Drew Smith, Founding Partner and Creative Directir of LUMEN Group: “Working beyond our local market has given us a certain cultural sensitivity that the UK companies often lack”

We recently talked to Drew Smith, Founding Partner and Creative Director of Lumen Group, who told Popsop about why he ended up in Milan and founded his own branding company there, why being sustainable meant being profitable, and about the relationship with Russia and Lumen’s Moscow-based partner agency Mildberry.

Drew, why did you, being Canadian-born, decide to continue studies in Europe (Switzerland?) and remain in Italy? Are you permanently based there and still spend most of your time in sunny Milan?

— I originally studied to be an illustrator. When I finished college in Canada, the only thing I had in mind to do was to see the world. So I did the obligatory backpacking trip around Europe and in a way I’m still on that trip 25 years later (at least now I don’t have to sleep in Hostels). After arriving in Europe I freelanced as an illustrator but I soon realized that my passion was in design.

I taught myself as much as I could but when I heard that Art Center had opened a satellite school in Switzerland I decided to go back for a year to get a more solid foundation. It was one of the best experiences of my life. Since then I’ve raised a family, built a business and made my home here in Europe. But I would never use the term “permanently”.

And, by the way, for most of the year Milano is pretty grey.

You graduated from the Art Center College of Design in 1989 and landed a job as a Creative Director of a design firm in Turin in 1994? May I ask you how your career grew in between these 5 years?

— At that time Ad agencies in Italy made most of their money from selling media so they weren’t so interested in creative services and tended to farm that part of the business out to freelance art directors and designers, like myself. It was the end of the golden age of advertising in Italy and they paid great money! It allowed me to get exposure working on a lot of projects with some very good people. I became known in the market for doing good work and at 32 got the call to build the creative department of an agency in Turin on behalf of Carré Noir Paris. It was a bit strange and intimidating to become partner and creative director in a big group never having ever been an employee but it was a good two years.

You’ve headed Creative departments of such big-name branding agencies as Robilant and FutureBrand in Italy. How did you come up with the idea to launch your own business LUMEN?

— By the time I decided to set up Lumen I’d already worked for the top agencies and I was getting a bit fed up. I got tired of the limits imposed by the big groups. The bottom line and saying “yes” to the client often became more important than doing what was right. I found myself being more of a manager than a creative director and I felt I could do better on my own.

LUMEN means ‘light’, is that correct?  Please tell us about your ilLUMENation™ approach. What does your company stand for?

— Like all branding agencies we help clients understand who they are, their difference in the market and develop ways to express it. Our difference lies in the way we do it and the results we obtain. Design is about solving problems and finding solutions that are effective and elegant. We are a company dedicated to transforming brands to help them fulfill their potential and we have a very good track record. We have developed methodologies that assist us in this under the name ilLUMENation™.

We like to think that we “illuminate” brands.

On your website you claim that ‘sustainability is top-of-mind’ in Lumen. How do you generally understand this term and implement your ‘sustainable strategy’ in life?

— Sustainability is a much abused and misunderstood term. It’s not just about using the right bin for the plastic bottles. Sustainability is about being as efficient as possible, reducing costs, time and waste. Being sustainable is profitable.

We were the first agency in Italy to become carbon neutral and we do have a sustainability plan but we are always trying to do better. Being involved in branding allows us a unique opportunity and indeed the responsibility to promote new thinking among our clients. We have organized events around this theme one of which was during the Economic Forum in Milan where we hosted Nobel laureate Rajendra Pachauri. Lastly, our contact with Brazil which has a very progressive attitude to these issues exposes us to a lot of new ideas.

 Please tell a bit more about the structure of your business. The main office, which works predominantly with EU clients, (as I see it) is in Milan, the second office in London drives new business in Central and Eastern European region. Is that correct?

— Our creative engine is in Milan. A few years ago we took over a studio in London but after a while felt that the work produced by that team didn’t represent Lumen’s quality and approach. In Milan we have a multicultural team of 50 people representing 15 nationalities based in the vibrant design district with experience working for clients from Hong Kong to Sao Paulo. I think all of our clients deserve to have their work produced here. That said, our office in London still remains an important reference point for international clients, strategic thinking and forms an important part of our innovation offer.

Is the brand and design market in Italy any different from the UK? Is it as competitive? What are the main trends (predominantly, business trends: crisis of the euro zone, recent recession, general business activity, number of small businesses etc ) on it? 

— The UK has always tended to be a closed and introspective market in terms of design. There are a myriad of excellent design firms there and a very formal approach to the client/agency relationship. Being in Italy we have to be much more flexible as about 80% of the economy is made up of small to medium sized companies. This has allowed us to compete successfully on an international level with the best design consultancies from the UK. The crisis in the Eurozone has forced everyone to look beyond their local markets but thankfully we have been doing that for the last ten years. This has given us a certain cultural sensitivity that the UK companies often lack.

LUMEN group has recently launched its daughter company in Brazil — Sao-Paolo-based Bianca. What were the premises behind that decision? Are brand and design services in demand among local businesses?

— Two years ago I was introduced to two very accomplished people there that have since become our local partners. For Lumen, Brazil represents not only a place to develop business but also a place full of optimism and entrepreneurial spirit. This contrasts a bit with what we are facing here in Western Europe where pessimism tends to prevail. We are a creative company and to create you have to believe in the future and find like-minded people willing to risk and invest in new ideas. We find this in Brazil.

Tell us a bit more about your connections with Russia. I know you’ve been a partner of the Moscow-based Mildberry for quite a long time. How does that partner scheme work?

— The relationship with Mildberry is based on friendship, shared values and vision. It began in a chance meeting between myself and its founder Oleg Beriev many years ago. We have collaborated since then in various projects and joint ventures but I would call it more of an association than a business. We of course try to make money together but the real value in our relationship is in how it enriches us creatively and culturally in a mutual way. We challenge and inspire each other.

 You’ve been to both Moscow and Kiev.  Did you have time to immerse into the Russian culture? What do you think of cosmopolitanism and sharing the common Western values in all developed countries?

— I have been traveling to Eastern Europe and Russia for many years. The reality of today is very different to what I found during my first visits. Years ago one could say that there was a great aspiration to be “Western” in an often exaggerated way. What I find now is renewed self-confidence and an emerging desire to create things that reflect local culture and attitudes on a world-class level. It’s fair to say that the so-called emerging markets have emerged.

You’re a frequent speaker at different industry events in both Europe and Asia.  What event are you planning to speak at soon/ this year?

— In early 2013 we will be co-organizing a big event targeting wine producers here in Italy and I have been invited to speak at the Verpackung fair in Germany at the end of January. If you have any other opportunities… have speech, will travel!

At the end of the day, we all ask ourselves this question… Are you happy with your mission in life, doing what you do running a branding agency?

— Big question! I think in part the secret to happiness is not asking yourself if you are happy or not and just getting on with life. I am a lucky man with a great family and a successful business that surrounds me with interesting, passionate people that constantly challenge and stimulate me. Maybe tomorrow I might take up fishing or buy a Harley but for now I’m satisfied with what I have.