Want to Work at Digitas? Brent Eveleth Talks Elastic Thinking, Boston, & More
MIKE O'DONNELL / EDITOR
Founded in 1980, Digitas has grown to seven office in the US, eight in Europe, and twenty-six globally. But the marketing agency's celebrated culture remains on one single unified mission: Truth, Connection, Wonder. That mission is an extension of their unique name, a melding of the words "digital" and "veritas," which is Latin for "truth." And it all starts at the agency's headquarters in Boston.
WNW Member Brent Eveleth, a Creative Director and SVP of Experience Design at Digitas's Boston hub, has just finished his first year at the agency. And he's liking what he sees. "Digitas is like a playground with all the best toys. There are so many disciplines with deep expertise to tap into here, across offices. If we can think it up, it's a safe bet there are a dozen people with the talent and passion to collaborate with to help us bring it to life." Scroll down for our interview with Brent, and find out what he's learned about Digitas's process, personality, and culture.
Brent also shares what he looks for in prospective hires, what it takes to succeed at Digitas, and why Boston will probably never get the credit it deserves for its strong, creative community.
Tell us a bit about your creative background. Who is Brent Eveleth and how did he get here?
I’d love to tell a story featuring a Great Moment of Clarity, where our protagonist Finds His Calling and so on, but the truth is much more pedestrian than that. I’ve always been interested in making and building things: from box forts, comic strips, and doodles in the margins of school notebooks, to homemade band t-shirts and mixtape art. I got into college because I had decent grades. I didn't go "for design;" I didn't know design was a thing people did, but I liked making things. It was at school I found ceramics, metals, painting, and ultimately, design. I had a great experience in school, with really supportive instructors and collaborators, who encouraged mixing those disciplines up and playing around in the gray areas in between.
What were some of the challenges in launching your creative career as a Creative Director / Experiential Designer?
It's hardly accurate to describe what I faced as "challenges," given how competitive the design discipline is right now. I became interested in the role of technology in design early on, before much of the industry had pivoted towards this area. That gave me a huge advantage: I knew how to write code, animate and edit video. I also knew how to create interactions that solved real problems. I was able to start my own design shop with a couple of friends right out of school and fail early, without having to worry about supporting a family at the time. In many ways, I followed the things that interested me and changed my course when I found something new. The landscape has changed so much, that I wouldn't even pretend that it's that simple today.
There's one question that I’m still occasionally asked: “What kind of designer are you?” I don't know how to answer that question in a way that satisfies the person asking. What do the terms "visual designer" or "interactive designer" really mean? As opposed to what? There have been times I've had to fight against typecasting myself, when it would have been more convenient to just say, "Yeah, I'm that kind of designer." I view design as a thought process, not a medium or a material.
What excited you most about working at Digitas and what has most surprised you since?
Digitas is like a playground with all the best toys. There are so many disciplines with deep expertise to tap into here, across offices. If we can think it up, it's a safe bet there are a dozen people with the talent and passion to collaborate with to help us bring it to life.
Being in a leadership position, how do you cater your approach to allow your left brain and right brain to coexist?
Two of the biggest components of design leadership as I see it are fostering productive collaborations and developing talent. Those activities both fit very well in my approach, so they never felt separate from the tasks of creation and problem solving. From that point, all the other leadership tasks became moves in the game, the means to an end. I may not love going to finance meetings, but I understand and fully appreciate the role they play in achieving our end goal of making great work.
What qualities are most important in a prospective hire? What are you looking for in the portfolio and experiences of a potential hire that's unique to Digitas?
I look for talent that is already looking for what's next. I love working with young talent who already have diverse work in their books; it tells me they are restless and curious, that they have influences beyond what's circulating on Dribbble this week, and that they will bring more than one tool to solve a problem. That also says that they can design a system solution, as opposed to an end-point product, which is much more interesting to me.
Is there a good balance of bringing on people who send in resumes and people you proactively reach out to? Or are the scales tipped in one direction?
If I could convince all of the best talent I've worked with over the years to move to Boston and work with me again, it would all be so much easier, right? But then I wouldn't get to work with new people, and that's really exciting too. Some of the best people I've worked with reached out to me directly and said, "I want to do this, I want to learn more, and I want to work with you and your team to get there." I'll never ignore that. I'll always at least have a conversation because you never know.
What’s your favorite part of the job?
Witnessing that moment when designers have a breakthrough. The idea clicks, the work comes together, and the whole team just knows that they just pulled off something they have never done before. Actually, I'll go one better: when all of that happens, AND the team can watch an audience encounter the work firsthand, and see their reactions, that's just something special. It's why I love experiential: you get real-time, in person feedback that even social media can't deliver. I was with my team at the time a few years ago when we filmed an interactive performance with Pharrell Williams for Sprint, and seeing it all happen, the crowd taking part in it, totally there and engaged, it was really amazing.
How would you describe Boston’s creative scene?
Boston doesn't get enough credit for having a strong creative community, and I think some of that is that Boston doesn't try desperately to look the part. It isn't as surface level here, it isn't as flashy, but it is vibrant and active, and there's whitespace for people to join and participate.
For someone entering the field of advertising and design today, what do they need to succeed?
Flexibility. Some designers have a very particular style, which is awesome when you’ve developed that. Being able to bring that style to bear to solve different design problems is the real trick. Elastic thinkers are capable of tackling more types of problems, which opens the door to more interesting opportunities.
What’s the best advice you’ve heard or received that all creatives should hear?
If you're a designer, learn to write. Write a lot. And speak. Go back to your school and talk to the designers in the program you graduated from. Run a workshop for your coworkers. Teach. Being able to articulate your ideas through language as well as visuals is critical to bringing ideas to life.
Who are your biggest creative influences?
I'm the worst when it comes to trying to rattle off a seemingly-casual-yet-carefully-curated list of names of people who inspire me. I'm bad with names. And I'm terrible at keeping collections of interesting ideas organized, so things just float in and out of my attention. Concert tour merch is in an interesting place right now: you've got people like Jeremy Dean of WOBF doing really progressive designs for Dead & Company (and John Mayer?!), pushing far away from what used to be standard. Production design is fascinating to me. Film, concerts, theater, opera. Es Devlin's work with Kanye, U2, and others is really inspiring. There was a great feature on Devlin in the New Yorker a couple of years ago that exposed more people to what she is all about. To that point—big spectacle—I love Disney's theme parks: the original branded experience. And when they are at their best, Universal Studios even out-Disneys them. But nothing beats Disney's Magic Band in terms of designing an experience that feels truly personal and immersive.
What’s your favorite thing on the internet this week?
http://brutalistwebsites.com Not new, still great.
What do you do when Not Working?
I make it a point to get outside and stay active: hiking, biking, driving down unpaved roads to see what's at the end. Sometimes I bring a camera (sorry, iPhone, you're simply not the best camera for capturing wide open spaces), sometimes I just try and be present. The White Mountains are two hours north, Cape Cod is two hours south—Boston is in an ideal location for that sort of thing.