How Code and Theory’s Brandon Ralph Gained the Trust of Everyone From Anna Wintour to Burger King

The co-founder of the firm behind the websites of 'Vogue' and the 'LA Times' explains how he and longtime partner Dan Gardner are building a modern creative agency.
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The co-founder of the firm behind the websites of 'Vogue' and the 'LA Times' explains how he and longtime partner Dan Gardner are building a modern creative agency.
Code and Theory's Brandon Ralph. Photo: Conway Liao

Code and Theory's Brandon Ralph. Photo: Conway Liao

Over the past half decade, big media companies like Conde Nast and Hearst have become increasingly ambitious about the look of their digital properties. Magazine brands debut a redesign every couple of years or so -- sometimes more frequently -- the next one splashier than the last, with larger photos, slicker production and an easier-to-use interface. (Well, at least that’s what they’re trying to do.) There are two reasons for this: One is to better appeal to the reader, who is abandoning mass-market print glossies for niche publications and independent online sites. The other is to better appeal to advertisers, who want their rich sponsored content to look good up against editorial.

Despite being fiercely competitive -- or maybe because of it -- these publishers have looked to just a few creative agencies to help transform their legacy brands into online powerhouses. (It seems that “I’ll have what she’s having,” is the current designer strategy of the media’s elite. Everybody wants to work with the same shops.) The most in-demand is Code and Theory, a nearly 14-year-old New York-based agency that works with both publishers and brands to create websites, advertisements, social media campaigns, and anything else a traditional advertising agency might do. It's best known for designing the websites of publications like the Daily Beast and Vogue, as well as Bloomberg's new site. But that’s only half of the business. It has also worked with brands like Bottega Veneta, DSquared2 and Maybelline to help shape visual identities, create campaigns and, in some cases, develop physical products. The firm is also an agency of record for brands including Burger King and Dr. Pepper.

So where does Code and Theory go next? I recently visited co-founder Brandon Ralph at the company's SoHo offices, located in the old Interview magazine space, to discuss what’s in store.

You and [co-founder] Dan Gardner met at summer camp. Can you tell me a little bit about how you got from there to Code and Theory?

I was at NYU, and there wasn’t really any type of design program there at the time. I pretty much knew all the things that they were teaching, so I ended up dropping out and getting a job at a start-up agency down here in SoHo. I worked there for about a year and a half or so, and it was a great experience. I had the privilege of working on fashion brands and bank brands and start-ups, it was a very creative environment. Unfortunately, the company didn’t work out. I left and did some traveling through Europe, came back, did some freelance but got the opportunity to start up the digital part of [advertising agency] Draft. That was the early part of 2001, and Dan was just graduating college. We [both] worked there for about six or seven months on projects like American Express and Macy’s and did really amazing [things], but the agency didn’t really care about [digital]. I mean, I still think traditional agencies are having a hard time integrating digital, so you could imagine 14 years ago what that was like. Maybe we were kind of naive, but we thought it was a good time just to quit and start our own agency, with no clients, with no real, real agency experience. Three weeks later was September 11, and the world stopped. Dan and I paused and said, “Well, if we can make it through this, we can make it through anything.” So we just started asking people if they needed a website, making every project feel like a million dollar project regardless of like if it was a pizzeria, restaurant, bar, photography, anything to pay the bills. In our first year [we made] like fifteen grand, I think.

What did digital projects look like then? Was it just, "I want a website with my information on it," that sort of thing? Were there any kind of digital advertising campaigns?

Yeah, so the thing we did for Macy’s was pretty interesting. This was at Draft. Imagine Macy’s sending you a CD-ROM in the mail. On the CD, there was a catalog featuring a bunch of different clothing categories: preppy, alternative, urban. We went out and did shoots all over the country, and soundtracked the whole experience across each category. We got the parents to give the kids the CD-ROM -- which came with a 15 percent-off gift card -- pick out what they wanted, and print it out. The parents would go in and give the print out to the salesperson. It was so cloogy, but it also connected the physical and digital, which didn’t really happen back then.

When did brands start to get more serious about this stuff?

There were two stages. There was a point in the mid 2000s, like 2005 to 2008, where video and Flash experiences really took off. But the weird part was you’d have a brand do something really cool and then they wouldn’t do anything else for eight months. This culture of immediacy that we live in now didn’t exist back then. The second stage is this feed-based culture. Brands now -- whether they’re fashion brands or CPG [consumer packaged goods] or whatever -- are all learning how to create the appropriate experiences to feed their audiences across different channels. It’s unrealistic that you’re going to be producing really rich, immersive content 24/7, but you can be posting content thoughtfully through the calendar. Of course, I think what’s appropriate for each brand is different as well.

DSquared2's new website, designed by Code and Theory. Screenshot; Code and Theory

DSquared2's new website, designed by Code and Theory. Screenshot; Code and Theory

How has the suite of services that you offer changed?

