources gave the recruiter one name: Mark Ray, then managing partner and executive creative director at Arnold Worldwide in Boston, heading up Jack Daniel’s, Southern Comfort and Volkswagen, alongside entertainment branding efforts and new business.
Meanwhile, Rebecca Armstrong, who first came to Portland in 1992 by way of London, England, worked her way up from account executive to managing director at Cole & Weber United. But when the agency closed the Portland office and moved all of its operations to its Seattle headquarters, Armstrong stayed in Portland, consulting at Johnson Sheen, helping the agency with its rebranding. She recalls, “Pat Johnson asked me to have dinner with Mark when they flew him in. When I picked him up in my crappy Jeep, I was listening to Radiohead—the same track he had been listening to on the plane.” Armstrong nods knowingly and says, in her understated manner, “That was a sign.” (The song was “The Tourist” from the album OK Computer.)
At dinner, Armstrong and Ray talked about the traditional paradigm of an agency in the Pacific Northwest—looking all over the world for big-name directors, asking for favors, outsourcing. They agreed: “There’s so much talent right at our back door, in this town so steeped in music and art. Let’s find talent here.”
“[Ray] took it one step further,” Armstrong says. “He said, ‘Let’s do it ourselves.’” The two set off on an alchemy-forged journey to create a do-it-yourself, brand-centric, egoless culture for themselves and their clients.
By 2010, they had bought out Johnson Sheen to become the principals of North. At North, they melded the best parts of their solidly tethered, highly acclaimed, traditional advertising wins with straight-up, hands-on crafting and what Ray calls “casting,” or finding the right person for the right task, no matter how unexpected the match might be. Case in point: he was impressed with his children’s babysitter and felt that he might be a good fit for North. He convinced the young man, Anthony DeMarco, to answer phones at the front desk; now DeMarco helps run the agency’s bustling studio.
“Let’s do it ourselves” became a mantra/business model. Mind you, if you’re going to throw down that gauntlet, you’d better have some crafty, crazy-talented people around. Like Portland itself, with its strata of clean sophistication, rustic, historical buildings, rampant handmade art and music, and uniquely signature neighborhoods, the people of North are layered with talents, innovation and motivation.
Situated in a 1930s printing plant that has historic designation status, the agency is open and airy, filled with natural woods, steel, colors that work harmoniously. Portland-based Skylab Architecture designed the space with a single word as direction: exploration. Ray says he then added this wish: don’t make it look like an ad agency. Armstrong describes the result. “What they came back with was a series of boxes meant to represent the kinds of temporary laboratories found in the Arctic and Antarctic.” North’s 35 staffers—some of whom have impressive traditional ad agency pedigrees and some of whom don’t (the blend is nicely eclectic)—serve as art directors, designers, writers, creative directors, producers, and account and strategy personnel. But they are also, variously, poets, musicians, found-art artisans, editors, photographers and even a perfumer. All reside under the North mantle, creating work for clients and concurrently working on their own projects, thanks to this art/business model that benefits all. It’s important to Ray and Armstrong that the staff members not leave their personalities and talents at the door. Creative director Ashod Simonian (he’s the perfumer) says, “Here, we go home at 5:30 to go hike or be with the kids, but a lot of us come back at 9 or 10 to work on our own magazine covers, posters, sculpture, anything.”
Luke Perkins, executive creative director and partner, is a photographer and director. Like Ray, he came to Portland from ad agency Arnold Worldwide, where he served as senior vice president, creative director, on Volvo, New Balance, Volkswagen and other brands. Before that, he was at creative agency Modernista!, working on Cadillac, Hummer, Timberland and Bono’s (PRODUCT)RED. “More than once, I have thought about leaving advertising to try and become a full-time photographer or director,” says Perkins. “North allows me to do both. It’s a fun and exciting way to keep all my creative sides happy and curious. I also think that this modern, multidisciplinary creative is who we tend to attract at North.”
And, of course, North also attracts clients that feel comfortable signing on to an agency process that’s unlike one they’re used to. “Chemistry is 90 percent of this,” Armstrong says. That may be true, but at North, collaboration is the other hallmark of a win-win agency/client relationship. “I interviewed about six agencies, all in the Portland area. I knew North was the one within 30 seconds of walking into their place,” says David Karr, cofounder and brand director of organic foods Guayakí and its label, Yerba Mate. He recalls a brand redesign he contracted North for five years ago. “[The team] came back from one of their internal brainstorming sessions with a tagline we didn’t contract them for and hadn’t paid for. It was ‘come to life.’ At first it didn’t resonate that much; we thought it was interesting. But then it grew and grew on us. People here started using it in their e-mail signatures. Now we’re producing our own ‘come to life’ films, profiling people who are connected to us through our brand. North is so in our brand, listening to our brand, understanding our brand.”
