The end wasn’t inevitable

By Sam Liebeskind

DISH Network officially announced yesterday that Blockbuster will be closing its remaining U.S. retail stores and distribution centers — and it’s no surprise. Once a staple of video watching at home, Blockbuster had become very utilitarian – building and sustaining a brand that was tied too closely to the functional aspect of what it delivered. In people’s minds, Blockbuster = The Brick & Mortar Video Store.

Had they thought of themselves as being about ‘providing access to entertainment’ instead of as a ‘video rental store’ - and taken steps to deliver on that bigger promise - they might still be thriving in a world where devices, digital and on-demand media consumption reign supreme. 

Other brands can and should learn from this: create a range of offers and tell stories about the benefit you provide to people, not just the functionality of what you do and have done. It’s the difference between ‘why’ and ‘what.’ And it makes all the difference.

Sam Liebeskind is a strategist at Wolff Olins New York.

Quality is the new black


By Amy Lee 

Netflix is on a roll, right? House of Cards was catnip for West Wing withdrawal sufferers, Arrested Development whipped comedy nerds into a frenzy and now Orange is the New Black is taking TV (as we now know it) by storm. Even Ryan Seacrest was moved to humor on Twitter: “Orange is the new black is the new gluten free diet”.

So, what’s their secret? The creation of a TV hit is (I imagine) a complex mixture of talent, timing, funding and magic.  But the New York Times also identified a more fundamental variable that boils down to a shift in TV business models: from a “third-party-decider economy” to viewer-first. In short, where shows were traditionally created for “broad, unobjectionable appeal” to please advertisers, “Netflix predicates its model around the person watching the show, [and] needs to provide content that the viewer deems worthy of $7.99 a month”.

Good news for us as viewers. And just one example of a larger TV renaissance spearheaded by Netflix and HBO, but also embraced by broadcasting pioneers (like the BBC) and some cable players (see AMC). Technology that allows viewers to binge, time-shift, and watch on a variety of screens is encouraging a new type of TV. Storytelling can be longer form, less reliant on the episode-ending cliffhanger, more niche, less conventional. Stars, directors and writers can find freedom of expression not possible in the blockbuster rat race of movie making.

Is this the golden age of TV? Perhaps that’s a little hasty. From an economic point of view there’s still a long way to go before any one company breaks through the network strong-hold in the US (although Aereo is trying hard to trample that path). But there’s no doubt that TV is back on the map as place to go for quality entertainment. Because TV is finally putting us first, and it shows.

Amy Lee is a Senior Strategist at Wolff Olins New York.

Refinery29 launched new brand identity

Refinery29 was founded in 2005 with the idea of providing a highly curated, edited take on all things cool in New York City. Fast-forward 8 years later… Refinery29 has grown from local to global, from 4 to 120 (and counting), from start-up to one of the most visited lifestyle sites online – and one of Inc.’s fastest growing private companies in 2012.

Talk about growth at Internet speed!

Not only has Refinery29 deservedly garnered an avid community of users/consumers – they’ve been continually successful on the investment front, recently securing an additional $5.6M of private investment to help scale the business into new categories and new geographies. 

Today marks another historic moment in the company’s impressive track record – the launch of a redesigned website and new brand identity that reflects Refinery29’s ambition to keep pushing boundaries and challenging the conventions of what it means to be an online media business.



In the fall of 2012, Refinery29 asked Wolff Olins to help crystallize and position their brand for the next chapter of development and growth. The co-founding team was looking to establish both a strategy and an identity that better reflected who they are, where they came from and where they are going.

In a rapid three-month sprint, we worked hand-in-hand with the Refinery29 team to establish a clear brand strategy and decision-making filter to help guide internal beliefs and behaviors moving forward. We then used that strategy to inform the development of a bold, new identity – a process of collaboration and iteration, ultimately landing on a final expression that stays true to their cool kid core, while pushing them into the future. The mark itself is an evolution – an unexpected but magnetic mix of lines, curves, and alignment that caught our eyes from day 1 and over time came into its own, much like the brand it represents.



