How an Emphasis on ‘Deep Empathy’ Helped a Musician Build a Successful Creative Agency

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Behind Scenes / Business / Creatives / Interviews

Satellite Office is an artist management and creative services agency founded by Erik Attkisson, now coming up to 10 years in the business.

Since their launch in 2006, they have continued to succeed and evolve, adding photography to their lineup last year and Erik starting a secondary label with Ben Arditti called &Reach.

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Above: Cody Hudson for Scion

Erik’s colourful creative past has included managing and touring in a funk band, founding a record label, and working in house for companies like Motorola and 20th Century Fox.

He has taken his experiences from his distinctly diverse professional history and applied them to the Satellite Office’s ethos, customising their strategies for supporting their artists in the markets they work in.

Erik was kind enough to talk to us from the Satellite Office headquarters in Chicago and share some of the invaluable pieces of advice he has acquired from his unique perspective.

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Above: Die Antwoord by Clayton Cubitt

Can you tell us a bit about yourself and the kind of background you come from?

I’ve always been involved in art and commerce. Out of college, I was a musician for eight years, touring around the United States in a band called Chucklehead.

During the course of that time, I founded a record company called Wonderdrug Records with a partner of mine out of Boston. We made a lot of music, produced a lot of music, sold a lot of music, which led me into a proper business career. I went and got a classic MBA from Kellogg University at Northwestern University here in Chicago, Illinois. 

And then after credentialising, I went on to work a series of brand management type of jobs. Point being, I really come from a business, market, and brand management background.

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Above: Chuck Anderson for Madcap Coffee

That perspective, I’ve found, is incredibly unique in the work of artist management because many in this field tend to be like real estate agents. They’re just transacting business, they have keys and they open doors and hope you like it.

We really have a deep empathy for our clients and the communication goals that they’re trying to achieve through their advertising and creative work.

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Above: Chris Pratt by Jill Greenberg

Do you think that your unique background and this “deep empathy” you mentioned is what has helped you to be successful?

Completely. What we do—and I’m sharing the secret sauce here, trusting that it will come back to us in big ways and not be adopted by our competitors—we don’t just transact.

Our skills enable our artists to act and behave like small boutique studios, not just freelancers. The skills that we bring to the table—we add in account management, project management, and certainly business development. We’re developing new business, negotiating contracts with a mind to increase the scope and fees on behalf of the talent.

Our market strategy backgrounds help position any creative work we do within the business context that the client is seeking.

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Above: Joshua Davis for Heineken

You talk about the importance of this understanding and relationship with not just your artists but your clients. Was there anything else you feel you did right in helping the company grow, and now expand with &Reach?

Yes, of course—here’s something that new artists really have to bear in mind and remember as they’re going out in the world.

The key to success in negotiating a great project scope is to unpack the value of the project. Full stop. And what I mean by that is—you don’t just throw out a number and say, “here’s the number for your project”.

It doesn’t do you any good to just bulk package. Y’know, “I’ll give you everything for this price”.

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Above image by Chuck Anderson

Start actually pricing your time and effort appropriately and not just guessing. “If I’m doing a branding project”—”oh, I guess I’ll charge $35,000 for that”—”I don’t know what’s in that. Maybe I’ll give him a logo and a word mark”.

But by line-iteming and specifying, “OK, you’re going to get a word mark, a monogram, you’re going to get iconography, you’re going to get horizontal lock-up and maybe a vertical lock-up—you might get a pattern that is related to the aesthetic language we’re developing”.

It makes you just a more sophisticated purveyor of your craft and it tends to raise your rates because you see all the little things you’re doing.

So, that’s my number one recommendation—unpack the value of each and every contract that you do.

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Above: Cody Hudson for Facebook

In terms of the artist-client relationship, you talked about the value of their work—what other kind of common challenges do you see artists having when working with the large kind of companies that yours do?

I would say, where we run into the most trouble is when you have a client who has such a strong idea of exactly what they want that really—and they may not say this to you but it becomes clear—that they want ‘paint by numbers’.

They want exactly what they’re putting in front of you. In which case, you’re really just a pixel jockey, y’know, a Photoshop monkey, right?

I would add, too. Again, in the proposal phase, when you’re outlining what you’re going to do for them, you’re not just unpacking as I said previously, but you’re also describing a work flow.

“I will create phases of work that will go something like—concept: we’ll work on developing an approved concept together”.

