As VSA Partner’s Chief Creative Officer, Curt Schreiber is responsible for guiding the agency’s creative philosophy while establishing the office’s design standards and offerings. Curt has been named one of Chicago’s most influential designers and his work has been recognized by more than 100 international design and communications organizations, publications and competitions. His work is also included in the permanent collection of the U.S. Library of Congress.
Advertising, branding and design have been rapidly evolving for years — with AI, social media and digital marketing dramatically accelerating the pace of change.
According to Curt Schreiber, Chief Creative Officer at VSA Partners, clients, agencies as well as marketers need to keep up with the changes and adapt. And those who fail will be “quickly left behind.”
In this interview, Schreiber shares his insights into the industry’s changes, how to stay ahead of the competition and how AI might disrupt the market. He also provides a glimpse into VSA Partners' plans, demonstrating how the company is positioning itself to remain at the forefront of advertising, branding and design.
Spotlight: With the rise of social media and digital marketing, how do you see the role of traditional advertising and branding evolving?
Curt Schreiber: The first thing I notice is the speed to market has changed significantly. Marketers are trying to respond, message, inform and persuade essentially in real-time. You can gain a lot of relevancy with customers, but you sacrifice the quality of work. There’s less time for ideation, so ideas become more reactionary, and the production quality is lower because you need it not in weeks but in hours. It’s not necessarily bad, but it is different. As a marketer, you need to adapt your behavior.
At the same time, digital marketing and social media have also made it easier to measure. The quality might not be as good, but the analytics are essential. You can see the effectiveness, engagement levels and transactions as a direct result of what you’ve put out there. And you can constantly refine and improve as you go based on that data.
At a higher level, I think brand management has changed significantly because of this fast pace. The brand used to reside with a few experts who could easily manage it across the company. But today, thousands of people are brand messengers: employees, agency partners, related content creators, influencers and more.
Brand management is much harder when you have decentralized command and control. It requires a lot more emphasis on education and governance. The same level of effort you put into positioning, or the design system needs to be the same as it applies to training and maintaining.
VSA Partners is known as a “hybrid agency.” What does this mean in practice, and how does it differentiate the company from other agencies in the industry?
VSA designs for a better human experience. To do so, you need the agility to work across different parts of our industry—parts that are often siloed. It spans business transformation, brand strategy and the skill sets of go-to-market. Bringing together all of those related aspects is our hybrid approach.
Data analysis and creativity are two seemingly disparate fields that VSA Partners combines in its work. What are some of the challenges and benefits of balancing these two areas?
Think of them as intelligence and instinct. Intelligence is the data/insights you gather to help inform potential solutions; instinct is your gut feeling of what’s right. You can’t have just one or the other—you’ll have very well-thought-out solutions that have no soul, or creativity that serves no purpose. But it’s not a waterfall or linear exercise; it’s not intelligence, then creative—you must let one inform the other in a cycle.
You have been recognized as one of Chicago's most influential designers. How has your approach to design evolved, and what do you consider the keys to success in this industry?
I’ve learned a lot about human behavior and business challenges over the years. And seen a lot of cycles—when some things have worked, and some haven't. I’ve naturally evolved my design practice because every time I approach a problem, I’m taking into account everything I’ve learned so far.
So, my keys to success are listening and learning. As a designer, you are solving someone else’s problems. Designers have an ability to embrace constraints, needs and ambitions. But you can’t assume you will intrinsically understand the problems they’re facing—these are the things you learn by asking good questions and listening.
Probably most critical to being a successful designer, though, is to have a willingness to iterate. Test your design. Does it work? How can it be improved? It can be frustrating, but it’s also the key to success.
For small businesses looking to improve their branding, what are five key things to consider before reaching out for external help?
- Align your stakeholders across the business. Not just in marketing or communications, but across sales, product development, supply chain and leadership. If your stakeholders aren’t aligned, you aren’t going to achieve a durable brand that works for everyone.
- Align your ambitions and goals, and your rationale: Why are we doing this? Should we do it? When should we do it?
- Define the vision. You don’t have to solve the problem, but you should have a vision of where you want to go.
- Establish the criteria in which the work, ideas or efforts will be measured. This step narrows down what is important to the team and to the company, and what success will look like.
- Fund the project in a way that is going to have a meaningful impact. Brand is enduring. If you’re going to do it, do it right. Also, remember that brand requires maintenance along the way—make sure you have at least some resources to dedicate to its upkeep.
You've seen many changes in the design and creative industries throughout your career. What are some of the most important trends shaping the industry today?
My first observation is two-part. The biggest trend I’ve seen is specialization—companies that specialize in a few things tend to be more successful than companies that “specialize” in everything. Because of that, I’m seeing a rise in partnerships and collaboration. You can’t do it all yourself, so you need to have the ability to pull together cohorts with deeply developed expertise in specific areas.
The rapid expansion in the number of channels marketers have available is also a big change and one that I think will continue to transform the industry. A decade or two ago, your activation would really be focused on five, six, seven channels. Now, just with social media, you have almost endless choices. And you can drill down and become incredibly specific and personalized with how you’re approaching that consumer.
But that brings me back to my previous point—you can’t be an expert in all of these, so collaborating and finding strong partners is going to continue to be really important.
AI and automation have become more prevalent in creative industries. How do you see the relationship between humans and technology evolving in the coming years? What do you think will be the key to success in this new landscape?
Like any tool, AI is going to help all of us work better, smarter and faster. But the sudden rise in AI is mostly hype. The technology is less artificial intelligence and more artificial imitation. Computer systems don’t yet actually think. Their capability is limited to access to data sets and programming. For the foreseeable future, the role of the creative will be more curator of AI output—using AI to generate considerations.
But I believe we should go all-in. I say it’s for humanity’s benefit to accelerate its development, obviously with the correct oversight and governance. I’m not remotely fearful we’re going to have “Terminators” running around the planet, but I do think things are going to change very quickly. It’s another Industrial Revolution, on fast-forward.
People, including creatives, are going to need to get up to speed on these tools, or they will very quickly be left behind.
Looking to the future, what are your goals for VSA Partners in the next few years, and how do you see the company continuing to evolve and grow?
Half of our business today includes digital deliverables, and we’re just going to see that increase. We’ve always been believers of this unified user experience, whether in retail or OOH or packaging, and we’re going to continue to seek that optimal user experience in the digital space.
We’re also going to continue to evolve and grow our stakeholder design practice. Businesses these days can’t just solve for the user; they must solve for the shareholder, the employee, the supply-chain companies and the NGO, all at once. We’re seeing an increased need to deliver offerings within these complex relationships, so that’s an area we are putting a lot of thought into.
But solving for the business problem and the human need—that’s something that won’t change. Which is why we do what we do.
Thank you for your time, Curt Schreiber. Best of luck to you and VSA Partners!