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Inside the Studio: Viceroy Creative

by Theresa Christine Johnson on 09/24/2015 | 22 Minute Read

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A fuzzy, pixelated image of Gabrielle Rein appears on my computer screen, and after a few seconds everything focuses. The Creative Director at Viceroy Creative greets me in a luxurious leather armchair, and the large room boasts a ceiling tall enough that I catch her voice echoing in the audio. We make brief introductions, finally allowing ourselves to put a face to the name we’d been emailing the past week, and then she lifts up her computer to give me an exclusive Skype tour of the Viceroy office.

I quickly learn, though, that their headquarters can hardly be called an office.  A portion of the space is, of course, dedicated to desks and Macs and the expected office setup, but the majority of Viceroy Creative’s workspace is anything but ordinary. As the original tenants for that floor, they essentially got to design it themselves, aiming to create an environment that fuels creativity and collaborative work. David Moritz, Founder and CEO mentions, “I believe that the environment in which the actual work is done should be well designed, balanced, uplifting and engaging, but it should be a calm and serene environment that allows the flow of many different styles and ways of thinking. We should be consistently periodically immersed in different intensely creative environments, and then we should go back to our serene space to hash it all out and do the imaginative thinking that’s required to reach intuitive insights necessary to help our clients increase their revenue and brand equity. ”

Viceroy’s physical space combines modern spaces, organic accents, artwork, classic design pieces, and more, all of which lives on the fifth floor of the Standard Motors Building in Long Island City, New York. This not only gives employees endless inspiration, but it serves clients as well. By offering a relaxing library, an upscale bar, and mock retail shelves, for example, clients are able to see their product in a real-life setting — to touch it in the store or to have a bartender pour them a glass.

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Viceroy truly wants to give their clients the full experience, and they will happily go to any length to achieve that. Whether it’s a nude photo shoot or arranging 200+ whiskeys by origin simply to create the right atmosphere, Moritz and his team of 15 full-time employees and 15 freelance specialists all recognize the reward in executing every fine detail in the most meticulous style. “We are hired to execute wild things for our clients, in an upscale way,” he states, and without fail, they continue to deliver.

Moritz and Rein sit down to discuss the beginnings of Viceroy Creative, design for luxury brands, and their recent, much-discussed rebrand.

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What inspired you to start your own company? What were some of the challenges along the way?

I’ve had my own businesses since I was at NYU, I owned a few bars in college and law school. I wanted to start a new creative agency because first of all I wanted a business that would give more reign to creative and marketing ideas and because I recognized in Gabrielle a unique talent and capability. We decided to take a risk if it could be advantageous to start our own firm earlier on. Also, I recognized some inefficiencies in the market in production of creative work and ideas and I thought there was an opportunity to be disruptive. 

The major challenges were starting an agency when we were in our 20’s without decades of industry and client connections to draw on for new business development. Now we’re only in our early 30’s and still have a major marketing challenge in our own agency, where the industry is extremely competitive and we’re going after some of the most desirable clients and projects. The fact that we are as known as we are however still limited, that we’ve attracted the clients we have, starting from scratch, is itself a testament to the fact that we can walk the talk – our creative marketing ideas, our ability to “create desire” is not theoretical, we live it every day.  

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Other challenges include operating a studio in a calm and relaxing manner – which we’ve largely achieved. There’s no waiting till the last minute the night before a due date and then staying up all night to finish it. There’s no miscommunication or mismanagement that leads to showing a client work that isn’t right and then having to work furiously to come up with something new. I’m a businessman but also a creative, so I can structure the process internally in a professional and efficient manner. And we propose some crazy, wild, out of the box, ambitious ideas. But you don’t have to conduct your business in a wildly unstructured and unprofessional manner in order to come up with those ideas. The fact of the matter is that if you can generate good work, then you can do it reliably, and the more you get used to doing it professionally, the better you will be at it. Still, it’s a challenge to continue to implement very high internal standards across the board while being in a very fun creative field. People start to realize that it’s this blend of structured process and imaginative thinking that allows us to pull off ambitious projects.   

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Why 'Viceroy Creative’? Who came up with the name? What is the meaning behind it? 

We wanted a name that would represent our positioning – luxury, edgy, exciting, desirable. I came up with Viceroy Creative after thinking for a long time about “what we really do.” What’s unique about us as an agency is that we can start with the business objectives of a client, make our own brief as to how to handle that, make a strategic game plan, then fully execute against that plan including both business and creative details – that means, creating a business model, negotiating deals and relationships with third parties, every kind of graphic, structural and product design whatsoever, product and manufacturing innovation, development, sourcing and logistics, activation and commercialization plans and activities – all the way through to launch. We can design and deliver what we concept. There’s not really a word that hasn’t been diluted by hyperbole in the industry that describes that. We’re almost like a temporary internal marketing team to help our clients achieve a business objective. Historically, a Viceroy would be appointed temporarily to achieve certain objectives and would act in a defined territory with all the broad powers of the sovereign, but would fully represent the sovereign interests and intentions. Plus it has the word “vice” in it, and that seemed like a good fit for us.


