Clarity with purpose : An interview with Jim Misener, President of 50,000feet

50,000feet is a unique creation. Its name implies a broad perspective of a landscape in rarified air. Above 50,000feet, sustained human life is not possible without a pressure suit. But it would be a mistake if one thought that 50,000feet only stays at that level, because it doesn’t. It is a unique amalgam of design, brand and technology that is led by four unique Partners (Jim Misener, Ken Fox, Mike Petersen and Chris Prescher) and a smart staff that seeks the essential truth of what companies are about and how they position themselves in the markets they serve.

Since 2001, 50,000feet has endeavored to be an independent voice in brand creation and rehabilitation. Nestled in a 12,000 square-foot Chicago office that is open, warm and well detailed, which is complemented by the recent opening of another office in New York, integration at all levels is a main aspiration of the company. It could be viewed as a metaphor to help brands reach their highest expression through breathtaking beauty and simplicity.

I do not remember when I met Jim Misener, the President of 50,000feet; but I do remember our first breakfast discussion which meandered on a wide variety of subjects. For anyone who could listen in to what we discussed, they might have a hard time making sense of our talk, but both of us found it satisfying. Jim has incredible manners and sent me a thank you note for “imparting a meal of wisdom that will carry me into the day and weeks and months ahead.”

I have always admired 50,000feet for its independence, discipline and clarity of purpose. Every project I have been exposed to feels like an archetype of what brand should be, but rarely is. As Jim said in another interview “For most companies, brand is the largest intangible asset and contributor to shareholder value, which is a typical measure of the value for public and most private companies.” The challenge is to not reduce a brand to creativity, expression and executables. 50,000feet is not an agency, nor a design firm. It is an interesting amalgam of organizational typologies where strategy, brand, experience and digital capabilities flow.

After many years of interacting with Jim and 50,000feet, I wanted to sit down with him and delve deeper into issues that I have read about 50,000feet, Jim and the variegated brand space.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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In reading your CV, what is evident is your drive. You recently said “I believe success is about meaningful engagement in what you set out to do.” Is meaningful engagement what drives you?

It is a function of where I am in life. There is no single ambition that drives me, but meaningful engagement can be immediate and automatic like the awe of a beautiful incoming storm, a wonderful work of art or an amazing meal. It can also be purposeful engagement of one’s sweat and tears.

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50,000feet is a partnership. How do the four partners work together and develop their independent client relationships?

Partnerships are interesting, and I am a huge fan of this model. There is an adage that you should choose your partners wisely, and this is important and true in theory and in practice. Ken, Mike, Chris and I share the same values, which is the heart and soul of what binds us together. While the outward expression of what excites us, our approach to problem solving and our individual competencies and capabilities differ, I view these differences as strengths. Our unique qualities are grounded in our shared values.

Although we have unified thinking about our mission, vision and values, how we go to market differs somewhat for each of us. We encourage different approaches to client engagement across clients and industries, and each of us brings different areas of expertise. You might say that our partnership is like a fine wine—matured and refined over time. There is a deep mutual understanding and heartfelt respect for what each of us—and for what our entire team—brings and does as well as for who we all are.

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50,000feet has been called a design firm, a branding/communications firm, a creative consultancy and a creative agency. Do these designations matter? If yes, to you what is 50,000feet and then is it different things to different clients?

I often wonder whether we are making too fine a distinction and whether anyone really cares. Ultimately, it is about your audience—your clients—and their priorities and needs. There have been shifts in the markets during our almost 20 years that we have had to navigate; and because of that, we have regularly reevaluated our positioning and revisited our mission, vision and values along with looking at our business in terms of capabilities and focus. This has allowed to evolve gradually and always with a focus on the needs of our clients and our team. We are often told by our long-time clients that we have really grown and evolved through the years, yet somehow we seem the same.

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What does “No walls, no doors, no excuses” mean and how did you develop this mantra?

We intentionally want to create a collaborative spirit throughout our environment and our culture. We have few physical walls in our space, which is coupled with having a relatively flat organizational structure to encourage collaboration. We do need to balance the transparency of no walls and doors with the need to have time for concentration and deep thinking. No excuses is about showing up, doing the work and being accountable in order to enable your team and our process to move forward.

