Is there a tried and true path to creative success? Some say follow your passion, but that’s not what worked for this week’s guest. In this episode, Chris talks with YouTube design trend forecaster, Philip Van Dusen, about how following his curiosity led him to where to he needed to be.
Chris: Philip, thank you for coming on the show. And for people who don't know about you, can you give us a really quick?
Philip: I'm Philip Van Dusen and I'm a principal of a Verhaal Brand Design, which is a consultancy and we specialize in brand strategy, marketing and design for small to medium size businesses and entrepreneurs.
Chris: Are you a classically trained designer?
Philip: I am not. I am a classically trained painter.
Philip: I had my masters in painting. I used to teach painting back in the day.
Chris: So how did you go from painting to doing design and brand strategy?
Philip: Well, I like to call it a career web rather than a career ladder. Lots of side jobs, but they all made each other stronger. And I started off as a painter, as I said, was teaching university for a little bit. And then I came back from teaching in the South of France and started my own t-shirt company with the monotypes that I had been producing when I was teaching. And this was before the internet, so that dates me. And I walked the Island of Manhattan with my little t-shirt sample case, selling my stuff and street fairs in Manhattan and stuff like that. Eventually, over a period of time realized that I didn't really like sales that much and I loved doing the design work.
Philip: So I went to work for one of my competitors about a $5 million t-shirt company and that was in Dumbo, Brooklyn back when Dumbo did not have a West Elm. I worked there for about four or five years and I went from designer to senior designer to creative director very quickly. And I realized very quickly that being a creative director was a lot like teaching except you got paid more money and you weren't out of work every nine months.
Chris: So it's nothing like teaching. No, I'm just kidding. Right. This is very good. Well, I've got a couple of questions for you.
Chris: You're in New York. How are you sustaining yourself, selling t-shirts? This sounds like... It's like how do you make ends meet?
Philip: Yeah. I was actually working at a frame shop in the West Village at the same time and then I started doing well enough that I stopped working in the frame shop. But that's also right about the time that the first Mac started to make its appearance in terms of really being a workable design machine. That's when I went to work for this other t-shirt company.
Chris: I see. Woo then, you are like an early kind of digital artists if you're talking about the first Mac. I'm going to throw out a date here and you don't have to confirm nor deny the date. This is real or not. Are we talking like '85 ish? Like late eighties?
Philip: We're talking like very, very early nineties like '90, '91.
Chris: And is this the beige all in one Macintosh we're talking about?
Philip: Yeah. Very well.
Chris: Monochrome monitor, the 512K.
Philip: Yeah. Yeah, the first one.
Chris: I remember those days and I hate myself too.
Philip: I learned actually... I think at the first Mac I had I rented, and I rented it from a shop in Manhattan. It was a Quadro 700 or maybe the one before that. I think the first one we bought was a Quadro 700 but it had a 200 or 175 megabyte hard drive in it. That's how powerful it was.
Chris: Well, people don't understand. People do not understand this. 175 megabyte hard drive was a big deal back then.
Philip: Yeah. Yeah.
Chris: I mean the fact that you had... Yeah, I don't want to get into it because we're getting too old now.
Philip: Here's one little blow your mind. I bought a black and white laser printer and it costs me $3,800 and I just bought one for my office and the toner cartridge was more expensive than the printer. It costs like, I don't know, $69 or something like that. I was like, "Oh my gosh."
Chris: So much has changed. Okay, so you were working at a frame shop.
Chris: You're selling t-shirts and when you say you're selling t-shirts, is it the way I imagine? You come up with the design, you pay for the printing and then you're selling your original artwork on the t-shirts. Is that how that works?
Philip: Yep. That's how it worked. I went and I had them printed and I shipped them, I took them in cases with my old beater car to wherever they were being sold in gift shops and stuff and apparel stores in Manhattan. But then when I went to work for this other company that we were shipping all over United States and stuff like that.
Chris: That company, that $5 million company, they also design t-shirts.
Philip: Yeah, we did all original designs.
Chris: I see.
Philip: We had a huge business in the Caribbean, so a lot of resort Ts and stuff like that. We also did a lot of things called name drops, where you have a design but then you put like Siesta Key in the bottom of it or Tampa Bay or you regionalize the design for souvenir shops and whatnot. But then I went to work for another licensed t-shirt company that did a lot of character art, Disney and Warner Brothers and stuff like that for about a year. And I was managing about 10 people at that point. And then I got picked up by Old Navy right when they were starting.
Chris: Oh wow.
Philip: And went into old Navy and was one of the first handful of designers there. Again, it kind of moved from senior designer to creative director and eventually over a period of 11 years moved up to vice president of graphics, textile design, trend, packaging and color. And I had five divisions. I was managing 65 people. So that's how I really kind of got my stripes. I came up in the fashion industry, retail fashion industry. And during that time I also got to... One of the things I loved about that job is I got to travel all over the world quarterly. So I would fly to Tokyo and Berlin and London and Milan and Antwerp and shop for work. So I would-
Chris: To spot trends, right?