What is Viceroy's design philosophy?

Create desire, represent the best that the brand can be while staying true to itself and its objectives, communicate emotionally instantaneously – create a message that passes through a consumer’s filters by both leveraging and avoiding cues as needed to engage automatic emotional processes to give understanding about what the brand is and how it makes people feel. We all know what it feels like to see a design, a product, a scene and have it generate an emotional response. The simpler the product is, the more surface these responses will be and the more it will drive to immediate action (purchase). The more complicated the product is, the deeper we need to go to establish desire and respect that will result in revenue for the company somewhat later down the line. Whenever possible, it is our ultimate objective to do both at once. 

Design at Viceroy is not about promulgating our perspective repeatedly throughout the world, stroking our own ego or making everyone’s brand look the same. Our own ego has no place in the process – if things are successful at the end of the day, we’ll get the credit and it will feel wonderful. Our responsibility is to have the exact right design to get the job done for our clients. There are many times where our own proclivities overlap, where we are in fact the target customer ourselves – and that’s wonderful. But it’s never a perfect overlap.  We are individuals with specific tastes and idiosyncrasies. Our work isn’t designed to only make us happy – it’s designed to accomplish business objectives for our clients, creatively. And when the project is successful, that’s when we are happy and we get that jolt of endorphins. Once you get used to thinking about it this way, we also get the jolt of endorphins while creating work that we believe is going to have this effect for our clients. 

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Describe a typical day at Viceroy.

Something very unusual about a studio like ours:  by and large, it’s quiet in the studio – everyone is happily working away. There’s a productive, optimistic, positive energy in the air.  No one is idly chatting or gossiping, no one is goofing off or playing around on the internet – everyone is plugging away, super productive and super happy about it. That’s when everyone is just working and nothing else in particular is happening. But when we have NASA astronauts or famous designers and artists and brand owners or musicians or politicians in the office and we’re having drinks at the bar or in the whiskey library, obviously that’s something new. Or when we’re blasting club music in the bar area experimenting with something – this is our work. We do a lot of work with spirits, so there’s frequent tastings, and new productive development. We’re always working on some artistic internal projects – I don’t have to mention if there’s a naked photo shoot going on for example – but it could also be fine art projects. There’s a long list of wild and crazy stuff that’s part of our actual day to day business. But that’s all in the due course of our business. 


Tell us about Viceroy's package design projects. What makes you different?

We combine an European artistic aesthetic with American business practicality, which is very much in demand right now. Everyone says that their work is “strategic” but for Viceroy even a straightforward packaging assignment is going to be considering specific business goals for the client from sales to consumer perception. We have deep manufacturing experience so we can propose ambitious ideas and understand how our clients can get them made in budget, and help them to do so (or do it for them) – our goal is for the photograph of the final product to look much more appealing than the rendering of the concept, rather than the reverse. We can combine the packaging with the strategy – from photography or special illustration needs to co-branded items and collaborations. Not only will we design the box, but if the box is featuring an artist collaboration, we’ll go upstream and help determine the business objective for hiring an artist in the first place, determine who best fits those objectives, identify them, reach out to them, negotiate a deal, manage the project, get the work from them (or make it ourselves along with or for them), design and manufacture or source products as needed, and finally combine all of those assets in a beautiful box, get it made (and win awards for the box), and help with marketing activation, point of sale, retail theater, store design. What makes us different is that you can come in for a box or a bottle or label and find out that we can actually be an outsourced Viceroy for your brand. It’s almost like outsourcing a special projects marketing department within your company. 

And the creativity of the box itself will also be award-winning. And, I would absolutely love and welcome any projects that do not require all of the rest. It certainly is easier and more relaxing to just make a box, which we will also do in a world-class fashion. Totally available for packaging only projects, all day long, please.

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How do you keep your employees and designers inspired? Tell me about your creative process.

