Pier Party was a blast!


My wonderful wife Patricia and me, in between chowing down on the delicious brunch provided by some of the top restaurants in Santa Monica — and that’s saying a lot! (Thanks, Ted, for the photo!)

Sunday was the first ever Pier Party!, a fundraising event on the Santa Monica Pier at Pacific Park, supporting the Santa Monica-Malibu Education Foundation, which is responsible for most of the academic, athletic and arts enhancements that make SMMUSD so incredible. FreeAssociates donated the design of all the promotional graphics…. sponsor proposals, ads, posters, t-shirts, signs, etc.

Linda Greenberg Gross is the visionary powerhouse who runs SMMEF. She’s positive, effective, and a joy to work with.

Kathleen Rawson, CEO of Downtown Santa Monica chaired the steering committee composed almost entirely of powerful, connected, highly committed women (I was one of only two guys that I know of).

The overall project was spearheaded by Rachel Faulkner, who pulled off complex miracles on a daily basis — with a lot of help from dozens and dozens of  energetic volunteers far too numerous to name here, but so impressive.

It was a gorgeous day and a wonderful group of people! I am grateful to be a part of this project, and of this amazing community.

Here are some snaps from the event, plus a few of our graphics just to give you the flavor of things. There are more photos on our Facebook page.


Inspiring leadership starts with Why

Start With Why bookWhy is it that a company can write glowingly about its specs and features and even its benefits and elicit not much more that a yawn? Why do we meet the promises of our politicians with such apathy? Why are we so focused on convincing and manipulating people instead of inspiring them?

We think we make important decisions rationally, but we almost never do. Instead, we are driven by, and respond to, signals that are difficult to articulate, but powerful when we receive them. And to be effective and meaningful, those signals always start with “WHY”.

That’s the premise of Simon Sinek’s fascinating study of leadership called “Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action” (Portfolio/Penguin).

You may know Sinek from his TED Talk, which I’ve blogged about previously. His book expands and details those concepts with many examples that go far beyond the few in his video. If you buy his basic premise, that the WHY is the hook that connects us to the brands and ideas we care about most deeply, then his book will flesh out your understanding and give you lots of fodder for your thinking.

I have to admit I’m not a huge fan of Sinek’s writing style. I find him too pedantic and repetitive. But that may also be because this is the kind of book many won’t read cover-to-cover, and he had to include repeated references and reminders to anchor his points. I’ll give him a break on that score because his fundamental idea is so important.

That idea is well worth incorporating into our communications — not just our marketing efforts but our broader role as leaders (and we’re almost all leaders in some sense, but that’s another conversation). We want to start with the WHY. The belief. The purpose. That’s what will enlist followers in our vision. As Sinek points out, Martin Luther King didn’t say, “I have a plan.” He said, “I have a dream.” And millions of people who shared that dream of fairness and equality, who also imagined a world where people were treated like people, thought, “Hey, this guy thinks like I do… he wants what I want.”

Notice that they didn’t say, “Hmmm, that’s an interesting idea.” as if they had never imagined a world like that themselves. King tapped into something that was already there. He attracted the people who already believed what he believed, and then galvanized them to action. They became a movement because of the WHY.

Sinek explains that brands work the same way. People love or hate Apple. But the reason the company has so many rabid fanboys is because they stand for something and are willing to start their communications with that central value. If you identify with their rebellious creativity and obsession with design detail, with their core belief in challenging the status quo and thinking differently (their WHY), you’re on board. And you’ll pay more for it, because it reflects who you are, and meshes with your personal values.

That WHY pulls a company, a leader, a brand, out of the swamp of commoditized, transaction-based competitors. It means you no longer need to offer a lower price than everyone else. It means you don’t need to drive volume with coupons and discounts and sales in a never-ending downward spiral of slimmer and slimmer margins. It means you create products or companies you love and care about, and your customers are people who feel the same way.

That’s why Sinek’s message means so much to me in my own business, and to my clients’ businesses as well, whether or not they’ve read the book. Creating work I care about for people who feel the same way? That’s my dream job. And I bet it’s yours, too.

Grab a copy of Start With Why. And start letting people know what you really value.

Bricks, mortar and Wings

Retail stores have long struggled with the problem of customers shopping there, but then actually buying the products online. Best Buy and Barnes & Noble are great examples of chains hit hard by the phenomenon. Circuit City and Borders are examples of the casualties.

Now there’s another nail in that coffin: the phenomenally impressive digital fly-throughs being created for new boxed sets like this one from Concord Music Group (Hear Music) for Sir Paul McCartney and Wings.

One of the most difficult things about buying expensive products online is the inability to explore them — to touch and feel and handle and mess with the thing you think you may want to purchase. But a well-done unboxing video takes a huge leap toward giving you that experience.  It makes it much more comfortable to part with your $160, to buy something you’ll clearly cherish if you’re a hard-core fan.

By contrast, CMG released their McCartney RAM project without an unboxing video. It hasn’t done as well as, say, their Duane Allman boxed set which did have a video — and which sold out in a week.

The buzz for Wings Over America seems to be working. My cousin Adam, a rabid McCartney fan and collector of many boxed sets, knew all about this one almost immediately. And now you do, too.

(Thanks to my friend Eric Eliel for sending this to me. He worked  with Integrated Communications to help produce the package. Can’t wait to see it in person.)

Staying the course

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This full page ad ran on the cover of the List section.
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Sometimes one of the hardest things to do is to maintain a message and an idea. People inside your company often get bored long before your target audience even notices what’s going on.