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Design is about problem solving and problem seeking to focus minds and at the same time as set them free. Discuss a vexing problem that you are struggling with?

There is no client we have that does not want to have a discussion about growth. What does growth mean for them, and how do they do it? From a brand perspective, there is a tension between remaining consistent by remaining true to your vision and what changes through some sort of evolution.

Another aspect to growth is about building teams. When you build client relationships, you need human capital, ingenuity and innovation to push and pull on a framework and a culture where people can contribute their best today and be a little better tomorrow and so on for positive individual growth. Growth is staying abreast of these conversational currents and then amplifying one’s voice within it. Clients and markets are always changing so the conversation is always changing.

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Scale is a very popular term. 50,000feet has grown through its almost 20 years. You also said that “Integration is huge for us” and at the same time you said one of your challenges has been “failing to learn how to harness a team early enough in the process of tackling certain challenges or to create an impact on a greater scale.” How do you balance staff growth with opportunity and what have been the tradeoffs for controlled organic growth of staff and revenue?

I don’t like the word scale. For us as a company, it has never been about being bigger. It’s about being better. Are we working with brands that align with our values? Can we offer solutions that maximize value contribution? Are we feeling good about growing inside and outside a client’s organizations and are we effectively collaborating with them? Do we feel that we are looking for good challenges and providing good solutions? As problems get bigger, the complexities of teams grow; and co-creation with our clients means collaborating adds even greater complexity.

Above all, we want to maintain a high level of quality and excellence because we’re a high-quality culture. Quality is how well does a solution deliver on a client’s need set. How well did we answer the questions that informed the problem? Have we anticipated tomorrow’s challenges? So many of the best solutions in terms of quality can be evaluated by how well do they deliver on current needs and predict and then prevent problems in the future. As Wayne Gretzky said “I do not skate to where the puck is, I go to where the puck is going” is true to how we engage with our clients and markets. We need to see five steps ahead and plan accordingly.

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You said in an interview that “every detail matters.” Can you elaborate on that statement?

Attention to detail is important on every level. If you were seeing a doctor, you would not ask about the importance of detail. Its importance would be an implicit. While design encompasses playful expression, it also requires astute analysis, broad synthesis and critical thinking. As designers, we carry the weight of solving not only today’s problems but also anticipating tomorrow’s obstacles. Moreover, design needs to think across both physical and digital experiences. Because of these challenges, details matter.

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You said recently that 50,000feet is where “creativity happens and that you are part of an idea-making machine.” Innovation is about finding new value in something. How do you weave the new and have companies get excited enough to change the status-quo?

It comes back to human talent. A team’s function is to engage in and facilitate authentic conversations. We have to build shared language that encourages dialogue and risk taking. This builds trust and leads to better, more harmonious solutions. Our approach to solving our clients’ problems is to serve as a steward to their brands and bring the right skills at the right time to test and correct our solutions. Listen well, learn quickly and execute beautifully.

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How do you be adaptable and flexible while still keeping in mind 50,000feet’s mission and values which are constant?

You need to create a rich and respectful environment that supports needed collaboration where certain ideas go forward and others do not. You also need to leave space where people can try things and experiment. As a culture, we experiment with a disciplined approach. We have built our business centered on the values of respect for the individual and the team effort across all kinds of innovation and creativity. This is critical to every company’s health and growth, including ours.

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You recently said your superpower is mind-reading. When did you know you had it, and how does this superpower help you and those around you?

When I was in high school, I tested highest in math and weakest in verbal skills so I decided to study literature in college. I somehow allows believe that you have to run toward the fire—to address your greatest weaknesses to build on your natural strengths. I think that journey that I set off on helped me to listen more closely and become more empathic. I have learned that if you really listen to people, they will tell you what they’re thinking.

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Experience is another term that has reached a mythical status. An experience is the ability of an individual or group to achieve a goal through a series of key moments over time – usually through a service. The challenge is everyone views the same experience differently. How does 50,000feet address the five stages of experience: Entice, Enter, Engage, Exit, and Extend?

Our team works with our clients to help facilitate their go-to-market and brand experience frameworks through discrete stages and moments. A single moment can powerfully define the whole brand experience.