We’re a small team so when an opportunity comes up, everyone has the chance to contribute and participate in most aspects of it. We also have to be efficient so we’re not going to democratically explore every suggestion. But there’s certainly always the opportunity for anyone to step up and take on more if they can. For our designers and employees, our work is very interesting and exciting because it’s so completely new day to day. Our jobs are often very far reaching in scope. One day we may be doing the usual, logos, branding and graphics and presentations, the next day it may be inventing a new kind of bar tool, designing a product or otherwise working on a famous luxury brand, it could be coming up with a strategy for exotic vacations, working on space travel (literally), ideas for a municipality, creating a new spirits brand, jewelry, automotive marketing – it really could be anything. We don’t have just one tool to address all needs. We’re helping clients to come up with business strategies, and then getting into the details of what would be involved in executing those strategies – so that necessarily leads our team to many different places. Inherently, it’s inspiring and interesting.

Of course, as a manager, I would really like more of the simpler, more straightforward creative assignments that most agencies get. We seem to get many opportunities that are vastly complicated. Our creative process is basically a way to create order from chaos, make sure that it can be done, it fits the objectives, it’s making the clients happy, and that we’re not just stroking our own egos or trying to pitch them on something that isn’t objectively awesome (that’s a scientifically determinable attribute) and perfect for their business but is rather just something we want to do or something we’re used to doing. Our goal is that when the client sees the work, they immediately know that it’s right and it feels like home to them – but certainly they were pushed out of their comfort zone, but in a really exciting, visionary way where it feels like their brand. Our creative process is a way of moving step by step through the assignment to make decisions and observations – and getting client approval and buy-in on those, or get them modified and corrected – to give ourselves all the parameters needed to focus the final work.

We also have a David and Goliath thing going on – we’re a new, very boutique agency and we’re competing for and often winning these unbelievable opportunities that any firm in the world would kill to get (I would maybe kill to get them more often, but we do get them). This sense of striving for continual progress and proving ourselves and sometimes the shock and excitement of what we get to do is motivating for everyone here. 

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How do you work with your clients? What is most important to you when dealing with clients?

For our agency and our clients to access our best possible results, two things are ideal and they are both a form of collaboration. These things can be considered most important to me. The first is the ability to go upstream a bit from whatever has been literally asked of us and to identify the business goal or need that is driving it. This can allow us to help the client focus the project. Maybe take it in a slightly different but more powerful direction. The really exciting work always happens when we can collaborate in this way to start it off – this allows us to start to take on that role of “Viceroy” for a brand. The second thing is bringing our clients into our creative process in a way that makes them part of the fabric of it, but without art directing or driving it. The clients have the information and we have the insight; we have to weave these together. We do not try to force ideas or designs on our clients – we are very flexible and will adapt as we want to deliver usable work first. The work is meant to achieve business results, not to make us happy (both is good though). And yet, often clients will simply choose one of our suggested options as-is, because they were a part of it. I don’t think that a psychological thing, rather I think that’s what makes the work strong.


Have you had any bad client experiences?  What do learn from them?

One thing that we learned early on is that there is no “Viceroy Lite.”  That’s an internal phrase that we use to remind ourselves that all the process steps are actually necessary to make sure that the work is right and that clients have a good experience.  Being a new small agency especially early (and me being a marketer) we’ve accepted jobs that were perhaps too low of a budget to be practical, and in those cases you’re tempted to accomplish them by skipping some internal process steps.  That just makes it take longer in the end, it doesn’t help anything. So regardless of the job, budget, pro bono, low-bono, we have to handle everything the same full steam way. 

The second important lesson that I learned is that I have to put down my entrepreneurial business manager hat sometimes. Integrity is extremely important to us personally and to our business. We make the guarantee to our clients that we stand prepared to execute anything we suggest that they do, and that we can bring ambitious ideas successfully through to commercialization. That and having the experience with my own businesses naturally leads me to focus on the success of the project above all else. And when I see something is going wrong or stalling, in certain areas I had to learn to tone down the alarm-ringing. Sometimes it’s enough to bring issues to the client’s attention, make it very clear, and then let them decide what to do, even if that does mean a delay or a potential loss. I’m not the client, I’m the Viceroy. I will never stop thinking like the client, however. I really try to put myself in their shoes. 

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What aspects of working with luxury brands do you enjoy? Are there any aspects you don’t like?

We love pretty much everything about working with luxury brands. To start, we’re speaking the same language. It feels comfortable. Even if we don’t have the same aesthetic preferences, we’ll have the same frame of reference to discuss aesthetics. From there, the emphasis on long-term brand equity is the part which is understood. When I bring up short term ROI as a goal, that’s often a welcome novelty – after we’ve established that long-term equity is primary and inviolate. In luxury marketing, we’re manipulating emotions – but they are genuine, nuanced emotions. I like that there’s little reliance on pseudo-science as support for marketing strategies. I think actually, brands across the spectrum are moving away from that and getting back to good ideas. Direct advertising is scientific (though there’s a creative element). Packaging, branding, product design – this is an art. We’re creating corporate art and hoping that it connects emotionally with people – with a luxury brand we all understand that this is the game. At the same time, you know that in many cases a luxury brand will just not have the same kind of marketing dollars that often larger mass brands will have. Though your artistic ambitions may be larger, your budgets may be smaller. This comfort in a luxury strategy dialogue and this ability to choose strategies that will create short term ROI while preserving long-term brand equity, combined with the budget issue, is why we will frequently suggest collaborations.


