Doug Studer asks himself a lot of questions. Lately, the CEO and co-owner of Deskey Branding has been asking what we can learn about design from the natural environment. Can studying shark skin or the way water runs off the lotus leaf inspire the design of consumer goods and packaging that add to the quality of life on Earth instead of to its landfills and climate change?
Curiosity has always been a strong driver in Doug, along with a Kentucky farm boy’s love of nature and a lifelong passion for design. As Deskey’s unpretentious leader, he gets to combine his interests daily while cultivating talent and insights from his team of branding experts. And this year Doug is celebrating something only the Cincinnati agency’s namesake can top: his fortieth year at the company. Only Donald Deskey, who retired back in 1976, had longer tenure.
To mark the occasion, Doug answered questions from fellow Deskeyans, reflecting on his years of building brands for giants like Procter & Gamble and Bush Brothers.
How did you land at Deskey in 1978?
“I had finished my degree in commercial art and was engaged to my wife Shirley, whom I started dating in high school. That was in June and we were getting married in September, and I didn’t have a job lined up. I went on interviews and pestered people every day until I finally got an offer from a silk-screening company. They said to come in on Monday.
“That weekend I got a call from Jack Schmidt [then head of Deskey’s newly opened Cincinnati office]. It’s interesting how relationships are woven together like spider webs; I had previously met him while looking for a band to play at our wedding and later had the opportunity to show him my portfolio. He remembered my work and asked me to report to Deskey on Monday, which I did even though I felt bad for the silk screener. And I never left. So technically, this is my first job.” Doug’s first position of power? “I was the gopher.”
It was a position that allowed Doug to learn the branding business from the bottom up. He became an expert in every corner of the studio from designing, to correcting mechanical layouts, to readying finished art for printing, to billing and human resources. Along the way he also earned the trust of his mentor, Jack, who envisioned Doug in a sales role.
“Procter & Gamble has always been a big client of ours. And sales at P&G at that time ... 20 guys would sit in their lobby from 9 to 5 in suits and ties and wait for somebody to come out, point and say, ‘You — you guys busy?’ ‘Oh, no’ — you never said you were too busy. ‘All right, come back, I got something for you,’ and that's how work was assigned. It was like a doctor’s office full of guys in suits and ties, a doctor’s office for businessmen. Very Mad Men-like.”
But Doug knew deep down that he wasn’t cut out for sales; he was always thinking about what was going on back at the studio when he wasn’t there. So he hung up his suits and ties and found his footing running the internal side of the agency. And on his fortieth birthday, in 1997, Doug became CEO of Deskey’s Cincinnati office. [Jack had retired some years earlier.]
It is significant that 2018 is also Deskey’s fortieth year in Cincinnati. “Our principle office was in New York, but we did so much work for Procter & Gamble that it made sense to have a shop here,” Doug explains. “We were the first national branding agency to open an office in Cincinnati.”
What has been the biggest change in the industry in 40 years?
“Computers changed everything. Because before that everything was done by hand — the marker layouts and physical comps and cutting out sheets of color."
While Doug was transitioning out of sales in the ’80s, “Deskey got one of the first Apple computers to run our billing software. Then someone at P&G showed me a MacIntosh — it was called Lisa at the time. It had the first graphical user interface, so you could add patterns and type, but it had a tiny 12-inch screen and not enough horsepower for what we were doing. So I was assigned the task of finding the computer system that would work for us.”
Doug chose a new-to-market system called Contex, which allowed artists to create, for the first time, computerized 3D packaging and label designs. It was a joint venture with prepress operator Scitex, whose equipment was widely used in the industry. While it cut production time in half, it was expensive equipment for the late 1980s, priced around a quarter-million dollars at a time when the big-ticket item in most studios was the copy machine.
Its acquisition was a show of management’s confidence in Doug and brought recognition to Deskey as a leader in technology innovation. “We were the first studio installation of that equipment in the United States, so we got to know the software engineers and to test alpha — not even beta — software.” Deskey’s use of the Contex system to design the identity and packaging for Black & Decker’s DeWalt brand of high-end contractor/do-it-yourselfer tools was so successful that Doug was made an unofficial ambassador of Contex. He was flown around the country to laud the equipment that had made Deskey’s creative vision a reality.
