Who Needs Employees? Arin and Jake of Anderson Creative on Redefining the Design Firm
I arrived early to Buffalo Wild Wings in Anderson, sat in the bar, ordered my salad with boneless wings, mild sauce (SO good) and watched the door as I got a head start on lunch. I checked my cell, looked at the door, took a bite, repeat. No Arin and Jake.
I was halfway done when someone tapped on my shoulder. It was Jake Anderson.
“So, we’ve been sitting over there for like 10 minutes,” he said in his amiable, country boy drawl as he pointed to the dining room.
After apologizing, I paid my server and brought the remains of my lunch to their table, where they had been patiently waiting for me to show up. Before ordering.
Thankfully the Andersons are forgiving people who didn’t let their growling stomachs stop them from spilling the beans about the ins and out of their business for an hour.
I’d been writing for a few of their clients for over a year, so I knew some things. Anderson Creative is a boutique design firm with four full-time contractors including the Andersons, and three or four additional contractors as needed. They handle a few big accounts and lots of little ones.
But I still had questions about what was behind the AC magic.
“We provide creative solutions,” Jake said, battling the burger jitters as he awaited his order. “Ultimately we’re an art-focused design firm, but when I say design it’s different from what a lot of people think. They think graphics, which is true. But we also design experiences.”
To Arin, the firm’s founder, the main reason it’s so difficult to fit an overview of their business into an elevator pitch is that it’s kind of designed not to be digestible in the course of an elevator ride. To tell people “we put together marketing plans,” for example, doesn’t quite cut the mustard.
“People want to do an annual marketing plan, and I think having general guidelines is great, but ours is a living, breathing brand concept,” she said. “What we do evolves so fast, and it’s so different every day.”
“Design is a philosophy for us,” Jake said.
So no elevator pitch, then. Thankfully, the food had arrived. We settled in for story time.
ARIN ANDERSON: TO SELF-EMPLOY OR NOT TO SELF-EMPLOY
Arin Anderson didn’t wait to finish college before taking on contract work. As a student at Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois, she designed promotional materials and wrote video scripts for a local restaurant while hosting her own radio show as an intern at KISS-FM.
She also volunteered a lot of her time and talent to create event media for on-campus cafe concerts and events, and to serve as design and events chair for the VH1 Save the Music 24 Hours of Music campus charity.
Somehow, we assume, she also found time to go to class.
This insanity was brought on by Arin’s lifelong, chronic condition: she is completely gaga about the arts.
“Growing up, music was my life. I turned down an internship at EMI records in Nashville in favor of six months abroad in the UK, studying popular music and jazz,” Arin said. “But art was always my solitary passion. I went to music business school so I could design for artists, to be a voice for the arts.”
After school she worked for the Henry County, Indiana Chamber of Commerce; became an account manager for an antique magazine; coordinated marketing for a hardware trade association; and directed marketing for Warm Glow Candle Company.
All before she was 24.
“I never really think that was a lot,” Arin said with a shrug. “I don’t know. To me it just flew by.”
All the while, Arin was gathering up contract clients, doing everything from creative design to helping businesses set up their Facebook pages. The work was plentiful; there weren’t many resources for small businesses in Henry County at the time.
“Kind of a design desert,” Jake said.
She eventually decided it was time to go it alone.
“I really don’t like people telling me what to do, or where to do it, or when to do it, so I might as well fill my own sandbox and give that a go. Let’s do this,” she said to herself.
And so she did … for a while, until Arin attracted the attention of an acquaintance who owned Indianapolis marketing firm Red Wall, as it was known at the time. They offered to buy her out and hire her on as a content strategist.
She accepted and joined their firm. It was a good experience. Nine months later, she was ready for another good experience as marketing manager for Six Feet Up, a national website builder run by a – this ought to sound familiar – husband and wife team.
They could tell pretty quickly that she wanted more, that she had been right the first time about needing to have her own sandbox.
“They really encouraged me to go out on my own again, to pursue what they thought was going to make me happy. I’d never had a boss like that before,” Arin said.
A BUSINESS IS (RE)BORN
In 2014, Arin re-established her independence with the latest iteration of Anderson Creative. This time around she had been a part of a larger design agency; she had learned from mentors at her last job what it meant to manage a team.
