Q&Agency: Teehan+Lax

Welcome to Q&Agency! Each week, I talk to agencies small and large and get to hear (in their words) what differentiates them and the experiences they create. To help bring some of that information to you, I'm showcasing an ongoing series of interviews with small to midsize interactive and design agencies. If you'd like to see your agency or an agency you work with here, let me know!

On July 21st (after a hiatus and relocating to California), I talked with Jon Lax, a partner at Teehan+Lax. Edited excerps from that conversation follow.

Forrester: Tell me a little bit about Teehan+Lax?

Jon: We were founded in 2002 in Toronto in the deepest, darkest part of the dotcom bust. Geoff Teehan and I were at Modem Media and they had just decided to get out of the Canadian marketplace and focus more exclusively on the US market. When we were left out of work, we began looking for companies that understood what was going on in the industry at the time and we just couldn’t find any. Some of the former Modem clients and Modem Media in Conneticut were interested in continuing to work with us so we decided to start a company that was an alternative to what we had come from – a large ad agency.

At the time, there were a bunch of people circling around similar ideas. We were inspired by the thinking of Tim O’Reilly, Jason Fried of 37 Signals, and Adaptive Path about what we called user experience. So we decided to start a firm that could define and design customer experiences in the digital channel. Define and design is most important part of that phrase. We’re not technology developers. We don’t have to do everything to do anything. A lot of our clients were separating technology from user experience projects so they didn’t need us to do that.

Over the last eight years, the work we do has evolved some, but we’re still not developers. We still focus on defining and designing the user experience for large-scale business-critical systems, eCommerce and enterprise Web experiences, and more marketing-oriented demand generation and outbound marketing work. We’re now just over 30 people with defined expertise areas in user experience and creative marketing.

Forrester: What is your elevator pitch?

We offer a viable alternative for enterprises to the large interactive shops out there. We help clients with dedicated interactive budgets that may not be able to afford a large interactive agency team to define and design the digital experience. We’re large enough to handle enterprise projects, but we don’t have the legacy of the bigger interactive guys.

Forrester:  What are the three key things that differentiate you from your competitors?

Jon: 1. We specialize in user experience and digital customer experience as a dedicated discipline. If we can’t add value with that, then we have no business.

2. Unlike other agencies, we promote alternative ways of working. We get lazy in our industry and keep doing things the same way so we’ve tried and are constantly trying to find a better way to work. Clients of our firm have direct access to the people doing their work. We don’t have client or account services as part of the team because for the work we do, we believe that would create a lot of overhead. Our clients are encouraged to discuss ideas and designs directly with the designers who are doing the work.

3. We offer direct access to the senior people in our business. Clients should have relationships with the designers that do their work, but we also assign a partner to every account (we have six partners total at the firm) who oversees all the work that goes on. In that way, we function more like a law firm than a traditional agency.

Forrester: Why is your agency well suited to deliver a great customer experience for your clients (and their customers)?

Jon: It all goes back to our focus. Customer experience is all we do. The staff we hire has skills and values that are deeply rooted in delivering a great user experience. Those values permeate the company since it’s our primary focus. People here geek out on really good user interface design, form design, other user experience issues. That passion transfers through to our clients. We don’t just want to get the job done, we want to do it right. For user experience, that’s all in the details of how something works for the user so we’re constantly focused there.

We also make a delineation between people who work on large-scale user experiences (business critical systems, eCommerce environments, enterprise Web sites) and those who focus on marketing program work (outbound marketing, demand generation, etc.). The reason is that the skill sets and interests are very different even though they both do “creative” work. The marketing people are great storytellers; they think in terms of narratives, story boards – it’s like movie making. User experience people, like information architects, have much more of a structured, systemic approach to their work – they have to. While we try to get both perspectives as often as we can on projects, it sometimes doesn’t work from a scheduling standpoint. We do recognize, though, that there are different skill sets here and try to apply them appropriately to the right projects.

Forrester: What’s it like to work at your agency?

Jon: I’m probably the worst person to ask. Geoff's and my mandate was to build a company that we wanted to come to every day, and then we tried to find people who had a similar vision of that work environment. This is a company created for creative people by creative people. It’s a very passionate, creative environment – not in an artist’s type of way but a business-practical way. I think our staff would say it’s a fun environment to be in especially because compared to some of the other agencies they could work at, they have much more intimacy with a project and a client than they would at a larger firm.