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Q&A with JD Hooge, Chief Creative Officer at Instrument

SoDA speaks with creative leader, agency founder, and all-around rad dude, JD Hooge, about the competitive landscape, fueling innovation with clients, and how he’s learned to balance the demands of creative and business leadership.

In your experience, what are some organizational factors at your clients that create the conditions for you and your team to do your best, most innovative work? What are some of the factors that you see as the biggest barriers?


At Instrument, we work with a number of clients who have a history of being innovative; and we also work with companies who historically aren't necessarily innovative—but know that they need to be. Those clients look to us to help them navigate the complexities of innovation. Based on my own personal experience, every organization is quite different, and innovation is hard to measure across the board, especially in 2018. I believe an “innovation mindset” is what's required. We find that a lot of companies get entrenched in legacy systems, processes and mental models, and they go all in on one thing that's working for them right now, assuming that one single thing is always going to work for them… but it's not.

There's a great anecdote that I'll always remember from Simon Sinek, where he tells a story of the railroad industry in the late 19th century. The railroad industry was dominating transportation. They were one of the largest companies in the country and were changing the landscape of North America. Their downfall is they became obsessed with the “what”. They invested all their money in tracks and trains and eventually found themselves out of business. Simon’s end point was if they had defined themselves as being in the mass transportation business, instead of solely focusing on railroads, they would all own airlines someday. That’s an innovation mindset.

I think about that story a lot regarding our own business, but also regarding our clients’ businesses. I believe that with an innovation mindset, if you can be focused on the future just as much as you are focused on today, focusing on the why just as much as focusing on the what, then you're set up to be an innovation organization.

In terms of consultancies, how does Instrument view the competitive landscape? Are they considered a viable player in the creative space? Have you built out new capabilities and services in response to the competitive environment?

In all honestly, it makes a lot of sense what consultancies are doing. I have my doubts about whether they can pull it off, because the digital creative world is just a very different world, and a very different culture. It’s a balance between art and science. The art side is very difficult to add on late in the game. And the science side is all new science and rapidly changing. So, unless you're built natively to change and to adapt, it's going to be really tough.

At Instrument, we haven’t built out capabilities in response to the competitive environment, but we've organically adapted and grown out our capabilities in response to our client's needs. We put the blinders on to some extent, to what everyone else is doing and we try to respond to users and to our clients and adapt our business around that. By focusing on that, we deepen the level of strategic guidance in all things digital, brand, marketing and product, while at the same time maintaining our ability to execute.

How are you seeing this trend play out at some of your clients? Do you think “designer / creative leader as business leader” is just a fashionable trend or do you see the notion of Chief Design Officer / Chief Creative Officer as a permanent disruption to the traditional C-suite mix (e.g. legal, finance, operations, strategy, etc.)? As a creative leader yourself how have you embraced the dual roles of creative leader and business leader?

More and more these days, we’re hearing people say things like "what is marketing even?" We’re even seeing some companies skipping having CMOs altogether. A lot of successful tech companies are being founded by designers and other skilled disciplines, so we're in this middle zone where no one really knows how it should work. As I’ve mentioned before, the answer is dependent on the size of your organization, but, one thing for sure is that strategic, creative problem-solving is and will continue to be extremely valuable.

A challenging aspect of being a creative leader and business leader is scaling impact. A lot of designers get elevated out of design and then can't figure out how to create impact within the organization anymore. And, I definitely don't have all the answers, but I do know that a lot of it involves trust in others and also the ability to zoom in and zoom out a lot. If someone is trained as a designer and has had a successful career as one, they don't want to not be a designer anymore. But I also believe they could have more impact using those creative, strategic skills in a different way. That balance requires a lot of self-awareness.

What drove the decision for Instrument to partner with MDC rather than stay entirely independent? Now that you’re on the other side, do you think there really is a meaningful distinction between an “independent” agency and one that’s owned by another entity?

MDC has a great model; they invest in entrepreneurs who have a vision and they truly believe in what we're doing at Instrument. They offer us support to see our vision through. We created this thing from scratch and have spent over a decade growing it on our own which is no small feat. But we're never satisfied, and we plan to continue to grow it and we've never been afraid of asking for support.

Whether there is a meaningful distinction between an independent agency and one that's owned by another entity, I would say all that really matters is who's in the driver seat. To a client, it isn’t as important if your agency is 100% independently owned, 50%, 10%, even zero, but whoever can consistently make the best work is always going to win. Clients can feel who's in control of the ship. So, at the end of the day, that relationship and who can be the most collaborative while making the best work will always rise above.

This Q&A with JD Hooge from Instrument was informed by several findings from the 2019 Global Digital Outlook Study from SoDA and Forrester Research

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About the author: JD is a Partner and Executive Creative Director at Instrument. Since 2000, JD has created digital experiences for cultural institutions and companies large and small. Current clients include Google, Nike, Sonos and Dropbox.