Inside the Studio: Pulp + Wire
by Bill McCool on 05/11/2020 | 9 Minute Read
If you stroll around the offices of the Portland, Maine-based branding and marketing agency Pulp + Wire, you’ll find a few quotes affixed to the walls, but there’s one that best suits the agency, from a little 1988 John Carpenter movie starring Canadian professional wrestler and all-around legend “Rowdy” Roddy Piper called They Live: “I came here to chew bubblegum and kick ass, and I’m all outta’ bubblegum.”
There is also scratch-and-sniff cherry wallpaper in their bathrooms, but I digress.
Great B-movie lines aside, you’ll find a no-nonsense collective of “brand alchemists,” which is not to say that this is a place where you can’t have fun (I mean, the bathroom alone), but they’re a team devoted to getting it right for the client and pushing themselves to do the best work they can.
"Everything has a solution," says Pulp + Wire founder and CEO Taja Dockendorf.
That kind of pragmatism runs deep throughout the agency she founded back in 2004. Maybe you could trace that back to her going to school for automotive design, or her early love of woodworking and metalsmithing, building things with her father when she was a child—things just fit, or a design locks into place. Everything works as it should because someone created it to do just that.
Or it doesn't. Maybe something doesn't click with a client. Even when you gather the right designers for a project, after you've laboriously iterated for weeks on end, fine-tuned your pitch, and created something that's objectively beautiful. Sometimes they just don't like it. And that's part of the game too, having that thick skin. You still have to find that solution.
"We hear the client," she says. "And if it's not working, we pivot. And we put it in a very honest, transparent way, so we can come to the best solution at the end of the day, one that feels honest, and intrinsic to who that client is."
"It's really about the brand and what we need to move them to market to be successful in their space," she adds. And that's who they are as an agency. It's that kind of no-frills-zero-bullshit attitude that keeps their clients coming back.
The CPG world has always spoken to the agency, mostly because of Taja’s love of industrial design, but it also allows them to explore the relationship we have with brands beyond just the initial purchase. When Maine craft brewery Allagash wanted to start canning their flagship beer, they modernized the bottle’s original label, but they also wanted to tell the story of the brand and the Allagash River, using a different vantage point by going further up the river, beyond the falling leaves and tree-lined waters from the older design, and creating an entirely new story for the beloved beer.
But it’s also the natural and organics space that she has a passion for. Rind is a brand of healthy snacks devoted to curbing food waste, and they utilize every part of the fruit, including the skins, something they highlighted by using the natural beauty of the sundried superfruits for the packaging. Kalamata’s Kitchen creates an experience for both children and their parents with a series of books that take kids on a culinary adventure. Now, they’ve become a full-on brand, and the agency helped them to develop a branded bundles that kindle a child’s curiosity about food and includes things like an apron, a whisk, and memory games with exotic ingredients.
And that’s just a few of their most recent projects. They’ve worked with well-known, marquee products and start-ups as well as cannabis and CBD companies, and through it all, they’re building highly visible brands that continue to thrive.
Pulp + Wire started after Taja and her husband left New York after 9/11 as they wanted to put roots down in Maine. But she was also looking to do something quite different from what she did in the city.
“I was learning the ins and outs of the older agency model, which was priceless to learn, because it really taught me a lot about myself, and who I wanted to be as a new agency owner,” she says. But that experience showed her precisely how she didn’t want to do things. The older agency model meant having account managers dictate the rules, telling creatives to sit in the corner and make pretty things.
Taja saw it differently—she believed that creatives were also strategic thinkers. And that’s how they tackle projects; it’s not just about sitting back and making pretty things, though they certainly can make those pretty things. But they wanted to bring something else to the work that they do.
“Building my company, I was really looking for designers that I completely aligned with so that it was not just about creating something beautiful,” she admits. “It was about really hearing the client and the brand, understanding how they ticked, what pieces made them unique within their industry, and then how we could build on that.”