One campaign, for Columbia Sportswear Company, stars a feisty older woman who’s clearly in charge of the place. She strikes you as either brilliant casting or the real thing. She’s the real thing—Chairman of the Board Gert Boyle, whose parents founded Columbia Hat Company in 1938, after fleeing Nazi Germany. Working in the company and then leading it through the expansion of all ilk of cold-weather gear, Boyle has become a 92-year-old rock star in the halls of sportswear, gaining trade press and awards for her product innovation and leadership. North saw the gold mine in her and took full advantage, bringing her back as the company’s spokeswoman after winning the account from ad agency BSSP.
In one spot, she works on her desktop in her office, monitoring a team of product testers stranded on a tiny desert island. A drone drops a box down to them. Yeah!!! They’re excited, envisioning medium-rare steaks, or maybe lobster, or what about a six-pack of beer? The box lands, and it contains a note: ‘Finish your time sheets.’ It’s charming and funny and also delivers a laser-focused brand message—single-minded product obsession and, hence, owning the job of keeping you cozy in frigid weather.
Stuart Redsun, Columbia Sportswear’s senior vice president and chief marketing officer, says, “I came on board two years ago, and North had already been selected to work on Columbia. When you’re new in a marketing role, you want to be sure you have someone you can trust.” He felt comfortable immediately. “I can’t stress enough the importance of collaboration,” he continues. “[We] get the delicate balance between creating a fun story and the fact that we need to sell a product and excite our employees.” He explains that North has the ability not only to listen, but also to collaborate on the right story. “They’re very open,” he says.
North’s client list is eclectic and includes Clif Bar, Stanley (a brand of Pacific Market International), Anchor Brewing Company, Granite Gear, Pacific Foods of Oregon, the Lincoln Center and Focus Features. Work output may be digital, TV, print, or preroll films for Hulu, YouTube and Facebook.
One part of the handmade culture at North is type design. The designers, art directors and studio artisans regularly make up entire typefaces. They might start with an old sign they’ve spotted in one of Portland’s many colorful neighborhoods, or maybe they see a wrought iron fence while traveling abroad. They take the image and hand-cut wood or cardboard to form a few letters. The shapes are then scanned into their system, which they use to manipulate an entire typeface. In the agency’s work, there are numerous examples of entire print ads and short films whose every aspect, from the typeface to the North staffer operating the camera, is homegrown, in-house. The inspiration for Anchor Brewing Company’s Keeping It Real campaign came directly from the brewing company’s San Francisco headquarters—vintage photographs, which ended up being the main art, as well as painterly signage from San Francisco’s Gold Rush days. Simonian remembers, “When we saw these hand-painted signs, we just took out our phones and started shooting.”
North of North is the agency’s studio space, Further. It’s a ten-minute drive (in a Jeep Wagoneer, natch) with a panoramic view of the Forest Park Conservancy—the skyline surrounding Portland is festooned with a crown of firs and cedars. Further is ensconced in a sculptor’s warehouse space. If you were lucky enough to have shop class at your high school, you will recognize this space. It’s exactly the same, sans hovering teachers. Band saws, rusty files of all sizes, cutting mats, hand-drawn art everywhere. Hand-cut letterforms for clients or perhaps staffers’ own projects lie around like penny nails. Lots of them. Week-to-week, and sometimes day-to-day, the space transforms itself to meet the needs of North clients: one week, Further might be given over to constructing a huge bandstand; another, to an enormous assembly line putting swag bags together. The space perfectly captures the hands-on concept that Ray so completely envisioned and fully embraces; Perkins, as well: “I started my career in the studio, and I think that’s really influenced me. You learn so much so fast. I learned more there in three months than I would have learned in grad school.”
It’s fitting that Radiohead sparked Armstrong’s instinct—music is hard-wired into the company’s DNA. Ray, who was a film student in school, started a music label in the Midwest in 1996 while he was freelancing on the Jack Daniel’s account at Simmons Durham in St. Louis. He later became a global creative director at the agency. When Arnold Worldwide bought Simmons Durham in 2001, it asked him to stay on as head creative director on the account.
Ray says, “I was working on my record label, playing in a band and in advertising. I have always felt that music gives you early clues of what engages someone.”
“We look at how bands make fans,” Simonian adds. “We say, what band is the brand? If they had a T-shirt, what would it look like?”
“We’re not a studio band,” Ray says. “We’re an indie band.” ca