Often the question time after a lecture is a stale drawn-out end to an interesting talk. This one though, ending a discussion at the Arnolfini from Karen Welman of Pearlfisher design agency, turned out to be quite enlightening. In our final questions we heard of Pearlfisher’s fraught beginnings in New York. As the Michael Peters Group PLC went bankrupt, Welman and partners found themselves barely able to afford a flight back to the UK. Pregnant and practically broke Pearlfisher began in a kitchen at Welman’s home, before moving into a studio a month or so later.
You will recognise their work above. It’s ubiquitous. Waitrose Love life, Innocent Smoothies, Starbucks, Stella Artois. I could go on. Surprisingly though it was the culture of Pearlfisher that took centre stage in this talk. It turned out to be a wise move, as each project was opened up from it’s strategic and cultural foundations: the people at Pearlfisher. “Our culture,” says Welman “is what makes our work.” It would be easy to feel cynical and pass this off as sentimentality but her arguments were persuasive.
She explained how they won over a foreign Beer label based entirely on the drinks-based welcoming initiative of their receptionist. Later we heard of their extraordinary pitch for Coca Cola Ltd who were looking to bring new experiences to their customers. Setting out on an anonymous email bombardment of the key decision-maker, tourist-like photographs were unleashed featuring Pearlfisher friends from all over the globe wearing t-shirts asking “are you Stacy?” On the day of the pitch, the regional director stood outside their office-block wearing the t-shirt and waited until it caused a stir. He soon invited himself to lunch with the exasperated key decision-maker explaining himself simply with “you’ve been through your first Pearlfisher experience.” Needless to say, they got the job.
There were generous sprinklings of delicious design maxims, some passed over without explanation but by far the most interesting was “Saying No! makes you more desirable.” Welman told of how their rejection letter for a free pitch to McDonald’s became the most discussed “proposal” for that project and paid off four years down the line with a request on their own terms.
Most of all though it was interesting how much the culture of Pearlfisher feeds down into the challenging and fresh new relationships they create with their brands, their clients and their employees. Their huge project scope showed that most of their designs had a whole cultural story behind them, which is vital for creating strong, long-term relationships with big brands. The same desire with which they sell themselves is embedded in the brands they design. This Pearlfisher way was summed up by Welman with “Surprise your people. Give them new experiences.”