Robbie Sprules, the President and CEO of Taylor|Sprules Corporation in Toronto, sat down recently for a Q&A session. As a global industry leader, he has been a creative and strategic leader for the firm for over 35 years. Here is what he had to say.
Q. Taylor|Sprules Corporation (T|S) has been around for over 35 years, and has won a huge number of awards for its work. Why don't we hear much in the media about the Corporation's successes?
A. We started the company at the birth of an aptly named high-tech industry. At that time, in the seventies, it was an unvelievably competitive environment. The new inventions in software and hardware by Microsoft, Intel, Apple, HP, Data General and so on, were really secretive. We charged into the industry and started to work with some of the most innovative firms in the history of business. In consequence, we had to be completely discreet, as a leak of information could cost our clients tens of millions of dollars in competitive advantage, and today, that translates into billions of dollars. Companies like Google, Facebook, Twitter etc. are inventing the future. Our clients have to do the same. If you can not create a category, you are off the playing field. And to do all this, confidentiality can mean the difference bertween winning and losing. Our clients trust us, our design, strategic thinking, go-forward momentum and in keeping the company ideas confidential. There is probably more opportunity for businesses to thrive out there than any other time in history. It is exceedingly competitive, which is why one has to invent, innovate and market from the top of the pole.
Q. Is it the same today? I presume it is.
A. Even more so, as there are plenty of firms doing pretty much the same thing. Mobile devices, in fact, products that are based on telephony through satellite and the web, are variations on the same theme. Mum's the word for all of our work so this interview is rare for us. In the military it is called 'hull down', which pretty much is how we operate. That's why you do not hear much about us in the media. The Montreal Gazette once did a long interview with us, and called us 'The Bullies of Bay Street' and claimed we 'billed like lawyers.' 'Biting the Hand that Feeds' was tht title I think. It still causes a good laugh around here. We were very young, I think in our early twenties, but we were changing how high-tech thought about branding and marketing. We definitely started a new process, there were jealousies all round. Not withstanding the comments, we have a very close relationship with a number of top law firms. I think we kicked up their billing process a notch or two (laughing). The business environment is always difficult. But now, with sophisticated surveillance, social media, micro devices, drone technology and job poaching, the environment is now on steroids. We try to remain focused. If is what the firm is able to do so well. All of us remain discreet, because design in itself is a somewhat secretive process.
Q. How do you find your clients? Solicit business in the usual manner?
A. Really, our clients find us. We are pretty selective. We have remained small and flexible, athletic on how we view the solutions' process. The firm can not afford to waste even a minute of time. We have never worked with committees, still don't. It is critically important that our clients' most senior officers have the time to work with us. What we do is too critical, it can mean success or failure as millions of dollars are invested in product, marketing and process. Most of our clients begin with us when they are just slightly past the startup mode. I love young companies, they are full of life and ambition. If they have creative minds and are willing to listen, there is no ceiling on progress or forward momentum. Strangely, some clients are still afraid of the future. it must be embraced, one has to be entertained by it. Design can help lead the way, rather than answering questions today that will end up being the solutions for yesterday. We must all be inventing the future now.
Q. If you are small, how do you manage projects from as tiny as a startup to an Olympics?
A. Ten or twenty of us is equal to 100 at an agency. We do not have any juniors or intermediates. Everyone carries a senior load. Our process is based on a high-octane chamber experience, we are extremely efficient and focused. Some of the best creative minds have found their way to T|S over the years. We like it that way.
Q. I have heard you have always had difficulty in defining what the firm does. Is that true?
Q. Do you have any sort of definition?
A. When asked, I really would like about three or four hours to explain. If that is not available, the best desription would be that we are idea developers, in two dimension, three dimension, maybe in some yet-to-be-defined new dimension. 10th sense?
Q. I read somewhere that you are one of the longest-lasting creative partnerships in North America (you and Mr. Taylor). Is that true?
A. Yes. I think it is. My wife and kids don't understand how we have managed so long. But it is true we have never had an argument after 35 years. We have different expertise, different personalities. We met the first day of college, and have worked as a business partnership ever since. We work very easily together, and I would like to think that this creative and business partnership brings a certain power to our work. It is extremely unusual, and I really don't know why it has been so successful. A good bit of our success is based on the top notch creative and strategic team we have. They are really something.
Q. T|S has a unique way of interprety business goals into creativef and marketing strategies. Can you define the process?