What projects or campaigns have been the most fun to work on?
The DeWalt project is one of Doug’s favorites. “It was such a cool idea” and was Deskey’s first start-to-finish project on the Contex system. “We did 350 SKUs during the first phase of the project, which was unheard of back then. I like a challenge, and that was something different and new.” A close second favorite is the development of ToolBox™, a proprietary visual research tool developed by the Deskey team in the 1990s that is as effective today in its digital format as it was in its original paper and paste format.
Doug’s latest passion is biomimicry, a branch of science that studies patterns in nature and uses them to develop solutions to modern problems. It’s how the shark skin and lotus leaf question can be answered “yes” — studying the perfect “packaging” found in nature inspires Earth-friendlier designs. This fervor for leaving nothing behind led Doug to pursue certification as a biomimicry specialist through Arizona State University and to launch BluEarth, a practice inside Deskey that uses biomimicry principles to find answers to clients’ business and design challenges.
Long before biomimicry was a recognized field, there were projects at Deskey that bore hints of what was to come. Doug recalls attending a presentation by Caterpillar, which had hired entomologists to explain how the motion of insects — the most efficient movers of earth on the planet — can be mimicked in the design of new equipment. “Bug doctors,” Doug called them.
So when Vicks asked for help introducing a new product made with natural ingredients, Deskey took everyone into the woods to connect with healing “bug doctors”: botanists, reiki specialists, and black belts in Aikido. It was the needed elixir: Brand messaging moved away from fighting sickness and toward the therapeutic power of the resting process.
What have you learned in 40 years at Deskey, particularly in your leadership role?
“How important it is for the company to have a common vision, especially in challenging times. The workforce is different. Today’s 30-year-olds don’t want the same things I did when I was 30. It’s critical to be able to communicate transparently to employees, to share what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, and where we’re going with it.
“Change is inevitable, especially at agencies, and we’ve always tried to change not with but ahead of the curve. We’ve innovated our way through changes in trends, in clients, and in processes, policies, and sometimes sadly, people. And we’ve always come out a different, better company on the other side.”
Asked what the future of branding looks like, Doug cites studies that show consumers are exposed to as many as 10,000 brand messages per day. “Faced with so many choices, consumers are aligning with brands that are aligned with their beliefs, in other words that are personal, simple and true” — Deskey cornerstones for 40 years plus. And the consumer experience will continue to evolve with technology, which brings him back to biomimicry. “I started thinking, if I can combine Deskey’s 89 years of branding and design with this innovative tool called biomimicry … nobody’s really doing that. It’s a growing, marketable field, but only a handful of brave companies are embracing it.
“I went to a NASA-sponsored biomimicry conference recently where the topic of one presentation was growing a structure. Growing — not building — a structure by filling a collapsible, lightweight form with local gases, algae, and basically mushroom roots. It can go anywhere, possibly even to Mars someday, because it’s based on the concept of nest-building. Birds use whatever materials are in their environment to build their homes versus turtles who have to take their heavy, bulky homes with them wherever they go, which cancels out Mars. So for some companies, biomimicry is still an ‘out there’ concept that’s going to take time to adopt. When they’re ready, we’ll be here.”
Does that mean you’re planning to topple Donald Deskey’s record of 47 years as the longest tenured Deskey employee?
“I don’t make bets; I’m not a gambler,” says Doug. But Deskey’s employees and clients certainly hope the answer is yes.
Deskey celebrated Doug’s 40th Anniversary with a surprise party at the Bay Horse Inn on August 30, 2018. Each employee shared their well wishes and best memories and presented them to Doug. Also presented was a custom plaque, made by Grainwell, representing Doug’s 40 years of service and dedication. Deskey Branding celebrated it's 40th year in Cincinnati in 2018. In 2019, Deskey Branding will celebrate 90 years in business. Donald Deskey opened Deskey-Vollmer, Inc. in 1929 in New York City. To explore more Deskey history, visit our history page, and stay tuned for more information regarding our 90th year celebration.