An interview with Danny Nathan, of Poke NYC

Jul 01, 2009Design

Can you tell us about your background, and how you ended up at Poke New York?

I moved to NYC directly after grad school (advertising at UT, Austin). I worked really hard to get a foot in the door at the “best” shops, but somehow convincing them of my worth proved difficult. That resulted in my spending my first couple years bouncing around a variety of agencies in both freelance and staff roles. I eventually settled into a shop as an art director on a pretty dull account and spent most of my time during the day immersing myself in the world of digital and writing/editing a reasonably popular industry blog.

The entire time though, I was still working on my portfolio and never really left “job hunt” mode. I knew the work I was doing wasn’t going to propel my career in the direction I wanted it to go, and so I just kept at it, learning everything that I could. Eventually, during a meeting at work, I encountered the moment that pushed me over the edge – I decided during that meeting that I was done with advertising agencies. From that point on, I refocused my job search on anywhere that wasn’t an “ad agency”. I met with graphic design studios (including an inspiring chat with Michael Bierut at Pentagram), I considered heading back to school for Industrial Design, and I started working my contacts to see who else I could meet.

After a number of discussions, meetings, and “interviews” with a variety of people, I’d been turned away at a ton of “interactive” places due to the fact that I didn’t know Flash. No one seemed to recognize that there was another approach to the whole thing. Then, about a week before I was planning to quit my job and head to South America to climb for a month, I found myself with two offers on the table. One was at an awesome little product design and innovation shop, and the other at POKE NY. After a number of discussions with teams at both places - which led me to one of the toughest decisions of my life - I realized just how closely aligned my ideals and approach are with those of the POKE partners. I’d finally found a place that was set up the way that made sense to me and wasn’t put off by the fact that I don’t code. That’s how I ended up here, and I haven’t regretted it for a moment.

Poke NY is a relatively young studio compared to its parent branch in London - how have the first years been for the agency? How does it compare to the London office?

I attribute our success so far to the amazing team of people who come sit at our table every day. The partners at POKE have created a team (across both offices) that works well together and is willing to support one another through some thoroughly intense projects. And we’re more dedicated than any other place I’ve ever been to maintaining a portfolio of clients and work that excites us as a business.

There’s also a very collaborative nature about POKE that’s evident not only amongst the team, but it’s something we try to bring to our clients as well. Usually our client meetings are as much brainstorms as they are presentations. In fact, we just spent 10 days in the UK working out of a client’s office so that we could fully immerse ourselves in their process and their culture. I think that’s part of what differentiates us from many of the companies that we’re often lumped in with.

We don’t like to think of ourselves as an “ad agency”. We wander the fine line between advertising, product development, and digital think tank in a way that allows us to remain nimble and creative when coming up with ideas. It also puts us in a position to present work that probably wouldn’t fly in an agency setting. But it’s always work that we believe in.

Like any startup, we’ve had a few growing pains. But those are learning experiences. We’re constantly re-evaluating our own process and our approach toward working with clients to make sure things work as smoothly as possible for everyone. And we’ve had the support of the the London office to help us through those times. We view POKE as one company that just happens to have two offices. There are POKErs back and forth often, and we all know that there’s an open door policy when it comes to sharing ideas. Whenever the London guys are in town, you’ll find them seated at our table. Same goes when we find ourselves in London. Our philosophies and approach to the work are closely aligned; I think that’s what ensures that the “POKE ideal” travels well between the two offices.

Poke is well known for having won tonnes of Webbys. How important do you think awards are in the interactive design community, versus, say, the advertising industry?

Awards are always a touchy subject. I think affirmation and celebration of good work is fantastic. Who doesn’t love to be recognized for doing something amazing? But in my mind, most of the award shows don’t understand how to integrate the ideas of digital and the direction that the industry is moving in a way that can best evaluate the work. They’re too focused on a finished product that fits in the palm of their hand - a print ad, a tv spot, a single website - something that’s easy to wrap your head around. They don’t seem to understand that client work no longer fits into tidy little buckets. Some of my best work at POKE has lived in the form of a creative and strategic document, but it’s still client work. Why shouldn’t I be able to enter that?

