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IHAVEANIDEA.ORG > articles >  Agency Profile: Colossal Squid Industries

Agency Profile: Colossal Squid Industries

Posted on October 13, 2010 and read 8,821 times

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brettcreditpic Agency Profile: Colossal Squid IndustriesBrett McKenzie
Chief Writer, SBN2

Over the years, one of the most favorite features on ihaveanidea has been our growing collection of agency profiles — glimpses behind the walls of ad shops big and small, written from our usual casual perspective. And one of our favorite ways of going about gathering these profiles has been the old-fashioned road trip. After all, why go to a city to visit one or two agencies when you can take some serious time and visit a whole bunch?

It’s been quite some time since ihaveanidea has had the chance to pack our bags and headed off on one of these junkets, but in the summer of 2010 we had the great pleasure of visiting the city of Chicago to check in on the ad scene. We hadn’t been to the Windy City on a multi-agency trip in about five years, and in that time, a lot has changed in the ad industry, both generally speaking and in Chicago in particular. A year or two ago, you would’ve thought the town was on its last legs; layoffs left and right, a tragic incident at one of Chicago’s most respected firms that dazed the community, and JWT Chicago, once the global network’s largest office, reduced to a mere outpost of a few staffers.

Yet here we are in 2010, and Chicago is definitely getting some of its mojo back. Agencies are hiring, expanding their offices and winning big accounts. And the city that used to be the domain of the big multinationals has made some elbow room for smaller, nimbler shops. ihaveanidea saw all of this on our Windy City excursion, and we’d love to share our travels with you.


couch Agency Profile: Colossal Squid Industries

The Colossal Squid (Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni) is the largest invertebrate known to man, reaching estimates of up to 45 feet in length and weighing more than a ton. Very few specimens of this fearsome creature have ever been seen, due to it residing deep within the southern seas.

Colossal Squid — the digital agency, that is — resides deep within the industrial expanses of Chicago’s Near West Side. Unlike its abyss dwelling namesake, however, sightings of this particular beast are becoming more and more frequent. Founded in 2008 by former Leo Burnetters Steve Slivka and Patrick Berry, Colossal Squid Industries has shown some of the most colossal growth I’ve ever seen in the business, going from just the two of them to a team of roughly 50 fulltimers and regular freelancers in only two years.


So how exactly did this denizen of the digital deep come to be? “Pat and I both worked at Leo Burnett,” explains Steve. “I was there for about eleven years, mainly on the digital side of things. We saw it go through many changes and mergers until it eventually became ARC Worldwide. Now this gave us a lot of big agency experience, but a few years ago we decided it was time for us to try something new. It’s not like we had some big hardcore plan. No clients, no employees, we just wanted to do something different, which in retrospect sounds pretty insane.”

steves Agency Profile: Colossal Squid Industries

Steve Slivka: Founder, Creative Director, Buck Stopper

Pat agrees that was a pretty crazy decision, considering that 2008 wasn’t the most financially sound year for risky ventures. “I guess you could say it was equal parts naïveté and stubbornness,” he says. “We launched the company at the worst economic time possible, but we were from Leo Burnett, and Leo himself started his agency in the middle of the Great Depression. I think he made a few bucks, so maybe we could too.”

“Another important thing for us is that we maintained Leo’s sense of Midwest sensibility,” Patrick continued. “We started Colossal Squid at a time when many of our friends were leaving to New York or LA for job opportunities. We wanted to build something that would draw on the massive amount of talent in Chicago and keep people here.”

patb Agency Profile: Colossal Squid Industries

Patrick Berry: Founder, COO, Central Scrutinizer

“Initially we thought we’d be like a production company, where we’d work with a lot of different agencies,” says Steve. “But then the economy went completely fucking haywire, and all the agencies started bringing in all of their digital work in-house, regardless of the quality of their own results. So we figured , okay, maybe we should go back to our agencyesque ways. But very serendipitously, when we did this and branded ourselves as more than just production, clients started reaching out to us. A few calls turns into a few meetings, which turns into a few presentations, and before you knew it, we were digital AOR on a number of accounts.”

“The way that we grew was ridiculously organic,” Steve explains. “We started doing what most agencies do, going out and trying to get on various pitches, but we found that to be a grueling process that yielded little reward. So what worked for us was just really good conversations with potential clients who had heard of us to some degree, and just built and grew these relationships.”

These relationships were the key to Colossal Squid’s explosive growth, but they must’ve had some sort of philosophy that clients bought into, right? “We try as much as possible to not be full of shit,” Steve chuckles, “The way that we say we do things is actually the way we do things. We’re pretty selfless when it comes to giving our clients what they need. While some people and places are working for their reel, we’re working for that long-term client relationship.”

