don kerr

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Swim upstream or go with the flow? How one school of Fish succeeds in the business of design.

Swim upstream or go with the flow? How one school of Fish succeeds in the business of design.

Conventional wisdom is the cobbler's children have the worst shoes. During my 30+ years working in the design community I can attest to the validity of that phenomenon in this sector. For an industry driven to help clients communicate in the most sustainably differentiated and relevant manner possible, the design industry is remarkably poor doing the same for itself.

During my years in senior management with leading international and domestic agencies the drive to communicate genuine differentiation was a frequent topic of discussion and a constant failure in execution. Almost every agency will say virtually the same thing with the occasional twist thrown in for reasons of caprice or notions of cleverness. It is hard because at the heart of effective designed communication is commonality.

Let's play a little game.

Below I have listed 13 of the top-rated design agencies on earth. Each of them have done remarkable work for astounding clients. I have also included the terminology they use to quickly differentiate themselves. Your challenge (without resorting to the web) is to match the motto to the firm.

Pentagram, London - ______________________

Landor, S.F. - The world’s preeminent brand consulting firm.

Meta Design, S.F. - Visible Strategies

Saffron Brand Consultants, Madrid - Transform brands and businesses with the clarity of rigorous thinking and the courage of bold ideas.

Happy Cog, NY - The place where responsive design began.

The Chase, Manchester - Creative Consultants

Flux Design, Jakarta - Continuous improvement to be the best.

Dessein, Perth, AU - We want to create brands of the heart.

Labbrand Brand Innovations, Shanghai - We demystify branding to build brand value.

Total Identity, Amsterdam - Fit for the Future

Litmus, Ahmedabad - Make your brand strategy simple

Casa Rex, São Paulo - We don’t design for consumers.

Brandient, Bucharest - We deliver innovative branding solutions for the emergent entrepreneurs and companies.

If you're a complete design agency geek you will realize I didn't mix up the companies and mottos at all! I didn't really need to because they are virtually interchangeable. In fact, Pentagram, genuinely a global thought- and design-leader doesn't even bother and that is perhaps most telling.

The point is this - powerful design agencies who create brilliant work for their clients are defined by THEIR WORK!

And that work runs the full gamut of creative thinking, efficient production, superior client service, appropriate technological insight, fair (not cheap) pricing, effective conversation, and the myriad of talents, insights, ambition, and dedication that go into sustaining a mutual beneficial relationship.

When I sat down to write this, the third in my series of articles on companies who embody effective leadership, branding, design and communications principles (see my March 29 posting "What is common...") I sought first to discover genuine differentiation. As I laboured away I realized that my quest was misdirected. For while the agency I will tell you about has a clearly stated motto - Different by Design - it is not that which makes it successful.

The agency's CEO commented that her company is different because they are "strategic design thinkers." Thinking this over it occurred to me that their success could not be pinned on that foundation alone simply because every single design agency in the world that has ever created success for even one client must by nature be strategic design thinkers.

But what is it that propels one agency forward while many, many fail?

How did that happen?


There is a minor trend emerging in these articles. In two cases the leadership of the companies features natives of Newfoundland. To hear Charlene Codner tell it she is convinced that her cultural background contributes to the Fishes' authenticity. "We are pretty simple," she comments. "We tell it like it is, we are true to ourselves, we find it hard to be inauthentic because frankly it's just too hard. How can you possibly keep track of tales you've told unless they are founded firmly in truth?"

CEO Rebecca (from the north-west coast of Lake Ontario!) shares this commitment to being genuine. "Although it doesn't sound sexy or revolutionary, we are about common sense. If you have a great product it's easy to be authentic," she says. "Our clients get this and appreciate it. It's not for everyone, this process of swimming up stream but it is core to our very being and those who like it seem to like it alot!"