This time, she was poised for sustainable success, and would bring her husband along with her.
“I was still running marketing and operations at ASI Security at that time,” Jake said. “I kept seeing all these issues coming up with her business and thinking, I can fix that, I can fix that … so I came on to work behind the scenes.”
Since then, Arin and Jake have learned a lot about where their true strengths lie.
“I’m better at customer service and managing employees. Telling people what to do isn’t her thing, and I never really enjoyed being the salesperson,” Jake said. “She’s better at prospecting.”
“I love being an entrepreneur,” Arin said. “I don’t like talking about myself, but I love talking about what I do. About how art and design affect people.”
They moved into an office above an estate planning firm, a “tiny room with three desks and a fake fireplace at the top of an old, historic residential home in Pendleton,” as Arin described it. (Très chic, non?) Feeling increasingly cramped as their team grew, AC moved into a larger office on Water Street big enough to sublet coworking space until, eventually, they had too many of their own people to accommodate renters and just took over.
Then, in late summer 2017, came the flood.
“We were there. We literally saw the water coming in,” Arin said, laughing. “Then it flooded three more times after that.”
Needless to say, the Andersons are moving again, to an office in Fortville. There they will continue to offer top-notch creative services, only now they’ll be closer to Indianapolis clients. And they’ll be dry, which is a plus.
THE SECRET SAUCE
The Andersons pulled back the metaphorical curtain for me, where in hushed tones only the chosen few get to see what goes into their recipe for client satisfaction.
“Ultimately, when we’re doing what we do for businesses, it has to serve the bottom line,” Arin said. “How do you show ROI on art? A big part of our philosophy is to dig into the ROI of art and design, and how we really are increasing client revenue.”
One prime example of where an investment in great art gets clients a great return is in the psychology of consistency. Several different logos for the same company, for example, creates inconsistency which could, in the mind of the customer, translate into a sense that the quality is inconsistent as well. That has a demonstrable effect on sales.
Jake calls these “efficiency fixes”, because when they correct these inconsistencies for a client, it helps marketing directors be more efficient in their execution of strategy. They offer more than help with logo consistency, however; Anderson Creative’s services extend to everything related to the customer experience.
“Chain restaurants spend a lot of money on the look, the feel, down to training servers to give the same spiel every time,” Jake said. “There’s a reason businesses invest so much in that. It’s your consistent emotional response that drives the reason you patronize one business over another.”
Anderson Creative is certainly not the only kitchen using these particular herbs and spices in their marketing sauce. The secret isn’t in the ingredients, it’s in how the sauce is made.
ON USING FREELANCERS
The Andersons themselves are artists, not website builders, not data analysts, not SEO strategists, not social media marketers … not content writers (ding!). Yet Anderson Creative offers all these tools because of its network of trusted providers.
“We understand what we’re really great at, and what we’re really not great at,” Arin said. “We collaborate with people who are really great at those things.”
Okay, but if you know what you need in a team, why set it up as a confederation of independent contractors instead of making honest-to-goodness employees out of your people?
It’s all about a little thing called creative pride.
“In my experience, the people who are the best at what they do, do it for themselves,” Arin said. “We use freelancers because we love what they do, not because they’re willing to do what we tell them to do.”
Jake explained how that sense of pride, of ownership in the work, is essential to getting the quality they want.
“When it comes to art, I’m like a little kid, excited to take what we do to the client. I would put it up against anyone nationally,” Jake said. “We use freelancers for content, marketing and analytics because they are the same way with their craft. There’s nothing wrong with the marketing firms that have a $15/hour writer on staff, but that’s not what we’re after. Everything we do is specialty, and we want a specialist.”
WHAT’S NEXT FOR ANDERSON CREATIVE?
The Andersons are big fans of New York-based Pentagram, a design studio owned by 19 independent designers, each with their own specialty. The client gets access to not one, but all these seasoned masters at their craft. The designer gets full recognition for their work.
“That’s what we’re after. A Midwest version of Pentagram,” Arin said. “We’re a long way from that, but that’s the future. One where we’re succeeding, where everyone is succeeding.”
It’s been a fun ride so far. Thanks for bringing me along, Andersons, and the for the chat.
(Next time maybe I’ll wait at the door.)
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