Years ago, we shifted our emphasis from “strategic integrated brand communications” to “strategic integrated brand experiences.” This might seem like a small shift, but it was a big one for us. Strategic facilitation about experience defines and creates powerful multi-sensory and multi-channel moments.

I think of Don Peppers and Martha Rogers book “The One to One Future” and their premise about the emergence from customization to personalization and the digital platforms that would deliver on both. Today, this seems a priori; we seem to have forgotten how radical an idea this was years ago. Did the Internet change customer-centricity and segmentation? Is segmentation dead? No.

At the same time, it is important to recognize the role and opportunity for personalized marketing. With IoT, we may be setting off on another journey for brands, whereby many of the most ubiquitous and powerful brand experiences are with audiences who are experiencing brands without realizing it. Brands are becoming more embedded, more ubiquitous and in many ways, more invisible. In addition, privacy, safety and anonymity have become increasingly important topics of conversation for brands.

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Humans like to think they are rational, when in reality they are driven by emotion. Successful brands have emotional relationships with their customers which turn emotions into behaviors. How does 50,000feet weave the rational and emotional together to help brands reach their highest expression so customers become real believers?

First, you need to recognize the truth in that question. You create an environment for both rational and emotional perspectives and value the complementary nature of both perspectives. Both are incredibly valuable and are critical to our work. To do this, you need to create space for people to open their hearts as well as their heads. It is getting tougher to find places that value both.

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The current pandemic has demonstrated that all of our knowledge, institutions and behaviors have been unable to address such a existential challenge that has roiled the world into uncharted uncertainty. What are your observations about this pandemic and how it is affecting your thinking, leadership in providing counsel to your clients who are struggling to pivot?

How much time do we have to talk about it? We are all realizing the world is bigger than us, and that there are forces—including biological and natural systems—that have, are and will impact us very significantly. We are recognizing our systems have limits, which is helping to unleash a renaissance, I think, across many disciplines, including public health, technology, education, urban planning, transportation—and the list goes on. Brand leaders are poised to put their services to good use in this time of pandemics.

The brightest brands have and will engage in the cultural conversations that are surrounding all of the changes brought about by the pandemic. While none of us has all of the answers, it is important to continue to educate and inspire our audiences through this challenging time. Put simply, brands need to show up.

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Design has many meanings, and so does brand. Both terms are stretched to the point of meaning everything and nothing. How do you operate your firm in these two worlds and how do both drive specificity in thought and action?

Design and brand are close kin. E.O. Wilson wrote the brilliant book “Concillience : The Unity of Knowledge.” which challenged why we are hung up on separate knowledge, categorization and skills. Design is a discipline and practice that focuses on setting a point-of-view to solve a problem with ease and elegance. Brands are the sum total of your experiences. Design provides a set of skills and frameworks that shape a brand experience. It is about guiding and steering our practices in both design and brand, which are distinct and complementary.

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You recently said that you work with brands that are “disrupting their categories.” What types of disruption are they doing and to what end? Is there a common thread in all these disruptions?

Our clients are doing this for market leadership in their category with a purpose measured in their ability to further their missions. The brightest stars are the disruptors because they are constantly rethink what they do. We help our clients make intentional creative destructions and evolutions. At 50,000feet, we are constantly facilitating these disruptions with and for our clients.

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There have been many consolidations of design consultancies and agencies. Why is 50,000feet still independent?

We are wholly-owned, privately held and one of the largest agencies in Chicago. This approach and scale allows us to move fast, invest in our teams and our clients and add disciples to enrich what we already do. Furthermore, continued improvement and investment in practices, tools and talent have allowed us to weather economic storms. Our collaborative nature, we hope, is continuing to grow stronger as it manifests in such approaches as our recently forged strategic alliance with Carbone Smolan Agency in New York City. We are currently exploring additional partnerships to help us evolve, enrich and evolve.

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Based on what you shared with me today, what inspires you?

Truthfully, I wake up every morning thankful and grateful. I love what I do: the opportunity to think about problems while not being overwhelmed by them. Working in design is the best job in the world; and as a leader at 50,000feet, it is a challenging and inspiring place to be. Outside work, I love my life. I don’t worry about work/life integration as they are inseparable. My personal life informs my work life. You never enter the same river twice. Who wouldn’t you want to show up and get wet?

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