AdForum Exclusive: An Interview with Dana Arnett, Vice Chairman and Founding Partner at VSA Chicago

We would like to thank Dana Arnett for sitting down with AdForum to discuss the changes VSA Chicago has experienced and their plans for the future.

By Sarah Cullen

VSA defines itself as a “design-driven” agency; what exactly does that mean and how have you continued to instil this founding principle after more than 30 years in the industry?

Dana: When we talk about “Design Driven” it refers to three unique characteristics of VSA’s identity:

Design as a Differentiator: We began as a design firm. We believed then and believe now, that design is not just about aesthetics but Big “D”— a means for achieving business objectives. We believe the most valuable brand experiences are those that are unified across all touchpoints, and design thinking allows us to connect these dots effectively and artfully.

Design as a unified thought: We believe that design represents a third culture between science and the humanities, allowing VSA to unify its rich narrative and intuitive tradition with empirical, data-driven approaches. It’s through this unique perspective that we inspire creativity through a deeper understanding of human behavior. We also believe this philosophy sits at the heart of “user experience” design.

Design as Culture: We find ourselves at an exciting moment of growth and change. Many people have joined us in the midst of our industry’s most profound period of transformation. As VSA evolves into its third decade, we have embraced our design DNA as a characteristic that is valued by both our employees and clients — illuminating how we create value for business leaders, as well as highlighting what defines the heart and spirit of the designers at VSA. Our leaders within the agency, unequivocally affirm that Design is the reason we exist.

AdForum: As the world gets more and more immersed into the information age, how does VSA continue to stay relevant in today’s agency landscape?

Dana: It starts by creating a growth mindset within the agency and being clear on the realities and needs of our changing world. We’ve always chosen to embrace change and invest in the people and capabilities that will advance the world we live in — Always imagining “what could be” versus accepting a “what is” attitude, which can paralyze a creative organization.

As consumers increasingly bounce among brick-and-mortar and desktop and mobile browsing, brands require a unified approach instead of a mishmash of ideas that are often dominated by never-ending cross-agency meetings. As channels continue to blur across devices and platforms, we believe that clients can't afford to separate the functions or teams anymore. Design is our relevant differentiator as an agency and becomes the integrating force or red thread across all the mediums.

AdForum: VSA offers such a variety of in-house capabilities, however is there a type of content you personally prefer producing?

Dana: I would say it’s less about choice and preference when it comes to “content type.” There will always be a constant wave of new ideas, subject matter and channels that challenge and inspire our people each and every day.

Perhaps more important than content itself is the beauty and merit of the process… Or as you’ve put it, the ‘producing’ of content. Adopting a process that fuels ideas is one of the most essential and inspiring aspects of creativity at VSA. Our journey of content and idea generation starts through hypothesis and prototyping. This open and rapid style of conceptualization helps us freely imagine new possibilities. Think of this as ‘learning through building’ — using ingenuity, debate, artifacts and tools to unlock powerful ideas.

AdForum: What is the biggest change that you have seen during your time with VSA and what challenges and opportunities do you expect in the future?

Dana:The speed of change itself. The rapid convergence of information technology, content channelization and consumption have changed our industry exponentially. These are just three manifestations of a greater trend that will continue to pressure agencies to adapt quickly and deploy capabilities that create value. 

This disruption is also an avenue of opportunity. Because CMO’s are faced with many choices and decisions regarding marketing investments, we can be their partner that helps navigate these waters and make informed decisions.

At VSA we’ve reshaped our capabilities and service set to speak to this phenomenon. Integration is key. In our minds, it’s not simply about building out new and important skills, it really about connecting the dots for our clients. When we do this, brands perform consistency and powerfully in this complex marketplace they live in. We continue to be excited about being that “connector” — an agency who can partner with clients to create holistic ideas that work across the omni-channel. That’s a far more compelling “reason to be” than just an agency resource.