What all stu­dios can learn from Pen­ta­gram’s unique busi­ness struc­ture

Computer Arts - - Meet The Team -

Given that it’s ar­guably the most fa­mous de­sign agency in the world, Pen­ta­gram needs lit­tle in­tro­duc­tion. Ever since the five found­ing part­ners Alan Fletcher, Theo Crosby, Colin Forbes, Ken­neth Grange and Mervyn Kurlan­sky set up shop in north Lon­don in 1972, its uniquely com­pelling struc­ture – equal part­ners, shar­ing wealth, wis­dom and workspace – has never been suc­cess­fully repli­cated.

While there are now four times as many part­ners – spread across stu­dios in Lon­don, New York, San Fran­cisco, Austin and Ber­lin – that ethos has re­mained con­stant, with each part­ner head­ing a small, self-con­tained team. Glob­ally, this means there are 21 small stu­dios, un­der the um­brella of one 170-strong agency.

For many years, Paula Scher flew the flag as Pen­ta­gram’s only fe­male part­ner – this num­ber has also quadru­pled. Natasha Jen, Emily Ober­man and Ma­rina Willer all be­came part­ners in 2012, with Jen and Ober­man join­ing Scher in New York, and Willer – a for­mer cre­ative di­rec­tor at Wolff Olins –in Lon­don.

We spent an en­light­en­ing af­ter­noon with Willer and her team, get­ting to the heart of how Pen­ta­gram’s much-en­vied agency struc­ture works from the per­spec­tive of one of the small cre­ative teams, to de­ter­mine what other agen­cies can learn from this ap­proach…

What does it take to be a Pen­ta­gram part­ner?

Ma­rina Willer: Each of us brings a style. We are very hands on for ev­ery project, and our style is what we be­lieve in. As a re­sult, Pen­ta­gram is ex­tremely di­verse. We make a point of not hav­ing once strong com­mon vi­sion or view of the world, and re­ally ac­cept that di­ver­sity. What we all share is a love of de­sign, and a set of un­writ­ten prin­ci­ples about want­ing to leave a mark on the world. That’s how we choose a new part­ner – some­one who can leave a mark some­how through the work they make.

How is a new part­ner cho­sen?

MW: The qual­ity of the work comes first, but it’s fas­ci­nat­ing how much this group val­ues per­son­al­ity. It’s al­most like a club – not in a neg­a­tive way, more like a fam­ily. We want peo­ple we trust, and like, and want to spend time with.

It’s a real part­ner­ship, not an ‘in and out’ thing. It’s not a job. It’s about build­ing a com­mu­nity, and be­liev­ing that Pen­ta­gram stands for some­thing even though it’s not writ­ten any­where.

Has there ever been talk of adopt­ing a more tra­di­tional model, and ap­point­ing an ex­ec­u­tive cre­ative di­rec­tor to over­see the out­put?

MW: If some­one brings the idea, it’s quickly dis­re­garded. It’s not our cul­ture. Any­thing cor­po­rate is a no-no. It’s re­fresh­ing.

Some­times you think it’s crazy, be­cause it doesn’t feel very strate­gic. You might think, ‘This would make more money if we did it this way,’ but it’s about keep­ing a cul­ture that val­ues the work, the friend­ship, the qual­ity of what we cre­ate, rather than risk de­stroy­ing it be­cause we want to make more money.

What’s in­ter­est­ing about our busi­ness model is that the pres­sure is on each of the part­ners to make it. We are the ones who are al­ways work­ing late. When I’ve worked in other busi­nesses, you see the ju­niors work­ing late to prove them­selves. There’s al­most an in­verted logic here, be­cause the pres­sure is so on us to do great work.

Our names are out there, and we also feel re­spon­si­ble towards our fel­low part­ners

be­cause we share the prof­its. If one part­ner is do­ing re­ally well and you’re not, you feel you owe them. Un­like in other com­pa­nies where the se­nior peo­ple spend most of their time in meet­ings, ev­ery­one’s al­ways busy work­ing.

The 21 part­ners are from var­ied back­grounds, but many hail from small stu­dios. Does your time as a cre­ative di­rec­tor at a large agency like Wolff Olins give you a dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive?

MW: I was at Wolff Olins a long time. If you look at my port­fo­lio, many of the jobs I’m most proud of – Tate, Ox­fam, Amnesty, Macmil­lan and so on – I did there. I had an amaz­ing time, and learned to think about de­sign in a strate­gic way. That hy­brid equipped me to feel more con­fi­dent, and to think of de­sign as a holis­tic ex­pe­ri­ence rather than a dec­o­ra­tive visual prac­tice.

That’s def­i­nitely in­ter­est­ing to Pen­ta­gram. Not that the oth­ers don’t do that, but many of them come from bou­tique stu­dios. They of­ten part­ner with strate­gists, though.

Ev­ery time some­one joins they bring their own tra­jec­tory, and I’m just pleased that I joined when I was al­ready pre­pared. I can choose the clients I want to work with, and in a way the com­mer­cial pres­sure is dif­fer­ent. Each team is like a small start-up, and we have to re­ally work to keep ev­ery­thing go­ing, but it’s not to the same mass scale as any com­pa­nies that be­long to groups and have the pres­sures that they have.

There’s a sup­port net­work, but you still have to be able to run your own gig. No one’s go­ing to tell you what to do, and if you joined some­thing like this too early, it would be dif­fi­cult to make it.

You’re cur­rently work­ing on your first fea­ture film, Red Trees. How does your film-mak­ing ex­pe­ri­ence in­form your brand­ing work?

MW: I never stud­ied film prop­erly, but at the Royal Col­lege I spent a lot of time do­ing mov­ing im­age, and at Wolff Olins I started to ex­per­i­ment with the Tate iden­tity us­ing sim­i­lar tech­niques.

I was do­ing in­stal­la­tions in a lit­tle room and film­ing and pho­tograph­ing, in­stead of do­ing it at a com­puter. It was gen­er­ated through pro­jec­tions and into mir­rors, so it’s a typ­i­cal merge be­tween film and de­sign. The out­come was an ev­er­chang­ing iden­tity, one of the first re­ally be­cause it was al­most 20 years ago.

For me, films and brand iden­ti­ties both rely on a strong nar­ra­tive; a strong idea. Then it’s about how you tell that story. If the idea isn’t there, if you’re just look­ing for some kind of dec­o­ra­tion, it just doesn’t hold to­gether. It’s im­por­tant that the two things help each other out.

PEN­TA­GRAM A reg­u­lar fix­ture in CA’s UK Stu­dio Rank­ings, Pen­ta­gram was founded in 1972 and op­er­ates as a co-op­er­a­tive of 21 equal part­ners, split over five of­fices in the US and Europe. Ma­rina Willer joined in 2012, and is pic­tured here with her team. www.pen­ta­

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