Inside the Studio: Clever Creative

On a rare, gloomy Los Angeles morning, we head to the Clever Creative Headquarters in Venice, and stepping inside the office is like entering a completely different world from the cloudy, sleepy atmosphere of the beachside neighborhood. The space feels bright and active, brimming with a buzzing energy that radiates from the various nooks and spaces filled with busy minds at work.

CEO and Founder Shannon Gabor greets us warmly, eager to introduce us to her team and take us on a grand tour. Within seconds we feel like members of the Clever Creative family — Gabor jokes with us, designers say hello and welcome us into their space, and we’re encouraged to make ourselves comfortable. This just seems to be the Clever Creative way, and it’s easy to picture ourselves as happy employees or even satisfied clients in such a comfortable and lively environment.

Shannon gives us a brief history of the company as we walk around the first floor. When it all started, she states, “We were inside an office, within an office, within an office.” It’s only been in the past few years that the Clever team moved into a larger office in the same complex. We walk upstairs and Shannon confesses that those challenging early years are the reason Clever operates the way it does today. “I don’t think I could run the business the way I do now if I hadn’t started from the bottom.” As we take a look at the current projects underway, we discover that labeling Clever Creative as simply a package and brand design company is selling their services incredibly short. The team of 13 creative thinkers has a wide variety of skills outside of graphic design, and they’re not afraid to utilize those areas of expertise, from book-binding to video editing and beyond.

We also find it refreshing to talk to an agency that is happy to embrace out-of-the-ordinary assignments that can’t be boxed up and sold on a store shelf. A recent project, for example, was to dream up the branding and design for a phone app for bikers. They’re even starting a children’s workshop, a passion project that Shannon dreamed up years ago and finally has the chance to implement.

Shannon’s enthusiasm is contagious, and she speaks about her work and her team with pride. “People want to feel like they’re a part of something,” she states, and it is clearly something she takes into account as she manages Clever Creative. Itching to know all about the company, its past projects, design inspiration, and more, we sit down to chat further with Shannon about her life and the journey of Clever Creative.


The Dieline: What compelled you to start Clever Creative? What challenges did you encounter when starting the business?

Clever Creative: I began my career on the big agency side then made the shift to the client side, directly representing brands. As I was hiring agencies for creative support, I noticed a lack of high touch communication and far too many instances of overage charges that were never discussed. This opened up my creative eyes to what was missing in the dynamic between client and agency. I knew there had to be a better way to run an agency. I’ve always had an entrepreneurial spirit and this was the final push I needed to take the leap and create my own agency, on my own terms. In 2005, Clever was born.

There is no handbook for building and running a successful creative agency. With any entrepreneurial endeavor, you have to embrace the risk that comes along with it and find your fearless and focused self. In the first few years of Clever, there were two challenges: building a client base, and staffing to support the pace in which we were growing.

It was critical to build client relationships of all scales, from big brands to small to ensure financial support. At the same time, it was critical that we were hiring ‘smart’ and finding the best talent in Los Angeles through top notch referrals. This initial challenge made me realize that there is an art to staffing. Recognizing the culture that your agency is built on and knowing your clients inside and out will always guide you on who fits your team as you expand.

The Dieline: You're celebrating Clever Creative's 10-year anniversary this year. Congratulations! How has the company evolved from a decade ago?

Clever Creative: Thank you. We are very excited to be celebrating this agency milestone. Ten years ago, Clever began with me working from home, pounding the new business pavement by day and designing by night. The hours were long, some nights were sleepless, but absolutely worth it knowing I was creating something great.  

Over the past ten years we’ve grown from 1 person to a team of 13 designers, writers, illustrators, photographers, managers and creative thinkers. We have retained our original clients, and added more amazing brands to the Clever family over the years while expanding our capabilities. In celebrating our 10th Anniversary, our momentum continues as Clever evolves the agency model to match the pace in which our client’s brands are moving, and with the agility today’s business demands.

The Dieline: Walk us through a typical day for you.

Clever Creative: For me, the morning is where I shine, so I take full advantage of every minute before I head to the office. My day usually starts with a workout, coffee (decaf, aka why bother) my dog Oliver and getting my daughter to school. Once that role of mom is complete, I head to the office where my days are far from typical. I know it’s cliché, but everyday really is different and that’s appealing. My personality has always been wired to bounce from one thing to the next while still keeping a focus on what needs attention most.

Depending on what the agency needs from me, I can be found leading a brand brainstorm, negotiating new contracts, strategizing ways to pivot into new business territory, meeting with clients and serving as the Chief Culture Officer helping to ward off burnout and keeping the team inspired.

The Dieline: What can a client expect when they approach you? What is your process?

