Mutado – A weapon called creativity
Web Designer heads to the Italian fashion capital Milan to talk to mobile platform specialists Mutado. The agency reveals how it was born Adobe-centric, is highly focused on the mobile market and how the team likes to ‘meta-communicate’
who: Mutado | what: A Milan-based creative studio that likes to keep things simple | where: C.so Sempione 10, 20154, Italy | web: www.mutado.com
Mutado was formed in 2004 by Lorenzo Manfredi and Mauro Gatti: a developer and a graphic designer whose paths crossed more than a decade ago. During the last seven years, this partnership has grown into a solid independent digital agency, headquartered in Milan. The company’s name unveils Mutado’s guiding philosophy of constant mutation, adaption and transformation.
What started off as a two-man studio has grown over the years to become a leading agency working on web, motion, print and, most recently, mobile, employing over 20 people with different backgrounds and ideas. Mutado works directly with clients such as Disney, MTV, 55DSL, Yahoo!, Miss Sixty, Adobe, Sky and Vodafone, partnering also with distinguished agencies like Saatchi & Saatch, TBWA, United1861 and Y&R.
The agency has over six years of experience in the creative/design field, and founders Lorenzo Manfredi and Mauro Gatti explained the driving force and vision that has pushed it on to success. Technical director Lorenzo talked about the high standards they implement, while creative director Mauro talked about how the agency uses creativity as a weapon. “Mutado’s drive has always been excellence. We’ve done it all: banners, websites, animation, illustration, billboards, videos, applications, custom toys, events… but our drive has never changed – it’s to be excellent doing what we do. We’ve imposed very high standards on our work and we won’t accept a project if we suspect the end result will be anything less than perfect. We definitely listen to the market and find ways to satisfy our clients’ needs and we believe it’s important to keep up with trends in our business, because if you don’t, you’ll drown. Everything gets really old really fast, so it’s essential to innovate, to transform, to reinvent yourself. This doesn’t mean Mutado doesn’t have an identity, on the contrary. The challenge is to show that common trace in everything we do, and even though we’d describe it as excellence, if you look at our portfolio you’ll probably call it creativity. Our creative team works horizontally on different media; you’ll have the same people working on a custom toy today, a website tomorrow and an app next week. It’s a top-notch, eclectic team with incredible skill.
“Even though Mutado is half-creativity, half-tech, we use creativity as a weapon. If you show your portfolio to a prospective client and go into the tech details, attention span will max out in 30 seconds; if you show off the cool graphics, you’ll get them hooked. That’s our trick – we get them hooked on the creative side and then introduce the tech backbone. We take pride in creating fully customised iPhone apps, for instance; they’re the perfect marriage between creativity and technology. However, in order to actually make a beautifully designed button, you’ll need the perfect development skills, that extra something that will make that button stand out and fit in just right at the same time. The creative team knows this puts a lot of pressure on the developers, but we’re only allowed to let our imagination flow because we know they’ll find a way to do it. This is very motivating, on both sides. So, if I had to choose a highlight, I wouldn’t go so much with a project, I’d probably go with the coming to life of our mobile unit. It’s where our fresh creativity merges with our beautiful tech details. We haven’t been making hundreds of apps because we’re betting on the quality, not the quantity. There isn’t a single one we’re not proud of.”
Creative director Mauro went on to reveal how the agency decided on its name and expressed the importance of having a matching URL. “After years and years of awful experiences slaving away in agency after agency, Lorenzo and I decided to change – well – mutate into something new. That’s why we decided to call the new agency Mutado – it’s basically the Spanish translation of ‘mutated’, and it had a great ring to it. We chose this name not only because of our mutation from freelancers to an actual agency, but also because it represents our philosophy, our attitude towards work. Being able to permanently change and adapt to new technologies, reacting promptly to challenges presented by clients – that’s mutation, that’s the foundation for our work. So yeah, it was important that the URL matched and we were happy it represented us 100%.”
Mutado’s high standards help attract new clients, but for continued success the agency needs to do more. Account and sales director Roberta Cerri explained the process: “New clients, more often than not, contact us directly. I’d say that in about 70% of cases new clients get in touch with Mutado thanks to the business buzz; the companies we work with tend to speak highly of us and an incredible number of people reach us thanks to this positive word of mouth. The other 30% contact Mutado thanks to our communication efforts – we work hard to update our website, Vimeo profile and Facebook fanpage as often as possible, also keeping our followers and clients posted with a monthly newsletter. Social networks are an excellent means to attract new contacts that share our vision and like our work. We also issue press releases to promote new projects. Once we get contacted by a potential client, we usually get back to them within 24 hours of the first call/email. Generally the next step is to arrange a meeting to present the agency and, usually, to be briefed on the project.”
