Ollie Ralph | Crain's Silicon Valley

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Ollie Ralph


Ollie Ralph is a partner of and the managing director for the San Francisco–based branding and design agency Character. The studio has created iconic designs for clients such as Google, Pottery Barn, Kohler and Oculus.

The Mistake

I lost sight of what's important — company culture, employee morale and creative integrity — by taking on, in the service of meeting sales goals, work that wasn't right [for Character].

Our agency is in an industry that’s increasingly project based. One of the downsides of this is that we don’t have these two-, three-, four- or five-year engagements to recognize revenue. So it’s really difficult to forecast when the next project is coming along.

I’m in operations and business development. This position is all about seizing an opportunity when it comes in and being able to put that revenue on the balance sheet. It’s about being confident you are going to be able to keep the lights on and have the revenue to drive the agency forward.

At Character, we pride ourselves on our high level of design integrity and on our ability. We would much prefer to work on smaller, less well-known brands where there is an appreciation for design and brand, rather than on a much larger household name where that level of appreciation is absent. That’s important to our business.

With one prospective client we met, I wouldn’t say the chemistry was spot on.

My instinct was telling me that, from a designer standpoint, there wouldn’t be a lot of internal momentum to work on this client. However, the opportunity did come with a significant price tag, so we went forward with the project.

In [an] early meeting, one of the members of the client team said, “Look, we’re not here to win any design awards.” That really killed the enthusiasm for the project.

Over the next few months, the mood of the agency began to shift. I found I was doing damage control and having to take a lot of projects that were creatively more rewarding to try to offset the mood in the studio.

Ultimately, it cost us in terms of employee retention.

There's pressure to be always closing the deal. But sometimes the better approach is to trust your instincts and your gut.

The Lesson

One of the major things I've learned is that instead of seizing every opportunity, we should be more careful and considered. There's pressure to be always closing the deal. But sometimes the better approach is to trust your instincts and your gut.

The designers here at Character are extremely talented and are reached out to by companies in the Bay Area all day, every week. The reasons they stay here are the culture and the chance to scratch that creative itch.

When you bring in a project that’s not aligned [with] the agency’s vision and competencies, you find yourself working on a project [with] poor client chemistry or with not much of a creative opportunity. For us, the big lesson is to go with our gut and stay focused on the vision. So we’ve put protocols in place. We now have a number of processes that have criteria [for judging each] opportunity.

We make sure we all [agree] on what we want. That’s a checkpoint to make sure we are staying true to ourselves.

Follow Character on Twitter at @Charactersf.

​Photo courtesy of Ollie Ralph

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