Clever Creative: All of our clients have access to our senior leadership team throughout the duration of the project. I know that many agencies do not offer this through every stage. But Clever has seen the benefits of keeping this part of our agency model. It is a critical component to why I believe large brands come through our doors and stay. They learn early on the level of high-touch service that Clever provides to them along with our award-winning creative solutions.

Our process has evolved over the years. In the early stages it was very loose as our team was younger and smaller. Today, we are far more seasoned, structured and we have built a custom process that fits our team’s needs as well as our clients. The Creative department is run by someone who has been with our organization for over 8 years and she knows what works and what doesn’t for both sides: client and team. Working with our Client service department, we work to ensure that communication is simple, redundancy is eliminated and email cc’s are far and few. We have one of the Division of Labor posters hanging on our walls and we live by its words: “Nothing good comes from hitting reply all.”

The Dieline: Do you have a favorite project that you've worked on? What was so special about it?

Clever Creative: In 2014, we were hired as Agency of Record for a pet product company in Denver. The brand tapped into our full capabilities and spoke to our passion for dogs. From a brand strategy lens, Clever was able to work side by side with the head of marketing to evolve their current lines into one core line that had the most equity. We were able to showcase to the client our history working in multiple markets which brings huge value when we are asked to design in a new space; our learnings from other industries strength our designs and guides the way in which we position brands in new categories. Together, we brought to life a ‘one brand’ strategy that activated across, packaging, digital and merchandising. Clever was responsible for the new brand identity for Outward Hound as well as leading the initiative on bringing the brand to life on packaging, merchandising and collateral. The brand launched nationwide at Petco in April 2015.

The Dieline: What would be a dream project for you to work on?

Clever Creative: Beer, wine, chocolate, and cheese — we are all foodies here at Clever and I look to areas that we are passionate about to find new business development opportunities. Clever has an agency goal to expand our clients in the food and spirits market.

 

The Dieline: Have you had any bad client experiences? How did you handle them and what did you learn from them?

Clever Creative: Yes, we’ve had a handful of bad experiences. Any agency does. Luckily, we have pretty amazing clients, so our bad experiences are few. And much like life, you learn from them. Recently we regrouped as a Senior Leadership team, had an incredibly candid conversation where all egos and excuses were left at the door and wrapped it up when we had a solution.

In this particular instance, we realized that we needed to adapt a process document that needed some change. Sometimes things get old and broken and they need to be revisited. That is part of building a smarter agency. You can’t get stuck in the way you do things or the way things were. We found specific ways we could improve as an agency to provide even better service to our clients. Ultimately our way of handling these bad client experience is to regroup, refocus and refine. But a bar cart and beers always help.

The Dieline: What do you think is necessary to keep your team feeling inspired? How do you try to provide this?

Clever Creative: I look to what keeps me personally inspired. As a leader, it all starts from the top and if you carry your own set of philosophies in this journey, they build team unity and inspiration. We share articles and blogs, our office is designed to be open and collaborative so the team uses each other a lot while they are designing or stuck. I also believe you have to get out to find your inspiration so we motivate each other to use our neighborhood to do some cool hunting and also organize team building off sites that keep us connected.

 

The Dieline: When you want to add to your team, what do you look for? What qualities set someone apart in your eyes?

Clever Creative: We see a lot of talent. And talent is great, but it’s far from the only thing we look for when adding to our team. We are a small agency so each new team member needs to be the right fit because everyone contributes to the overall success and dynamic. When we interview, we are looking for someone who is hungry: hungry to work in the creative industry, hungry to learn from those around them and hungry to be a part of Clever’s future.  

 

The Dieline: You give back to the community in many ways, one of which by empowering female entrepreneurs and by remaining actively involved with organizations like Step Up Women's Network. What advice do you have for women interested in the design industry?

Clever Creative: Be yourself and help others. Follow your intuition and don’t shy away from using your inherent qualities to guide your designs and work. I am a nurturing woman, it is part of who I am and I use that to my advantage on both, how I run my agency and how I approach brands.

I am also a very competitive person yet I believe in helping others. It is in large part due to my confidence that I can do both. There is plenty of work out there for all of us and some brands may not choose you, because it was not the right fit. Move on, don’t stay still — that is the worst thing you can do. Keep your integrity. Keep your focus. And keeping helping others.  

The Dieline: You were recently a judge for The Dieline Awards. Was there a category that really stood out to you? Why?

Clever Creative: Thank you for the opportunity to be a judge in this years The Dieline Awards. It was fascinating to see such a wide and global range of creative design. You don’t always have the chance to see this level of design all in one place. The Food and Beverage category was the most inspiring. It is not easy to continue to innovate in a category that has been around for decades. Being able to find work that successfully straddled the inevitable challenge between innovation and execution was exciting.

 

The Dieline: What upcoming projects are you excited about that you can share

Clever Creative: Our agency is currently working on a packaging program for the Ironman triathlon brand.


Photography: Nico Marques / Protekt