Published in the September-October 2014 issue of MyLIFE magazine
Comrade is an Oakland, California-based strategy and design agency with deep expertise in financial services, health care, technology and transactional design. The company creates digital products and services, including Web and mobile apps to help leading companies improve their user experience. With their industry focus and practical approach, they partner with clients to understand their customers and get new innovations to market quickly. They take pride in having clients such as BlackRock, JPMorgan Chase, TIAA-CREF, Wells Fargo and University of California, San Francisco as their “comrades.”
MyLIFE: What is your background, and why did you start Comrade?
McMillian: I’ve been in the communications and design business—marketing, advertising—for over 20 years. I went to Florida State University and got my bachelor’s in communication in 1992. From there I worked at various interactive and digital marketing agencies and rose all the way up to president and chief operating officer at Critical Mass, one of the Omnicom-owned digital marketing agencies. In 2006, I left to pursue a career-long dream, which was to start my own agency. At the point that I’d gotten to the level of president of an agency that was owned by a publicly owned company, I realized that a big part of what I wanted to do every day was to work very closely in a very hands-on way with clients, building a team, shepherding the culture—and remaining private, independent. That is really why I started Comrade.
MyLIFE: Your company is diverse. You employ artists, athletes, gourmets, gadget geeks. How has that diversity helped you become successful?
McMillian: That’s a great question! First, we love to attract and grow with very multitalented people. We look for people with a variety of interests who can bring a broad perspective as well as a variety of inspiration to the work that we do. Our office culture involves food. We do a lot of things around food—someone cooks lunch for the team on a given Tuesday—and we share interests. We find that different perspectives keep creativity fresh and keep us focused on achieving our goals. It creates a much more interested, more well-rounded perspective and team.
MyLIFE: What technologies do you use? Do you create your own to cater to each individual business?
McMillian: We work with clients in the U.S. and around the world—Europe, Asia, etc. Collaboration and being able to work remotely with clients is very important to us. We have invested in a few cloud-based technologies built around collaboration. We work with Basecamp, which handles project management, file sharing, etc. It allows people to log in, review documents and give feedback regularly. We also invested in an upgraded cloud-based PRT system, to provide better project budgeting, and controls for running projects for our clients, being able to report to them where we are at any given time. We invested in a technology called Workamajig. We have a lot of clients who are developing software, either Web or mobile applications—and prototyping to communicate what we’re going to build or how it will work, what the design will look like, what the interaction will be. We have used commercial prototyping software—Highrise, Proteo and others—but we also developed our own internal tools. A big challenge is getting websites to work across different devices—whether that be a smartphone, a tablet or a desktop computer—and across a lot of different file formats. So, we developed a lot of tools with what’s called responsive design. When it comes to branding, we use a variety of tools for stakeholders to get a sense of where they want to see the direction of their brand going. We use a technique called polarities … for example, do you want the brand to be bolder or more conservative? We use surveys to gather input. A lot of our clients want us to go as fast as possible.
MyLIFE: Imagine you are at a conference with CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. How would you describe Comrade to them?
McMillian: We are a strategy and design agency focusing on helping clients, both start-ups and well-established companies. We improve user experience of Web/mobile products and services, as well as improve their customer experience across interaction points. We work with financial companies, tech companies and retailers, so we have a strong focus in transactional-based systems, e-commerce, mobile banking, online banking applications.
MyLIFE: What are some current challenges facing your industry?
McMillian: It changes, as you can imagine. One of the key challenges is the pace of change. And that is driven by new technologies, new changes in consumer behavior, new regulatory changes that are happening often in financial service clients. Making sure we adapt and evolve as well as understand all the new technologies and interactions. One of the other challenges we are facing that is a blessing and a curse is the democratization of design. More and more CEOs and organization leaders are realizing that design—in terms of not just visual, but for websites, mobile and web apps, how it looks and works—is more important than ever. We are doing everything we can to help our client leaders learn the basics of design and how to think about design in the context of the work they are doing because this will help their client experience and interactions. It has elevated the role that design plays in corporate America but it also breaks down our own expertise. It’s like being a plumber, teaching someone how to be a plumber and then putting yourself out of business. That is why it’s a blessing and a curse. The other macro challenge we are seeing is a shift toward smaller project sizes in terms of revenue, budget and time frame. This is a macroeconomic or corporate investment change. Companies have invested on their own in digital media. We are seeing a digital plateau, and there are not the big capital projects as there has been in the prior five or six years. This has created a definite challenge for us in our industry.
MyLIFE: In terms of your vision, where would you like to be 10 years from now?
McMillian: I look at vision in terms of timeline and direction and purpose, behavior that drives our decisions. I would love to continue what we started in 2006, working with leaders to help them improve customer experience and improve their strategy and design so that from a human perspective doing daily business—banking, consuming—is made easier. Also, I want to get more and more into health care and the way they use mobile, Web and downloaded apps to improve and provide remote health care. I would like to expand internationally and increase the scope of our impact. We believe that improving design has a positive effect on people’s lives, such as making sure their banking experience is safe and secure, making sure they prepare for retirement, get the best health care. That is what drives our work.
MyLIFE: You have an impressive list of clients. Why should companies consider a business relationship with Comrade?
McMillian: The first is our approach to doing business. We have a philosophy: “Be a Comrade.” To a client, this means that we deliver high-quality work, top-notch service, quick response time, that we’re flexible and adaptive and understand their personal needs as well as what their customers need. We deliver value. We have proven over and over that we are able to solve complex problems very quickly—whether it’s a branding problem, a service problem or a customer problem.