Working with a broad range of clients in various media, the Fishes exhibit a couple of unusual behaviours. Yes, they undertake all of the activities of any reputable design firm - explore, question, experience, challenge, demand, and assess. Perhaps it is the manner in which they approach these activities where they display genuine authenticity. As Charlene says, "We have a deep understanding and awareness of our real capabilities and we know when we need to collaborate. We acknowledge both strengths and weaknesses and fully embrace the notion that we are by no means masters of the universe,"

This internal and external transparency translates into an atmosphere of trust with clients and prospects. "We have leveraged the authentic nature of our conversation with clients to display the courage of our convictions and ensure we have the capabilities to back up our promise of performance," remarks Rebecca. "When we commit to learn the brand with extensive in-store exploration, by diving deeply into our clients' businesses, by understanding as intimately as possible their real challenges, we build sustainable relationships."

It's how the Fishes approach working with their team too and at least part of the reason they have risen to their current stature.

Swim upstream or go with the flow? How one school of Fish succeeds in the business of design.


“A boat doesn’t go forward if each one is rowing their own way.”
Swahili Proverb

This quote is central to the Fishes' approach to leading the team.

"We will readily acknowledge that the coaching aspect of leadership is something to which we both need to devote more attention," says Rebecca.

The senior Fishes experience a very common challenge with creative entrepreneurs. So much of the success of the company is founded upon a few individuals' exceptional talent it becomes difficult to know when you can loosen the reins a bit. Everyone will acknowledge that overall success is genuinely a product of overall contribution but for the principals there's always a nagging doubt hidden away in the dark corners of the mind that keeps asking - have we done the very best possible, have we legitimately delivered the optimum solution, have we ensured that our promise of performance will ring true again this time and god forbid, what if it doesn't?

By no means is this unique to the Fish. It is a hallmark of true confidence when the founders can allow those they have assigned accountability to actually exercise the authority to act. My experience has proven that much of what happens in this realm of coaching goes back to lessons taught us by our Mom! Share your toys. Treat people like you want to be treated. Be wary but trustful. Say what you're going to do and do what you said you we're going to. As Charlene acknowledges, "The solution one of our teams brings forward may not be exactly what we would have done but have come to realize that if you have really smart people on your team they can be trusted to deliver really smart solutions."

Rebecca chimes in,"We sometimes forget those moments in our past when the people for whom we worked took off the shackles and let us get on with our work. We have had to learn to respect difference and in the process we have become a more generous management team. We both have a great deal invested in the success of this business. We constantly have to remind ourselves though that only by investing confidence in our team will the business maintain growth.”

“With good coaching, proper motivation and the right club structure with organic growth, you can achieve an awful lot in football.”
Gary Neville

In the design business too apparently!

Swim upstream or go with the flow? How one school of Fish succeeds in the business of design.

*Fish Out of Water Design Inc.( is a Toronto-based agency founded by Creative Director Charlene Codner late in the last century. Early this century she was joined by CEO Rebecca Hamilton and during the ensuing year this little shop grew to become a real force. In fact, just a few weeks ago the duo recorded a ranking within the 2015 and 2016 PROFIT/Chatelaine W100 celebrating the top 100 female entrepreneurs in Canada! (

Insight & Innovation

It is perhaps Rebecca's observation about investing confidence that underpins the company's innovation metric. As she commented, "Charlene started this business long before I appeared on the scene and she created a going concern with her ability to deliver strong creative. I know I am biased but she really is the best creative director I've ever worked with. What we needed to do though was decide how to move from a small, boutiquey agency to one with the ability to deliver end-to-end programs for mainstream retail clients."

Charlene chimed in, "So the first real innovation for the 'new' Fish was to get into the nuts and bolts of the business. How big did we want to be? What happens to the soul of a small team when it grows large? Did we need the formal structures of management? Did we and could we offer highly targeted services in one very specific discipline, packaging for example or could we build for nose-to-tail communications?"

