Instrument: From 15-Person Production Shop to 130-Employee Digital Creative Agency

Instrument CEO Justin Lewis likens making the jump from a production shop for ad agencies to a full-fledged interactive content studio to tearing off the Band-Aid. While painful, it was the best thing the agency ever did for itself. “Once you tear that Band-Aid off, there is no going back as you do alienate some people from other advertising organizations,” says Lewis. “ But the choice was essential in allowing our business to become something greater than it would have ever been had we been a silent partner for other organizations.”

Today, Instrument is 130-people strong, up from the 15 employees it had in 2010 when it changed direction. Inside Instrument’s 30,000 square foot Portland, Oregon headquarters, the atmosphere feels more like an agency than a corporation due to how Lewis and his Chief Creative Office JD Hooge have constructed their teams. Rather than having a super-sized reporting structure, Instrument has teams of 20-30 people of various disciplines, working as mini-agencies within a larger company. That has allowed them to avoid what they believe is a tipping point of efficiency within a company, growth beyond 40 employees. 

The Instrument office in Portland was custom-designed specifically for the agency.

That’s just one way the company developed its own identity. The partners of Instrument believe that their company culture needs to be tested (not protected), that visual designers and user experience professionals can be one in the same, and that clients need to leave some room in their creative briefs for Instrument to make magic happen.

We recently sat down with Hooge and Lewis to find out more about how their holistic view of digital content separates them from the pack and how facetime with their clients like Google Design, Stumptown, and The Metropolitan Museum of Art makes all the difference.

Why evolve from a production shop for ad agencies to becoming your own full-service agency?

JL: We had aspirations to have something greater than a production shop for global advertising agencies. That’s a great living for a lot of mid-size agency owners, but we made a really distinct choice one day where we said, ‘We believe in ourselves enough to break away from that model and go directly to clients.’

JD: There was a moment when we realized that we were doing the strategy work and not charging for it, so we needed to add it as a service and start charging people. When we started doing copywriting, photography, script-writing, and video content in 2010, we started to completely bypass agencies all together. We have never looked back and never worked through an agency for five or six years now. It’s a lot more satisfying if you are able to inform the content and the ideas of the thing that you are making. It wasn’t even so much a business decision, as a belief that we could make a better product at the end if we were involved in all of it.

JL: We also had a philosophical notion that you should meet the people doing the work. You bring a project to Instrument, and you will get to meet the people who are doing the work. We don’t send it right out the back door. There is a lot of pride in that.

“We believe in ourselves enough to break away from that model and go directly to clients.”

Instrument is known for having a strong culture. What tangible steps have you taken to create that?

JL: The culture is a value proposition and you find that at times people want to protect their culture. We believe the opposite: A culture needs to be durable and tested and beaten up and bruised from time to time. It needs to reflect the needs of the people in the organization, not the organization itself. A great culture is one that does shift to fulfill the demands of the people that come and spend time there every day. You have to be willing to give up some control. But you have to believe in something, and that belief structure has to be valued and shared. If it is, it takes on a behavior that you are proud of.

Creative work being done at Instrument.

How does having visual designers lead the UX affect the outcome of the product and your project deliverables?

JD: The by-product of that is awesome, but the upfront work we have to go through to hire for that is painful! It’s like we are self-inflicting pain on ourselves making that such a strong requirement when hiring. But the by-product is beautiful because there is no hand off between someone who cares about user experience and someone who cares about the visual design. It’s also more efficient, because when someone who is a strong visual designer is creating wireframes or creating user experience flows, they are also thinking about the visuals and that comes through and accelerates the process much sooner. It’s not such an imagination leap that the client has to take when they move on to the next step. That goes all the way through to prototyping. Right now we are using every single prototype tool that is on the market, even on the same project.

JL: When you really move away from the paradigm from constantly working towards the deliverable and start working in a direction of trying to uncover what is right for the final deliverable of the product, then you start to work in this looser fashion that is more about using all the tools to uncover good ideas as fast as possible. Yes, it would be more convenient to say, ‘Ok, step one is wireframes…’ but does that make the end result better? We don’t think so. So you have to get your hands dirty, learn a ton of different things, and be able to move in and out of different tools rapidly to find good ways to visually communicate the best idea.

When working with clients, how do you strike a balance between them giving you a clear assignment with your designers having the necessary room to use their imagination on a concept?

JL: We really made this wonderful pivot in the organization at a certain point and worked hard to put some air into the relationship with the client. It’s really easy in this world to get to a point where there is nothing left to chance in the relationship between the agency and the client, but then there’s no room left for greatness! When there’s no space other than A, B and C, the chance of finishing the project is great, but the chances of uncovering something amazing are slim because you’ve tried to over-rev on the creative process where no surprise can ever happen. Where’s the room for magic to happen? Our process has allowed us to have amazing results but to also work hand-in-hand with the client to steer and work with business needs in the moment and it creates a real-time working relationship that everyone feels makes us partners.

“You have to get your hands dirty, learn a ton of different things, and be able to move in and out of different tools rapidly to find good ways to visually communicate the best idea.”

To what degree does it require more face time with clients to earn their creative trust?

JD: It depends on the client. For example, right now we are working with a client in LA, and one of their designers has been here for a month and we’ve been down there three times this summer. They’ve had various people coming up here and there are three of them here today. In some sprints we have meetings every two days on video hangouts. We text with them, there are no barriers: We are an extension of their team and they are an extension of ours. When we have in-person meetings we do whiteboard full day sessions, and when we are on video chats we will open up Sketch and show them where we are at. Same with Nike. We have people go out to Nike twice a week who are fully working side by side with their creative directors. With other clients it can be totally different. It comes back to this ability of being flexible and having a lot of tools at our disposal.

An Instrument project with their Portland-area neighbor Nike

Tell us about how you organize your teams, as Instrument has grown from an indie agency into a 130-person office.

JL: When we were at the 40 person range, we made a decision to turn the company into team model making vertical teams that are multidisciplinary and run by a person that is a producer in nature, but also a business person. We reorganized the company into that model and have never really looked back from it. Take a designer from Instrument and they would be on one of four teams they would identify with — that enables us to be fluid as an organization and reduce the scope of what an employee is doing and caring about. An organization tends to lose its efficiency when it moves past 30 or 40 people, but that is typically what we have on our teams now, so it gives you that sort of family unit and strength of having 30 really talented disciplines in one group.

JD: The teams sort of operate as independent agencies with this leadership umbrella team above it. The benefit is that they can have access to other team resources if needed. We have a bartering system where, if one team is light on a certain element, they have access to these other teams. You have your team family, your discipline family, then the whole Instrument family. Each team has their own logo, and events, and happy hour and off-site trips and rituals. They all take pride in taking on their own identity.

There are no barriers: We are an extension of their team and they are an extension of ours.

What are the biggest changes you see in the future for both Instrument and the field of digital design?

JD:  I feel like we are at the one percent mark of web design and digital services in terms of design and technology and where they meet. We are so at the beginning and it’s really wild-west. That’s why we are doing this. There are zero rules and we are just making it up as we go along.