True, we’ve done some campaigns that change completely each year. But usually those were for events and the goal was to create a sense of freshness each time. The Revlon Run/Walk for Women and the Mercedes-Benz Cup Tennis Tournament fell into that category.

But often, clients are antsy to abandon things too soon. It’s the longer view that creates relationships, not the anxious panic that sets in when you’ve been working with the same idea for a while and you think your audience is already bored just because you are.

Trust me. They have other stuff on their minds. You’re really not that important to them. With infrequent placement and a limited budget, they’re barely starting to notice you.

Okay, now the other side of the coin.

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This half-page ad ran inside the List section as a follow-on from the cover ad.
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If you have a solid theme, a powerful idea, you can milk it. Stick with it — but play with it, expand on it or extend it in ways that keep things fresh, entertaining and engaging.

Our Collaboration campaign for Green Hasson Janks seems to get more interesting the more we develop it. The stories (thanks to writer Emily Hutta) are fascinating and surprising. And the collection becomes even stronger as a series.

We’re in our second year and this concept just keeps going. The latest incarnation appears this morning (Monday, March 11) in the Los Angeles Business Journal in the List section on Top L.A. Law Firms. The QR code links readers to the Green Hasson Janks website for the full tale.

Take a look. Even you might be curious about how P.T. Barnum and Jenny Lind’s legal contract was so central to their success.

Further collaboration with Green Hasson Janks

GHJ King Tut Ad

Our campaign for Green Hasson Janks in the Los Angeles Business Journal continues this week with a new ad in the series featuring Howard Carter, the archaeologist who discovered the tomb of King Tutankhamen in 1922 and his backer and mentor, George Herbert, Fifth Earl of Carnarvon.

Their story has fascinated generations, and is another great example of collaboration, the theme of the ads and the guiding principle of Green Hasson Janks’s relationships with their clients.

The ad appears on the cover of this issue’s list of accounting firms, and is followed by a smaller one inside that adds more to the tale. A QR code directs readers to the company’s website where the complete story unfolds.

Check out the LABJ this week. And visit the Green Hasson Janks site to read all the examples of amazing historical collaborations.

(Here’s a link to the previous post about the campaign, too.)

An abstract approach to brand identity

Green Hasson Janks folder with reflections

Varnished surfaces add surprise to this corporate presentation piece.

We recently finished a presentation kit for the Los Angeles-based accountants and business advisors Green Hasson Janks. Ordinarily a folder isn’t something I’d crow about. But this one’s really special.

Designed as a container for new business presentations, it features an unexpected twist on the firm’s key graphic element — a bold ampersand with an upward arrow known in the firm as the Uppersand. It’s their symbol of collaboration and is featured prominently in all their marketing materials and advertising. (More on that next week.)

We deconstructed the symbol, overlaying copies of it to create beautiful abstract shapes where the solid portions overlap. As you open the folder, these shapes resolve into the actual ampersand which is fully revealed on the three-panel interior.

GHJ Folder animationThe effect is enhanced by the overall velvety matte aqueous coating which plays against the mirror-gloss finish of spot UV varnish. That high shine reveals the full ampersand as the abstract graphic elements merge. This coming together to create a powerful whole is, of course, the whole point. It’s a message that’s subtly alluded to by our visuals, and strongly stated in the text.

Kudos to our senior designer Kevin Consales for this beautiful concept, to ColorNet Press for the meticulous execution, and to Green Hasson Janks for the courage to try something powerfully different as an expression of their brand identity.

New FreeAssociates site

Come on down! We’ve launched our new and improved website today. And we’d love to share it with you.

We invite your comments and suggestions. Thanks for your interest, your support and your friendship. We can’t do this without you.


Scrapheap Symphony from Brother

I think the ending is just a little anti-climactic, but the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, so to speak. Take a look.

Networking: Good? Bad? Ugly?

Our business has almost always come through referrals. I’ve done some direct selling, but usually designer/client relationships are built on something else: a seed of trust. When trust exists, people are willing to recommend you. We’ve been lucky to get recommended often.

Knowing that, it’s interesting that I discovered the concept of networking groups only recently. My brother’s wonderful girlfriend who’s an attorney suggested Provisors. Shortly afterward, a truly talented Santa Monica florist, Mark Herrier of Fleurs du Jour, called me up and invited me to Westside Referrals Network. They’re very different groups, but both are intriguing.

So I’d like to know what you think about networking groups — in general or specifically. If you can post a comment, I’d really love to hear about your experiences, get your advice about whether they work and find out which ones you might have tried. I’m sure others would be curious as well.

As John McWade says, “Let’s talk.”

Collaborating with Green Hasson Janks

The Los Angeles accounting firm of Green Hasson Janks is all about collaboration. It’s the core of their brand identity and it’s deeply ingrained in their DNA.

Green Hasson Janks ad featuring the Wright Brothers

To communicate this idea to the business community and help raise awareness of the half-century-old firm, we’ve created a series of ads that are running in the Los Angeles Business Journal. This one is on the front cover of the list of top law firms in the city. It’s read by lawyers, and kept for reference by lots of other businesses as well.

Inside, directly opposite the start of the list, you’ll find a related smaller ad that gives a little more detail and directs the reader to the firm’s website for the full story using a QR code.

It’s on newsstands now. Watch for more of these over the next several months.

[Note: here’s a link to a more recent post with another example of the campaign.]