Independent Influence: North hits Portland's indie high notes

Flora, one of the inspiring music venues for North of Portland

Welcome to Independent Influence, a weekly series that spotlights the work, perspectives and inspirations behind independent agencies across the country. This week we feature North.

Portland, Oregon conjures up some significant indie thoughts. It’s one of the cities where independence is not just valued, but a way of life.

Portland was chronicled, cartoonishly in large measure, by the sketch comedy show Portlandia. Both a blessing (exposure) and a curse (yes, some of the quirks do exist), this city places a premium on creativity in just about every facet of life, no matter how weird it might be.

Nowhere is that more evident than in the music scene. About ten years ago, Portland became a magnet for the indie music set. Writer Taylor Clark laid out the initial map of the indie set that included the titans like the late Elliot Smith, Modest Mouse, Sleater-Kinney, The Shins, Stephen Malkmus of Pavement, Death Cab for Cutie (guitarist and produce Chris Wallace called Portland home), the Decemberists, M. Ward and the Dandy Warhols.

It’s also home to more mainstream darlings Nu Shooz, Everclear, Pink Martini and Quarterflash.

“When I lived in LA, no one wanted to see a band from LA,” said Ashod Simonian, creative director at indie Portland agency North. “[But] there was a mystique to Portland.”

Indeed, that mystique drew him to The Rose City in 2006, a time when the indie fires were being stoked by music’s luminaries.

“I thought there was something going on here,” said Simonian. “There was some kind of movement that was happening.”

(Ed. note: And there's still a movement that lives in Portland's music venues. Scroll down to enjoy music from North and a 360-degree tour through some of the city's most iconic music spots.)

Cutting a path from indie music to indie agency

Simonian’s eclectic, unconventional and varied skill set became a strength for the Fresno, California native and UCLA graduate. Early in his career he cut his teeth as an MTV intern, converging his love of film and music. Much like his contemporaries at the time in LA, where he lived, he was in an indie band called Earlimart as a guitar player, adding experimental twists to the way he played. Eventually, he ended up playing guitar in Preston School of Industry, a spin-off of Pavement, one of his favorite bands growing up.

Through the challenge of touring around the country, Simonian noticed that became “the responsible one,” leaning on his production chops to help manage the tours — a skill that would come in handy as he entered the advertising world.

As a passion project, Simonian published a book called Real Fun, a pictorial of what indie rockers do outside of being on stage. The Polaroids captured the likes of Death Cab for Cutie, Spoon, Sleater-Kinney, The Shins, Wilco and others. This intimate scrapbook became a calling card and Simonian’s portfolio.

What opened the door for him at North in 2008 was steeped in good planning and the simple notion of creating one's own shot.

At the time, the agency had a healthcare client, and Simonian produced something for the agency working as a freelancer at a Portland film company. He organized a wrap party, specifically, so that he could spend some time with Mark Ray, president and chief creative officer of the agency. As he was leaving and said goodbye, Ray said, “can you wait five minutes? Give me five minutes and we’ll talk.”

Ray, who had owned a record label, gushed about the book. Simonian gushed himself about an obscure band Ray had at the time.

The planets aligned. Simonian was hired in what was likely the most appropriate position, considering his kitchen sink of talent: project manager.

Music leads the way for creative independence

What’s interesting about music and North is that it’s not just about an appreciation of music — it’s actually sometimes baked into the creative process.

“I saw that they had a little more of an indie spirit approach to it. Indie specifically being music — that was the lexicon. That was the world I came from, so I spoke that language and I understood what [Ray] was getting at,” said Simonian. “Then after getting there, and being involved in projects, I saw it first hand, of using the language of music and of recording to navigate brands and navigate brand problems and our way into it. Our solutions, oftentimes were — not always, but oftentimes — based around these ideas of if this brand was a band, what band would they be. What is it about the band? What would that band do in this situation?”

Recently, a project with a Northeast US brewer got that musical treatment.

“We were having trouble figuring out who they were. They're weirdos. They're strange. To me, they seem like Phish, partly because they're from that part of the world. Mark kept correcting me and saying, ‘No, it's not that. They're younger. They're more exciting,'" Simonian recalled. “We finally came around to ‘[are they] more Flaming Lips?’ We started to use that as a jumping off point. That's one example. That's stuff that would probably not make it into a deck or a final positioning, but it helps us wrap our heads around who are these people and how do we speak to them.”

That “making fans” mentality is enticing but also simply part of who they are. Like bands, success isn’t about being something other than you are, but rather accentuating what you actually are — which yields actual, legitimately authentic work — in a place that people love to call home. In looking at North’s work, from Columbia Sportswear to Clif and everywhere in between, the soul of that spirit appears evident.

“I think at North, a lot of times, success is measured in quality of life,” said Simonian. “A lot of us moved to Portland specifically for the quality of life. Others, a lot of them, came from bigger agencies, and the rat race, and knew some of the pitfalls that happen when you get too big.”

Experience North's independence through music and inspired 360-degree stories

North has its own vernacular, one partially rooted in the indie music scene, and therefore in the end, “fake shit won’t fly” to the agency.

The employees at North are encouraged to think well outside the usual agency boxes, and Portland itself becomes a treasure trove of inspiration for them. The best way to experience the unique places that make Portland hum is as a participant in its unique communities. If you’re just passing through, however, supporting the vibe just by showing up is good, too.

Below is a collection of music and images created by North employees. Press and play to hear, then click and drag to look around these 360 photos and see how Portland's indie spirit moves those at the agency.

Laurelthirst 360 Flora Secret Society Revival Drum Co Ps and Qs The Know Moon and Sixpence Beech Street Parlor Doug Fir

Independent Influence is supported by Choozle, an independent digital advertising platform.

Agencies and companies that wish to be considered for the Independent Influence series are encourage to fill out this form.

Doug Zanger

Doug Zanger is the Americas editor for The Drum. He leads the Americas editorial team’s content activity in the growing region. Based in Portland, Oregon, he is committed to sharing the most meaningful stories that benefit the global industry and its people. A Minnesota native, Zanger has covered a wide range of brands, issues and personalities, including Aloe Blacc, Seu Jorge, Wendy Clark, Susan Credle, Dan Wieden, Jeff Goodby and more. Fiercely dedicated to diversity, equality and talent, he has interviewed several women in leadership roles through his Exceptional Women of the World podcast.

All by Doug