[[Latest word works, this article written for Fast Company.]]
Tim Murray has a daunting job. As creative director of the Creative Vision Group at Target, he oversees the work of 10 agencies, 4 digital partners, and 3 branding studios. And those are the external contributors. Internally, Target, a Fortune 30 company with a market cap of $34.6 billion, has more than 1,200 people working in the marketing department alone. The potential depths of brand and design-related chaos across its 1,755 stores are mind-boggling.
Yet, think of the Target brand, and it’s likely that one image will spring to mind: the Target bull’s-eye, that red ring around a red dot that has come to signify the design savvy and affordable prices of the Minneapolis-headquartered department store.
Last week, Murray took the stage at an AIGA/NY event held at the New School in New York to outline how exactly one goes about producing deceptive simplicity from unfathomable complexity. Alongside him were three of his collaborators, Michael Ian Kaye from Mother, Mary Ellen Muckerman, Wolff Olins’ strategy lead, and Joe Stewart from Huge. Together, the group discussed some successful projects–and even ‘fessed up to a few of the more challenging areas of collaboration.
For instance, this concept caused knowing nods from the audience: the “compliment sandwich.” Essentially, this involves a client giving an elaborate compliment, followed by some pointed criticism, quickly followed up by another compliment. As Muckerman put it, she and her team had come off conference calls feeling buoyant, only to figure out five minutes later that they hadn’t at all been given the go-ahead on a project. “Wait. What? I think they just said ‘no’?”
To his credit, Murray both nodded and laughed. “Target has what we call a feedback-rich culture,” he said gamely. Not to mention it’s a midwestern company to its “prairie roots.” But that, he added, is precisely why Target relies on outside contributors to come up with the biggest possible ideas. That way, as internal politics and processes inevitably chip away at that idea, they might still be left with something useful, beautiful, or unexpected at the end of the process.
Murray also outlined five tips for successfully managing collaboration and complexity:
1. Be Transparent
“You have to be clear that you’re collaborating with others,” he said. “And you have to figure out the roles and responsibilities of the partners and let them know what each is expected to do. Who’ll lead project management? Who’ll decide things? How will things get built?” There’s no one size fits all solution, he added, but making sure that the parameters of each new project are clear and understood from the start is key.
2. Play Nice
“When Target expects you to work with an agency that might be a competitor, throwing elbows won’t earn you the whole business,” said Murray firmly, adding that in fact, agencies that have tried to muscle in on others’ turf have lost credibility, not gained business. “Target won’t spend time disciplining agencies as if they’re unruly children. We won’t hire partners who won’t play nice.” For their parts, the agency creatives agreed this model of work is becoming the norm. “The speed of business demands this type of collaboration,” detailed Muckerman. “The days of an agency being briefed and disappearing for three months to come up with something fabulous doesn’t happen any more.”
3. Be Open
“Trust is the life blood of collaboration,” said Murray. “And good ideas can come from everywhere.” Huge is working on a new version of Target.com due to be launched in the fall. It’s a massive undertaking, as Target moves to design and manage the user experience of the third most trafficked ecommerce site in the world (it’s currently built on Amazon’s platform). “Everyone wants to go to same place so we have to figure out the roadmap to get there, not focus on who’s right or wrong,” said Huge’s Joe Stewart of the working process. “So there might be tons of fighting but we’re fighting together in the same direction.”
4. Stretch the Work
“We often find ourselves connecting the dots between agency partners and shaping a mass of ideas into something cohesive we can support and be enthusiastic about,” said Murray, who also spoke approvingly of the idea that “collaboration is the new competition.” Of course, not all Target ventures are wild successes, but one project with Mother certainly pushed the envelope: The company rented all the rooms on one side of the Standard hotel in New York, staged a fashion show on the High Line, and coordinated a choreographed performance art piece across the hotel rooms themselves. The whole affair was broadcast around the world. “There was an original score, 60 dancers, we had the lighting people from Daft Punk…” said Mother’s Michael Ian Kaye. “It was kind of a big ask.” Big ask = big get. So far, Murray said, the project has earned 180 million media impressions (he didn’t mention related sales figures.)
5. Talk Talk Talk
The final tip of the night was a reminder to keep the lines of communication open at all times. “We had a lot of meetings,” said Wolff Olins’ Muckerman drily of the process it took to develop the packaging and identity for Target’s Up & Up line of some 1200 own-brand products. “The hardest part of the process is to keep people aligned around the strategy.” Murray added: “The only way collaboration works is to be deliberate and consistent over communication. Invite participation; fearlessly put your worst ideas on the table along with the best and pressure test openly.”
As for the bull’s-eye, it turns out even the most successful piece of branding can at times be a millstone. “How many fucking bull’s-eyes do you want?” joked Kaye. “You should see my tattoos,” replied Murray.