This relationship model has allowed Colossal Squid to do more and more things with their clients. “We’ve gone from just executing digital ideas to leading the planning and brand strategy with digital at the centre,” says Pat. “Some digital shops stake a claim, saying ‘these are the things we do’ and keep selling that because that’s what they are good at. For us, it’s been more about what the client actually needs. This has helped us build enough trust to deformalize our partnerships.”

Now as a digital shop, you’d expect Colossal Squid to be on top of the latest technology crazes, and they are. But just because a client wants one of those Twitter thingies or a Facebook som’n-or-other, it doesn’t mean that the folks at Colossal Squid aren’t necessarily serving up extra helpings of it to all of their clients. “Everybody’s clamoring for social media, and everybody wants in on it,” says Steve. “it’s the animated GIF of today.  But we found it better for us to be more objective about what that’s going to get them, and where it fits in the long term. Sure it might be cool to build an iPad app, but maybe the solution right now can be found in something as non-flashy as SEO. It might not be sexy, but it’s right for them, and goes towards building that long term branding.”

The rapid growth of Colossal Squid over its two years of existence has led to major reimaginings of their office space. “Initially we were based on the second floor of this building,” says Steve. “But we grew so fast that we moved up to the larger sixth floor. But then we continued to grow and we ended up taking over the second floor again in addition to the sixth. Everybody here has developed really strong calf muscles going up and down the stairs. We really need a fireman’s pole. Who cares if it run’s through other businesses?”


Unlike traditional agencies with copywriter/art director teams, there are no set pairings of creatives at Colossal Squid. Everybody in every department is considered to be “digital plus” — digital experience is price of admission here — and projects are assigned based on which skill sets are needed. This is not to say that people can’t try their hands at something that’s new to them, but that is only done with close supervision. “Real client projects are not there for practice,” explains Steve. “Some shops are great for honing your skills. We’re better for people who want to use their already honed skills.” That said, there are juniors among the ranks at Colossal Squid, and many of them get to shine as leads on projects.

Daily life at Colossal Squid isn’t too much different than other shops, but there is a big emphasis on self-discipline. “We’re not too fussy on when people arrive in the morning,” says Steve. “Everybody here must be able to police themselves when it comes to getting the work done. Some agencies, particularly big ones, it’s easy to hide in the background and coast by. Here, if you’re not pulling your own weight, it becomes very apparent very quickly.”

Calling it “ten ‘til when”, Steve says the crew generally arrives at about 10 AM, and works until the job is done. This results in a lot of late nights, in part because Steve and Pat don’t want anybody working on the weekends. “Saturday and Sunday are pretty sacred to us here,” says Steve. “But then so are a certain amount of stupidity and hijinks throughout the day. Just because we work hard doesn’t mean we aren’t having fun.”

What do some of the hijinks at Colossal Squid entail? Do they have softball leagues or foosball tournaments to occupy their fun time like other agencies do? “We’re not big on ‘forced recreation’,” says Steve. “There’s no ‘we’re all going to go play office wide volleyball now’ here. There are no ‘Wii Wednesdays’ or birthday cupcakes. Everything just kinda happens naturally, not in a contrived way.” Pat agrees. “You might get an email from the developers saying ‘hey, we’re making crepes’ or the people on the second floor ran out and brought back ice cream. One day, out of nowhere, it was Rambo IV and omelets. “ Outside of the office, the venue of choice is the nearby Bottom Lounge, a popular bar with nightly rock bands, some of which may include Colossal Squid employees. Liquor of choice at Colossal Squid? Gin.

One unusual thing we noticed about Colossal Squid was the location of the office itself. Far from the Michigan Avenue crowd, Colossal Squid is in a neighborhood of warehouses, where a top-notch digital shop would seem out of place. “When we first opened up in this area, it was a real dead zone, nothing but meatpacking businesses and such,” says Steve. “Nowadays there have been a lot of digital shops and production places popping up along this little corridor. A weird amalgam of technology and meat, and no shortage of ironic T-shirts walking around. I think we started a trend here.”


So where does the future for Colossal Squid lie? They are obviously firmly in the realm of digital these days, but how they feel about dipping their toes into more traditional media? “We’d like to, and we are very comfortable working in that space,” says Steve. “I’d say we are digital-centric, but we have a lot of people here with years of experience in TV, print outdoor and so forth. So when clients become interested in going beyond digital, we are at the ready.”

In the meantime, the Colossal Squid crew will keep on doing what they have been doing, and not taking themselves too seriously in the process. “If you are going to work at a place for ten to fifteen hours a day, it better be relaxed and comfortable,” explains Steve. “We take our work very seriously, and our clients appreciate our dedication, but it doesn’t require giving up your humanity in the process.”

A big thank-you to Steve, Patrick and everyone else at Colossal Squid for being such gracious hosts.




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