This is what I said at Portent’s 20th-anniversary party. It’s also a kind of open letter to my team. For posterity, I’m posting it here. If you really want to know what we’re all about, this is a really good place to start:
20 years ago when I started Portent, as my accountant filled out our paperwork, he asked “What do you do?”
I said “Information design.”
He raised an eyebrow and asked “aruh?”
I explained “We build websites, help clients generate PDFs, and we write great copy for them.”
He said “uhhh…”
Then he said,
“I’ll just say you’re a writer.”
Ten years later someone interviewed me for a PSBJ article. He asked me what my exit strategy was. How was I going to grow my company 400% in the next year? When was I getting my first round of venture capital (this was during the 2nd bubble)? When I said I wasn’t, he said, somewhat snottily, “Oh, you’re building a lifestyle business.”
What I should have said to both of them was “bite me,” we build 747s.
I have to emphasize we, here, because Portent was one person for about six months, and it’s been a team ever since.
747s takes a little more explanation.
Disclaimer: I’m a huge history and aircraft buff. This is going to get geeky in a hurry.
During WWII, Howard Hughes conceived of a cargo plane called the Spruce Goose (made of birch, not spruce – marketers screwed up again). It’s ginormous. Still the biggest wingspan of any aircraft. A six-foot-tall person can stand upright. Inside the wing. It’s spectacular.
It took years to build – Hughes didn’t finish it until 1947. Towards the end of the project, Congress accused him of fraud and hauled him into a hearing.
The only thing that kept him out of jail was his successful 1.8-mile test flight off the coast of California. It was a story out of Hollywood: Visionary Questioned, Then Exonerated.
However, the Spruce Goose’s first flight was its last. It was a museum piece before it carried a single pound of cargo or a single passenger. Spectacular, but without purpose.
Flash forward to the 747. It launched in 1970. There are 1500+ in use. It’s flown 384,000 hours.
It’s not cool for the sake of cool. It’s damned effective, all the time.
It’s beautiful and spectacular exactly when it needs to be. When called upon, it does amazing things, like carrying the space shuttle. You can put a bar in on the upper floor, or have bedrooms, or whatever. It can carry a giant laser. Or a bowling alley. Frankly, it’s probably easier to list the things it can’t do.
And its genes carry on through generations of aircraft. It’s evolved into the 757, 767 and 737. It’s got military and cargo versions that’ll be in use for decades more.
It looks cool, too. It’s somehow graceful in spite of being a kajillion ton hunk of metal that lifts off the ground and then returns to it under its own power.
It’s become amazing, useful and significant in small increments. It’s smart as hell and full of purpose.
And that’s us. That’s what we do at Portent. Our work is smart as hell and full of purpose. It’s not flash-in-the-pan ooh-ah stuff.
Some agencies build the Spruce Goose, over and over. They want the sex appeal and push for that first and foremost. Spruce Goose websites and campaigns litter the Internet. They go for more more more instead of better better better.
Those agencies have always built the Spruce Goose. And clients have always called on us to fix it.
We build 747s. And I’m proud of that.
I’m not saying we haven’t had our rough spots. We’ve gone back to the proverbial Wright Flyer a few times. Or maybe a kite. It sucks. But we’ve built this place as a team with pure sweat and genius, nothing else, and I want you all to realize that and celebrate it.
We create future-proof and adaptable work. The Internet isn’t what it was 20 years ago, is it? Through all the algorithm updates, the rise of social, the rise of content marketing and the never-ending deluge of buzzwords and fads, we continue to do great work by sticking to the fundamental principles of sound marketing: Make a brand just the right kind of weird to resonate with the audience. Make it useful and significant. Put those together and you’ve got damned effective communications.
We can do cool when we need to, but it’s our kind of cool. Humungous return on investment for clients. A resounding message. Stuff that just works. And yeah, we can win awards: Addys. Best SEO Campaign.
Cool a lot of things, and we continue to do all of them by being smart as hell and full of purpose.
It always comes back to the team. Building 747s requires a team that’s smart and full of purpose. You can’t do it alone. I certainly learned that over the years.
First, I worked alone because I thought I wanted to.
Then, I built a team because I thought I had to.
Now, we grow the team because it’s great and because it makes Portent so much better.
You all know me. I’ve got some Howard Hughes upstairs, and not always the good stuff. I’m a little crazy. A little mercurial (cough). I’d probably build a Spruce Goose if I could because it’s so cool. It’s OK, you can admit it. It’s the worst-kept secret in Portent history. You’re not a Portent employee until the first time you say “Someone needs to find Ian something to do.”
I count on you to pull me back and make sure we create those 747s. Every time, without fail. That’s a great team.
Instead of looking for investment capital, we’ve all invested in each other. The ROI’s amazing.
What do we do?
We build 747s. We do it again and again.
So I want to say ‘thank you’ for being here, for doing the work and making stuff that’s smart and full of purpose.
Oh, by the way, the 747 is 45 years old and still going.
So we’re just getting started. I don’t know if I’ll still be talking about 747s in 2035. But we’ll still do marketing that’s smart and full of purpose.