The people of the Lexington marketing company Bullhorn Creative recently took the time to define who they are, what they hope to accomplish, and how they want to go about that. Tom Martin talked with Brad Flowers, who founded the company in 2008 with Griffin VanMeter, about the process of developing a set of values for Bullhorn, as well as branding, and the challenges of helping a client cut through the clutter and stand out in the marketplace.
Click here to hear the audio version of the interview: http://bit.ly/2jFUpyf
Q: How many people work at Bullhorn Creative?
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A: There are 14 of us.
Q: What are some Bullhorn projects around Lexington that people might recognize?
A: Probably Crank & Boom mainly because it’s probably the most delicious.
Q: We’re talking about ice cream.
A: The ice cream company, yeah. We did the visual identity: the actual logo, the packaging. We helped write some of the flavor descriptions.
Q: Let’s talk about how you and your colleagues have built a culture at Bullhorn. When did you realize the need to define your values, and what sort of process did you use to accomplish that?
A: We knew we needed to for several years. The ironic thing is this is one of the things we actually do for clients. We had just put off doing it for ourselves partly because of timing and partly because it’s just hard work and it just takes time. One of the hard things for us is that our industry tends to be pretty jargon filled. So, it’s really hard to break out of that and give something your own voice. And it took us awhile to come to a more sophisticated understanding of what our culture is, especially when you think of creative companies. You think of things like expensive coffee and beer in the fridge or something like that, but those are probably byproducts of the culture. We thought about culture as the group of people themselves; their shared mental map. We had to do a lot of introspective thinking about what sort of people we are and then, in turn, as a group of people, who are we attracting? And I think that’s where we started to really get to some of the core ideas of our culture.
Q: Your website lists three pairs of core values. Core value #1 is “empathy and honesty.” Why do these need to be defined?
A: Empathy for us is so key because to do our best work we really have to focus on it, a lot. And it works in a couple of different ways. We have to be really empathetic with our clients to understand and put ourselves in their position because from our perspective we do 20 to 30 rebrands a year. So, we’re really comfortable with change and understanding the position of a client who is going to do it once in their career. It helps us to shepherd the process along. In addition, we have to be empathetic with each other. We have people who are more client-facing. And those folks have a really complex creative task to do when occasionally there’s a client who doesn’t think something works and then they have to communicate that to the designer who’s thought about it a lot and there’s really an opportunity for a lot of internal friction. So, we need empathy. But on the other hand, what we found is that if empathy goes unchecked, we end up just being button pushers for the client. We need honesty to provide some counterpoint and to sometimes say, “Look, I hear what you’re saying, but we’ve agreed upon these strategic objectives. And changing your logo to purple instead of orange doesn’t meet a specific creative objective.” Sometimes we have to be honest and just say, “Look, this isn’t in your best interest and this is why.”
Q: The second pair that you cite are “dissatisfaction and improvement.”
A: One of the commonalities between us as a group of people is this sense of dissatisfaction — that we always feel the need to tinker with something. We felt like it needed to be in there because if there was someone who wasn’t constantly seeing issues and wanting to fix them, that sort of person could never get along at Bullhorn. It just wouldn’t work. For us, it’s that idea that you see something that’s broken and you have the urge to fix it. We wanted to counterbalance it with improvement so that it’s dissatisfaction towards a specific actionable end.
Q: And finally, “creativity and decisiveness.”
A: We do have a wide range of folks, even though a lot of what we do would fall under the stereotypical creative industry stuff. We also have people who are account managers, or project managers, or bookkeepers. And we just want to acknowledge that they bring an important creative task and a creative approach to their work. One thing we’ve often found is that if something goes unchecked, in this case creativity, then it ends up in this infinite noodling and this constant iteration, iteration, iteration. So, we felt that while creativity is essential, if it’s not balanced with decisiveness, then it doesn’t really work in a business sense.
Q: Let’s turn to branding. How do you define it?
A: Oh, that’s a tough one. Jeff Bezos said that your brand is what people say about you when you’re not in the room, which is interesting because it gets at the reflective nature of a brand where there are certainly things that you do, whether you make a product, provide a service, hire people, wear a certain uniform, you answer the phone a certain way, or you have a sort of website aesthetic, these are all things you’re doing to impact your brand. But the reality is that there’s still someone on the other end of that. And the person on the other end of that brings their own perspective. So your brand is actually this interchange between you and your consumer. I think branding is then bringing all of those touch points into alignment with your values and who you say you are so that in that interaction the clearest expression is coming out of you as an organization.
Q: When you’re putting together all these elements, which comes first, language or logo?
A: It depends if we’re naming the organization, then naming generally always comes first. If the name is established, then we push on language and design at the same time in an iterative process. And so, as we push them both forward, I think language is in fact influencing the design and then also design choices are influencing language.
Q: I take it the goal is to get to the point where the two complement one another.
A: They should feel tonally compatible, whether it’s a particular saturation of a color or the strength of a sentence. You know, they should feel they’re coming from the same organization — like they’re all speaking from the same common vernacular.
Q: What do you envision for Bullhorn over the next several years?
A: We imagine the future not in terms of, you know, we want to have 50 employees and be grossing $20 million, but it’s more that we have this idea of the sort of work that we can do. We imagine seeing our work in an international sort of light. The work we just did for Louisville Public Media was picked up nationally and people were really interested in it for several reasons. And so, I think projects like that, where we’re solving really complicated, multifaceted problems, we want to do more of that sort of work. I think that’s where I see the future. That’s where we’re headed.
Tom Martin’s Q&A appears every two weeks in the Herald-Leader’s Business Monday section. This is an edited version of the interview. To listen to the interview, find the podcast on Kentucky.com. The interview also will air on WEKU-88.9 FM on Mondays at 7:35 a.m. during Morning Edition and at 5:45 p.m. during All Things Considered.