Then based on approval from the agency/your client, then you go into actually producing a refined design. You may have several iterations of it and then based on approval, you’ll prepare your finals for delivery.

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Above image by Rob Deutschman

It’s important to have that conversation up front so that expectations are clear about what they’re going to get.

And be specific, y’know. “You will get two concepts, or three concepts, but that’s it. There will be two revisions allowed.”

These are things that successful business managers like ourselves do everyday in and day out. They’re also things that artists find very difficult to do because you want to keep the rapport sweet and nice, and fun and positive.

That means it’s hard to say “no” sometimes when a client comes back for that third, forth, fifth, sixth revision, and many times we hear stories of abuse in that regard.

The client will just keep asking if you keep giving, and that’s where we’re able to step in and provide a backbone to the agreement.

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Above: Script and Seal for Computer Arts

What would you say to someone who would like to join an agency like yours and is looking for ways to increase their appeal?

I would say to new artists and developing talent that in the early phases of your career, never say no to a gig.

It’s incredibly important to be seen as someone who is seen as ‘hungry’ and aggressive and available and totally there. Don’t be precious. Do a lot of work, make a lot of mistakes but just keep working. Keep saying “yes”.

The other thing that is important for a new artist—you’ve got two strategies: you can innovate or you can imitate.

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Above image by Timothy Hogan

We prefer, in the long run, to work with innovators, people who have defined aesthetics in their field. People like Chuck Anderson of NoPattern who is a light sculptor and seminal in being a Photoshop wizard.

People like Jon Contino who have an Americana, hand-crafted style that is definitive and now widely imitated.

People like Stephan Sagmeister who may have a variety of aesthetic styles because they’re so conscious about serving the client’s best interest—nonetheless, you can see at the foundation of every Stagmeister project, there is a sound, clear, conceptual basis for that design that leads you to a conclusion that there really could be no other aesthetic solution to the problem.

Or it’s people like Lobulo out of Barcelona who have a unique papercraft style that is similarly conceptual in its approach and instantly recognisable.

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Above: Kevin Cantrell for Tom’s Town Distilling Co.

So we really prefer to have folks who are defining their way. That said, that takes time to get there.

As you’re starting out you may be asked to replicate or imitate other successful styles out there.

That may chaff at you, but what you will do is walk the line like many great artists before you and take those references as a starting point and add your own twists so that over time, you do begin to develop your own voice.

The more that you do that and more that you add your own twists and points of view, the more people will come to you for who you are and that’s what you want as an artist in the long run.

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Above: Kevin Cantrell for Tom’s Town Distilling Co.

Do you have any projects that Satellite Office are working on that you are particularly excited about at the moment?

We’re very excited about the brand identity work that we’re doing right now.

I’ll be honest, each year we set goals and strategies at Satellite Office and &Reach for ourselves and our artists. And 2015 somehow became the year for microbreweries, distilleries, and wineries.

I could never had said at the beginning of 2015, “guys, we’re going to make breweries our strategic focus”. I just wouldn’t have known that. I think we’re riding a commercial market trend and it’s been very exciting.

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Above: Kevin Cantrell for Tom’s Town Distilling Co.

We’re producing identity systems for a distillery in Kansas City, Missouri called ‘Tom’s Town’— a new winery out of California called ‘Top’.

We’re doing a new beer out of The Valley in California called Bent Shoe Brewery that’s founded by a couple of horse farriers. What are horse farriers? I had to look it up too.

Those are guys that fit horse shoes. These guys have been doing it for 30 years and they wanted to take their hard-working, handcraft life’s work and apply that to making great craft beers for hardworking people around America. 

Jon Contino is working on a new winery out of Australia called Hidden Sea.

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Above: Jon Contino for Hidden Sea

It’s just been incredibly fun and satisfying work. And what we like about it most is that it’s not just, “hey, design this print ad” or “design this copy for a social media post”.

We really get to be strategic and think about the raison d’être for the brand, help these emerging businesses define what they stand for because sometimes they don’t really know or they tend to be very shotgun or wide about it.

We get to help them funnel down and synthesise really compelling ideas that differentiate them, make them stand out, and are electric in the marketplace. That’s the work that we do on the account management and brand strategy side and then our creative partners turn it into kick-ass brands.

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Above: photo of Erik Attkisson by Chuck Anderson

All images © Satellite Office, 2016

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