Viceroy Creative went through a rebrand earlier this year. What does this change mean for the company — its process or its goals, for example?

Part of the need for the rebrand was essentially our process and goals had already evolved. Practically speaking, the rebrand allowed us to unabashedly focus on them. If our work keeps skewing upscale (and “upscale” doesn’t not just mean shiny gold for everything – handcrafted things are also upscale), then let’s run with that – it’s what we prefer anyway, so let’s not hold back with it. If our best ideas allow for complex integrated marketing campaigns and rise well above design, which may still lie at the heart, again let’s go full force with that and not hold back. I would still like to have more straightforward packaging assignments, but the reality is that we are doing more integrated marketing.


The redesign included a nude photo shoot with four of the executives at Viceroy. In a society where women in particular are objectified and often harshly judged for their appearance, this is certainly a shocking choice for a collaborative design agency. How did you work beyond that shock value? What considerations did you make to ensure that the final images portrayed the cohesive team with a clear and focused vision that you are? What has the response to the campaign been?

Shock was the point, there’s no reason to skirt that. Well rather, let me say attention was the point, as I don’t think the images are by today’s standards “shocking” and I think they came out quite tastefully and artistically done – our photographer Robert Wyatt is to credit with that. In addition to clear headedness and support, a large part of the precautions we took to make sure the vision would come through was the decision to work with Robert. We signed on for a huge personal and professional effort and expense, but even still I suppose in the backs of our minds we figured that if it didn’t come out well, we didn’t have to go through with it. But it came out beautifully. To show how hard we could work and how disciplined we could be, we added the exercise and diet program to get in shape. There’s also an element which I think came about organically of being “on trend,” which is doubly appropriate given what we do. There’s a massive movement for upscale health and fitness right now and I think we’re tapping into that collective subconscious. It’s funny that we were going for this humorous but a little dark and edgy vibe, but now we’re also getting wellness and fitness clients! We’ve got spirits on the one hand, and wellness on the other. But it really couldn’t be more appropriate because along with fashion and design, those are two of our loves. The way that we preserved through this was teamwork, a supportive environment, it was fully optional and we did it together. A feat like this, when you plan and train for six months and then undergo something daring like this photoshoot and share it with the world, and you’re not actually a model or actor and you still have to do your day job – you can’t really do that alone. You need teamwork to pull that off.

The response to the campaign has been absolutely incredible. As far as reach and awareness goes, much more successful than we could have hoped for. It really accomplished everything we wanted it to. Beyond that, it sparked some great debate about health, fitness, image, and advertising. A follow-up article focused on the diet aspect by Business Insider was at the top of the home page of Yahoo.com for an entire morning, and so this sparked a lively and surprisingly even debate. Many people reached out to us with questions about exercise and fitness. But the main thing is that now this is just a part of the story of our agency – we are hired to execute wild things for our clients, in an upscale way.

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You designed The Dieline Awards 2015 trophy boxes. What were your goals with the design? How did you make sure to successfully carry those out?

As an authority on packaging design – the Dieline needed something unique! We wanted to create an innovative structure that showcased and complimented the award. The simplicity and elegance of the design uses a single, identifiable brand mark. The package is a reflection of the edgy Dieline brand personality. The presentation had to be best of class and exude excellence. Viceroy was honored to work on the project and create something we could give back to our peers.


What are your favorite kinds of projects to work on? If you have a dream project, what would it be?

True luxury brand collaborations with mass-luxury brands. This allows us to do the emotional, “what dreams are made of” traditional luxury marketing, messaging and design, but with the budget and awareness that comes with mass-distributed premium products. It’s an opportunity for the mass brand to really play in the stars, dreamscape, and an opportunity for the luxury brand to take one foot off the pedestal in order to have some fun and reenergize its base. 

As for a dream project for us that we haven’t done yet, I think that Gabrielle would agree with me that it would be to do any kind of design with a 360 activation working along with and hand in hand with Philippe Starck. It would be an honor to have that experience, and we’d just try to be as helpful as possible (he’s so prolific across so many categories, it doesn’t seem like needs us, but we would be very enthusiastic).  

Several of the things that we’ve already done have actually been dream projects, so we’re just super fortunate and appreciative for that.