One suspects that Eric Thoelke, president and founder of TOKY, rarely stops moving. So it seems only natural that I meet him for the first time on the sidewalk outside his St. Louis firm. He’s rushing off to a client meeting with a few other creatives, but offers a warm welcome before sending me up to the second-floor office space. Inside, his wife and business partner, Mary Thoelke, gives me the full tour, introducing me to everyone from creative directors to a brand new summer intern.
As we walk around, it’s quiet enough to make any old school librarian proud. But it quickly becomes clear that lack of sound doesn't equal lack of activity. Almost everywhere you look there are designers wearing headphones and concentrating on Mac screens. Nearby, a wall of work-in-progress shows off logos and advertising for The University of Chicago Medicine. Tucked inside the sample room—among tall shelves packed with work samples—there’s a rack of costumes for a photo shoot the next day with Opera Theatre of Saint Louis.
Then there’s the personal buzz. Interactive creative director Jay David rushes off for the birth of his first child, and people seem to be swapping updates about it all day. (For the record, a healthy baby girl was born the next morning.) Just about everyone I talk to checks off all the best stereotypes about the Midwest. They’re more likely to brag about the person at the next desk than themselves. And there’s a strong sense of friendship and connection among the roughly 30-person staff. In part, it’s because some of them have worked here eight, ten, twelve and even fourteen years.
But this collegial atmosphere also stems from Eric’s philosophy for the firm: “Find great people, people that you love to be with eight, ten, twelve hours a day. Put them in a confined space, bring awesome, challenging projects to them and create beauty and enlightenment and positive energy out of that. That’s an incredibly fulfilling life.” One that’s helped the fifteen-year-old shop grow an enviable client list that includes Panera Bread, National Gallery of Art, Woody Guthrie Center and Archive, Brown Shoe, HOK, Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, a group of hip local restaurants and many others.
The projects TOKY creates for those clients range from charming holiday packaging for Panera to a seamless new website for HOK, a global design and architecture firm. Four local St. Louis restaurants—Baileys’ Chocolate Bar, Rooster, Bridge and Baileys’ Range—called for full identities. And the rebranding of the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis even included a mobile app. All the projects feature gorgeous design, but talk about them to anyone at TOKY and the conversation quickly turns to everything from research, branding and information architecture to content strategy and content management systems.
A MARRIAGE AND SOME DREAMS
TOKY’s earliest beginnings go all the way back to a conversation Mary and Eric had on their wedding night over sips of champagne. She asked him what was most important to do in the next ten years, and he replied, “I want to have two more children [they already had two], I want to design my own home with you and I want my own business and to own a piece of the city.” As a couple, they’ve achieved all those goals. In fact, TOKY came to life just a month after the couple's fourth child was born. “I always joked with Eric, ‘I had a baby and you had a baby, and yours has taken more time,’” says Mary.
Those early days definitely included long hours, as Eric tried to launch a company with just one employee. “It was horrible,” he says. “I missed the first two years, almost three years, of my youngest daughter’s life because we were working twenty hours a day to get the company going. But that’s what it takes. When you get it going, it’s like pushing a boulder, all of a sudden you turn around and the boulder starts to get some momentum. Pretty soon the boulder is chasing you down the hill instead of you pushing it. If you’re lucky, you get to hop on the boulder and kind of run on top of it for a while, while it’s moving. That’s where we are now.”
The firm’s first office was in a building downtown where the City Museum was then taking shape (think of the latter as a giant indoor/outdoor playground created from found objects). It's a location that provided plenty of space along with oddball, early-day entrepreneur stories. Creative director Geoff Story, who became the firm's second employee in 1998, remembers grabbing Jaz disks and running out of the office when there was a fire on the roof. Another time the office flooded after the museum installed a school bus on its roof.
For the first few years, Mary helped out with the bookkeeping part-time while caring for the couple’s young children. She remembers Eric printing out invoices in QuarkXPress, so she could input them into QuickBooks. Once the couple’s youngest daughter entered kindergarten, Mary came on full-time. Many married creatives helm well-known design firms, but at TOKY there’s a different kind of partnership: Eric handles the creative side. Mary heads up business tasks. She’s responsible for everything from HR and billing to IT and contracts. “Basically, everything no one else wants to do,” she jokes.
This divide-and-conquer strategy keeps the shop running smoothly while a constant eye toward what’s next in the industry ensures the company’s relevance. In 1999, TOKY was acquired by a hot dot-com company called Influence that was a mix of marketing, design, PR and incubator. Why sell? Eric wanted to become more immersed in the web, so TOKY essentially became Influence's design shop. After the dot-com bust, Influence flailed and, since the design shop was the only profitable piece of the company left, TOKY bought itself back for $1.
GROWING PAINS AND FUTURE PLANS
Like many fledgling companies, TOKY’s early days meant trying to do the best work possible for just about any client who came through the door. But in 2004, with about ten people on staff, some client relationships were becoming rocky, and Eric asked each person at TOKY to evaluate every client on two factors: money and working relationship. This process shook out the low-hanging fruit—clients who didn't bring in much money that no one seemed to like much—as well as some high-paying clients where the relationships just weren’t where they should be.
This exercise helped push TOKY toward the six verticals it focuses on today: arts, education, real estate, premium products, architecture and world changers. Instead of trying to chase down giant Fortune 500 clients and big retainers, the firm focuses on doing high-quality work for clients with meaty problems and interesting missions. Staff members tell stories about everything from photographing Gloria Steinem to working with academics concerned about the safety of cooking stoves in third-world countries.
The firm’s sophisticated client list requires a lot of art, but Eric insists he loves math, too. “We're not a pure design studio,” he says. “We are a branding company that loves the math and the quantifiable side of branding, doing great, in-depth research and then combining that with beautiful, wonderful graphics.” The math side came in handy when TOKY, along with a PR firm, worked to figure out how to increase falling visitor numbers at the city’s famous Gateway Arch. Research showed that people would visit just the arch then leave, so they renamed the area surrounding the Arch and other nearby downtown destinations the Core of Discovery. This approach created a bigger draw for visitors.
Like many firms, TOKY faced some rough spots during the economic downturn, but Mary and Eric focused on making it through without layoffs. With that goal accomplished, they’re looking to the future and possibly opening an office in Chicago. The firm already does work with The University of Chicago Medicine, and they just landed a new client in the windy city that conducts research into consumer buying habits at retail.
So what else is next for TOKY? Eric says he’s already thinking about plans to become more hands-off in about seven years when he turns 60. There are a handful of people at the firm he's already talked with about taking over the reins, and it’s a transition that fits in with how Eric already views the business. “We are not a principal-driven shop,” he says. “We're not an owner-driven shop. I have no illusions that any one person here could be as successful as all of us together. We have a team that works really, really well together. We’re very concerned about staying friends.”
It’s just like the firm’s job ads say: No jerks, negative creeps or grouches allowed. ca