With a new client on the agency roster, its time to jump to the next stage. Roberta offered an insight to how Mutado interacts with a new client. “When an order has been placed, we arrange two kick-off meetings: the first one with the client, to collect all the operative details needed to work on the project, and a second internal one to brief the team and assign tasks to the team members. The size of the team usually depends on the complexity of the project, but, on average, each project will have three to six people working on it. A project manager organises and supervises the workflow and manages the relationship with the client. We typically take on entire projects, meaning we work both on the creative proposal and the actual development, so the team will tend to be composed of an art director and a lead developer as well as graphic designers, videomakers (when it’s a motion project) and a team of developers. The project manager is essential to organise and supervise the Gantt schedule and to guarantee customer satisfaction. However, when some very operative and specific feedback is being exchanged, the project manager will encourage operative team members to speak directly with the client. Although certainly unconventional, direct client-expert dialogue allows us to increase the quality of the final work and boost team motivation. It’s a tricky equilibrium, but it’s also one of our strengths. On each project we try to be, above all, proactive strategic partners for our clients. This means we invest time in sharing our analysis of the project and presenting new ideas. We believe this is why our customer loyalty is higher than average and there’s so much buzz around our name.”
Working with a global platform can present issues with languages. Communications director Raquel Ferreirinha explained how Mutado has a host of English speakers to assist with any barriers. “As Mauro explained and as our name suggests, Mutado is constantly changing, permanently striving for improvement and always growing. It’s a natural process and it’s been going on since day one. This growth has also led to an increasingly international positioning, particularly since we work in a mainly English centric environment and the online universe isn’t limited by geographical boundaries. If there’s such a thing as an international language, it’s English, and we’re well aware of that. Although many of our clients are Italian, you’ll notice that all our communication efforts are entirely in English; we believe this is cardinal precisely because of our increasingly international presence. Although we’re headquartered in Milan, we speak in Italian to each other and most of the staff is Italian, we see this as purely circumstantial and wouldn’t consider language as a barrier if the right opportunity came up to open Mutado somewhere else. We can’t deny English language skills are something we look out for in CVs: the more English speakers we have in Mutado, the more independent we are. As Roberta mentioned, we believe in establishing direct client expert dialogue so, often enough, the team will be speaking directly to the client and this has meant we’re all invested in improving our language skills. I’d say we manage just fine, and when something specific or particularly elaborate is needed, we make sure we always have a native English speaker in our staff.”
An element of design less affected by language is software. Technical director Lorenzo revealed how Mutado was born Adobe-centric but has diversified over the years. “Mutado was definitely born Adobe-centric, making intensive use of tools such as Photoshop and After Effects for the creative production and Flash/Flex for the technical integration. Perhaps something changed in the last years, especially when we moved our whole hardware setup from Windows to OS X just a few years ago. The creative gang is still high on their Creative Suite addiction, but in the technical department we witnessed a strong convergence to OS X-native tools like X-Code and open-source IDE such as Eclipse. We also have a massive versioning and deployment system (both for the tech and the creative departments) based on open-source solutions like SVN and GIT. As for office automation and presentations, we moved from Microsoft solutions to iWorks that offer a low-cost, beautiful and powerful suite. The only exception is 3D Studio Max – something which we’re still using and which runs on Windows alone.”
Mobile is an arena that has had a big impact on web design, and Mutado has a strong association with iPhone and iPad. “We immediately recognised Apple and the iOS as the leaders of the new era of mobile, so we decided to open a unit entirely dedicated to this ‘touch’ revolution,” Lorenzo explains. “Today, iOS devices are the main target of our mobile unit, but our R&D team is keeping an eye on Android with a lot of interest. We’ve actually got something up our sleeves for Android that we’ll be releasing later this year, but iOS will remain our main focus for the next years, as long as Apple will continue to offer the best blend between powerful hardware and a great operating system. HTML5 and jQuery also offer very promising platforms for the development of fast, multiplatform and low-cost mobile solutions for our clients, and this isn’t going unnoticed.”