The pair will admit to successes and failure on this front. The attempt to formalize a management structure with the requisite Gantt charts and organizational dynamics and complex reporting relationships quite simply did not resonate for the Fish. This is a firm that knows (or came to know) that it revolves around effectively expressing the vision and values of the founders and ensuring that day-to-day and long-term activities stay true and on course.

"Once we kind of figured out who we wanted to be when we grew up (acknowledging that growing up never really stops) we then set our minds to creating a team comprised of caring talented people who could deliver consistent excellence," said Rebecca.

The team made the requisite investment in technology. They created two distinct divisions within the company to address packaging and store design/communications. Importantly though, at the hub are the duo who provide the overall focus, breadth of insight, and depth of experience - Rebecca & Charlene.

Because, when you boil down the essence of what makes one agency swim efficiently and effectively while another is caught up the net of 'busyness' it is the overall ability to bring consistent, authentic leadership predicated on trust, confidence and belief that distinguishes one from the other.

On this front, the two Fish partners confidently lead their team to deliver comprehensive designed communications for clients who value an authentic and transparent approach to mutually beneficial relationships.

So the next time you're in a Sobey's and see what they're doing with private label and other food initiatives remember that way in the background are a shoal of fish swimming hard to keep the retailer relevant and appealing.

At least on this front, the Fish and their clients have a shared commitment to do better and perhaps that is what genuinely differentiates this one firm.

*In the interest of full disclosure, I have been engaged by Fish Out of Water Design on several occasions. This does not however limit my ability to provide objective commentary. At least I don't think it does!

Copyright 2016 Don Kerr Writes

To learn more about how I work with clients to enhance their brand expression and engage in meaningful, relevant conversation with prospects and clients please visit

You can also email me directly at or call me on 416-818-5608

To learn more about my special project and upcoming book on the male caregiver's role for a partner with breast cancer please visit


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don kerr

5 years ago #6

Really benefit from your perspective Dean Owen It is especially true now that brands engage with the qualities of simplicity, clarity and WIT. In the absence of something that truly differentiates in an economy where commoditization is becoming the norm the intangibles become more important than the traditional tangibles of feature/benefit. The best designed communications firm recognize that although we have to drag many clients to that reality while they kick and scream all the way.

Dean Owen

5 years ago #5

I am reminded on Robin William's last TV series, The Crazy Ones. The ad agency had superstars but each campaign was, if I remember rightly, approved by consensus before being presented to the client. Obviously they are all portrayed as a bit wacko and in the real world, consensus usually has the effect of producing the safer options. But I am finding that with all the noise, for new brands starting out, what they need is something extremely edgy. Authenticity is great for established brands like P&G, but for startups like the Dollar Shave Club, clearly edgy was the way to go and it worked. But there is no way a consensus vote would have approved their very first ads. So as a startup, I would tend to select an individual with a track record of individualism. Sorry if I am off topic, just some observations from someone learning about your industry for the very first time (and I always learn a lot from your articles!). I think I mentioned before, "Different by Design" ... That is just the best tagline for a design agency.

don kerr

5 years ago #4

Thanks for stopping by Gert Scholtz and all the way from South Africa!

Gert Scholtz

5 years ago #3

Don Kerr Your words on coaching are wise and experienced, encapsulated to me by the sentence: " We constantly have to remind ourselves though that only by investing confidence in our team will the business maintain growth". Great post. Thank you Don.

don kerr

5 years ago #2

Don't apologize for the link Phil Friedman It's a nice addition to the story.

Phil Friedman

5 years ago #1

Don Kerr > ""The solution one of our teams brings forward may not be exactly what we would have done but have come to realize that if you have really smart people on your team they can be trusted to deliver really smart solutions." I really like this piece, and especially the philosophy expressed above by the Fish. How could I not, for it represents the first time I've ever run across someone else (including so many supposed coaches) who understands that the essence of teamwork is not doing your part, or holding up your end, or giving it 130% ofwhat you've got, but rather --- being able to trust your team mates to do their jobs. ( Sorry for the link, but it is really apropos. Kudos. And cheers!

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