Recently, Startup Houston sat down with Chris Valdez of Primer Grey, a design and marketing company nearing its 5-year anniversary, to talk about his background, the company, creativity, and Houston’s shifting economy.
Startup Houston: What’s your background, and how did you end up here?
Chris Valdez: I actually went to school for creative writing and architecture, and through a series of events, ended up at a couple of advertising agencies very early on, first as a copy writer. I had done school abroad in Mexico City and studied editorial design and composition. In the process of that semester, I learned Illustrator and Photoshop, InDesign did not exist. My first advertising agency job was an internship, I was hired to do copy-writing for an ad, and I just took the liberty to also design the ad with my new found skills. It ended up working out, and I kept pushing myself further and teaching myself design skills.
Eventually, I started working as a freelancer. And those original ads that I designed as an intern at my first advertising agency job went on to win ADDY awards at the local and state levels. I always think that’s kind of funny, because I was an intern [chuckles]. Then, I spent some years doing freelance, and then I spent a few years on the client’s side, being serviced by agencies. Then after three or so years doing that, I decided to start my own agency. I did that with my business partner Cliff Raymond, who’s also a friend since high school. We started the company in 2009, and on July 27th we will be celebrating 5 years.
SH: Looking at your website, you guys have done everything from packaging design for Saint Arnold’s Brewery, to website design for photographer Hunter Gorham. When I look at a lot of advertising websites, you see them focusing primarily on the web. It’s interesting that you guys have a scope that’s larger. Can you explain the philosophy behind that, and how you managed to dedicate time to each of those endeavors?
CV: When we founded the company, initially it was three partners. Chris Everson, Cliff and myself. Each of us came from different backgrounds. Cliff spent some time in New York doing fashion sales and taking new products to market. Myself, I had experience in traditional agency settings in design and marketing. Chris is self-taught WordPress and PHP developer, among other things. So what we did was gather our disparate areas of expertise and bring them under one roof, where we were able to offer traditional media, which is still a very important part of marketing, as well as digital marketing and web design.
In the late 2000s, you see a lot of people moving to almost a web-exclusive marketing mix, for a wide variety of reasons. But I think that traditional media, now we’re seeing a little bit of a bounce back – people having gone so far to one extreme, and then realizing the merits of more traditional media.
SH: Do you think traditional media has more value for “x” company than “y” company, depending on the motivation behind the company, and what it is that it does?
CV: When people talk about brands, frequently, people refer to a brand experience. The ways in which someone can experience a brand are as wide as our whole Earth. It completely depends on what it is that you’re doing as an organization or a company, and who you’re trying to reach. A website is just as much about brand experience as the branding tape that comes on every Amazon prime box that you receive in the mail, or the letterpressed note that comes inside a fab.com purchase. These are all part of the experience.
SH: What are your views on creativity, and how do you bring it into the work you do?
CV: That’s a very broad question, and it’s one of those things I still grapple with. will never profess to have any concrete intuition.
Creativity, I think, is one of those things that’s in everybody, it just manifests in different ways. Finding your opportunities to be creative, if that’s important to you, is a great way to express oneself, when other conventional means aren’t necessarily available or working for you. In terms of work, I think it’s the type of creativity that we employ to do our work has the dual benefit of being both rewarding as well as helpful, and making what we do more valuable.
SH: What would you say is the most valuable thing you’ve learned throughout the past almost 5 years being here?
CV: It’s funny, because I struggle with this bifurcation of my professional life and my personal life. I don’t know if I can think of the most important lesson in my personal or professional life. I’m just going to pick one that’s present with me today. Two related ones – that in order to do our job effectively, which is to communicate with people, whether that be visually or orally or just through words, a very critical component to doing that effectively is empathy. Empathy is, by my definition, the ability to put oneself in another person’s situation or shoes, as the idiom goes. It’s that ability to understand what’s important to the person you’re tryiing to reach, that allows you to be an effective designer or marketer or really just human being.
SH: When you sit down with a client, how do you gain that information on what’s important to them?
CV: A point that I frequently make with clients is that it’s not really about the client. If their goal is to reach people, then what we really care about is what those people care about. If in fact, given their audience, what they care about, is going to include a successful business. It’s a lot of conversation, a lot of getting to know each other, a lot of questions.
One thing that differentiates us as an agency is we try to get in and know every part of what a client us, down from where they started, where they want to go, to the beginning and the end of the sales process, to the beginning and the end of their engagement process. Those are all things that are part of a customer experience, or a brand experience, and those are the things with where we like to spend our time, with those details.
SH: What’s the work culture you guys try to instill here?
CV: [Laughs] hope my answer is what I hope it is, I’m sure those guys upstairs might have a different answer. At the crux of our philosophy in creating this company was we wanted to create a place where we wanted to work, and we still hold true to that. We recognize that creativity doesn’t always come between 9:30 and 6:30, and there’s flexibility when it comes to where you’d like to work on a given day, how you’d like to work on a given day. We try to be mindful of those things for people. We’re all pretty good about the balance of work to life ratio.
We try to keep it fun, no one takes themselves too seriously. I’ll borrow from Kelsey Ruger, we were at his Creative Minds talk the other day, and he talked about working intensely, not necessarily working hard, but working intensely. And I think that means being focused when we’re focused, and giving ourselves time to not have to be focused too. And this is what I was going to say earlier when it comes to creativity – I think building in time for not work is just as important to the creative process as building in time for work. A lot of innovation comes from solutions we find to our problems in the shower or laying in bed an extra 30 minutes longer.
SH: Anything you’d like to add?
CV: Houston’s in a very unique place right now, where we’re shifting from a strongly commodities-based economy, and growing into a city that has a greater creative economy. People who deal in commodities deal in a very 1s and 0s, black and white environment. When you get into the creative space, there’s a lot more gray area, there’s a lot more intangible items. And I think the aesthetics between those two groups is very different, and so, just as a city, I think that’s very interesting. But then also, as it relates to the creative services industry, and the landscape of that within Houston, I think it’s also very interesting. we see this shift from big shops, big advertising agencies, that are now reduced in number quite a bit, and we have a lot more smaller startup type agencies, of 8-15 people or fewer, and I think that that’s a unique Houston story. I think it also puts us at a very interesting time as these tensions build, and I’m really excited about what it means, other ways that that manifests that community. We have more public space, it’s an aesthetic that the creative class appreciates. We have increased interest in walkability or bikeability. I think all of those changes for our community are positive.