Frank + Oak’s New Creative Director on Trading Agency Life to Go In-House

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by David Brown

Edmund Lam started his job as creative director at Frank + Oak just before Black Friday last year. “It was chaotic, but it was a great way to be on-boarded,” he says.

Lam found himself in the deep end at the busiest time of year for the fashion-forward menswear retailer which, since launching in 2012, has grown at a remarkable pace—going global and introducing women’s wear last year.

With an esthetic that fuses art and design with technology, the Montreal-based company in many ways resembles a bustling startup. “Most of the time there is no formal brief to tell us what to do,” he says. “Every train is going at a hundred miles an hour and you just hop on and go.”

It was a perfect fit for Lam.

After nearly a decade working in agencies first as an art director (at Cloudraker and bleublancrouge) and then creative director (back at Cloudraker and Sid Lee), Lam has worked on a long list of great brands (Samsung, Cirque du Soleil, Stella Artois, Neutrogena…), but Frank + Oak is his first foray client side. He wanted to be nearer to the consumer and more closely tied to all parts of the brand from strategy to ideas to execution. And that’s what he got.

“So that is my job, to take ownership of the direction of the brand”

Frank + Oak was co-founded by Ethan Song and Hicham Ratnani, though Song has been the creative pathfinder for the brand. But as the company grew it became more difficult for him to dedicate the time and energy to communicate the vision. “So that is my job, to take ownership of the direction of the brand—everything from consumer experience to website to editorial photos and ecommerce to marketing materials to copywriting,” says Lam. He meets with Song most weeks to discuss ideas. Song offers high-level concepts about the emotional tone and strategic direction of the brand.

“He tends to be pretty stream of consciousness,” says Lam. “Ethan passes on his vision and I interpret that creatively.”

The company is bursting with young creative thinkers across the business, but Lam has a dedicated team of creative pros working for him in what he calls a “pretty typical advertising or design studio structure” to execute ideas and produce content. There are writers, photographers and designers. A social content manager writes and manages media buys.  

In the past, Frank + Oak worked more with creative and production partners outside the company. “But since I have joined, we have been more focused on doing things internally,” he says.

There is some advertising for sales and promotional events, but most of the creative energy goes into the consumer experience, which means brand consistency is also all-important. One of Lam’s first acts after getting the job was to review the many consumer touchpoints and branded communications, and he found unevenness in tone and messaging.

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“They weren’t necessarily off brand, but they were coming at it from different points of view,” he says. “By producing in-house there is a greater consistency in everything we do and we’re better able to connect all the pieces.”  

Keeping things in-house not only lets them refine and improve their own content and production skills, it also enables them to—much like a startup—embrace an experiment and fail-fast culture. So long as they stay true to the brand, its purpose and that all-consuming focus on great customer experience, they can move quickly and trial different things.  

The biggest change for Lam joining Frank + Oak has been how close he is both to the consumer and the bottom line.

“We get the right people at the table, work out a plan and things typically happen within a month or so,” he says. “On a whim, we can try something new on the site and if it doesn’t work we can take it off. Or if it kind of works and there are little quirks we can change to make it better we will.” But the biggest change for Lam joining Frank + Oak has been how close he is both to the consumer and the bottom line.

As an agency creative you are only working with a small part of the marketer toolkit.

“That means you have a lot less impact,” he says.“You come in and out and you can recommend certain things, but you don’t feel like you are in it for the long haul and therefore there is only so much impact you can make.”

When you are in-house, particularly in a digital first company like Frank + Oak, you are constantly connected to the brand and dedicated to the long-term successes. “You don’t just develop something and walk away,” he says. “You can iterate and improve along the way.”

Working in an agency, he was always concerned with metrics and hard numbers like sales, but there was always some distance, and other contributors (producers, media, account execs etc.) between himself and the bottom line. “There is still a big buffer between the creative team and what the customer sees,” he says. “Whereas here we push the button and people see it. In some ways it is really empowering, but it is also a bit of a wakeup call, nothing is hypothetical,” he says. “There are real-world consequences to everything you produce, which is really cool.”