Philip: Yeah. To spot trends. So that's where my trend eye came from.
Chris: Okay. So when you're the VP of graphics, trends and all the other things that you put in there for Old Navy, what year is this now?
Philip: It was '95 and I left there in 2006.
Chris: Right. That's your 10 year span there? 11 years span?
Chris: 2006. And how quickly were you able to ascend from being new in the door to being VP?
Philip: I was a VP right within the first five years.
Chris: Wow. And what do you attribute that to? Like why did they pick you of all the people, because you wound up managing 60-ish people, right?
Chris: Why did they pick you to be the guy and why not the person standing next to you? What characteristics did you have?
Philip: Well, I think one of the things that's always worked to my advantage is I'm very left and right brain. I have a head for numbers and strategy and the other piece of it is people management. That's where the teaching really came in handy because I had developed a decent emotional intelligence. So managing people came easy to me. And I also built great partnerships within the organization. So essentially my groups were acting as an internal agency to all the other product divisions. So, I think I built an acumen for finance and budgeting and hiring the right people, managing people, being a good negotiator with my business partners, that sort of thing.
Chris: So you're basically doing everything that I wish I had done at whatever place in my career because I inspired one day to create a t-shirt company and go out and sell but I didn't have your gumption. I didn't have probably even your talent to go out there and sell because I was too stuck in my own brain like, "Ugh, this is weird. I don't know, I can't sell. What if they say no." And so I picked a different career path. But you did this and you seem to have been able to navigate one situation for another and trade up constantly.
Philip: Yeah, it worked pretty well. I mean in the Old Navy t-shirt business, this is just a little fun fact. The old Navy T shirt business, graphic t-shirt business was a $700 million a year business. And we produced the Old Navy flag tee was the biggest selling t-shirt in history. One year we sold 1.7 million of them or something like that and we figured it out. It was like 3% of the United States population bought one, that it was so many t-shirts that we had to actually buy cotton futures. So before the cotton was even grown we had to buy futures on cotton-
Chris: To secure-
Philip: of cotton to print the t-shirt. Yeah, it was pretty amazing.
Chris: Holy cow. How does a person go from painting in France and teaching to moving from there to New York and then working for your competitor and then jumping to Old Navy. Is this something that you learned from one of your parents, both your parents, are they entrepreneurial? Where'd you pick up this idea that you could just do this and to be smart about money and art at the same time?
Philip: It was just kind of a natural progression. My dad was a newspaper editor. He owned a series of newspapers and worked for some big city papers as an editor. So very artistic. My mom was a preschool teacher, so I didn't have any entrepreneurs in my family to learn that sort of thing from. I think that I'm really just... What I love more than anything about t-shirts is that you get to see your work walking down the street on someone's chest. And also the jump from fine art and I was a portrait artist, I also did psychological portraiture and all figurative stuff. And so I'm doing illustration for t-shirts became kind of an easy jump and then t-shirts are a product and then at that period of time, in the early mid nineties, they were a very hot commodity. And graphic t-shirts were like the thing for five to 10 years.
Philip: And so I happened in the industry right at the right time and Old Navy was insanely successful. From what I was told, I think they're the most successful retail company in history, they hit $1 billion in sales and under five years.
Philip: And yeah, pretty amazing. So that was a rocket ship ride. And about three years before the end, all of product development, which had been in New York city, they moved it to San Francisco. So I was relocated to San Francisco and had to set up a life there. And one of the little carrots they dangled in front of me in order to draw me out there was that they were going to take packaging away from the marketing team. And they were going to give it to me. And so I built a whole new packaging team out there. And at the time Old Navy's packaging was like really generic. It was almost like generic cigarettes you used to see back in the day where a white pack... All their packaging was like white with the blue Old Navy overall on, it was just deadly boring.
Philip: And so they said, you have the freedom to basically redesign all of Old Navy's packaging. And so in about an 18-month period of time, we redesigned just about every piece of packaging in Old Navy and made it artistic, kind of gave individual shops like the girls' denim shop, the men's denim shop, the men's active shop, gave them all personalities and developed kind of a very kind of artistic brand identities and looks and feels to that packaging. And so that was a super, super fun project and a lot of fun. And that kind of got me addicted to packaging, which then led to my next jump.
Chris: Now before we get to that, as a person who started where you started from, did you find a moment where you're like, "I can't believe I'm doing this." That kind of pinch myself moment where you have a large team that you're managing and you're doing all the important work at a company. It's the fastest growing retail company in the world. And what was that like? What was the environment like in-house?
Philip: Well, in house.... Well I'll tell you the one moment where I had to pinch myself.
Philip: And that's where, right after 9/11, air travel was very dicey and we had to go to Europe to go shopping. And this was just literally like a week after it happened, instead of taking regular commercial airline, Mickey Drexler, the CEO decided that we should take the Learjet. So we took the jet and six or eight of us pile in the jet and we had our two pilots and our own stewardess and we flew to London and Paris and Milan. Over a period of about 10 days. And when you're in a Learjet and you're like being served stuff, like your own personal stewardess and flying in the Milan and then you go shopping and then you take the car back to the airplane and then you get on the plane and it's like the plane leaves when you get on.
