For eight years, Ottawa-based creative agency Soshal has been building up a portfolio of clients ranging from huge brands such as Honda to local startups including Solink and ChangeJar. The firm recently spearheaded a rebranding rollout for SurveyMonkey, the California-based software giant with strong Ottawa roots.
Soshal co-founder and managing partner Dave Hale spoke with Techopia to break down how the team led by creative director Chad MacDonald worked with the Silicon Valley firm and why product design should be on Ottawa startups’ minds from day one.
The following transcript has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Q: What’s the process like working with a large tech firm such as SurveyMonkey?
A: The clients we have where we have the best working relationship, like with SurveyMonkey, is where they’re not looking for a vendor, they’re looking for a partner to challenge their ideas and use our experience and expertise to push their work forward.
We intentionally have pretty heavy client involvement, so we set up shared Slack channels and we’re in daily communication with them. It’s not like this formal process where it’s Mad Men-style and they unveil over the billboard, “and this is what we came up with in our dark little corner!” It’s a lot more collaborative.
It’s interesting, when we have clients that try to engage us in more of a vendor-based relationship, the irony is that the work is never as good. It often comes out more expensive and takes like three times longer to produce.
Q: How do you get the attention of large American firms from a mid-size town?
A: There’s two factors that are attracting U.S. clients to us.
One, by being Canadian, there’s a dollar conversion that makes us more cost-effective to work with on an hourly-basis.
There’s also (a talent advantage) by being based in Ottawa. The benefit to us has been that we can attract some of the top talent that exists in the city because we want to be in the top agency brand that you think of locally.
Q: So you want the most talented fish in a relatively small pond, in other words. Your company would be the magnet for tier-one talent in Ottawa.
A: Yeah, exactly. If you’re a SurveyMonkey or anyone else, they’re actually getting talent that is at a caliber that our talent could move to any of those tier-one markets and have great careers, but they’ve chosen to live in Ottawa and we can provide a culture and an opportunity for them to still work with those world-class brands but without needing to move from the city that they love.
It’s taken us eight years to get to that point. We feel, as a brand, that we’re pretty confident in our position and understanding how to leverage it to get great business.
Q: What are the design trends you’re seeing in Ottawa tech right now?
A: We see two things happening right now.
There are organizations that have a design-centric culture right from the time that they’re founded, and so you have that cultural element injected into their product from day one.
On the other side, especially in Ottawa, the history of tech here is very engineering-driven. That’s awesome, because there’s some brilliant minds here. They’re able to build a product that is super functional and all of a sudden they’re trying to take that product to market and it is a battleground these days.
It’s no longer, “Oh, we have a great product and we can just tell that to people.” Design plays this huge role in the conversion process.
Those very engineering-driven companies, they can’t not look at design anymore.
Q: How should startups be thinking about design?
A: I used to tell people that the user interface of Ubering to school from your house is one hundred times better than the user interface of applying to attend that school.
That’s the breakdown for the users of 2018. They say, “I pay $10,000 a year for this service and my interaction with them from a digital standpoint sucks. I pay $10 for this other service and my experience is amazing.”
That’s the example of how we need to evolve the thinking around the role that design plays. Your customer is not comparing you to their competitors, they’re comparing you to the services and products that they use day to day.