I’m 10 minutes early for my interview with Rick Barrack as my cab pulls up to the East 21st Street office of CBX in Manhattan. He is standing outside, about a building or so away from the entrance; we haven’t met prior, and he looks to be enjoying his moment in the sun, so I leave him to it and go inside.
CBX is one of my clients through my day job at Inwork, so I know the drill. The elevator opens into a second floor hallway, where I buzz through an enormous glass door leading to their lobby.
I’ve been here before, but I’ve never had opportunity to meet Rick, the agency co-founder —and mention-worthy— one of Fast Company's “100 Most Creative People in Business.” I’m curious to hear more about what makes CBX tick, Rick’s business philosophy, and how his teams support it.
I am welcomed by the receptionist, who is sitting behind a crescent antique desk of dubious yet stately origin. She is sitting before a red velvet curtain worthy of a 1930s Zeigfield stage production, above which is a glittering crystal chandelier.
It’s a stunning first impression, dramatic still upon repeat visits. I am offered a seat, but prefer to take a few minutes to poke around the lobby. It is littered with rustic relics, a Persian rug, a frat-house “dream chair” constructed from as-yet-untapped Bud Light 12-Packs, a giant, weathered garage door, and a 1920s shopping cart—which is super cool, but looks far too tiny to be very useful to my 2012 consumer eye.
The space is nothing short of eclectic theatre—a sophisticated carnival vibe, a calculated amalgam of “high and low” put on by CBX aesthetes who knew exactly what they were doing.
As Rick enters the room, I’m taken by his ease. He has the inviting air of someone comfortable in his own skin, without a hint of pretense. His greeting mimics the sentiments artfully rendered in chalk on the west-facing wall, which serve as CBX’s cultural touchstones: “Straight Talk,” “Dirty Hands,” “Hello There,” “Come Right In,” “Have a Seat!” “Welcome One & All”.
There are no fake smiles here and certainly no finger guns (except in jest).
While many of the questions posed are admittedly self-indulgent, I come away with some golden nuggets about what sets the tone at CBX.
The first thing I noticed stepping behind the “big red curtain” and walking into the belly of the whale are workstations with obligatory “dividers.” However, they are significantly lower than those in most offices, and surrounded by walls of image galleries, which are visible everywhere in the room.
Projects in progress are not just living on computer screens or tucked away in folders. Design iterations, their alternatives and various components are on display for all employees to see. For larger and more complicated initiatives, formalized ”Immersion Rooms” are dedicated to discovering a given brand’s past, present, and potential future, in depth.
The overriding theme here is transparency—right down to the clear corrugated plastic walls of the door-less immersion rooms. Intelligence is a shared, and readily exchanged commodity across different brand teams and open to interdisciplinary exchanges that could not take place otherwise.
You’ve heard the old cliché “There is no “I” in team.” Well, CBX uses this language and they really, REALLY mean it.
CBX teams are like pro-racing pit crews and its no surprise, given Rick himself, is a dedicated auto enthusiast and Indy 500 aficionado.
The teams have a “crew chief” who is instrumental in assigning specialists from their multidisciplinary talent pool. Great care is taken to match the right CBX resource to the proper client. Think “the right tool for the right job.”
Team communication is centralized; they’re all “on the radio” listening to the race progress, keeping in constant contact, so when a driver pulls into the pit and it’s time to get to work, nothing goes unconsidered or unresolved.
You see plenty of “dirty hands” here, and you’ll never find them idle. Even though it’s not stated explicitly, it seems very clearly ingrained in the culture that failure is not an option on CBX’s watch.
But it’s not just about “winning” with this crew, it’s as much about performance. That is to say, if your brand were Humpty Dumpty, and he were to fall off a wall, CBX’s brand zealots would rally around and put you back together again--only, you’d emerge having a shell more akin to Titanium-Kevlar, than calcium composite, and CBXers would have likely souped it up with an aftermarket anti-gravity device just to be 100% sure you never fell off that bloomin’ wall again.
That’s just what CBX does.
An exemplary outcome at the hands of this CBX teamwork, in collaboration with Joe Jackman, can be easily seen in their brand renovation of Duane Reade.
The Duane Reade initiative, “New York Living Made Easy” was a multi-faceted brief requiring a complete reinvention of the Duane Reade drugstore concept. Under the brief’s umbrella lay a mission to rebrand four Duane Reade private label brands, and fundamentally elevate the in-store experience to one that was nothing less than channel-changing.
CBX nailed it.
After all, how many drugstores offer you unexpected touches like a frozen yogurt bar, a sushi bar, or a growler bar, all of which are targeted to the needs and demands of any given store location’s specific neighborhood clientele.
I asked Rick to share a little about Duane Reade as he sees it -- an interesting case study in immersion.
RB: “They (DR) came to us because of our NY chops--a small agency that could be nimble while also having the capability to address the massiveness of the initiative.
But most importantly what was really interesting is, from a cultural perspective, we’re often asked to put our “New Yorkness” in our back pocket in order to appeal to Omaha and Ohio and Florida, and so on so forth…
In this case they (DR) actually asked us to step out of that, and get back to NY, and celebrate our New Yorkness. So we were really able to let it fly, completely let it fly—I mean, they gave us full liberty to partner with them on their vision of what Duane Reade could be.
They were great. Great partners and great clients who allowed us the liberty to do what we do best and trusted us in helping them navigate down the garden path.”
LM: So, what do you do in cases where you don’t have as much control over a brand?
RB: We’re a very humble company in the way we approach our clients, and I think that humility allows us to understand what the client needs. While we are the stewards of brands and we should and do help guide, and aim, and shoot, occasionally, we are required to “play nice in the sand box” with good manners.
LM: OK, but what if you have a project that you think is going to reflect poorly on your own brand, what do you do about that?
RB: Our first criteria is not “How this going to look in a portfolio?” or “What awards s are we going to win?” It’s just not in our nature; nobody here thinks that way.
The first order of business is, has the client gotten what they needed? Are we addressing the objective, are they happy with the result and will they come back and work with us again?
At the end of the day, we are in the service business and we don’t forget that!
“Arrogance is an enemy to most initiatives—we just don’t approach things that way.”
We like to “get our hands dirty” and there’s a reason we use this language. It manifests itself into a philosophy. We live and breathe it. It’s not just words that we shove down the throats of people who work here.
It’s the nature of the way we think, our teams know these brands are living and breathing, entities and this is not art school.
We’re not in the business of making pretty pictures just because we like them. Our work has got to be grounded in some rationalization of why we did what we did. The most important thing is— the people buying these brands and these products will not have us standing up in front of them spinning it and selling it. It has to sell itself.
We look at the role of branding through that lens—knowing what is responsible and what is irresponsible—and I think when you have that ingrained in a culture like we do, it becomes second nature into everything we touch.”
So, what’s behind the big red curtain at CBX?
In my opinion, it isn’t theatre at all, nor is it a circus, a carnival, or the great and powerful Oz. It’s a collective, orchestrated exercise in strategy, brand immersion, and design, executed by talented, hard-working people buzzing with hive mentality but without all the Borg-like assimilation nonsense.
And with that I will bid you adieu, and “Be Awesome! “
Click Here for more information about CBX and Rick Barrack.
Many thanks to Rick Barrack, Christine Coppinger, Tina Rosenbaum, and all the other fine folks at CBX who made this article possible.