Chris: Right. It's not like you have to wait for your flight. It's like they're waiting for you.
Philip: And so that was one of those moments where like, "Okay, I've arrived. This is pretty cool."
Chris: That's pretty cool. Now did you do anything to commemorate the moment? Did you take a selfie or did you document it or anything like-
Philip: I wish I had. I wish I had, yeah.
Chris: Because you're balling hard at that moment.
Philip: I know, it was sweet.
Philip: Those were solid days baby.
Chris: Good life. Okay. So what is the catalyst for you leaving?
Philip: There was a massive reorganization in almost the entire executive team was rolled over to new people. There was a new president of Old Navy, came in and just, you know how that goes. They clean house, they bring in their own people. And so I was essentially laid off after 11 years.
Philip: And then I made my jump over to packaging. So I went to a strategic branding agency in San Francisco that did a whole lot of consumer packaged goods and went in as an executive creative director. Had much smaller team, like 15 people. But we were working with all sorts of clients, which was great. One of our biggest clients was Safeway. We did all their private label food packaging. We worked with Avery Dennison, Chevron, PetSmart, National Geographic. I mean Johnson & Johnson, is like really big brands. And so that's where I really kind of got my strategic branding chops on the job. As I said, I'd never been trained in it. I mean I learned the whole business side, the whole retail side, the whole management, the all creative development side when I was at Old Navy. But then when I came out it was like, I didn't know dookie about strategic design.
Philip: And so it was a baptism by fire, but it was amazing. And I'm a lifelong learner. I absolutely love to learn new things. So I just took to it like a duck to water and just soaked it all in. And every new project I got was a new opportunity to learn something new. And so that was great.
Chris: Can you tell us what agency this was? I'm curious. I have one in my mind but I'm not sure it's the one.
Philip: Yeah, the agency that was named Anthem Worldwide. They were part of Schawk, Inc. They at one point had about 13 offices around the world and they have since contracted dramatically since I left, actually. After I left there, I went to Landor Associates which people know because it's one of those big branding agencies. And I moved to Cincinnati where I was working with P&G and I brought in PetSmart and National Geographic from San Francisco and whole bunch of other new brands, new business development that we did there. And that was awesome.
Chris: Man, you've had a pretty amazing career and I'm trying to imagine some young person listening to this where they studied some kind of art or media arts where it's not directly applicable to the commercial world and this has got to be very inspiring and also intimidating.
Philip: Well, the one thing I would say to those people, and it comes directly from my experience at Old Navy was that one of the things I had a real hard time doing was finding people who are great t-shirt designers. And so I always had to... because if I got these graphic designers, they would know how to do page layout and stuff like that. But they weren't as attuned to the artistic side, the illustration side. So a lot of times I would have to find illustrators and then teach them typography and color and all that sort of stuff. And a lot of times when I was interviewing those folks, I would advertise for illustrator, they'd come in, they'd kind of be all starry-eyed because they were in this huge company. And there were a lot of designers, they're doing really creative things and I'd tell them the role I needed to fill, et cetera, and they would say, "I had no idea this existed. Like I had no idea this industry existed. I didn't know that I could leverage my skills as an illustrator in this industry."
Philip: And that I think it happens in a lot of industries. I think that there's kind of an invisible opportunity out there for artistic skills, especially now since creative and design has been promoted to the C-suite, the need for design and creativity within almost every industry is just exploded. And so many companies are building in house teams and leveraging outside agencies and consultants even more. So it's never been a better time, I think, to be a designer. And I think that even people who are illustrators or photographers or animators, particularly animators, there's a lot of opportunity out there in industries that you wouldn't necessarily think were hot beds.
Chris: Yeah. How do you prepare for something like this then if you're that person listening to this and thinking, "How do I get myself in a position where I have the courage to try, or the skillsets or the mindset, whatever it is."
Philip: Lots of times when designers ask me what they should do or what direction they should go in, a lot of times through their lives they've been told to follow their passion and I think passion carries a lot of weight and almost more weight than it should because it can kind of freak people out and it's kind of set up this finality to it that be really intimidating. And so when I coach people, I always tell them to pursue what you're curious about because curiosity will lead you to places that passion never would have pointed you. And for instance, when I was doing my printmaking in France and I came back to the United States, I was really curious about this explosion of t-shirts. And I'm like, "Oh, I can put my artwork on t-shirts and I could try to sell it."
Philip: And that just created this whole kind of waterfall of events that launched my career. And I think that if you follow what you're curious about and if there's a particular industry that you're interested in, maybe you're interested in skateboarding area interested in travel or, motorcycles or whatever it is to really dig in and explore that industry and see what goes into the making of that industry. So where do they make the product, who does the advertising for that product? Who does the materials for that product, what do they outsource? Because a lot of companies don't have internal design departments or marketing departments and there's ways for you to approach and set up a relationship with a company because you have figured out a way to attach what you're passionate about or what you're curious about to what you do and to a business that will pay you for it.
