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David Skokna: There’s No Such Thing as a B-Team

David Skokna: There’s No Such Thing as a B-Team
Published November 5, 2009 by Ariston Anderson
Many startups begin small. Ten years ago David Skokna broke away from the corporate world to found an interactive agency called HUGE. It’s first project? IKEA.com. Fast forward ten years and HUGE has infiltrated all aspects of the web, taking on world-class clients across several industries, including entertainment, media, and e-commerce. Their portfolio includes the current versions of JetBlue.com, About.com, ReadersDigest.com, NYCGo.com, ONE.org, and dozens more, in addition to current redesign projects for CNN.com and iVillage.com.
As Global Creative Director and one of four partners, Skokna leads the design strategy of the agency, focusing on creating dynamic, customer-focused sites while continually working to establish a creative environment that allows employees flourish. We sat down with Skokna in his (doorless) DUMBO office to discuss the culture of collaboration behind HUGE, and why setting deadlines is so important.

What's the biggest obstacle in starting any project?

The biggest obstacle is actually not having a big enough vision. If the vision is not set up to deliver the number one, world-class experience, then we’ve failed. All the work that comes afterward is just futile. So the vision needs to be so great, the expectations need to be so high, and the stakes need to be absolutely at the highest level. And that’s how you start a project. Also there’s one hidden thing in the whole story, and that is the client. The client needs to have a vision as well. Without a great client, it is really, really hard to produce great work. If you look at all the successes we've had, it really is a combination of the right talent, the right strategy, and the right roadmap, but also having an amazing client on the other side. It literally is 50/50.

HUGE is well known for its culture. How do you create a great working environment?

What’s really important is that there is no barrier to collaboration. And that is actually one of the hardest things that we are trying to solve: "How do you create these groups of really diverse professionals to work with each other?" No one has actually cracked that nut yet. But we think that we are one of the ones that are closest to it.One decision that we made was there are just no B-teams. If you’re a B-team member, then you can go to a B-team agency. And actually the process of when new people come and work for us, there is this kind of expectation of them from day one; this is the hardest company you’ve ever worked for, this is the hardest project you’ve ever touched, and these are the smartest people you’ve ever talked to. And having them in return complete the best work of their careers.
I think what’s interesting with creative people is everyone will say they hate process, but actually they love boundaries.
We can create the prettiest office, we can have the most expensive chairs. We can have the best location. But if the team, if the people that are surrounding you, are not meeting the expectation of excellence, then we’ve failed. So it’s that kind of ruthlessness for excellence that I think makes the team produce such unbelievable quality. And to be honest, what’s interesting is that’s what keeps people around. If you look at our attrition rate, we have the smallest actually in the industry. So encouraging collaboration breeds especially strong work? Yes, I think there is a reason we made a decision that no one in the company, not even the partners, will have a door on their office. There is not even a semblance of a door. So that kind of breaking the barrier between junior people and partners is essential. Also, I don’t want to be judgmental and I think that’s really important. Everyone is welcome, everyone can express themselves, and it’s a pure democracy where everyone can do their absolute best work.

What level of organization do you emphasize in your team’s creative process?

I think what’s interesting with creative people is everyone will say they hate process, but actually they love boundaries. The process sets invisible boundaries of time, budgets, calls, strategy, and then you just execute according to those plans. The worst thing is to actually come to someone and say, “Go invent the best video site online.” It just doesn’t work like that. It doesn’t happen that way. So process actually directs these geniuses to successful conclusions.
Figuring out all these tools, from the basic ones like time tracking to the much more elaborate ones like the road mapping of the whole project, and the strategy behind it, absolutely is a big driver for success.

So deadlines are important in driving your creative process?

I feel that without deadlines, it’s like being without a goal. Deadlines are just one aspect of the creative battle that you have. Besides creating the most original piece of interaction, you need to have some semblance of time. Otherwise, you can just keep crafting things for years. Deadlines are essential.
We love actually working on extremely tight deadlines. I think it actually makes the thinking sharper. It makes everyone work harder and the stakes are higher. So it really, really is fulfilling to meet crazy deadlines and then say "Holy shit we did this in two weeks." That’s really our favorite way.

What advice do you have for designers working to connect with their audiences?

You have to be solely interested in using the site. I’m not joking about that. You cannot design a website that you don’t want to use. No matter what the creative brief says. No matter what the goal is. You have to have the mindset of your customer.

Where do you see your agency in ten years?

I think we absolutely have to evolve as a company. Being too precious about where you came from is probably the biggest obstacle to your growth. So we cannot have a fear of innovating, changing, improving the way we work.

More about Ariston Anderson

For over 10 years, Ariston has been covering all things culture: art, film, fashion, travel, and music. She is a leading identifier of current trends, a sought-out speaker, and a frequent contributor to numerous blogs focusing on art, entertainment, and luxury. She is an expert in digital strategy and marketing.

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