For Refinery29, this process was all about articulating and owning their inherent juxtapositions as a brand – how to defy the mainstream while defining the mainstream, how to get big and stay cool, how to be mass and stay indie – maximalist yet edited, how to be content and commerce, advertising and editorial – all at the same time. For a brand with such big ambition and opportunity, it’s only fitting to see them stand amongst a crowd of highly deserving peers.

It has been an absolute honor to collaborate with the Refinery29 team – we can’t wait to see what’s in store for them next!


Check out more about the launch here:

Ooh, Makeover! R29 Got A Major Revamp (R29)

Refinery 29 Rebrands For a Global Fashion Audience (FastCo)

Refinery 29 Evolves Into Lifestyle Platform (WWD)


Rethinking the digital experience in Education


By Melissa Andrada

Television. Music. Mobile. Education is the next frontier of technological disruption.

The need to evolve has led universities to use digital technology to re-think how education is delivered. We’re seeing a gold rush of universities racing to digitise their campuses to offer free online courses to the world.

However, quantity doesn’t equal quality. Few universities are making the most of this new medium. Most mass online open courses (MOOCs) consist of a ‘talking head’ in a front of white board. It’s no wonder completion rates are less than 10%.

Yet online education has the potential to be so much more. Technology enables us to create learning that encourages:

Active Participation

Learning shouldn’t just be about listening and watching, but also, doing and making. Education resources, like Codeacademy, start by throwing people into the content headfirst. With Codeacademy, you can begin coding right away without evening signing in or watching an instructional video.

Fun Adventure

Learning doesn’t have to be a dull chore. Organisations like TED set the bar high for video talks. Along with the RSA Animates, they’ve elevated the lecture to an art. They create highly curated visual stories that move both the mind and the heart. They inspire us to fall into a rabbit hole, going from video to video, hyperlink to hyperlink.

Lifelong Learning

Learning shouldn’t stop when you’re 18 or 22. Education startups, like FutureLearn, are re-inventing learning for life. They will offer free online courses from top universities whenever and wherever you like. For FutureLearn, the classroom can be a lecture hall, a mobile phone, a museum, an airport. They are building an experience that welcomes everyone to learn, regardless of age, location or background.

My ambition is to put these principles into practice – to use technology to make learning sing. This summer Robert Jones, Head of New Thinking and professor at the University of East Anglia, and I will be co-creating a course on branding for FutureLearn. Our challenge and opportunity will not just be using the medium, but making the most of it.


Melissa Andrada is a lead strategist passionate about the intersection between brand, technology and social impact. In her spare time, she teaches entrepreneurs and startups how to build better businesses at General Assembly. @themelissard

Image via Code Academy and the New York Times

I heart BuzzFeed

By Lisa Smith

If you haven’t heard of them you’ve probably been hiding under a rock. BuzzFeed has been around for a while, but has really come into its own in the past few years, with a growing number of top journalists calling it home. BuzzFeed is a media/news company that’s actually built for the social age—their audience is growing in large numbers of unique visitors daily, they’re physically expanding globally, starting to create original video content with a POV, and working with brands and their agencies to create great social content/advertising for their platform that really spreads all over the ‘social web’. It makes the rest of the media industry look like a bunch of dinosaurs.

I visited BuzzFeed this morning as part of OpenCo NY and learnt  from Jonah Peretti, BuzzFeed’s Founder and CEO, that their business is built on understanding human psychology and that people are literally crazy. BuzzFeed knows we don’t have unified interests, we behave very differently on Google vs Facebook for example, search is a private guilty pleasure, but what we share on Facebook is about identity and telling the world who we are. They know that we often contradict ourselves, everyone has a bit of OCD, histrionics, narcissism (especially Kim Kashadarian & Kanye), ADHD and oppositional defiant disorder. And according to them, EQ (emotional) content is more important than just IQ (intelligent) content… hence the immense popularity of stories like ‘25 Most Awkward Cat Sleeping Positions’ that was so popular and shared all over the internet.