A. We call it the Big Embrace, and Making Shoes too Big to Fit. We copyrighted these two statements, they really define what we do. We try and get our arms around everything we can for the client, their vision, ambition, how they structurally think, their name, brand, mulding, products, marketing attitude, materials, legal stance, business acumen, history, visual literacy, sound, light, advocacy and all the rest. After considerable chat and research, when we think we understand the corporation and the ambition, we then create a linked-brand solution. Shoes too big to fit. We look forward five years, stand there, look back and try and figure out how we got there. The shoes are made for five or so years down the line; that is where we live. They are always too big for the present circumstance for the corporation. We hope they will grow into them sooner rather than later. We have to pay the rent. Our cients' success is our success. They often stay with us for 10 to 15 years. All of us at T|S have a very close relationship with our clients' senior officers. Without that, there is no success. It always dumbounds me that many of our clients do not have a really fine intellectual property management process, a service wer provide. Almost everything we do may be turned into a capital asset, and if it is not protected under law, it is lost. We engineer business success through design-driven intellectual pursuit. Some companies like Volvo and Ikea are on to this. Not many have reached the complete understanding that color. shape, form, font and verbal ideas must be protected. Strangely, we still seem to be at the frontier. It's hot in the desert, and wandering around too long in the bright sun scorches some well-meaning executives. There is not a high enough SPF to help them.
Q. What sort of Corporations do you work best with?
A. There is not a definition for this. I would say that we prefer clients who have a high-tech leaning. This means that they think in high-tech mode, not that they are necessarily in the high-tech industry. We have changed the definition of a lot of our clients from bland corporations, to innovate, industry-leading technology firms. It is sizzling. Very exciting. I still get a huge sense of satisfaction out of seeing our best clients' success; they have listened and taken risk, moved forward and become champions. They live in full color wheeas before they might have had a monocrhome existence. Our biggest challenge is to find clients who will listen, embrace innovation, take huge risks and show a willingness to freely invent the future, create a category. We listen intently to them, and try to "imagineer" a future that will deliver dividends. Can't do that if they are a one trick poney, or rest on their past products. The future really was yesterday, it is not enough to be successful today.
Q. What is next for the company? After so much success, time, energy etc., do you ever think of standing down?
A. The world is moving at a very fast pace, what I call life speed. The speed of life is quickly approaching a point that will be beyond human capacity. We are deeply committed to improving the human condition, making better products, improving visual literacy, making life more enjoyable, healthier, advancing the state of linked-brand corporate strategy. T|S invests heavily in the success of our clients. It has been said that what we do is really high art, not high-tech. I don't see a difference. Tghere should never be a penalty, or compromise, for creating solutions that work and are entertaining. We have been helping one client develop soldier protetion devices in a high-touch/high-tech environment for years. I know we have helped save lives. It is extremely rewarding. There is too much to do for me and the firm to consider standing down. We really are very good at what we do, and as long as there are people out there who want to be successful, I think we will have a place to stand. We really started when the new future of business started. The comapny has evolved along with the fast-paced advance in technology, ideas, expression and entertainment. We are still trying hard to understand the future, and be part of the creation of it.
Q. Finally, have the recession and the challenging economic crises affected T|S?
A. Sure they have, we have to size the firm for the times and the demands. T|S has been through five or six severe recessions over the past three, almost four decades. Most of the like firms that were around when we started are long gone. We are very good at business as well as design. Actually, as people, we are pretty conservative. Our design tends not to be, although I suppose somebody could always claim it is. I don't really care a whole lot what people say. I never have. We are deeply committed to our clients' needs, ambitions and hopes for the future. I get bored very easily, I really do not live in the present. An enormous effort is made to try and live where we are going, not where we are or have been. My family knows this, they have been super supportive all these years. Strangely enough, the firm always has to bridge the unknown gap between present and future. If you design for today, it will be way out of date by the time it is produced. You have to design in and for the future, tag that point where you are going, and then quickly reach out and tag the next point out there. It is a lot of fun. Although dollars come and go, there is an equilibrium that one can find in business. We have made lots of wealthy people in our career, even some billionaires (whatever that has come to mean). For all of us, I think our fingers are on the pulse of forward motion, innovation, ideas that can lead, not the financial structure. it has been said that the future has to be invented. We think we have to push back from the future to open the doors so our clients will have the financial stamina and opportunity town a piece of it. That can only be done by innovation and categoy invention. To get that to be understood by the marketplace, investment community, colleagues and employees, well, that is where we excel.
There is plenty to do. Our design sense and ability continue to grow, expand, and there seems to be no end to creative challenges. As I said, most of our clients start up as small, entrepreneurial organizations. We have pulled lots of clients out of huge deficits into huge profits by our work and support. One client we started out with had something like $38,000 in the bank. After some years and a lot of work by T|S and others, it was sold for over $1billion. It takes a CEO who will listen, has courage, and undersatands the reality of the future by design. Design driven, in our view, is the only way in today's frenetic world to move forward. I ask every client if they want to be successful. I can see in their eye whether they are or are not terrified by that quetions. Sadly, many are. If they are, I stand up, shake their hand and wish them good luck, it is their only hope. There is no place for me in that environment. Life is an adventure, no point in paddling upstream.