Chris: I love the way that you frame that shifting the conversation away from passion to curiosity because it's like follow your curiosity or follow your passion. And the reason why I like that shift is because passion suggests that you know and you're clear. Whereas curious is more, I'm exploring and still figuring things out. It's a lot less intimidating and it means that you don't have to get it right on the first shot.
Chris: People don't know what they're meant to do when they're 18 or 20 years old for the rest of their life. They still are exploring. So follow your curiosity and be open. And if you look at your career path, it's a rather meandering, strolling the creative industry from one thing to the next. So I have to ask you this question then. Were there moments when you were feeling some self doubt that, "Can I do this? Should I be doing this?"
Chris: And also was this tied ever to a financial decision where, "Man, how am I going to pay the bills and is taking this job going to lead me down that path?" Because that's the other thing that people are oftentimes working against a need to pay bills just to sustain themselves and so it clouds our decision. So I want to first understand that. Were you ever in a financial position where, "Man, if I don't make it like next two months I'm going to be in deep trouble." And then how do you overcome the doubt if you had some?
Philip: Yeah, I mean there definitely were. I mean when I was laid off from Old Navy, I had worked there long enough that I had a very long severance package and it was great. And I had bought a house at the Haight in San Francisco, which was a weight on top of my head. And when that severance was running out, I had to get something together really quickly. And this opportunity came up, I went to a program that the AIGA puts on, it used to be at Harvard, it was called Business Perspectives for Creative Leaders. They now do it at Yale, I think. And I did that program and actually ended up sitting right next to the guy who was the founder of the agency that he was selling it to Schawk and he decided that he needed to fill his own shoes. And so we both lived in San Fran and he said, "When we get back, come talk to me."
Philip: And at the time I had been doing packaging at Old Navy, I liked it, but I wasn't like crazy passionate about packaging. But this agency did a lot of packaging and I knew I could do it and I knew that I had a mortgage payment in the next couple of months. And so-
Chris: Keeping a real, Philip is keeping it real. It's like, "I knew I could do it, but I also don't have a mortgage so I'm compelled to do it."
Philip: Well, and here's the other part. We did a ton of CPG, consumer packaged goods, but we also did other stuff. Like we did digital, we did media, we did video. And those were smaller parts of our business, but they were what I was curious about, how do you expand that skillset? And I was also really, really curious about the deeper, more intellectual parts of brand strategy. And I knew that working in this agency would offer me that growth. And so that's why I jumped into that. And then when I went to Landor is like on a whole other level because Landor basically invented that process methodology. And after I left Landor, Mauro Porcini had left 3M and was brought in by Indra Nooyi into PepsiCo to start up design inside of PepsiCo. And he had hunted me away from Landor, and I moved back to the East Coast to start up design inside PepsiCo with Mauro and some other really talented people.
Philip: And we built a design center in downtown in Tribeca. And I was managing all of the... I was the VP of global snacks, which was all of this salty snacks that we know and love and are not necessarily good for us. But I love, I'm a snack count. So I was managing design for Lay's potato chips and Fritos and Doritos and Sun Chips and all those things, which was awesome too. And again, massive reach. Lay's potato chips is the biggest food brand in the world. It's in 50 countries. I don't remember asking you this question when I interviewed you for my Brand.muse Interview series. What's the most popular flavor of Lay's potato chips in the world?
Chris: I think you might've asked me, I just don't remember.
Chris: No way.
Chris: I was thinking sour cream or something. Prawn?
Philip: I know.
Chris: I never even had prawn potato chips before.
Philip: Even like salt and vinegar or something like that.
Chris: Yeah, something really basic.
Philip: Yeah. Prawn.
Philip: Yeah. Anyway, fun facts.
Chris: Yeah. Fun fact. Well, I've got to ask you a question. So you've been in-house, Old Navy and Pepsi.
Chris: And you've been out of house in, I forget the name of the agency, but two agencies Landor and the other one. Right?
Chris: What's the difference? What's it like being internal and external?
Philip: I have to say that I, number one, that's being on the other side of the street has always helped me when I'm crossing the street, meaning I was in the agency side for a while and then when I went to PepsiCo I knew how agencies worked so I could really work my agencies the way that would benefit me. So having been agency side was really helpful. When you're working in-house, one of the things about it, I need a lot of variety. And so when I was working in the agency world, I had a tremendous amount of variety. Everything from healthcare to technology to doing branding for kind of jet engines for GE. I mean just this huge range of things. Alcohol, soup, I mean it just runs the gamut.
Philip: And so every project that came in was a different project and you'd have to learn an entirely new industry to address that project. And so there was a great amount of variety. When you're in house, you may be dealing with just a single brand. I mean, and one of my strategy partners at Anthem, she had worked previously at Clorox and she was managing Kingsford charcoal and she was doing Kingsford charcoal strategy for like three years. I would shoot myself in the head. I mean, I need a lot more variety than that. And that to me, if I was to give some advice to people coming out of school, going in-house and working on a single brand for too long is dangerous because what ends up happening is you end up having a portfolio full of like 19 pages of Eveready batteries or whatever it is working on.
