June 20, 2019
The Working Assembly is a branding design agency that has built its reputation by taking a personalized, integrated approach to shape ideas into brands for its clients. Utilizing a blend of technologists, designers, and storytellers, the firm has developed a hands-on, iterative working methodology that allows it to effectively address the needs of large national corporations as well as local startups in today’s collaborative, fast-paced environment.
The firm specializes in expressing brand in key inflection points, helping major brands like Google and Sotheby’s take the next step in their evolution or realize a total reinvention. The Working Assembly’s larger corporate projects allows it to give back to the community through two innovative programs: Local Works—to help startups and preserve the socio-economic fabric of New York and 24 Hour Assembly—to help minority businesses present themselves more successfully.
Company partners Jolene Delisle and Lawrence O’Toole recently sat down with us to talk about the beginnings of The Working Assembly, some of its recent campaigns, and its unique, streamlined approach that has brought the firm and its clients such success.
Kew: Can you tell us a little about the beginnings of The Working Assembly—how and why you started the company?
Lawrence: It started out with just the two of us, pretty small, kind of cautiously, because we were doing it independently at the same time we had our full-time jobs.
Jolene: Both of our backgrounds are in creative: I worked in advertising, and Lawrence worked in branding and design. At first, we started consulting with startups on a part-time basis, and about four years ago, we transitioned to become a full-time agency.
Kew: What makes the Working Assembly unique compared to other branding agencies?
Jolene: I would say it’s two things: We have a diverse background in both advertising and communications, as well as branding and design; and we have a comprehensive definition of branding. Today, consumers are much more savvy, so companies have to be more conscious of how their brands, as expressed in design and content, impact their company at every inflection point with their audiences.
Lawrence: We understand that, and our skills allow us to apply the brand practically. We consult on the conceptual strategy, and then, we go all the way through to actual production work — video, print campaigns, and more.
Kew: You both have been in and around this industry for a while now. Can you talk about how the industry has changed over time, especially in light of the Internet, social media, etc.?
Jolene: Our current assignments are not like traditional branding work, or what it might have looked like ten years ago. It’s actually expressing the brand in paid social posts or a cool email campaign. These days, it is important that no product or facet of the company speaks only for itself but also reflects the corporate brand message. That’s where our strength lies.
We are able to identify a “voice”/”personality” for a brand and communicate it from the point where it touches the customer up to the corporate level.
Lawrence: Today, people want transparency—to see how the sub-brand interacts with the overall organization and its social contract. We look at the brand holistically and help our clients make a consistent emotional connection with their audiences. We make it possible for people to see through the brand’s product and services to the corporate brand—to understand that the values of these products and services are values of the corporate brand and are shared by all aspects of the corporation.
Kew: Could you talk about one of your favorite projects to give us an idea of what your campaign work is like?
Jolene: One of our favorite clients is Zola, a wedding registry startup. When we started working with the company over two years ago, it was really just focused on being a wedding registry, but it has since expanded into websites, invitations, planning and more. It’s been really exciting to see Zola scale up, and our work with the company has evolved as a result. Initially, we were just helping with brand guidelines—the company’s “look” and “feel,” but since then, we’ve done three ad campaigns for Zola. We’ve helped with events and activations, creating subway ads, and designing its look book, direct mail pieces and so on. What’s been exciting with Zola is that we’ve been able to flex our muscles and demonstrate all the things that we can do with a client.
Kew: The Mass Mutual and Guardian projects are impressive. Can you tell us how you succeeded with these large companies?
Lawrence: Yes, we also do work for large, long-established firms. It’s natural, because much of our team comes from large agencies dealing with major corporate clients. Two of our most successful client projects involve complete rebranding assignments for national leaders in the insurance industry: Mass Mutual and Guardian Insurance.
Insurance companies are by definition identified with old-fashioned technology, and many people in these firms still view change with a wary eye. As a result, neither Mass Mutual nor Guardian had done this type of rebranding before, but they realized that technology and the way of doing business is changing—global shifts and evolving mindsets are affecting their businesses.
Large creative agencies approaching these large corporate assignments come in and do intermittent big “dog and pony” shows and then disappear for long periods in between— there is limited give and take and projects can drag out. This approach doesn’t fit the way business is done today, and Mass Mutual and Guardian recognized that.
I think we have been successful with our clients because of our size and the fact that we work as a partner. We understand quickly what they want to do and take a collaborative and iterative approach to reach a solution faster, while meeting high expectations for conceptual and practical rigor. These large insurance firms, are wedded to tradition and immutability, and the fact that they have trusted us, I believe shows the power of our working methodology.