We really started off as an agency that was product design. There was a huge emphasis on Flash. We were credited with creating the first Flash video player. We didn’t know that what we did was great, we just thought it was better than what was out there. And then all of a sudden, we were on the homepage of Macromedia; Comcast was calling us to do their video players. It was a really important thing for us at the time. We were one of the first agencies that made search engine optimization inside of Flash, deep-linking inside of Flash, live Flash video.

When was this?

This was 2002 to 2006. But then we saw the industry changing. There was an opportunity to work in the magazine and publishing space, which really hadn’t done anything. We started with Interview, MTV, The Daily Beast. The experience working on the publishing side made us unique. We were thinking about how advertisers could really play into editorial experiences, and how consumers want to see ads.

A big struggle for publishers is finding or building a CMS that doesn’t drive editors crazy. Will you help develop a CMS, or is it mostly working with that they already have?

We’ve designed and developed content management systems, yes, and also built them on top of Wordpress.

How hard is it to deal with publishers who are using bad CMSs? Because a lot of them are terrible.

It’s about trying to understand what [the publisher] wants to accomplish and building a presentation on top of those systems: 29 percent of our company is engineers. We can build super customer solutions when needed but we don’t always recommend that if your needs are not that. If you take something out of the box that’s made for everyone, it’s going to be cloogy and hard to use. But if you take something out of the box and it’s a little bit flexible, and you work with a company that can help tweak it, shape it, then it actually becomes a little bit easier to use. So there is no wizzy way, perfect thing out of the box, to be honest.

What about backend for e-commerce?

We do do that too. Our recommendation is, let’s not rebuild the wheel. When you’re building a store, you don’t open a concrete factory, you don’t try to make your own racks. Those infrastructures are already in place. We try to understand how the brand wants to differentiate its e-commerce experience, and then help it choose the right [e-commerce] platform. So many times, it’s crazy, they’re like, “We just chose this technology.” And we’re like, “You know, there’s only a handful of [e-commerce platforms], but there could have been a better one for your needs.”

You and Dan are both designers. How have your roles changed over the years?

Dan and I both run the business on the day to day. The financial aspect, the operational side, the creative, the UX. And it’s kind of hard to explain to people at times, but we obsess over every detail as it relates to running a creative business. There’s no one on Earth I know better. We’re interchangeable, we trust each other’s taste and judgment and choices. There is never an aspect of, “That was my idea.” The clients and company and people come first. For us, if it’s right, it ships. I could care less if my name is on it. I care if it’s it going to map back to the client’s objectives.

You’re talked about a lot in the media, but mostly it’s about the stuff you’re doing for other media brands.

That’s half of the business. The other half, which is legitimately half: we’re the [digital] agency of record for Burger King, Maybelline, Essie, Woodford Reserve. We’re doing all the advertising, social media, content creation, we’ve shot commercials for these brands. And on the product side, we have an industrial design division upstairs where we’re designing the actual products for our clients and then marketing them for our clients. If we went back in time to 2005, 2006, everything got fragmented: social media, PR, traditional. But we’re looking to bring everything back to one so it’s more efficient and more aligned to the brief, rather than everyone having their own interests.

We’re hiring more traditional creative directors, writers, account planners-- our lead industrial designer came from IDEO. We almost acquired a PR company about a year ago. I think that, in the future, we’ll be completely integrated. It’s weird to think of an agency as digital when the world is more digital than traditional now, if you think about it. Six or seven years ago, there was no interface or true interactivity. Now everything from TVs to cars is connected.

In terms of talent, who is the hardest to hire?

I would say, across discipline, it’s just hard finding people who are culturally right for us. I think we’re unique in the sense that 45 percent of the agency is women, and 25 percent of the agency is culturally diverse. More than half of the creative department is women; 31 percent is multicultural. We have a very rigorous hiring process. You never want to feel, even if a guy or girl is the most talented person, that you hate working with them. We really do feel like a rotten apple spoils the bunch.

I know you don’t like to think in terms of trends, but there are ideas that you guys have brought to the forefront of web design. When you’re called into a company to meet with execs who aren't as well versed as you are, how do you get them to understand what’s good for them?

When we go into these organizations, it’s very easy for us to be like, “We’ve done x, y, z.” But we don’t. Instead, it’s more like, “You’ve built an amazing business. Let’s embed and learn why your business is different from everyone else’s business.” The more we understand the real value proposition, the more we can figure out what is right for them. It’s much more of a partnership model than a dictatorial model. I think we’re great at what we do, but I think we’re better when we work together. So that means working with their technology team, working with their product team. And we set up this executive steering committee to make sure that we’re meeting with the appropriate people at the appropriate times, and I think that’s what we’re really good at. We meet a lot with Ariana [Huffington], we meet a lot with Tina Brown, Anna Wintour, [Hearst Magazines President] David Carey, but we don’t burden them with every single meeting. I think that’s the challenge: finding the appropriate times to meet with them throughout the calendar to make sure the vision is on track.