“It’s a lot of putting those puzzle pieces together for brands and helping them figure out how they are going to be 200% better than what they had imagined,” she adds. “My team is made up of a mix of account managers who are also creative thinkers, and creative thinkers who are also strategists and can manage the accounts.”
It's one of the ways Taja brings out the best in the studio. She's mindful of the team's capacities so that their role and their job completely aligns with who they are as a person, and she's able to activate on their strengths.
"I come from a family of industrial-organizational psychologists," she laughs.
“Strategic thinking is very much ingrained in who I am,” she adds. “It's important for me to understand, not only what we want to do as an agency, but also each individual unit and every employee on both a personal level and psychological level. How do they tick? Where are their strengths, but where are their weaknesses? Because those are just as important. And then making sure that how they're functioning and how they're working is tightly aligned to them being the best version of themselves every day.”
Collaboration also becomes critical in that context, and the strategic thinking they pride themselves on not only goes into building her teams but the studio space as well. There are numerous collective spaces to hammer out projects as a group, but she also realizes that one size doesn’t necessarily fit all. For designers that need isolation to be more productive, they have individual offices, and when it's time to decompress, there are communal areas too. Regardless, the space influences the work, and they feed off one another's energy; even when alone, they can come back together, a near necessity these days as designers work from home.
But aside from being a well-oiled machine, they're also part of what they call the .1%, meaning the percentage of creative agencies that are founded by women, which makes them their own special unicorn, a genuine travesty that's all the more unfortunate when you realize that only 3% of creative directors are women. The majority of the team at the agency is female, and Taja also mentors other female designers outside of the studio as well, letting them know what it takes to rise in the ranks and continue to persevere.
"It doesn't matter if you're male or female, you're going to need grit and tenacity in this industry," she says. "It's constantly just validating and advocating for yourself as a designer, and not taking shit."
Maine is probably not the first place that comes to mind when you’re talking design or branding. You likely think about London or New York City, not the idyllic coastal city Pulp + Wire calls home. But you’d be wrong, and it’s not all lobster pots, Stephen King, grizzled fishing folk, or any of the other stereotypes about Mainers you might have heard.
“This is my favorite place to come home to, Okay?” she says.
And sure, being in Portland helps them attract clients because if they’re not paying New York rents for a massive studio or agency, they can still do quality work but at an exceptional price point. And the work finds them, even internationally. Taja estimates that almost 99% of their work comes from referrals, and many of the clients they first started working with 16 years ago are still their clients today.
And it helped grow their talent pool. You can visit LA anytime, and despite having account managers and other creatives from New York or DC, they choose Maine because that’s the life they wanted for themselves or their families.
Outside, of course, it was a ghost town. When we sat down for the interview over Skype, Americans were only starting to shelter in place and stay at home, and Taja talked to me from their mostly empty offices as her team had begun working from home. Despite the obvious calm and the brick-paved charm outside her window, it’s not hard to see why a designer would gravitate towards the part of the country. You can have a little bit of the city, a part of the ocean, and greenery as far as the eye can see once you get out of town.
“My windows are open,” she says. “I can see the ocean. We're right there on the pier, and you can smell the ocean. There are seagulls and amazing restaurants. And it's the way of life I wanted.”
That paints quite the serene picture, making it appear as if they created their own island in the world of branding. If you were to stand at the front door, you’d see a lot of their work displayed on shelving, almost resembling an upscale boutique housing a variety of products from a wide swath of categories. It's somewhat deceiving, too, since you can’t just walk inside and buy something. But it serves as an homage to both their clients and the work they do.
You would also find another sign affixed to the wall, one in neon that you can see from the street that reads, “this is the sign you’ve been looking for.” And while that might feel like the universe is trying to tell you something, it's just a bit of strategically placed signage, an Easter egg for those looking for transformation and a little alchemy.
Just don’t ask them for any bubblegum.