At several points in the last year, I have had a conversation about what Swash Labs is. I have had this conversation more often than I think is strictly necessary, when what I really want to talk about is what Swash Labs does.
This is a challenging point for most businesses, though, and so I usually try to work through it like an important thought exercise. I am continually on the other side of the table, grilling executives about what their company does and how to communicate about it. If you are my client, you are familiar with the early meeting in which I say, aggressively, “What does your company do?”
If there are five people in the room, I get five different answers, and none of them are concise or, in some cases, even explanatory. People that work hard at a successful small company or a challenge brand often get hung up on identity in a way that makes them combative against the very idea of identity. This makes it hard for even a small group of people to have a unified understanding of how to talk about their brand, or how to broadcast a coherent message, or how to boil down the essence of their brand into just a few words or a sentence or two.
This is the essential identity problem of what a company does, and it is important. Guys at Nike and Volkswagen and Coke and Apple (in conjunction with some terrific advertising agencies) have solved this problem and that has contributed in no small way to their prevalence as global brands and their success as companies. If you ask the top executive and the mailroom guy at Nike what Nike does, they will both say the same thing: “We make premium sports equipment.”
This is an elegant, simple message that describes their function perfectly without getting in the way of an aggressive global ad campaign that is full of other messages that sell products rather than describe the company. The point I want you to dig on here is that they know precisely who they are. That’s a real identity foundation, and the product of hard work.
Too often, smaller companies and challenge brands don’t really know who they are or how to describe what they do in a way that anyone can understand, and that creates problems with every other bit of communication.
With Swash Labs, we know very well what we do but the question of what we are – and how to talk about it – was answered about a dozen times before we really started to get it. At first it was all new media. Then digital media. Then digital strategy, marketing and advertising (bleh.) Then, something much stronger: we are a full service creative agency focused on digital and emerging media.
That fully answers the “what do you do?” question, but for a while I have felt dissatisfied with it as an answer to “what are you?” It doesn’t simply describe or capture us without using industry terms. I am responsible for this, mostly because I was making a fundamental mistake: I was trying to make what I consider to be a unique and elegant business model fit into the descriptive language currently in use.
If I am truly mindful of the present and the era in which we are operating, the best answer to my own question is not that we are a digital advertising agency or a digital marketing agency, but that we are a creative agency in a digital age. When they were getting started, you would never have heard anyone say that Ogilvy & Mather was a print advertising agency, or that BBDO was a great tv advertising agency. They were and are just advertising agencies operating in the current time. Although the intentions are expository, appending all these extra words to the idea of what a company is ends up being reductive. A creative agency advertises, markets, designs and develops brands and products, no matter what year it is.
We are a product of the world in which we live at the time in which we live, but the answer doesn’t change: Swash Labs is a creative agency. We are mindful of the present even as we’ve begun actively exploring the future of media.
So, answer these questions about your company and find your path: What do you do? Do you know what you are?
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