So, this is a message to all the other media agencies out there, many of you need to wake up! It’s time to get off your high IQ horses to deliver content that is powerful and emotional, but also caters across content categories to our ununified selves—BuzzFeed’s main demographic is 18-34 year olds and if you don’t provide content that’s relevant to what these audiences want and share you won’t stand a chance in this ever growing mobile social world.

Lisa Smith is Design Director at Wolff Olins New York. 

Yahoo + Summly


By Sam Wilson

Yahoo has just bought Summly, the mobile news reader app founded by 17-year-old British entrepreneur Nick D’Aloisio. D’Aloisio is a programming whiz who wasn’t even born when Yahoo was founded in 1994.

His free app launched last year, designed to summarized top headlines for quick, mobile reading, allowing its users to browse headlines along with concise summaries of the stories. He raised more than $1 million for the app from supporters including Rupert Murdoch and Stephen Fry.

While D’Aloisio isn’t among them, it’s been interesting to see that the creators behind many of the mobile companies Yahoo’s recently snatched up are former employees – if only Yahoo had been able to foster a culture of innovation from the start, they could have saved major bucks to find other ways  to deliver on Mayer’s ambition.

The Summly acquisition is a good move, though, toward delivering on their promise to make the world’s daily habits more inspiring and entertaining.

With Summly’s technologies, Yahoo has an opportunity to improve and simplify their audience’s experience of content in a format that is perfect for a  highly mobile world, let’s hope they find a way to monetize Summly without disrupting our experience.

Sam Wilson is managing director of Wolff Olins New York. 

Makers: Women Who Make America

By Melissa Scott and Jessica Chalifoux

This week AOL celebrated the premier of Makers, an unprecedented digital video and broadcast initiative made in partnership with PBS and filmmaker Dyllan McGee. The program and full-length documentary aim to capture the stories, achievements and breakthroughs of America’s most iconic and prolific women over the last half century — collectively impacting virtually every aspect of today’s culture. 


Women Who Make America Trailer


“AOL wants to be known for groundbreaking firsts in the digital media industry, and we are thrilled to be partnering with PBS as they stand alone in their unparalleled ability to educate the world on the most important movements of our time,” said Tim Armstrong, Chairman & CEO of AOL. “Partnering together to bring MAKERS to life is exactly the type of future-forward programming we believe in.” 

The series features high-profile icons ranging from Gloria Steinem and Hillary Rodham Clinton, technology trailblazers Marissa Mayer and Meg Whitman to unsung heroes such as Kathrine Switzer, the first woman to run the Boston Marathon, and Bethany Hamilton, professional surfer and up-and-coming inspiration. The collection of over 100 stories is just the start, “We are committed to using storytelling to help the next generation of women,” says McGee. “There is still a lot more work to be done.”, the dynamic media and community platform AOL launched prior to the documentary, features a deep catalog of engaging highlights from the series and works to uncover the women who are continuing to lead the charge today. Maureen Sullivan, SVP & General Manager of Women’s Content and Lifestyle Brands at AOL told the press “ was built to utilize the latest innovation in video and mobile technology.” The site lets users individually curate and discover the stories of all these amazing women.

We’ll be watching on February 26 at 8pm as the full-length documentary series launches on PBS.

Visit to learn more.


Melissa Scott (@hello_melissa) is a senior designer at Wolff Olins San Francisco and Jessica Chalifoux is Head of Account Management at Wolff Olins New York. 

The current Al Jazeera


By Sam Wilson

We learned on Wednesday that Al Jazeera has acquired Current TV, the progressive network co-founded by Al Gore, which Wolff Olins created the identity for in 2010. Al Jazeera plans to use Current’s established distribution deals and audience as the platform for a new English-language channel, which will be available in more than 40 million homes, with newscasts from both New York and Doha, Qatar.

The New York Times has called it a “coming of age moment" for the pan-Arab news giant. 

It’s certainly an interesting marriage of brands. The two media companies have fundamental principles in common – an independent and uncompromising point-of-view, a sharp focus on quality journalism and an unshakable mission to tell stories that matter.

