Chuck Carey of Troika: How listening and design shape brand storytelling

Each week the We First blog reaches out to an industry professional to provide insights into different aspects of branding or storytelling, and to highlight different strategies for social change. This week our guest is Chuck Carey of Troika which is one of Hollywood’s top creative branding and design firms.

SM:  Hi, I’m Simon Mainwaring, and I’m really excited to be talking to Chuck Carey today, who is president and co-founder of Troika. Can you tell us what Troika is and what it does?

CC: Absolutely. We are a brand consultancy and creative agency. We focus on media and entertainment clients. That could mean broadcasters, cable networks, cable operators, video game creators. Anyone who’s really involved with media and entertainment.

SM:  What do you do for them, and what do you create for them?

CC:  We are engaged when they are looking to maximize an opportunity, to evolve in the marketplace, or to respond to new competitive forces, which, as you know, is happening constantly. A role we can provide is that, they’re often tactically challenged, they’re constantly responding to things on a day-to-day basis. We can be brought in to help get a little perspective on what’s going on in the market, what they’re looking to achieve with their business, and how their branding and marketing can help them accomplish those goals.

SM:  One of the themes I talk about a lot on my blog is the need for brands to listen more effectively because the most successful brands will be defined by their quality of listening.  Can you talk to us about the role that listening plays in building a relationship with a customer?

CC:  There are a couple of things that occurred to me when you asked me that question.  The first is that listening shows a huge measure of respect, meaning that you’re willing to listen to the people that you’re doing business with, or that you’re creating content for.  Secondly, I think that listening applies a level of accountability. If you’re willing to listen, you should also be willing to take action. If you’re not going to take action, you should be willing to explain why you’re not. So, opening up a channel to listen is the first step in a healthy conversation, whether that leads to specific action or simply to discussing why you’re doing what you’re doing. It’s about communication. In days gone by or in earlier eras, communication was very one way, which is an isolated level of communication. This other type of communication is immediate, it has the opportunity to be incredibly honest as well as the opportunity to be vulnerable, which I think is kind of interesting.  I think that people respect when people are willing to accept responsibility for their mistakes.  That is a real opportunity to develop a deeper and more connected relationship with your consumers, customers or viewers. There’s a real opportunity there. Is it scary?  Absolutely. Does it have the ability to transform a relationship as well? Absolutely.

SM:  By extension, what is the role of design in storytelling as brands try to be more effective and more engaged with their customers now?

CC:  That’s a great question.  First of all, willingness to embrace design as something that matters to your organization or to the product you create is a great step in saying that you’re willing to be curious, you’re willing to challenge the way things are typically done, you’re willing to ask yourself some really fundamental questions: Who are we? Why does this product matter? How is it different? How are we going to build it better than someone has before? Although these questions may sound simple, in today’s inter-related business environment, those are often very complex questions for people to ask themselves. On one level, in the internal business conversation that viewers or consumers probably won’t see, it challenges people to question their own thinking.  Obviously that’s really healthy.

The second thing is that it becomes very exciting as you take these intangible ideas in a conversation and you start to bring them to life either through symbols or aesthetics.  We don’t limit our perception of design to typography or logo design. They’re wonderful tools, but design can easily extend across how something looks in the physical world, the sound of a voice over, etc. It starts to tread very quickly into what one might consider the tools and practices used in advertising or promotion. It really is all very adjacent to us and so we bring it together. If you do your job well with the client, what you’re going to get is, to some extent, more elegant. When I say elegant, I mean that it just works. It’s clean, it doesn’t have anything getting in the way of what you’re trying to do, it communicates clearly and well. People love surprises. We are in the entertainment world, so not only are we trying to do great design, we’re looking to entertain as well. If what we do from the branding, marketing and packaging perspective doesn’t have an entertainment value to it, then it’s completely disconnected from the market we serve.  So that’s incredibly stimulating to us. A huge aspect of that can be surprise, it can be comedy, it can be great animation. To a large extent, the way people experience it is an aesthetic experience, which is often times a way for people to experience in an emotion.  So the conversation starts in the business, but it ends in people’s guts. That spectrum is incredibly fascinating to us.

SM:  I think every brand out there wants something that is singular, something that is consistent, something that is entertaining.  A lot of people that are reading this blog are either sole proprietors, small companies, medium companies, social entrepreneurs or even big brands that are looking to improve their storytelling. If they were to work with a designer, what do they need to bring to the table to make that process most effective?  What is a designer looking for in a client partner?

CC:  Honesty would be a very important thing to the table. That could be something that you’re fearful of or boundaries that you don’t want to cross. It’s about letting people know what is the world you’re playing in. It’s harder when people say, “Blow us away, do something that’s never been seen before.”  We’ve done that kind of work and people then say, “Oh my god, this is amazing, we can’t afford it.” Or, “Oh, you’ve stepped on something sacred here. We can’t do it.” Designers are amazingly adept at working with constraints. In fact, they can be inspiring. As abstract as designers may work when they’re thinking symbolically, they also tend to be amazing pragmatists. That’s one thing that may not occur to people: Take inventory of the constraints you’re working in.

The other thing to do is to look for chemistry where you feel real trust. Design is about iterations. It’s not about the master surprise. I would look for chemistry with people who are listening to me, who are paying attention, they’re practicing their craft and their art, but they’re factoring in all the variables that I need them to manage. You may have to be uncomfortable for a period of time, but realize that’s us thinking out loud. Just because something is on a piece of paper doesn’t mean we want you to approve it. It’s just us thinking out loud. We’re trying to continue the conversation that we started in an abstract and strategic mode. But priorities can shift.  Once there’s tangible work on the table, priorities really surface. So if there is another piece of advice I could give, it’s to know your priorities. You don’t want to create things that try to be too many things.  That’s going to hold them back. So you may have to let go of one or two lower priorities to achieve that top level priority.

You can learn more about Troika by visiting their website at. or if you want to follow Chuck on Twitter, you can find him @chuckcarey Thanks so much for your time, Chuck.