Granted, most of the award shows that we can submit to are “advertising awards” (the Webbys being an obvious exception), so we’re in a bit of a catch-22. Perfect example: I decided to humor myself this year by entering the Art Director’s Club Young Guns competition (this is the last year I’m eligible). I read the entry FAQ’s and there was some awesome stuff about how they’re trying to be open to new kinds of work and that if your entry didn’t fit into the “buckets” they’d outlined, just to give them a shout and they’d work with you. So I emailed to explain my problem: much of my best work doesn’t live in the form of single URL, but rather as a holistic idea that has to be explained with more depth. I simply asked if I could submit a .pdf for some of those ideas so I could best share it. The short, concise answer was NO.

That’s a problem. Until they re-think what the work can be and realize that our client work is often in the form of strategic and conceptual ideas, the industry will continue to struggle with how to recognize it. I mean, where’s the award for “most innovative UX”? Or the one for “holy shit, no one has ever thought about that before!”? And, of course, there’s the problem of credit for collaborations with traditional agencies. We’ve run into a bit of that issue this year.

…and talking of awards, can you tell us more about the design and development of The Million? NB: The Million is no longer online

The Million was an incredible project - both the idea, and the amount of work that went into it. The NYC Department of Education was working with a Harvard Economics professor by the name of Roland Fryer on a project called Opportunity NYC, an experimental program to study how kids from under-performing schools would respond to financial incentives. The Dept. of Education released an RFP to see what agencies would come up with that fit the program. Droga5 took part in the pitch, and won, with the idea that eventually became The Million.

Not long after, Droga brought POKE in as a partner to help craft the idea and to bring it to life in the online space. When they approached us, The Million was a logo and an idea: “what if we used mobile minutes as an incentive to reward students for attendance, performance, etc.?” Droga had already established a partnership with Verizon to launch a pilot test of the idea in 7 schools. While the response was extremely positive, there wasn’t a full plan in place to move The Million from the test phase to a full scale program.

POKE was tasked with two assignments. The first was to create an intro video and a site that would serve as the home for The Million pilot program. That’s the work that you see at www.millionnyc.com. The POKE team created the video entirely in house, from concept to completion, including the particle work that became a central branding element throughout the communications for The Million and all of the motion work.

The second assignment was to craft a long-term strategy that would take The Million from it’s pilot stage to a viable, city-wide program capable of supporting the deployment of the million mobile devices necessary to ensure that every student in the NYC Public School system would have one. Myself and another POKEr spent the better part of the following month crafting the most comprehensive strategic document about the mobile space that I’ve seen to date. We started with the most basic explanations of the worldwide mobile market and technologies, and we then carried that discussion through to the specifics behind the US market, including evaluations of potential service providers, hardware partners, and a study of each of the mobile OS’s and their level of appropriate integration into the educational environment.

After making recommendations on service providers, hardware, and software, we outlined a series of partnerships that would provide valuable educational content appropriate for the school setting as well as partners that could provide plug-and-play solutions for the incentives needed to make the program run in the intended manner. The final part of that work included a no-holds-barred exploration of the potential of technology in the educational environment. We started with the simple question of this could become, and worked backwards to create a plan that would balance cost with technological opportunities moving forward. We outlined a multi-year development program that would eventually put fully customized, education-specific devices into the hands of students across New York City.

The project was ambitious, to say the least. To put the amount of work into perspective, we created a strategic document that spanned 300 pages. Presenting it was a two-day crash-course in mobile development couple with a strategic business plan that would support the development and deployment of a million-unit mobile network. Essentially, launching The Million is equivalent to starting and operating a small mobile company. It was also one of the biggest steps I’ve seen anyone take toward integrating the full potential of current technology into the educational process.

To date, The Million project has won a slew of awards:

  • a Titanium Lion, Cannes
  • The Richard T. O’Reilly Award for Public Service, ANDY’s
  • The Innovation Award, ANDY’s
  • a Gold Pencil, New Media Innovation & Development, One Show Interactive
  • a Bronze Pencil, Innovative Media Single, One Show
  • a Gold Clio, Innovative Media, Clio Awards
  • a Black Pencil, D&AD Awards

It’s also been personally blasted by Jeff Goodby for being one of those “fake” projects that was done just for the award shows, which is a bit of a shame. He’s right, most people – especially his industry friends here in NYC – probably never encountered The Million. But it wasn’t created for the people that I’m guessing Jeff Goodby hangs out with when he’s in town. It was created to help public school students find value in education. And from what we saw and heard during our visits to the pilot schools, it worked wonders.