NYT quoted Al Gore’s Co-Founder Joel Hyatt praising Al Jazeera for “bringing large-scale resources to journalism — something which we have not been able to do.” Still, Al Jazeera will have its work cut out in providing an alternative viewpoint to U.S. domestic news, at scale. To cultivate their U.S. audience now, the network will have to first persuade many Americans to get over the stigma of watching Arab-owned TV.

We see two paths to overcoming that barrier: either build on the established Current TV brand and the awareness and loyal following it comes with, or uncover a way to re-imagine Al Jazeera as a new global lens for American viewers.

Sam Wilson is managing director of Wolff Olins New York. 

Huma-Huma in the House

By Lisa Smith

Last Thursday we were excited to have Chris Smith and Matt Lewkowicz from Huma-Huma come in for our weekly share in the New York office. 

A few of us were lucky enough to work with them on the compositions for the recent USA TODAY broadcast spots. Huma-Huma certainly have more than one string to their bow: They are at once a band, company, collective, and sound house. They make music for films, television shows, commercials, video games, websites, toys, hotels, installations, interactive work, and anywhere else you could possibly imagine music or sound.

They endeared us with their creative and intuitive processes and showed us a sampling of their work. Below is my favorite piece, commissioned by Showtime as part of a short film series, that I feel really sums them up… 

Showtime “Music Box” from Huma-Huma on Vimeo.

Lisa Smith is a design director at Wolff Olins New York

Merge of the Random Penguins

By Amy Lee

It’s been a choppy few weeks in publishing. As Newsweek on this side of the Atlantic announced it will become an online-only edition called ‘Newsweek Global’ from 2013, The Guardian Newspaper in the UK was forced to deny rumours that it was “seriously discussing” ending its print edition after the claim was made by rival paper The Telegraph.

Causing the most noise however is the news (pending regulatory approval) of the merger of two of the world’s most famous publishing houses – Penguin and Random House. No doubt the staff and authors represented by both organisations are feeling a little unsure of the future right now, since in so many situations ‘merger’ is a corporate euphemism for ‘rationalisation’. And it’s no secret that publishing has been feeling the unsettling effects of the recession and digitalization more than most industries. 

For anyone who has a large place in their heart for the enduring brilliance of the Penguin Books brand – the classic literature, the elegant graphic covers, the cheeky and distinctive logo, even the worrying diaspora of merchandise – this could be a troublesome development. Apparently, the new joint company will be called Penguin Random House. I can’t help thinking that ‘Random Penguin’ would have done a better job of maintaining some of the British eccentricity we know and love.

But let’s not dwell on naming (always a sticky topic, and always easy to criticize from afar). What about the opportunities this presents for the companies as they come together? 

The merger gives them 3 key strategic advantages:

-   Scale: together they will be the largest consumer book publisher in the world with 25% market share

-   Content: a combination of current mega hits (like Random House’s Fifty Shades of Grey) and a stellar back catalogue (including George Orwell, Dickens and Virginia Woolf from Penguin)

-   Efficiency: sharing resources and cutting costs in areas such as supply chain distribution

Combined, this means negotiating power - which they need if they are to have a voice at the table with Amazon and its ilk. Not only will the new company have the potential to drive down the cost-per-copy of physical books, but also push up e-book prices (which many believe are currently so low they’re drastically under-valuing author’s achievements). According to Marjorie Scardino, CEO of Pearson (owners of Penguin), they see this as a chance to “invest in books and new ways of deploying them” – a future-thinking focus that is long overdue in the industry. 

One of the biggest brand challenges they face is also one of their strengths. Both companies are a made up of several well-loved consumer facing brands: their imprints – like Jonathan Cape, William Heinemann or Vintage at Random House, and Penguin Classics or Viking at Penguin. Each imprint has its own individual brand equity built on editorial leadership, talented authors, committed readers and recognised visual identities. That’s a lot of cultures and agendas to align, and they’ll need a clear vision to guide them through the changes ahead. 

However unsettling, it is encouraging to see the literary establishment mobilize themselves to face the future. If Penguin Random House can harness the passion of the imprints behind a unified vision to deliver efficient innovation in publishing, they could be a force to be reckoned with.

Amy Lee is a senior strategist at Wolff Olins New York.