We had the opportunity to chat with Watt International Managing Partner Vince Guzzi and Creative Partner Jean-Paul Morresi this past week. Checking in how their Canadian agency is working globally, pioneering integrated retail, and maintaining the goals of its legendary founder Don Watt. As it turns out, all is well.

Where to start – with a brand that has been around for fifty years…maybe at the beginning. How has design thinking change/evolved over the decades? Watt has always been pro business, do you still think that design alone drives business for your clients? VG We have been seeing a shift – design now really used strategically as a tool to drive uniqueness and competitive advantage for business. While this shift has become apparent, this is not new to Watt. Our belief is that design is at the core of a reinvention strategy, and functions as a catalyst for change that must occur at various touch points, but also internally throughout an organization, for the total solution to be effective.

JM First off, while we are certainly supporters of business and commerce, we have never believed that design alone drives business. We believe that analytic approaches traditionally associated with business, and creative approaches traditionally associated with design are ever present in what we do. To not recognize this is to miss out on enormous opportunity.

The evolution of design thinking in recent decades has very much mirrored the evolution of our agency and the approach we take to our work. Design and the mechanics of creative invention have similarly expanded to inform business practices in areas not traditionally considered creative in their nature. From the beginnings of our business, we’ve existed in this space where creativity and analysis intersect, and we’re excited by the degree to which we are able to engage in the innovative dialogues that happen at this intersection.

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I think of your founder Don Watt – did he have a process or guide that drove the work in his time, and is this philosophy still in play? VG “An enormous opportunity awaits those who want to play a different game”, this was a core belief of Don Watt. Our business today supports this philosophy.

JM Don was a brilliant, talented and charismatic pioneer. Everything that we do today is on some level an extension of his original vision. Business Strategies driving Brand Strategies – Brand Strategies driving Design Strategies, and Design Strategies driving sets of coordinated tactics to deliver customers compelling experiences. While Don may at times have been able to pitch radical shifts in business strategy based on reasoned intuition, a similar pitch today requires significant validation. An integrated store concept forty years ago would be considered extraordinarily simple in today’s context, where the omni-channel realities of retailers expand stakeholder networks considerably. Our processes and capabilities have of course had to evolve to address all of these.

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Technology is really inserting itself into all areas – how are you staying out front of them and do you have to help clients incorporate the advantages? VG Staying current and relevant have always been table-stakes for our business. Having a sense of vision to future-proof the solutions we deliver is part of our DNA. The strategic side is always studying trajectories and best practices to identify opportunities for better relationships with consumers and potential customers. Things are just moving a bit faster now, and we are seeing a more aggressive impact both inside and outside of our business.  We cannot escape the myriad of digital and mobile interfaces and interactions that pepper the retail landscape because that is what is defining customer experiences today.

JM Technology, whether in printing, construction, computing, telcom or any other area, has been at the heart of every innovation we’ve given life to. Our real end is delivering holistic value to our clients and their customers, not employing technology for its own sake.

An area where technology continues to have an enormous impact on our work is on the insight mining and analytics side. The investments that retailers have made on the back end and infrastructure for their IT systems dwarf those they’ve spent integrating technology into their retail experiences. What this is producing are sets of data that can, when mined properly, generate meaningful insights to steer the design work.

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What would you describe as the most significant development at Watt since you both have joined the team? VG I would say refocusing the business, and carefully working to ensure that it was all wired and held together the right way. I joined Watt ten years ago, and was given the task to formalize a strategic consulting practice on the front-end of design. This allowed us to get into conversations at more senior levels within our clients’ organizations and truly function as a valued strategic partner.

JM I joined Watt in the early days of an expansion program, and Vince joined just as the last vestiges of that strategy were being undone. While international expansion and suddenly having sister agencies with expertise in myriad fields was exciting and certainly a time of personal growth for me, the aggregation of an array of specialist agencies almost seemed to undermine our value proposition.

As opposed to being the “unique group of talented people encouraged to think beyond their specialty” that the Harvard Business Review had once described us as, it was becoming easier and easier for specialists to defer to specialists with less dialogue, less engagement, and ultimately, less powerful a unity of thought in the solutions we were providing.

So the most significant development since Vince and I have been in leadership here together might actually be seen as a return to our roots. With the divesting of other agencies, and the consolidation of those remaining into Watt International, we returned to being a single, multi-disciplinary, retail focused agency that once again thrives on the dialogue between unique, talented individuals, encouraged to think beyond their specialty.

So many agencies, global competition. Beyond your wise specialization in retail, why are clients choosing you and what makes your work unique? VG Our understanding of how design solutions can be used strategically to influence, our success in delivering meaningful returns, and the singular focus we have maintained over the years. I have seen our depth in understanding how retail works also being highly valued. Our perspective, that comes from the variety of sectors and international markets we work in, informs our ability to think globally and act locally. It also challenges us to see different possibilities that otherwise would fall by the way-side due to conventions and convictions. .

JM There are many reasons that clients choose us. For some, it is our reputation and work we’ve done in the past that’s attracted them. For others, it’s the unique and creative ideas we pitch them. For some, it is the integrated range and diversity of services that we offer. For others, it is our singular focus on retail and the depth of our knowledge in this area. For some, it has something to do with the unique empathy that multiculturalism affords Canadians. For others, it is the global reach and experience we bring to their business.

