Jonina Skaggs

July 27, 2016

I met Jonina Skaggs, founder and creative director of Skaggs Creative, about three weeks after I moved back to New York from San Francisco. We were working on a project together. At some point after the project was completed, she and her husband Bradley and I had a lunch that cemented our creative relationship from then on. Jonina’s work is immediately recognizable – it’s clean, elegant and typography driven. She has a distinct visual voice, one that’s as clear as a bell ringing. It’s no surprise that she runs her own business; she’s too unique to work for anyone else, and she’s willing to take risks. She says, “I believe fear creates anger, and anger creates hatred. Just let it go.” To learn more about risk-taking and letting go, read on!


I know what you do – very well – but why don’t you shed a little light on it for our readers. When people ask what you do, what do you tell them?

I’m a creative director at a creative agency. We like to call ourselves a creative agency because we’re not just one thing. We create anything and everything that a client or company or a product needs to get attention and love from customers. Our business has evolved in that 90% of our work now is consumer oriented. You’ll see it out in the world. Most of our work back in the day was B2B, more targeted at engineers, architects, and healthcare. If we were doing anything food related back then, that was geared toward restaurateurs.


How did you get started?

Bradley and I opened our SF office in 1999 after working out of our small junior bedroom apartment for 1 year and then we opened our New York Office in October 2000. We were working with a lot of architects, and a lot of companies that catered to architects. After 9/11 happened, that industry went down the tubes. We had no clients for six months, and we had given ourselves six months to keep trying before going back to San Francisco. A week before we were about to pack up, we got a call out of nowhere from Meat and Livestock Australia.


That seems so random. Did someone recommend you to them?

Yes. We went to this event – we did nothing but network our asses off after 9/11. It was all about women and film, nothing to do with design, but we thought, why not check it out. We met this woman, a writer, who was in film. Her girlfriend—now wife—was a graphic designer who needed work, so we started talking. Then, come to find out, their best friend, the CEO of Meat and Live Stock Australia, was looking for a new design/advertising agency to take over the account.  She called, we met, and she hired us. We took over the entire account for North America, and it all happened days before we were going to close. That’s why I believe that when you are an entrepreneur, you should never be afraid to try new things, go new places, meet new people. That’s really how we built our business. Working on that account made us realize that we were more than a graphic design firm. We had to produce things. We had to come up with shit. We had to strategize. And this was before social media – it didn’t yet exist. It was the tipping point that took us into something more complicated than just being graphic designers. To this day, we’re like, “What do we call ourselves?”


A lot of brands and agencies are struggling with the question of how you get consumers to have an emotional relationship with your brand, so they really incorporate that brand into their daily lives, into who they are. Have you noticed trends in how it works?

The biggest trend is obviously social media, but I feel like people are throwing way too much into that right now. People say print is dead, retail is dead, but that’s bullshit. People need all of it. We need to socialize in a space. That’s why retail is super-important. But retail is changing, because retailers like Bonobos are bringing a bit more of the online engagement inside the stores. Instead of having inventory, they create spaces where you can hang out and experience the clothes and drink coffee and read magazines. That way you bond with the brand. The store itself is an event A lot of traditionalists are saying it’s just a trend, but I don’t think so. Today’s consumer doesn’t want to be spoon-fed. They do their research, and then they go check it out.


You and Bradley and I have been talking about social media content for years, and people are finally realizing that they need it. At the same time, I don’t know if anyone has figured out the ROI situation. Does social media make a difference?

There are companies that are starting to measure it. There are a few in San Francisco we’ve spoken with. Tel Aviv is on fire in terms of technology, and there are companies there who are measuring social media ROI. The newest trend is finding people who have the most followers – people who aren’t necessarily social influencers with blogs – regular people, and sending them product to try and to give their friends. The companies don’t pressure you, but they can then follow if the person has talked about the product. It’s more of a soft sell. Of course, people are going to figure that out too, but at the moment they’re looking for something that’s not so corporate, that’s more honest. People are jaded from being surrounded by all this crap out there. I believe that if you have a good product and you position it right, you will thrive. But there are so many companies out there who have a great product that don’t understand what they need to be doing. They make all the wrong decisions. It only starts with the logo and the other stuff. You have to find your consumer, you have to find the people who will love your brand. It’s not a one-way street. We don’t talk about target audience anymore. We talk about responders. The only way to get people to engage with and love your brand is to give them some love back. It’s a relationship.


You’re considering a lot of different factors for your clients.

That’s why we’ve really struggled with what to call ourselves. We do everything. Sometimes we’re asked to do market research, or consumer focus groups, or we have to put together a go-to-market plan, or go backwards and figure out when a brand began to get less love and started to lose sales. And unfortunately, with a lot of companies, there’s infighting that gets in the way. We see that all the time. A new leader comes into a company and generally takes the company down within the first 90 days. He or she is so ego-driven that there’s no room for listening and looking and figuring out what has been done and what can be done better. The struggle with many companies comes from the top down. If the structure is all about egotistical showing off then nobody’s going to get anywhere. You’re going to bring the company down and yourself too. Because no matter what industry you’re in, people find out. People know. You can lie on your resume, but people will find out the truth. Check site.


As someone who has run a company during an interesting time for advertising and branding, how would you advise someone who is just starting their career? What three things would you tell that person?

  1. Build your network. Don’t be afraid of meeting people – get out there. Nothing is going to happen if you’re sitting inside the office or your house. A common mistake people make is staying on the Internet all day and thinking that making friend through social media is going to get them business. No. It’s actually getting out there and talking to people, and getting out there for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Create your network of people you trust. I’m a true believer that you build your business with honesty. It may take more time, but it’s better.
  2. Take risks. You might fall on your nose and your business might close because of that, but you have to stand up, dust yourself off, and keep going. I’ve been there. You’ll be fine. Laying in bed all day feeling sorry for yourself is not going to work.
  3. Travel the world. Go to places you never imagined that you’d go to. When you  come home, you’ll look at things in a new way.
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