Philip: And so a lot of times I recommend that people read out of school work for a temp agency. They're not going to pay as much money because the agencies getting a cut. But the agency is also going to negotiate the best rate they can for them because they want to make money too. And they'll be able to jump around and work at a lot of different types of places from in-house to agencies, large, small, they'll get a lot of experience. They'll also be able to network. And that's one of the things that I try to tell, the things that I didn't do that I know are incredibly important. Meet people, find out who does what, stay in touch with them, get their numbers. Because all these people are going to be the people that hire you later or that you can hire later. So being able to get a lot of variety in your work and in your portfolio at the beginning is really helpful. So anyway, if I had to choose, I would say agency side.
Philip: Now the agency side is also, as you know Chris, can be incredibly hectic, can be very short hours and you know what they say is true, which is when the clients have run out of everything but money, that's when they come to you. So, they don't have any ideas, they don't have any more time, they don't have any..., not a leg to stand on, that's when they come to the agency and they say, "Okay, this is how much money we have, what can we get and how fast can we get it." And we have to show up and do that. So it's a stressful..., it can be a stressful environment. You know that.
Chris: Now, I want to get us more caught up to current history now.
Chris: So when is it that you started your own thing? And I also definitely have to talk YouTube. I'm going to save that because that's going to be super juicy and I have a thousand questions asked you there, I think. Let's get you to current date. So tell me, what timeline are we now like when-
Philip: Sure this was about five years ago.
Chris: When did you leave PepsiCo?
Philip: I left PepsiCo in 2013 and I just burned out. I had a major burnout. I was working 80 hour weeks. It was global jobs.
Philip: Yeah, it was intense and as much as PepsiCo has now become a design centric company, when I was in there, they were not. They were certainly not warm to the idea as much as we would have liked them to be. So I just burned out and I came to the point where I just woke up one day and I was like, this is a personal thing, but hey, personal feeds into a professional. My dad was in the process of passing away. He was developing dementia and it was kind of watching him disappear in front of my eyes and I just woke up one day and said, "Life is too short for this. I'd rather spend the next three months with my dad while he still recognizes me than chasing down some chips project. And so I walked away. Walked away from the biggest job in my career I know that talk about our watershed moment. I mean that scared the out of me, because that was a gravy train.
Philip: But I knew that there was going to be something better around the corner and I knew it was time for me to do something different. I wasn't even sure if I liked what I was doing anymore. And so I had to take a break and I was in the position, I haven't worked as long as I did in all of these industries, that financial, I was in the position to take about a year off. So I did that.
Chris: Okay. I got to ask you and feel free to disclose whatever you are comfortable with. But when you talk about the gravy train, paint the picture of how hard it was for you to leave in terms of perks, packages, salaries, compensation, whatever it is that you want to describe to us and you feel comfortable talking about. Because you're talking about walking away from the biggest, possibly even the best job in your career so far.
Philip: Yeah. I mean it was tough to do that. And I don't want to get specific about salary, but as a senior level creative person in a Fortune 60 company, you can make really nice money. You'll get benefits, you'll get bonuses, you travel, you get all sorts of stock options and stuff. I mean, it's very sweet when you roll it all together. And walking away from that was a leap of faith.
Chris: Okay. So you take a year off. First of all, you were burnt out, your dad's health was poorly going South. So you decided, "I'm going to just collect myself, figure it out, realign myself with what's important." When is it that then you started your own agency?
Philip: Well the funny thing is is I actually started with that strategy partner I was telling you about. I started an accessories company. I kind of went back to my roots and we... In that year I started talking to a bunch of network connections and stuff. And we were talking a lot about like the resurgence of craftsmanship in America, and the movement away from mass produced goods and more towards high levels of workmanship. And so we decided to start an accessories, online accessories company that created a curated collection of some of the best things in those worlds and to offer them up to people. And so we developed our brand from scratch. I mean we did all the strategy, we did the naming, we did the product development.
Chris: What's it called?
Philip: It's called what my agency is called because I kept the name.
Chris: Oh okay.
Philip: I kept the name, it's no longer in existence. You could probably find it in the way back machine. But it was a named Verhall, which is a Dutch word, V-E-R-H-A-A-L. And it means story. And so it made a lot of sense in terms of the products that we were doing because the story of where the product was from and who created it and its provenance was really, really important to us. So, and my family is Dutch. My family came to the United States in 1623 so, the entrepreneurial roots of my family go way, way back. And so it being a Dutch word also kind of resonated with me as a Dutch American. And, so when we closed that down about a year later, I kept the name and I named my agency that because story is everything in branding too. So anyways, so I started, yeah, we did this accessories company. And in that period of time I went from, working at a Fortune 60 company with a teams of people to sitting in my home office by myself alone for a year.
