HUGE aims to employ geniuses and create industry-changing websites. David Skokna and Gene Liebel (from left, with Sasha Kirovski) discuss dogs, design and the decline of Flash
.net: You’ve been on the scene for a remarkable 11 years. How has HUGE evolved?
DS: The biggest change has been moving from a design-focused agency to a strategic, full service agency. Now we’re capable not only of designing the most engaging websites for our clients, but also creating a long-term roadmap and strategy for them.
.net: Why did you sell a majority stake to Interpublic two years ago and how has it changed the agency?
DS: We made the deal because IPG gave us resources for international expansion while creating many new opportunities on the client side. It just made sense for us if we were going to take the next step for HUGE’s growth.
.net: Can you explain how you developed your design process?
GL: We just had this feeling 10 years ago that the creative process shouldn’t be so precious, that you should continually play, innovate, test, and then be open to every form of feedback or measurement to find out what you could do better. As a business, we never wanted to compete on something totally subjective like the quality of graphic design – that just seemed too easy for anyone to copy. We set out to create a machine with a lot of knowledge in it about how to define and iterate great products extremely quickly. It may look complex, but our whole process is really just designed to enable us to start solving problems early and then test, learn, revise and so on.
.net: How do you cope with mammoth three-year projects?
DS: That’s a good question. What we tend to do is give refreshing smaller and faster projects to designers so they can invigorate themselves during the longer projects. Plus, these mammoth projects are the ones that people want to work on, the ones that people are proud of and make a true difference with the internet. There are far more plusses, and you can manage the minuses.
.net: How do you feel about not being able to talk about some of the awesome projects you’re working on?
DS: It’s fine. It’s part of the business. It’s fun, in some ways, honestly, being part of the secret. There’s nothing wrong with creating mystique.
.net: What’s the company culture like? What is it with HUGE and dogs?
DS: We set out to create the best design strategy agency in the business. And when we talk about design we don’t just talk about the outcome but the whole environment where design is created. So in order to create industry-changing websites, you need to create a culture that helps, inspires and sustains geniuses into doing their best work. For us, we don’t think about the culture as an artificial thing, we look at what our people think is the ideal environment for them to do their ideal work. The HUGE culture genuinely does not come from the management down, it’s from the employees up.
GL: As for dogs, I’m not sure it was a deliberate decision but keep in mind we don’t believe in having a receptionist, so sometimes stuff just walks in the door. We also don’t believe in having a big list of rules about how you’re supposed to behave at HUGE – though I believe we do have one somewhere that says ‘Don’t relieve yourself on the conference room floor’ …which presumably is addressed to our dogs.
.net: What’s been your proudest moment so far? And what’s been the low point?
DS: Right now, this is an amazing time for HUGE. Every week there is another proud moment, frankly, and it’s neverending. Every week we are meeting world-class clients who recognise what we’re doing, what we’re accomplishing here. We’ve built a design company that synchs with the best clients in the world. That realisation is the proudest moment. My low point? In 2001, I had to let ten people go in one day. That was my fucking lowest point ever.
GL: There’s a Japanese saying about failing fast – we believe in rapid iterations to keep us agile. There are three phases to any HUGE project: exploratory, assessment and then validation. We’re constantly integrating our research activities into these phases. Process-wise, we use Listening Labs, Focus Groups, Prototype Usability Tests, Card Sorts, Refined Prototype Tests based on user feedback, A/B testing, Post-Launch Satisfaction Surveys. But ultimately, we trust our users. We relinquish control over decision making, and give it up to the users. They’re going to tell us where to go.
.net: How is ecommerce changing? Have you noticed that clients are less interested in Flash sites?
DS: This is an interesting question. The biggest change in the ecommerce business is that we’re moving from fulfillment channel sites into sites that bring more emotion into the purchasing decisions. We’re moving from pure buying behaviour into a broader shopping space. So now customers are encouraged to discover and be surprised on a site, as opposed to just fulfilling the need to buy. Clients are absolutely less interested in Flash. In fact, clients were the first to see that Flash was a dated technology, and only now are agencies catching up.
.net: You’ve got offices in Brooklyn, Los Angeles and London. What made you branch out to Europe, and are any other expansions in the pipeline?
DS: Our model of mixing the top design talent with the top strategy and technology talent is proving very effective and Europe is an amazing opportunity. We notice that European clients – in general, and I’m speaking very generally here – are lagging a little behind their American counterparts, and we see are bringing the most advanced trends to the Euromarket place.
GL: The changes in the industry over the past two years have created some amazing opportunities for us around the world. So many companies are getting smarter about digital and wanting to work in a results-driven way and create real platforms instead of one-off campaigns. Since HUGE has been working that way from the beginning, there’s now a ton of demand for our services in places we’ve never even visited. It’s wonderful and flattering. But we’re committed to growing slowly and opening one office at a time, and doing it right. Stockholm is next because we already have some terrific, forward-thinking client partners in Scandinavia and there are so many talented people there.
.net: What are you currently working on?
DS: One of the biggest projects we’re working on is the redesign of Target.com. It’s an absolutely immense engagement, and when it launches it will bring a whole new generation of retail websites to life.
GL: We’re also working on several iPad applications for exciting new clients we probably shouldn’t mention.
.net: What’s the most bizarre request you ever got from a client?
DS: Well, some of our Swedish friends once asked us to join them in a clothing optional sauna. Saying yes was just good client service.