The Klamath

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 for both.

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.

Mudflats

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 Klamath.

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.

Return

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 Francisco.

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 return.

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.

Aboard

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.

 

Celebrity

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, British Airways.

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.

 

Symbol

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.

 

 

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