Philip: Doing stuff like, photo retouching and product photography and branding websites and figuring out email marketing and MailChimp and all this really super hands on stuff that I hadn't been doing for 20 years. And I realized, "Oh my gosh, there was so much stuff that I do not know." And so that was this massive kind of wake up call. And also put me again, on this major learning curve of getting up to speed on entrepreneurship and digital marketing and e-commerce, retail in the digital world. And again, I realized how much I didn't know and I started to really network really heavily with other entrepreneurial people. I joined some entrepreneurial mastermind communities, and just jump-started learning and built an entirely new network of people. And, subject matter experts and just dove right into it. And we shuttered that accessories company after about a year, and that's when I decided that I was going to... I realized that I love building brands.
Philip: That experience and starting that brand up from scratch, the year off, of kind of taking a breather, doing a lot of informational interviews, trying to figure out, what I liked about what I did, what I didn't like. When I built that brand with my partner, I realized how much I love building brands and also how much I loved the hands on work of doing strategy and design and stuff like that. So when I started my agency, I put all of that stuff back into that. And I leveraged all of what I'd learned and was doing in digital marketing, but then for my own agency.
Chris: So there's this gap, right? I think I'm trying to build the timeline in my mind here. 2013 you leave Pepsi, you're burnt out, you take a year off. This is gap.
Chris: And then you start your accessories company, and after years, it morphed into what it's going to be because it's just figuring things out. So now I think we're 2015 right?
Chris: If we're roughly falling along. So you've been doing this now for three, four years. What were some of the biggest challenges and how'd you overcome them in running your own business? Because it's nice. I can only imagine. I got to be honest with you, because I've not worked for somebody for very long, so I don't even know what it means to be in house. But to have the title of VP of Snacks and having teams of people where you're like, you can be the high level idea guy, and then how people move and if you wanted expertise, you just hire it out.
Chris: Now it's like you are the man, you're the guy invoicing, you're the guy sending emails, you're the guy prospecting. That's a giant seismic shift. And luckily your storied career has all been leading up to this moment. That's a new hustling back in the-
Philip: That's exactly-
Chris: Early days selling t-shirts, right? And learning about product, sales, marketing, all the kinds of things and strategy from the packaging company. You've learned all this stuff. Now it's time to do it for yourself and for all the reasons you're here but what were some of the biggest challenges year one, aside from what you've already said, which is "I needed to learn so much." I mean, how did you onboard your first big client or what were those pivotal moments like?
Philip: Yeah, well, one of the things when I built my agency, one of the things I decided to do, and one of the things that I noticed, I don't want to share this, we talked a little bit about it on the interview I had with you is that you know, big agencies are having our time. Lots of them are contracting and the client side is either building something in-house and utilizing agencies less or they are using smaller and smaller agencies because they're fast, they're nimble and they're cheaper. And when I was at Landor I noticed that P&G was using smaller and smaller agencies and taking off big chunks of business from Landor and giving it to consultancies or partnerships. When I was at PepsiCo, I was on the client side doing the same thing. I would give like a big meaty global Cheetos job to like a six person agency in Vermont worth something that would have gone to Landor.
Philip: And so I noticed something on the horizon that there's a rise of the consultant class like having low overhead senior level partners, flexibility, being nimble, being able to give a super high quality level product but do it faster and cheaper than the big brick and mortar agencies, was the way the industry was moving. And I decided to be on the right side of that history. And when I started my own agency I architected it that way. So I'm the principal, I have a probably a dozen close partners who I will bring in and build a team for any particular client depending on the scale of the team or what expertise I need. All of these people have their own consultancies. They will white label their services under me. Periodically I'll white label my services under other people and it works really well that way. It's never about working the work, it's all about landing the work. If you can land work, you can find someone to do it. That's why I always say the answer in the agency world is always yes. Right.
Philip: I've heard you say this too. It's like the answer is always yes. It's like, do you do digital animation with 3D spaceships? And it's like, "Yeah, of course we do that." And then you're like on the phone, two seconds later, "I need a 3D spaceship."
Chris: Right, right, right. Okay. I got so many questions here. So, essentially if I understand it correctly, it's a form of the fluid agency model where you're the principal and you work with a very large network of highly specialized people. Sometimes you're the lead and sometimes you're just following their lead and it works that way, right?
Philip: Yeah. Most of the time I'm the lead. I don't realize for myself out that too much because I stay very, very busy in my agency. So I don't really have the bandwidth to do that. But if a project is super sweet, like I just had a call with someone, a Canadian partner of mine who as her hands into kind of a new industry that sounds really interesting and she was saying, "If this thing comes down the pike and I land it, will you work it with me?" I said, "Absolutely." Because it's something that I'm passionate and interested in, curious about. There's that C word again. But yeah, so when I was, to answer your question, when I was starting out, I leveraged. Obviously I've been in the industry a long time, so I have a lot of network connections.
Philip: I have a lot of connections on the client side. And so I reached out to a lot of people and let them know that I was doing my own thing now. The other thing that I did, and this is going to lead into the YouTube channel too, is I don't like doing sales. I don't like doing cold call, I don't like doing outreach. I'm very introverted in that way. And so, as I had learned over the last few years, I was like, content marketing can do this for me. And so I just... and I love writing. I've always loved writing that comes from my father being a journalist and I hope certainly, have a lot of points of view. And so I started a newsletter and was putting out insights and resources on entrepreneurship and design inspiration. And that grew very quickly. And after about six months, I started to... I take it back after I sent it out like, I don't know, three or four times comes out every two weeks.