How much upkeep do you do? Do you go in and launch, then leave them alone until it’s time for a redesign?

We love working with companies that are able to maintain the sites after launch. We love staying involved, but eight months down the road, doing bug fixes and things like that -- that’s not cost effective to use us. We’d much rather teach you to fish.

Mobile-first is an obsession among brands and publishers, and a rightful one. You have a slightly different approach. Can you talk about that?

We say “everything first.” There are a lot of users on mobile obviously, and there will be more and more as phones get bigger and faster. But if you design a mobile-first solution, what is a desktop or a tablet going to look like? It can diminish all the rich stuff that you can create for these other experiences. I’m not saying spend as much money on desktop as on mobile, but having an experience that’s commensurate to the device, that amplifies the device... you can’t quantify that. I think that it differentiates you as a brand and also gives you the opportunity to shine.

Speaking of desktops, the idea of a home page is kind of falling away. Is there still a value in a homepage, even if fewer and fewer people are getting to your site that way?

I think home pages or topic pages do capture what is happening in the world, and also the site’s voice and tone. Would you be able to capture Fashion Week, or what’s going on in Paris, without a page that collected all that content? Data will show that the article page is much more relevant through social. But we even go one level down, breaking apart an article to the specific pieces of that page. The LA Times is a great example of that. Everything on the page is shareable, from the pull quote to an image to a title. To us, everything is important because it ladders back up to the brand.

Code and Theory's 'Los Angeles Times' redesign. Image: Code and Theory

Code and Theory's 'Los Angeles Times' redesign. Image: Code and Theory

With the emphasis on sharing, do think will -- or should -- people care less about search engine optimization?

No. If you care only about SEO, you’re going to lose your voice as a publisher. But your site needs to be built properly and you can’t ignore it. You’d be naive not to. I mean, there are websites that we all know of that have won -- or are winning -- because of SEO. With with the news sites, it’s a balance. You can’t just rely on social.

Do you think style sites and news sites are starting to look more similar? One thing I noticed with the Vogue redesign in particular was that it felt more link-y.

[Vogue] wanted to move more into a feed-based site with more stories. The one thing that we try to understand before we even start [with a publisher] is the quantity of content that they’re going to be pushing through. A brand needs to be realistic. If you create a feed-based site and you’re pushing out 10 pieces [a day], then the reader is going to see the same 10 pieces every time she comes to the site. If you have a hundred pieces and you create a feed-based site, it starts to feel like a feed.

There’s a lot of talk right now about how to actually measure engagement on a website. I think a lot of media people want to move away from unique visitors -- or the dreaded, meaningless pageview -- and focus more on time spent actually reading articles. But do media buyers care? My impression is that most media buyers are kind of phoning it in -- they aren’t really thinking that hard about the buys they’re making.

I don’t have the answer. But we do think that advertising is still sold in this weird way. We get briefs from clients. They’ll say, “We want you to be really creative. And by the way-- this is where we bought the media." Why did you buy the media before you made the things? No one is working together. The industry is going toward an algorithmic way, which I think will allow agencies like us to buy media in the future in more real time. Right now, there are banner ads on these websites for a really long period of time, fatiguing the same users that come to the website every single day. With TV, magazines and billboards, you have this amazing space, and we’re cramming these things into awkward, unnatural formats. I think that if there was an incentive model for these media agencies to be more accountable for how the stuff performed, as much as we’re accountable as a creative agency, I think that we would see different results.

When a brand wants to do an app, what do you say? 

It’s a hard umbrella question to answer, but I think I know where you’re going. I think that there needs to be a reason to do an app that is native to not only what they want to accomplish, but to the device as well. A lot could be done in browser. And it costs a lot to keep an app updated.

You’re independent, although I’m sure the big conglomerates are sniffing around. There must be a number….

To me, it’s never about the number. I’m not driven by money, the company is very successful, I have a great life. I understand what we do for a traditional agency, but what can they do for us? How do they make our business better? How do our two businesses together make us better than everyone else? Dan and I love what we do and we don’t want to stop working. We’re so young and we’re kind of defining the future and touching so many people through content and so many sites we’re building. I don’t know if that answers your question. [But] I don’t want to freak everyone else that works here. We’re not on the market to sell.

Everybody’s for sale.

Not in the sense…. I don’t think the traditionals are doing anything that interesting, but it would be naive to think that they won’t figure it out as well. We’re doing a lot of things right now. Maybe we’ll just grow it by ourselves, maybe we’ll find a new partner some day. I don’t know. I’m excited to come to work every day. There is no five-year plan.

Note: This story has been updated to reflect that Code and Theory is not in fact the agency of record for Ralph Lauren.