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Deep dive us into your greatest hits – what are your favourite pieces and some of the secret stories behind the projects? VG The projects that rise to the top are the ones that required the most drastic change. The one that occurred well before my time here, but one that always resonates so positively with me, is our work with Loblaw’s that began in the mid-1970’s. The work challenged established conventions and a different approach to grocery retailing that has become commonplace. The early work we did with Shopper’s Drug Mart has essentially redefined the street corner, challenging the role of the traditional convenience store. The introduction of the Beauty Boutique, which was part of our original concept, has also redefined how cosmetics, perfume and skin care products are purchased in Canada. This was a role traditionally owned by department stores. I love the work we do repositioning established, nostalgic brands so they align with the typologies of emerging consumers. 

JM Picking “greatest hits” isn’t hard. Among our assignments are some design icons that are obvious winners.

Loblaws – Helping save what is now Canada’s dominant retailer from near failure.

Home Depot – Helping invent a whole new retail paradigm.

Walmart – Helping bring the world’s largest retailer into the business of food, which they now sell more of than anyone else.

Market 32 – Reinventing a retail brand from the bottom up, from naming to logo, store concept to merchandising to rollout, brand development, design, retail marketing, web, digital, radio, t.v. – EVERYTHING was designed.

Longo’s – A long-term partner and relationship we truly treasure; our businesses have grown together over decades of collaboration

On a more personal note, we branded and designed a bespoke road-racing bicycle shop some years ago just outside of Manhattan called 3rd It was a great little project with a unique value proposition and sales process, all of which we developed to bring the brand to life. It was recognized with a number of awards and at one ceremony, in New York, the owners brought along their friend Greg Lemond, which was a great honour for me. To my father, a lifelong cycling fan, this was validation. Until that moment he could not comprehend how designing retail stores was a valuable thing for a kid trained as an architect to do.

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Let’s talk about customer driven work and processes. Do you think leadership is still possible, or will all work be generated via focus groups, crowd sourcing, and self curating? VG Under these circumstances leadership is critical. Navigation through the myriad of data points, perspectives, nuances, and the fickle nature of the new consumer requires objective curation in order to ground a business. The new age of customer loyalty pushes far beyond having a satisfied customer. The bigger question to answer is, are we delighting them?

JM Leadership is necessary. Focus Groups and Crowd Sourcing are good things. We can learn a great deal from them and the echo chambers they create. I believe that human beings also have a genuine thirst for innovation. As pervasive as self-curation appears to be, a deeper dive often reveals that it is merely a reflection or sampling of curatorial, or inventive authorities. In an information environment made opaque by the sheer density of its transparency, leadership and authority that cut through the noise, clarify, lend simplicity and can be trusted will grow in importance. What will be different are the standards of leadership needed to retain currency and the position of authority.

What are you looking at that is blowing your mind – what are the projects that you wished had crossed your desk? VG This is a big question. I like Roots, if you look at trends and what is happening in the fashion retail space in Canada, this brand has a big story to tell, but they need to tell it differently and swing much harder. In Canada, I would have loved to have a hand in all the mall reinvention work that has been going on in Toronto with Yorkdale Mall, Sherway Gardens and others. The reinvention of the department store that has been underway with Hudson’s Bay Company is another one.

JM Another difficult question. What’s blowing my mind? My two year old daughter and six year old son. Everything fascinates them and nothing fazes them. I don’t know if they got that from me, or if I am learning it from them, but it’s the attitude I generally walk the streets with.

There is no one thing, as a “design product”, that I would point to as a shining light for me at this moment. Rather, I am enamoured by the attention to, and diversity of, design around me, both locally and around the globe. If there’s one thing that most excites me (and which I guard against falling too deeply into fascination with), it’s the rapidly evolving technology I spoke of earlier. Both as a tool of production and consumption, I am becoming increasingly interested in the possibilities of virtual and augmented reality, and hope to have the opportunity to integrate more meaningfully into reatail spaces.

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Things are flattening, we are all working globally – does Brand Canada help your growth in international markets? VG Yes, in particular the emerging markets in Latin America. This is where our multicultural roots as a country and business have brought about a confidence in understanding, tolerance, and open-mindedness that our clients appreciate. From their perspective, it is a win-win to be able to work with an international company that can bring a bigger perspective to the table. In Canada, I find that the industry is fairly insular, much like it is in Europe, very localized. I have come across instances in the past where we have been preferred over an American company because of our perceived closer ties with happenings overseas in England and Europe.

JM The simple answer is yes and no, and increasingly, no. Being Canadian used to mean “almost American, but more empathetic, respectful – a little nicer”, and that used to be a significant value to bring. It still does mean something, but the world is getting smaller, and once emerging economies are maturing. The allure of the outsider expert is diminished as homegrown talents and capabilities emerge. Additionally, although Canadians in general, and Torontonians in particular, punch well above our weight in the context of international retail design, Brand Canada does not immediately conjure the idea of design leadership.

In this new reality, where everyone from everywhere is operating everywhere, and local has risen to the status of a virtue, generalizations like national identity hold far less influence than they once did. What is more important is our genuine connection to the environments in which we operate. We continue to have enormous success in regions where we best understand the consumer culture – an understanding essential to delivering our value proposition. At the end of the day, the work speaks louder than its origins.

I think that the biggest disadvantages to working in creative industries in Canada are almost clichés that Canadians continue to impose upon their own. Outside of the design community, I still don’t think that design is valued as much as it is in other parts of the world. Compounding this, within creative communities, we rarely celebrate our own until they have had success elsewhere, and when they do, resentment drives the next line of attack. Beyond those tired old stories, the most significant advantage to being a Toronto based Canadian designer, is access to an exceptional, broad and varied creative community, supported significantly by both government and industry. The biggest disadvantage is the relative conservatism of Canadian industry.

 

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