Philip: Like in six weeks I was already getting people who are contacting me saying, "Oh, there's great newsletter. I see you're have your own thing now. I have this project." And that's kind of how it got going and it's always only snowballed from there since I've gotten into video.
Chris: Okay. So let's talk about the jump to video. You started out with the newsletter and we preach the same thing, really. It's very difficult to do sales and the ones that are very good at it are few and far between. And if you love sales then you're probably selling some jumbo jets or aircraft carriers to somebody and you're making a lot of money for each sale. The rest of us, normal folk, its sales is a means to an end, but we'd rather not, right? So content marketing, creating something that could be valuable to somebody serving someone else and using that as a magnet to draw people into you, alleviates the burden of you having to knock down doors and do cold calling, which is really difficult job. Right? So you're doing this-
Philip: It actually does that, multiple things. Number one, it draws people to you so you don't have to reach out to them. Number two, when they finally do contact you, they already feel like they know you. And by doing it, you're establishing yourself as an expert so they trust you. And so that's like the trifecta, right, of doing content. Sorry interrupting you.
Chris: No, no, totally, very compelling. I'm glad that you pointed that out. So when you make this jump to YouTube and I got to ask you about technical geeky things like talk shop, but when do you make this jump to YouTube and why did you do it and what has it done for you?
Philip: Yeah, I mean I was doing my newsletter, I still do my newsletter, and when I realized... I'm trying to be very forward looking and the world is going to video. And the more stats I heard, the more I read, the more I saw, the more I experienced on social media. Google was putting out stats like 85% of web traffic in the next five years is going to be video. And so not being in video is just turning your nose up at one of the most important communication vehicles that there is. You know, you could say the same with audio for podcasts that the self publishing industry, the ability to put out your own ebook on Amazon and have it printed individually, all of those, podcasting, YouTube, self publishing, those things that are like dreams. Like if I'd had those things in the beginning of my career, I never would have gone down the path I did.
Philip: I would be a publishing magnate just because I would be publishing all this stuff. So anyway, so I felt like when I was... When I started my YouTube channel, really, what I wanted to do is I want to teach again and I wanted to capture everything that I knew and I wanted to share it with whoever it could benefit. And so it was to a certain extent as altruistic, I knew that eventually it would come back around and benefit me. It would benefit me in a lot of ways. Number one, it would establish me as an expert in my field visibly out there to anyone who would search it. It would act as a new business lead magnet for my agency. It would help people develop and grow in their careers, which I really wanted to do.
Philip: I really wanted to share everything that I knew and had learned in my career with other people. And I'm a deep believer in the fact that that sort of stuff comes back as good karma. There are a lot of people in the world, my YouTube subscribers who live in India or Pakistan or whatever, who can't afford design educations and the fact that I'm teaching them the basics of how an agency work works or a company works or how to get promoted or how to ace an interview or how to do brand strategy so they can offer something more than just a logo, are all giving tools to people to survive. And that, I really love that.
Chris: Do you remember what year this is that you started to getting onto YouTube?
Philip: What is it? 2019? It was the end of 2016 or mid 2016.
Chris: So not very long.
Philip: Yeah, two or three years.
Chris: Yeah. Okay, so here's some geeky questions and I got to do this in the next couple of minutes, okay.
Philip: Okay. Yeah.
Chris: Okay. So when you are making this transition to producing video, there's the technical hurdle, but then there's this other hurdle like, "Man, do I really want to be on camera?" And it freaks a lot of people out.
Philip: Yeah. It does.
Chris: How do you get over this part?
Philip: Grit your teeth. Because I mean if anyone's seen me or seen my channel, they know I'm not a spring chicken. I'm a brand, I have a great beard and when I was going to do my, I had just grown this Van Dyke and handlebar mustache that I have and I was like, "I'm going to go on video. People are going to see me." It's like, "I'm going to be the old guy. No one's going to want to watch me." And I just thought either I can shave it all off and kind of fake it and act young or I can just embrace it and say, I am the gray graphic design strategy wizard.
Chris: I know. Gandalf.
Philip: And so I'm like, if I do that, I'll never have to change. Eventually if I did the other way, I'd have to admit my age. Right? So I just embraced it. And you know, I'm no stranger to be up in front of people. I've managed people forever. I've always I've pitched huge clients. I've spoken all around the world. It's just, it terrifies me. And actually being in front of a camera terrified me more than anything else. But you just have to accept your imperfections. And the hard part is when the people who have nothing better to do go, "Oh, you look like Colonel Sanders." or "Oh, you look like Steve Jobs." I've literally had maybe 10,000 Steve Jobs comments.
Philip: Yeah, because I always wear a black tee shirt and I have kind of roundish clear glasses and so people do that. And you just have to get by it.
Chris: That's not a bad comparison is... if you are going to have a comparison, Steve Jobs is not a bad one, think about it.