What new technology excites you most, and what is Poke doing to embrace it?

“Digital” is almost ubiquitous now. In my mind, technology today isn’t about developing the a faster chip, a bigger hard drive, or whatever. At this point, those advancements will happen almost on their own - they’re cost of entry to keep us moving forward. The real power of “technology” these days is putting the building blocks into the hands of people everywhere. Think about the potential opened up by technology like Arduino or the app store for the iPhone. Those are platforms that encourage anyone and everyone to create technology. That’s the future.

You know what excites me most about technology? Considering how it will change the way we think - and learn - in the next 10…20…50 years. Thinking about what elementary school will look like when my (non-existent) kids end up there. How will multitouch technology enable children to grasp and explore shapes, ideas, and the relationships between them? How will the OLPC connect youngsters and teach them to create programs that we’ve never dreamed of? When will educators and legislators realize the potential of a program like the Million to replace textbooks and change the face of education from the ground up?

POKE basically lives to embrace technology. We spend a lot of time digging for, thinking about, and discussing the integration of new technology into our work. One of the biggest things we talk/think about at POKE is the line between physical and digital and how we can blur that line to make our clients more significant, and more embraceable, in people’s lives. We also look at how the technologies that are becoming more mainstream like Twitter (I’m @AmongMany, by the way) or Google Streetview can be made useful for our clients. And how those that are more niche and unique can present opportunities that we can leverage as well (like Qik or Arduino). POKE’s latest example is BakerTweet, but this is an idea that’s prevalent in everything that we do.

How does an agency like Poke approach a new project, and what advice about process do you have for new designers and developers wanting to break into the industry?

There are a couple of over-arching ideas that we try to follow here at POKE…

The first is a relatively new philosophy/realization that Tom (Partner/ECD) and I penned not too long ago. We call it “small, simple, smart (and social)”. For years, ad agencies have been focused on finding the “big idea”. We all learn it in ad school. We’ve all been taught to go through that concepting period where we search for the big idea like it’s the holy grail. But agencies and brands alike are running scared. They’re being forced to seek out alternative means of engaging consumers because their excessive marketing habits of the past have been rendered obsolete, both by technology and by lack of consumer interest. Let’s face it, no one wants to be advertised to. It’s time for that to change. We’re in the midst of a massive recession and a technological boom. The opportunities created by that mix are nearly unlimited.

For many of us, the changes brought on by the current economic climate aren’t just some new fad to control costs. For the digital natives, the best marketing has always come from creating something valuable and useful. People gravitate towards, and like talking about, simple and valuable interactions, and are willing to forgive (and even embrace) branded messages that come with them. We work extremely hard at POKE not to create advertisements but rather useful things that advertise.

The second process point that’s huge for us is collaboration. We love to bring clients directly into the process and make them a part of the creation. It helps us better understand exactly what they want (vs. what they tell us they want - they’re often slightly, or drastically, different) and it builds a sense of ownership for them in the ideas we’re creating. If we build ideas together, then by the time we go to push them up the line and sell them through for funding, etc., the client is standing right there by our side championing it forward with us.

Of course, that being said, process has to be flexible. That would be my biggest piece of advice for anyone trying to figure this whole thing out. Know the “how you work best” part of your process, and stick to it relentlessly. But within that framework, be completely flexible. Every project is different, and being able to adapt to those differences and still come out the other end with viable, groundbreaking work is what will make you valuable.

There’s a couple of entries on my personal site that show my inner workings when it comes to this. The first, above, was a photo that I shot in the middle of a client pitch. I find that I work pretty well by getting things up on a wall where I can see them, move them around, tear them to pieces, and put them back together. Whether that happens pre- or post- computer work tends to vary with the project. In this case, I sat down three times to get a presentation built in keynote, and each time something felt wrong. I finally realized that the whole thing was in my head and that markers were a faster, more nimble way to get to the end product. Two hours later, the wall looked like that. And I was really tempted to put the client in front of that wall.

That post made its way to a couple of my old professors from UT who happen to be working on a book on the creative process. After seeing it, they asked me to draw my process beginning to end. That lead me here. In doing what they asked, I realized that there’s a substantial difference in “how I work” vs. “how WE work”. Both have to fit together, but they don’t have to be the same at all. The trick is fitting everyone’s personal process together into a “WE” process that makes a strong team stronger.

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