Kew: What is the extent of your involvement with these companies?
With Guardian, it started as a high-level experimental/conceptual phase to see what we might do. Then from this high-level thinking we brought it down to the level of implementation, working like an in-house asset. If a client has no internal resources, we complete the implementation, but regardless, there is usually so much work to be done on a major rebrand that clients welcome the additional support we can provide to their in-house service groups. We are available to be involved to whatever extent the client is willing, and because our staff has experience in a broad range of applications, advertising to packaging and everything in between, we can handle virtually every client need.
Kew: Tell us about your innovative initiatives outside your primary business.
Jolene: New York City’s many unique small companies are part of what makes this place so interesting. We know how hard it is to have a small business in New York, so last year, we decided to try to identify small business owners in New York who might need some branding help but might not be able to afford it. These initiatives are twofold: Local Works, which we do pro bono, for small firms challenged in their marketplace and 24 Hour Assembly, which we do for significantly reduced costs for minorities and women.
Kew: How do you manage to do them along with your core work?
Lawrence: We both have created many product, web, and digital application designs—experience that can be used to launch a product very quickly and follow up with reinforcement. While we can’t always do this with our more established, day-to-day clients, we can hyper-focus using special methodologies for these projects.
We basically use a “hackathon” model, which is a sprint-like event in which a number of creatives, designers, writers, and others spend an intense period collaborating to delivering an effective solution. Because our team has substantial experience, we have the tools to produce great results in a concentrated timeframe.
It helps the client obtain something very quickly at reduced cost (perfect for startups who are always looking to have something right away), which they can iterate and use right away. At the same time, it is great for us. It is work we find rewarding and it allows us to keep our skills sharpened for all our clients.
Kew: First, tell us a little about the Local Works initiative.
Jolene: Our idea is to undertake about four pro bono projects per year to help small firms complete. Our first Local Works project is a good example. Tache Artisan Chocolate is a one-woman show—she has a brick and mortar storefront on the Lower East Side. Dylan’s Candy Bar was moving in a couple blocks away, and her biggest issue was how to compete with a heavily branded company. In this case, we developed a brand “look” quickly and provided the basic tools she needed—design elements, packaging, stationery, and a website—so she can maintain a highly professional appearance by applying these tools as the need arises.
Kew: What about 24 Hour Assembly?
Jolene: 24 Hour Assembly is roughly a month-long engagement—focused on minorities and women, who are among the groups most underfunded by venture capitalists. This past year, only 2.2% of the people who got VC funding were women or minorities. We realized that branding can really help passionate female and minority entrepreneurs when it comes to getting initial funding and attention.
One of the initiatives we undertook last year was with Sanzo, an Asian-inspired sparkling water beverage company. We helped Sanzo with its launch, branding, and packaging. Now, the company is doing really well and is selling in Foragers, Momofuku, and several other places. We just wrapped up another 24 Hour Assembly project for Harper Sage, which is a clothing company being started by two women who used to work at J.Crew. The 24 Hour Assembly is an amazing process; we were able to accomplish Harper Sage branding from start to launch in under six weeks.
Kew: You recently moved the company into NoMad. What has made this a positive move for you?
Jolene: I think there are remarkable things happening in NoMad. This area has been wonderful for us, especially because many of our clients are here; there are a lot of terrific startups in the neighborhood.
Since moving here, we have been seeing all of our clients more often. They all want to come to our office. They love it, and it’s easy for everyone to get to.
Also, the light in our office is amazing. Unbeatable. Just the quality of the space—I think it’s actually increased productivity. I sense people are happier to be at work. We just love it.
Kew: What do you hope to accomplish moving forward?
Jolene: I’d say one of our goals is to be a more purposeful company, not necessarily a bigger one. We want to be very purposeful with the clients that we’re working with and the type of work that we’re doing, while making time for projects we really care about.
Lawrence: I think it gets back to why we did this in the first place. In our former jobs, we were doing the kind of work we do now on the side to let off a little steam and remind ourselves why we are designers and communicators in the first place. Now, we do it full time.
We’re constantly checking in with our goals and values: Are we doing cool stuff that’s rewarding for the clients and for us? Are we helping clients make a difference in their industry? It comes down to finding the right type of people to partner with and making sure that we’re doing the best work that we can do.
The Working Assembly
11 West 25th Street, 12th Floor
New York, NY 10010