Chris: This is fantastic.
Philip: Yeah. So, yeah. So anyway, and then there days where you're like, "Oh man, I had like a big piece of lint right on the top of my tee shirt." Or like, I have a something in my mustache and that video is going to live forever and you're just like... I have this monitor just as dare to suck and it's like you just got to you just got to put it up there because everybody sucks at the beginning. And the only way you can get better is to start. The only way you can get better is to start. And I always tell this story, it's like if you want to learn tennis, you can read books on tennis, you can watch videos on tennis, you can buy the coolest tennis racket and grab great tennis clothes and go watch tennis matches, but the thing is until you get out on the court and still start hitting balls all over the place and going over the fence and whatnot, you're not going to learn tennis.
Philip: And so that's how I treated video. I spend no time on production value and I spend all my time on doing really great content in a really short period of time. I tried to give more value in five to eight minutes than anybody else does in 25.
Chris: So do you wind up writing the episodes first and then recording it?
Philip: Yeah I do. And that's the only way I can get as much info out as I do. I put my laptop underneath the camera and I basically kind of read speaking notes. It's kind of a deck with notes, so it's extemporaneous, but I have an outline.
Chris: Okay, fantastic. And then you wind up... do you do the editing yourself or you send that to somebody to do?
Philip: I did it for the first, I actually just started sending it out like a month ago. It just got overwhelming.
Chris: Yeah, I can imagine. So you send the video, they work remotely, you make some notes and then they eventually they figure out your rhythm to cut into your graphics, all that kind of stuff.
Philip: Yeah. Yeah.
Chris: Okay. I'm just curious. Well, let's look forward into the future. You're running your branding agency and you're running your YouTube channel. How important are these two components to you and to your future?
Philip: The YouTube channel?
Chris: Yeah. If you have a hundred percent units of energy, how do you divvy these things up between these two endeavors?
Philip: I think probably 20% video and content and 80% agency. I mean that in terms of the amount of time that I spent doing it. And one of the reasons why I put so much energy into the content is because I also see it. I repurpose content too, so I take video transcripts and I write them into articles. I eventually want to develop some courses, video courses. I'm going to write a book. I'm going to take a lot of the content from my videos and put it together in a cohesive book on branding and strategy. And so I see all of this stuff as I'm creating a library of content that I'm going to be building on and doing things with for a long time. Even after I stopped my agency work.
Chris: So what you're doing, which we talk about a little bit on our channel, it's all different forms of content marketing. You could take something and you could make micro pieces of content, do a little bit of cuts downs. You could do an audio only version, you could transcribe like you said and write a book or it just the whole ecosystem of who you are and your life and your philosophy, shared with the world very openly and it's a wonderful resource. So before we say goodbye, how do people get in touch with you? If I'm listening to this and I need help with brand strategy and you're the right person, where did they go?
Philip: You can go to my website. It's phillipvandusen.com. And there's popups there for my newsletter. There's also forms for my newsletter. Subscribe to that. You'll get a newsletter from me every two weeks. I don't spam people. And I interact very closely with people on my YouTube channel. So show up there and make some comments. You can always contact me through a contact sheet on my website too. There's new client applications there that I do coaching. I outline a lot of my programs and things, so that's the best portal.
Chris: Beautiful. Are you most active on one form of social media over another?
Philip: I would say YouTube, definitely.
Chris: YouTube. So you're reading the comments and you're engaging with your audience.
Philip: Yeah. I answer every single comment I guess.
Chris: Hey, you and me both.
Philip: I've answered probably, I don't know. 50,000 comments.
Chris: 100,000. Yeah, I'm sure. I'm sure. They come in. So you guys you need to know that. And I really applaud you for doing this, for giving away your knowledge for free and I wish I had more time to talk to you, but this has been a fascinating journey, kind of falling along with you in your life and seeing all these decisions. Now at some point somebody's going to listen to this episode, and you guys hit me up with some questions, maybe we could do a followup episode where I can really dig deep because I think what makes you really remarkable and just hearing about your story, is your ability to just adapt to everything.
Chris: Whatever fear you're afraid of and even seems you're afraid of anything, you just just go for it. And you're not married or attached to any particular outcome. When you make that decision, "Hey, I don't want to do t-shirts anymore. I'll work for the competition. I'm going to go to Gap. I'm going to go to Landor. I'm going to go to Pepsi-Co. I'm going to do my own thing just because it feels right at this moment." And I love that part about you too where you said you're a life learner, and you're willing to spend money to learn things. And they've consequently led you to job opportunities too, when you did that training or when you seek out industry experts and you... This is the life, this is the virtual cycle that I want for everybody.
Chris: So if you're listening to this and you're wondering how the heck do I become like Philip Van Dusen in your own way, just learn to follow your curiosity and not to be afraid, because wonderful things wait for you on the other side.
Chris: Philip thank you very much for being on the show.
Philip: Thanks you Chris. I really appreciate you having me on. It's great to talk to you. This is Philip Van Dusen and you are listening to The Futur.