Create Spotlight: Willoughby Design’s Creative Director on Hiring and Collaborating with Photographers

November 21, 2017

By Holly Stuart Hughes

Courtesy of Willoughby Design Inc.

Zack Shubkagel.

Zack Shubkagel
Willoughby Design

Zack Shubkagel is principal and creative director of Willoughby Design, a branding agency with offices in Kansas City, Missouri, and San Francisco. Its work includes the development of brand experiences through packaging, retail environments and print and interactive communications. While leading the firm’s San Francisco office, Shubkagel has worked on accounts such as Panera Bread, Hostess Brands and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Kansas City, and has designed projects for New Leaf Paper, SPIN! Neapolitan Pizza and other clients. He spoke to PDN about the changing role of design firms, and how Willoughby Design collaborates with photographers, ad agencies and clients.

PDN: Willoughby Design has an interesting statement of values. What’s its mission?
Z.S.: We design to inform, delight and inspire everyday life. We want to create solutions and make something that makes life a little more enjoyable and makes people happy. Our values center on living a good life, and part of that is about sustainability. We want to do things that contribute to a better world. We value collaboration with each other, our clients and vendors. We are also keen on hospitality. We want our clients to feel welcome and this trickles into how we design for consumers and the type of work we do in restaurants, retail and fashion.

PDN: I read an article on the firm’s website about the distinctions between a design firm and an ad agency. Can you explain the difference?
Z.S.: There used to be a more dramatic difference between advertising agencies and design firms. Advertising had great concepts or big ideas, but execution was not always key. And design firms had exquisite esthetics, but usually lacked a strong main idea. Now those lines have blurred and design firms and advertising agencies are doing the best of both or working together more. For example, in our relationship with Panera’s agency of record, Anomaly, we are working to establish more of the esthetic style for photography and the look in [Panera] cafés, while they set the tone of the voice and visuals for out of home, print and TV. We have to collaborate to ensure they work in tandem.

PDN: How does the collaboration work?
Z.S.: Our job is to work with Anomaly to understand their vision and translate that into the in-store experience. With all the other ad agencies before Anomaly, we didn’t really have any involvement and our campaigns were designed without much connection to the TV campaigns. When Anomaly came along, Panera saw an opportunity to work collaboratively. We got them to work with our photographer, Francine Zaslow [based in Boston], which created a more cohesive look. Willoughby creates the mood and feel of campaigns—the color palette and feel.

We moved to working with [photographer] Eva Kolenko, based on the fact that we were shooting summer campaigns in December. I work in San Francisco and had met Eva [who is based in the Bay Area] and thought she’d be a good fit for Panera. I think she understands the difference between commercial work and more artistic work. She gets what we’re trying to do but brings in her personal style.

Photo by 8183/Ryan Hill/Courtesy of Willoughby Design Inc.

Ryan Hill of the Kansas City studio 8183 shot a campaign for AMC Theatres. Photo by 8183/Ryan Hill/Courtesy of Willoughby Design Inc.

PDN: What other projects have you done with photographers?
Z.S.: For AMC Theatres, we did a campaign that was shot by 8183, a great studio in Kansas City. For the Stockyard District, an emerging arts and cultural district in Kansas City, my partner, Nicole Satterwhite, hired photographer Jeff Evrard. The photographs are key to all these projects.

PDN: How often are you looking for new photographers?
Z.S.: We are always on the lookout for photographers, not because we’re tired of who we are using, but we work with different clients. Geography enters into it: It helps when the photographer is close. It’s good to know photographers in different genres: architecture versus food versus people.   

PDN: What skills or qualities are you looking for?
Z.S.: You want to know if they have a style. And I like to know who they’re working with: Was it a design firm, an ad agency, directly with a client? Because that shows how they interact. It’s good to know if they’ve been working with a client for several campaigns, because it means that the client likes working with them.

PDN: Do you like to see their personal work?
Z.S.: I always like to see personal work from photographers. I want to know what their passions are. I’m not hiring a circus monkey.   

As much as possible we like to frame our creative vision and then engage the creative, whether that’s a photographer or illustrator, early enough to say, “This is what we want to accomplish, but we want to hear what your ideas are.” It’s unfortunate that we can’t always do that because a client will say, “We need to shoot this in two weeks.”

PDN: What do you wish photographers understood better about your work?
Z.S.: The unfortunate part is we seem to be under the gun to do beautiful, cheap and fast: You can have two but you cannot have all three. We’re always looking for ways to meet aggressive deadlines. That’s the biggest challenge and it has a domino effect: If a client is asking us to do something quick, that means we have to ask the photographers to do something quick, too. If photographers could help us find strategies to meet the client’s expectations, that would be great.

PDN: How do you think the role of design firms has changed, and why?
Z.S.: I think that design has changed because it’s become more accessible. Now anyone can design a postcard or invitations from their phone. There’s been a democratization of design. So design firms have evolved to a consulting space, changing from, “We make pretty stuff” to “We design to solve your business problems.” There are so many cheap design templates for brochures, websites and logos that design has become commoditized. I know that the same thing happened years ago in photography with stock. We have to find new ways to offer value.

What photographers and design firms and creatives can still provide that other options can’t is soul. That’s the deeper meaning that’s inherent in the work that we do versus a template you buy online. We spend a lot of time thinking about the audience, the consumer, the values of a brand and its story. That’s not something you can get for $100. It usually takes a team of people. Great clients value that.

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