Once Mutado has finished creating its beautifully-crafted designs and sites, there is still more work to do. Communications director Raquel talked about how they make sure sites get seen. “SEO is definitely a big slice of the cake, it is also one of the reasons we will be moving back to HTML with our new website: there’s nothing better if you want Google to keep a very close eye on you. We don’t handle SEO internally, we’ve always been happy to partner up with companies that have made SEO their line of business. But SEO isn’t the only thing; people, that’s what counts. Mutado gets in touch with people mainly through social networks (Facebook, Twitter and Vimeo particularly) and monthly newsletters. We’re definitely not tweetaholics, but getting real-time feedback on the stuff you make is priceless. In 2010 we started PR-ing in a more structured way, setting up an internal press office, and this has brought us to a whole new level. We also work with our clients on these aspects, acting as strategic partners when it comes to using social media in innovative ways, from maximising social network visibility to creating specific product-oriented Facebook apps. Our plan for 2011 is to get better at this and, on a different note, we have some ‘real-life’ surprises coming up too. This year we want to start opening our doors, showing people that there are people behind the screens and that we’re quite a heterogeneous group.”
Popular social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook help create interest in a site, while also providing a platform for everyday communications. Raquel reveals how Mutado takes advantage of social media. “Well, picking up from what I’ve just mentioned, we’re increasingly communicating through social media. They’re undeniably amazing stages from which we can speak to people but, to be honest, it’s just put a magnifying lens on something we’ve always done. Communicating is our line of work – whether it’s through a website, a billboard, a video or an app, we’re always shaping and transmitting messages in creative ways. Zuckerberg & co. have just added a means to our list. The new thing about social media is that we’re actually meta-communicating, we’re communicating about communication, we’re talking about our projects. The other thing is we know who we’re speaking to and the best part of it is, people can reply! People can post their honest opinions about the stuff we do and although, to date, we’ve been lucky enough to have only had warm praise, the idea that we can actually get harsh critique and less-than-perfect opinions is something that pushes us to keep on doing our best. So, the way it works is, whenever a new project is officially out we start communicating on all fronts: website, press office, social networks, the bunch. We also update social networks between projects, naturally, whenever we’re attending special events, giving lectures at conferences or universities, when we catch our name in the news…that sort of thing. Social networks are also ideal to post minor projects, those that aren’t featured in our portfolio. We don’t usually use them to post our lunch menus or our views on current affairs, but you can bet that whatever we do post is worth your while.”
People are the driving force behind any successful business and Mutado is no different. Founders Lorenzo and Mauro explain what they look for in prospective employees: “Mutado expects a lot from its employees, and I’d generally say there are three main qualities we look for: talent, drive and the eagerness to experiment. We receive many CVs and portfolios and pick the ones that intrigue us, the ones that show evidence of talent. We select our employees after several interviews that often include actual tests and the talented candidates that pass this step will have the chance to show what they’re worth in Mutado. These people will be successful if they have the drive, the willpower, if they love their jobs and they always give their best.”
“Another important quality we look for, apart from creative or technical abilities of course, is the desire to be part of something and to grow in a team. Mutado is a company where everyone is given a lot of responsibility and the success of a project depends on everybody’s efforts. That’s precisely why anyone who’s approaching this industry must be able to develop a method, a mental process that allows them to respect deadlines, to give 100% and to support the entire team. A brilliant idea, a creative solution or amazing tech abilities aren’t enough to make an agency grow, it really is all about a collective endeavour that sees each and every employee committing to leave a mark.”
A good agency is always looking ahead and getting ready to work on new projects – so what’s the future for Mutado? Lorenzo comments: “The future is mobile, unarguably. Smartphones, tablets, you name it, if you can put it in your pocket, there’s business there. We’re currently working on quite a few mobile apps, actually, from marketing to development. We still do the other stuff too, naturally, but if there ever was a time to go into mobile, it’s now. We didn’t believe much in mobile during the first craze back in 2000/2001, the world wasn’t ready. But now, if you’re in our line of business and you ignore the mobile world, you’ll be left behind real quick and with a massive hole in your wallet.”
Mauro, meanwhile, emphasises the importance of people power, saying: “Mutado’s future is as good as the people working in the company. Fresh blood brings new ideas, new projects, more mutation. Mutado’s future is, as its past and present, in the people that make this continuous transformation and in our team’s amazing flexibility that allows us to excel in the most avant-garde and challenging projects. The future is also in our clients, that give us enough freedom to develop innovative projects and exceed our limits. In the near future, we’ll be doing all of this in the mobile sector; later on, who knows…”