Our icon of innovation
In 1960s San Francisco, Walter
Landor was finding that success comes with its own problems.
The profession he had helped pioneer was suddenly crowded, and so
were his headquarters. His branding agency had given rise to
imitators—some good, some awful—and to more new hires than he could
fit under his roof. Ironically, these were the same questions
clients asked him every day: how to manage a crowd, and how to
stand apart from one. He was determined to find his own solutions
He also knew what was expected of him—and this was yet another
constriction of success. Inexplicably, the higher his company rose,
the narrower his choices seemed to become. People loved the story
of how he and his wife, Josephine, had started a branding
powerhouse on their living room table. But instead of encouraging
an equally unexpected solution this time around, everyone told him
that there was just one option: He had to spend a couple of million
designing a showcase office and join the other big shots on “Agency
Row.” Instead, Walter spent $12,000—at a bankruptcy auction.
That’s where he found the perfect response to his competitors,
his growing staff, and the constraints of success. Out in the
mudflats south of the city he spied a forgotten piece of San
Francisco history: a gorgeous, hand-built, wooden ferryboat, the
It was the right size. Even abandoned in the mud, the
Klamath was a gem of American shipbuilding, designed to
carry a thousand people. And it had the right features—character,
craftsmanship, and spacious window-covered decks calling out to be
one-of-a-kind offices, studios, and meeting rooms.
Above all, it fit Walter’s brand. The Klamath was the
very embodiment of everything he had built over the last 20 years,
and what he hoped to build during the next 20. It would stand as a
clear reminder to everyone, inside and outside the company, that
branding is a business of passion. That after the customer surveys,
design research, and market analysis—rigor he had introduced to the
industry—successful branding requires an equal measure of guts,
surprise, and delight.
So as startled commuters looked on, Walter had the massive boat
hauled slowly back to San Francisco and docked at Pier 5.
Then came the doubters. City officials decided he needed to
apply for some sort of permit, but couldn’t figure out which one.
His floating headquarters wasn’t really a ferry anymore, but it
wasn’t exactly a building either. And gossip hinted that moving to
the old ship was a sign that Landor’s business was drying up. As
politicians grumbled and competitors whispered, Walter knew he had
to move quickly to preserve his ship and his reputation.
In the race to salvage both, he bet his future on two things.
One was the way he ran the company. Standard practice at the time
was to build a small office around a giant personality—usually the
personality whose name was on the front door. That leader was the
company, controlling every project and taking credit for every
idea. Walter was a leader who did neither. He believed in finding
the best people, motivating them to do their best work, and then
getting out of the way. He knew how to build teams people loved to
join, including people who couldn’t stand each other unless they
were working for him. As a result, his company kept growing. And
what would be treason at his competitors was commonplace at Landor:
the staff were encouraged to compete with their boss, and each
other. That’s why Walter gathered all of them together—his entire,
ungainly company—and presented them with their biggest creative
challenge to date: designing their new floating home in San
And that was Walter’s other advantage—the city itself. The
people of San Francisco were normally quick to pass judgment on any
new resident along the waterfront. But Landor’s ferryboat wasn’t
new. The fast-growing city had far more skyscrapers than shipping
lines, but it hadn’t always been that way. Despite the fact that
the boat at Pier 5 was swarming with office workers instead of ship
hands, local people recognized it as a living example of the city’s
once-proud Bethlehem Shipyards. In its day, the Klamath
had been part of the busiest ferry line in the world. With one
stroke, Walter Landor gave the city back a piece of its heritage,
and San Franciscans gave his boat and crew a hometown welcome in
The doubters were silenced. The story of the reborn
Klamath quickly spread from the local to the national and
international press. “Brand equity leverage” is the term we’d use
today—spending thousands to reshape an icon and reaping millions in
goodwill and free publicity.
At last, moving day arrived. Leaving dry land and stepping onto
the boat, Walter took his company off the standard map. Shipboard
life required some getting used to, of course. In the early months,
it was easy to spot Landor employees among the crowds on the
sidewalk heading for lunch. While standing on the corner waiting
for the light to change, they were the ones who would suddenly
topple like dominoes. Everyone was so used to compensating for the
rocking of the boat that the first few minutes on shore, they’d
forget and fall over.
But once you got your bearings, the creative advantages of the
boat were undeniable. Advantages like holding client meetings as a
gentle breeze played through the conference room. Like everyone
arguing that their desk was the one with the best view. Like
fishing for lunch. It was the closest most people on board had ever
come to working outdoors. Windows swung open to a cacophony of
seals barking, ship bells ringing and seabirds screaming—or flying
inside. With water lapping against its sides, the Klamath
was a natural iPod.
As the fame of the floating agency spread, people came to
understand the deeper significance of Walter’s move. It was about
freedom, and expression, and freedom of expression. It was about
recognizing value that no one else could perceive, and then
convincing the world to see things the same way. And for an
increasingly international company, it was about transcending a
single fixed address.
Maybe that’s why the postman had such a hard time delivering our
mail. But after a while, he found the gangway onto the
Klamath. Eventually, everyone did: Marshall McLuhan, Herb
Caen, Tom Wolfe, the Rolling Stones.
As a man who loved to surround himself with performers, artists,
and business tycoons, Walter had found his ideal stage perched at
Pier 5, on the edge of the continent. For visiting dignitaries,
business people, and stars, a trip to San Francisco wasn’t complete
without an invitation to the Klamath.
Parties aboard the ferry were legendary, and so was the branding
work that came cascading out of its studios: Levi’s,
Shell, Quaker Oats, Côte d’Or, Coca-Cola,
One reason we were so successful at creating many of the world’s
top experience brands was because we were now one ourselves. Having
literally cast ourselves off from increasingly conventional
thinking in the industry, we were a living example of the core
ideas we preached—differentiation and relevance, risk and results.
The legend of the boat preceded us to every pitch, and helped
transform us from a national consultancy into an international one
synonymous with innovation. It enabled us to more easily attract
the best clients and the best talent to serve them. The
Klamath became an icon of creativity, not just for those
who worked there, but for those who wanted to, who read about us,
and who traveled far to visit us.
Our company grew to be the biggest network of its kind on earth.
We opened offices on four continents and relied on the
Klamath—our world headquarters—to steer them all. It took
twenty unforgettable years, but the same challenges that brought us
on board the ship eventually forced us off again.
We were growing and, as much as we tried to ignore and deny it,
the Klamath simply couldn’t hold us all any longer. Nor
could she carry enough power to handle the computers, printers, and
servers we all suddenly seemed to need. The ship had been home for
two inspired decades but it was finally time to move on. At first
we thought the change was only temporary, just long enough to have
the Klamath redesigned to carry us another 20 years. But
with a merger and our growing numbers, even the mighty
Klamath wasn’t large enough.
“Don’t worry,” Walter said, “we’ll never give up the
Klamath. She’ll always be our symbol of creativity.” And
so she is—immortalized in the names of our offices, on the yellow
pads we use to scribble down brainstorms, and on the business cards
we carry in our pockets. It’s a constant reminder that breakthrough
ideas start at home.
And once in a great while, breakthrough ideas are home.