WE ARE NORTHERN GROUND

Several months ago we sat down over drinks dinner and a spreadsheet. We left that night deciding to start our own digital studio. We have ideas about how to do things differently, better. Welcome to Northern Ground.

Does the world really need another shop like ours? What differentiation could we possibly offer? Why would you decide to work with a small studio? Why did we leave great jobs and go out on our own? All good questions, but let me offer some background first. If you’re as impatient as my two-year-old daughter, now would be a good time to skip the next few paragraphs.

Matt Retzer, Jay Beckman and I had the pleasure of working at Layer One Media for the past several years. Jay had a relationship with L1 that went back almost a decade. Jay’s most recent role was Art Director where aside from mentoring and creative direction he did design, animation and illustration.

Matt used to be in the same building with L1 when he owned his own web development company. He led the technical development team where he focused on technical leadership, solution architecture and writing code for complex projects that required integration and systems planning.

Me? I started there five years ago in business development and and client strategy and was fortunate to acquire the agency’s most luminary accounts and projects including work for Dean & DeLuca, Kohler, GE Healthcare, Sargento, Marcus Theatres, Sub-Zero, Northwestern Mutual and more. 

Besides being smart, ambitious and the most work-obsessed people we know, the three of us couldn't be more different - like firefighters stretching a tarp by pulling in opposite directions, these differences give our partnership strength and structure.We've worked together for a lot of years, arguing creativity versus value, viability versus cost, novelty versus stability, with projects always the better for it and clients always getting the best of three skill sets and personalities that could never inhabit the same skull.

We may have started at different times but we all left on the same day. We left on good terms and have nothing but respect and admiration for the team at Layer One. That said, we are excited to get out on our own and do things a bit differently. Back to answering those questions.

I haven't seen it all (not by a long shot) but based on what I have seen from local/national digital and traditional agencies, we think a gap exists in the market. That isn’t a dig. Places like that survive for good reason; access to a global network, a particular leader, a stability, the whole offer, maybe claims of a 'proprietary' process, the portfolio of big brands, perhaps relevant audience/competitive insights. Great, but we are different.

Northern Ground is a new digital studio that offers strategy, design and development for the web, mobile and social platforms. We are driven by a belief in digital. It is the source of our optimism - a frontier without limit for exploration.

Differentiation is important. We wouldn't have started Northern Ground unless we thought we could be different, for your benefit. Below are three areas of fundamental difference. We hope you identify and agree.

1. BENCH-MADE QUALITY

Our number one reason for starting Northern Ground was to stay close to the work - plain and simple. Some agencies want to get big. We just want to get really good.

In the agency world, only one path opens as you advance in seniority - toward management and away from doing the work yourself. We formed Northern Ground precisely in order to keep doing what we love and what we're good at: making things. Trends in design and advancements in technology whip by at a different timescale and if you don't keep your hands in them, they get away from you and grow unfamiliar.

The only way to keep learning is to keep doing.

You will meet the three of us at the beginning of a project, and we will all be with you through completion. Big problems arise when projects get departmentally compartmentalized - designs created in a vacuum that can't be built, builds completed to minimum spec because design loses priority, and strategy promised at the beginning getting lost. At Northern Ground, strategy, design and development stay close to every project, through every phase, until launch.

Good work only happens when this is so. It means we can't take on as many projects, but at the moment this fits our goals.

Regardless of your taste, I think most would agree that Mercedes-Benz makes a good car. However, the Mercedes-Benz AMG division is another story altogether. Aside from some facia updates, the outside of an AMG car doesn’t look very different to the casual observer. The engine, well that is a different plate of schnitzel. The power plant in an AMG car is benchmade by one engine builder; like a meth-head taking a radio apart for five days in a Motel 6. He or she takes so much pride in what they make that they sign each engine plate individually, in steel.

As a result and because there were no handoffs, the cars perform better, are worth more and hold value longer, just like our work for you. We would like to think of ourselves as the digital version of bench-made engine builders.

2. INNOVATION (FOR REAL)

Innovation is risky and big ideas don't always fit the bottom line. We realized a smaller team with less overhead and a higher skill level could move quickly, make decisions faster, try things out and recover if something doesn't work. We can indulge our own concepts, inspire each other with creative challenges, and take what we learn from those projects to better serve our clients.

Gross (but true) generalization in 3, 2, 1... Employees at traditional agencies are not incentivized or supported to innovate.  In some ways, we were always swimming up stream which is why it was time to start something new.

Yes agencies are creative, yes they have big teams and can manage large campaigns, yes they want to win awards and make you/their portfolio look good, yes I have seen innovation from the top 5% of agencies in the country but short of that they don’t have the time or energy to deliver true innovation.  It just isn't the model they were founded on, and for some thats okay.

Traditionally, a traffic manager gives a team a task schedule that they are managed to. Your project staff gets paid the same whether they leave at six or at midnight. They have a strict budget and strict menu of services. They struggle when it comes to ownership of IP and code base. All-in-all, as much as they would like to, most traditional agencies do not foster the environment required to offer real digital innovation. They live and die by commissioned work.

You might argue this point by saying that not every client or every project requires innovation. Innovation can come in many shapes and sizes. Being innovative could mean that we are able to jump higher with your humble budget or that we are able to disrupt your market and develop new IP. Innovation is part of our DNA. When not on commissioned client work, we are designing and building our own platforms and digital products.

Innovation isn’t something we even consciously think about, it's just who we are.

3. CLIENT ENGAGEMENT

We believe that you, your team, your target audience and your project is unique and special.

We do exactly what is required, nothing more and nothing less, to execute your project with tremendous results - it isn't based on what a flow chart says your project needs. We take time to get to know how you like to work, your process and internal systems and of course, all of the unique facets of your project; from audience and competition to market pressures and timelines.

Our experience proves this to be fact: when an agency gets to a certain size, the overhead and process required to run a profitable business comes at the expense of treating customers and project as individuals. That makes us sad.

From high-priced management and page after page of process documentation, it means that every customer gets run through the mill, more or less. You are treated like a part on an assembly line, or perhaps a slaughter house. Sure, they like to say that their process is a framework that bends to suit the specific needs of a client or project but that isn’t reality and as soon as a unique project comes in that requires a change to that process, that's when the wheels come off.  Even if you just get 5% less, for our size projects that could mean tens of thousands of dollars.

When a unique project comes through our doors, that's when we thrive. Through close collaboration and by treating you as an individual, you will feel the difference.

Thank you!  Thank you for reading the longest blog post I ever plan to write and thank you to our families, friends and those of you that have supported us as we embark on our new journey.

We had a lot to say and we wanted to get it out of the way so we can start talking about more important things like our clients, our work and the new path we are embarking on.  Please leave a comment and wish us well or tell us we're nuts and if you would like to discuss a project, please drop us a line. Onward!

Tags: about, design, development, strategy, ryan

1 Comment

  • JEFF NOWAK -

    Kudos--Northern Ground has the right formula and approach. Follow it like the North Star and the market will love you!

    "Trends in design and advancements in technology whip by at a different timescale and if you don't keep your hands in them, they get away from you and grow unfamiliar.

    "The only way to keep learning is to keep doing."

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