Feature

How Seattle became a magnet for creative minds

A city of misfits, with its own way of doing things, Seattle is attracting creative minds from around the world.

Tucked away in the upper left corner of the United States sits a region that, to this day, still retains a level of mystique. The Pacific Northwest (or Cascadia as the locals are prone to calling it from time to time), with its verdant, mossy forests and independent state of mind, evokes a sense of adventure and mystery. Through the lens of the corporate world, however, it is, in many ways, an epicenter of global recognition.

Starbucks. Microsoft. Amazon. Nordstrom. REI. Boeing. All names that have greatly impacted consumers and, to the marketing industry, are foundations of the city. Yes, Seattle is a global city that is considered a strong brand market, but what about the great creative minds that roam the area?

Though not as well known perhaps as Wieden+Kennedy, Seattle agencies, like their neighbor three hours south in Portland, have a long history of creative prowess. From the heyday of Cole & Weber in the 1980s and 90s to the agencies that have emerged from that point, like Wongdoody, Possible, Wexley School for Girls, DNA Seattle and others, the Emerald City can claim its own power of excellence — all in keeping with the unique ethos of the region.

“Some people say that Seattle is a bunch of misfits who just started heading west and then started heading north. They simply ran out of land and Seattle was the top corner of weirdness. Those misfits – I’m one of them,” explains Cal McAllister, co-founder and chief executive of Wexley School for Girls, who arrived in the city 17 years ago.

Aside from the quirks, though, a sense of innovation and being different has given Seattle its own creative style.

“There is an understanding that Pacific Northwest agencies have this innate knowledge that the best ads don’t look like ads,” says Danielle Hawley, chief creative officer, Americas at Possible. “That’s something you don’t always get with big Madison Avenue agencies that are doing a lot of really big budget TV. On the west coast, we’ve had smaller budgets and need to be more nimble — and I think it’s resulted in a different creative spirit and style.”

To that end, Seattle brands themselves haven’t always necessarily relied on advertising as a driver of success or impact. In fact, some of the larger, most well-known brands from the area built their reputations on customer experience.

“Years ago, no one could name a commercial that they had seen for any of those brands,” McAllister notes. “Things have changed. Amazon is creating original content – advertised in the Super Bowl. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos has fallen in love with advertising. Starbucks has started to do some interesting advertising and they are all realizing that it can build brands.”

Digital transformation leads the way

Technology has been part of the transition and is one of the main drivers of the region. The Bloomberg US Innovation Index recently ranked Washington state first in terms of state workers with a STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) concentration and number two in states with most science and engineering degree holders. Innovative companies and the people who work at them are drawn to Seattle and the disruption that comes with it.

“Amazon has completely changed the way we shop, and you’re never more than 10 feet away from something Microsoft invented,” says Possible’s Hawley. “These aren’t just big companies, they’re companies that are changing the world. When you have people like Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos and Satya Nadella within reach, that reverberates throughout the market.”

For the agency communities, the digital revolution has been a highly positive development. That and the ever-present frontier and pioneer mentality has kept the market moving and thinking ahead.

“We’ve had to get scrappy,” Hawley says. “We’ve had to think about different ways of doing things. As a result, Seattle has bred a culture that is all about what’s next.

“We have a spirit and style of creative that is about activations, stunts and digital innovations. It’s almost like it has been the mother of necessity.”

Her sentiment resonates with the practical optimism of executive creative director and chairman at Wongdoody, Tracy Wong, a 30-year industry pro and one of Seattle’s true agency pioneers.

“A different kind of creativity is flourishing here,” Wong observes. “I think it’s more technology-oriented. It’s more around software and real digital innovation. Any creativity that’s going to spin off of that is going to have its roots in technology, not the other way around.”

A place for talent to thrive

Technology may play a prime role but, a few years ago, Fast Company ranked Seattle as the most creative city in the world. That combination of right and left-brained sensibility can be appealing to talent who may eschew the pace and intensity of some of the other creative hubs.

According to Britt Fero, principal at agency PB&, there is a greater sense of purpose at Seattle agencies and brands, which can also be attractive to talent.

“There’s not a lot of bullshit here,” she says. “That has become a Seattle thing — in taking a stand, having values, and being very non-apologetic. I think that is something people believe in and I think it’s what has made Seattle brands successful, too. Brands here do more than they say – this is a city with a bias for action. Starbucks doesn’t just run ads saying it believes in social issues, it creates actions that prove it. Opt Outside is another example. When the city passed same-sex marriage legislation, we didn’t just allow it, we encouraged people to come here and even offered to pay for weddings through the Marry Me program. Maybe it’s the entrepreneurial DNA that bleeds here, but being brands and people of action is a very Seattle thing.”

However, there is no mistaking that Seattle and, by extension, the region, has a sense of natural wonder that can bring in a certain breed of creative talent.

“Seattle has grown up in a lot of ways, but you also have that smack dab in the middle of this gorgeous setting,” Fero says. “People appreciate that creativity doesn’t happen inside an office building. With other cities you may have trade-offs, but the combination of culture, food and music, for example, is becoming more attractive. When you look at Austin, Boston, Minneapolis or even San Francisco, talent there tends to be like-minded to Seattle.”

Further, to attract talent, most believe that hometown Seattle brands should continue to build their reputations and relationships with local talent and agencies, especially for work that will be seen around the world.

“There needs to be a big statement move by a large company here,” Fero says. “All of the large brands here work with people outside the market — they feed work here and Amazon is leading the way — but you need a couple others to join in.”

“The way you attract talent is literally through great work,” Wong adds. “Project work (from large Seattle brands) is going in leaps and bounds, but it’s good to have more of it to build a foundation to get other national opportunities.”

Community makes the Seattle experience

What makes Seattle decidedly unique is its sense of community – 57 new residents put down roots in the Emerald City each day, making it the fastest-growing city in the US.

Despite this growth, the small-town ethos of mutual support is an essential part of the Seattle experience. “Anything that feels like a community-supported event – that all feels very Seattle to me,” says Kathleen Warren, executive director at Urban Artworks, a non-profit that brings together artists and local youth to beautify Seattle by creating large-scale public works of art. “There are a lot of people here who are always just out and about doing things, very involved. People are really giving here.”

Indeed, in the creative community, side hustles and projects are the rule, not the exception, and it provides ample fuel.

“People here want to dabble in lots of things,” Fero notes. “They are very curious about how things can connect to one another. It’s almost directed curiosity, where the more people can understand something, the more opportunities they can create for themselves, whether it’s a way of doing business or using technology, for example.”

That sense of connection, the one-on-one moments that translates to the collective, is what continues to make the area sustainably vibrant.

“Seattle is uniquely supportive of the creative community and culture here,” McAllister says. “The reason nobody leaves here is because the creative community is so supported. Creativity finds a home here and that’s why people embrace and commit to it.”

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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