18 years ago, Nicolas Roope co-founded Poke, the London-based design consultancy behind digital campaigns for brands including Ted Baker, Heineken and EE.
Two months ago, Poke announced a merger with its sister company, Publicis to form Publicis.Poke. In August, Roope announced his departure from the company he had led creatively since 2001.
Roope already had interests outside of the company. He started the Lovie Awards, which “recognises the unique and resonant nature of the European Internet community” and also co-founded Hulger, a product design company which launched the environmentally-focused Plumen light bulbs in 2007.
Here, Roope talks about how it feels to leave Poke and the challenges the design industry now faces.
Design Week: Was it always the plan to leave following the Publicis merger?
Nicolas Roope: No, but when it clicked, it clicked. It’s not been a grand orchestration, but it was an opportunistic moment. I would either be here for a long time or cut and run now. With me being in a leadership position, I didn’t want to split halfway through a project.
Before leaving, I helped establish a blue print for the new agency. I was compelled to try to make sense of what Poke was and what it could be as a merged identity. The main issue being: How do you represent the values of Poke, which suddenly has a broader set of capabilities? Poke has evolved into a new identity.
DW: What is Poke’s new agenda?
NR: When we started Poke, there was the old and new world, and they operated on separate plains. Now they’ve merged, and it seems no longer relevant to occupy one of those worlds. You walk around a physical environment, and there so many signs and signals of connected worlds. Now a hotel room is designed because of how it looks on Instagram.
There’s a growing frustration among clients when agencies can’t get them through that sort of complexity — I was happy to be involved in the architecture of the proposition to address that. The goal now is to sync up with the current world — not just Poke becoming more connected, but also training itself to how the world can be seen now through the lens of data.
So there’s a change in both sides, and hopefully that will conclude with something that is properly integrated. There are multiple disciplines to represent now — and it’s a gallant and sensible effort to make that endeavour work.
DW: How does it feel to leave Poke?
NR: We have changed and changed all the way though — you have to change wholesale to adapt.
So it doesn’t feel that weird to leave — you have to adapt to stay relevant. It’s disruptive, and upsetting, and you have to handle the announcements about leaving. But ultimately, it’s invigorating, and you’ve got to bite the bullet, embrace change, and exploit that energy.
I’m concerned with a lot of things — about how product design can drive behavioural change — and it was the moment to check out and see if there’s a different way of participating in that, and not in a straight agency set up.
DW: Do you think the agency model will continue?
Agencies will persist but the cultures and status that they have may or may not. Certain activities and personalities which aren’t healthy will be ironed out slowly, in terms of gender and diversity.
Hiring externally isn’t just about getting outside disciplines — it’s about outside perspectives. Organisations will always struggle to take an honest look in the mirror, and you’ll quickly drill yourself into the earth if you don’t do that. New models are required to bring oxygen into the system — it’s the end of the cookie cutter commodified services industry where things are interchangeable.
We like to think of narratives moving from the old to the new and unrecognisable but I see it more as waves on a beach, and at the moment it’s struggle: we’re behind and under pressure. There’s a need to rejuvenate.
DW: Where do you think change will come from?
NR: It will partly come through direct pressure and agencies trying to reinvent themselves, but some will come from clients who get frustrated. Hopefully new understandings can permeate the agencies.
DW: How has the design world changed since you started working?
NR: It’s less about interface and design, and more about what product services could and should become if they are going to align with the increased pressure of sustainability. It has a knock-on effect on everything: if you make biscuits now, you have a responsibility to answer for your product.
And while this shift touches everything, the answers aren’t obvious: you can’t apply an old methodology to that. You can see the shift in architecture. It’s under intense scrutiny for its environmental impact and has a sense of permanent stakes that no other medium does.
If you look at the press releases of significant buildings, the story-telling — the poetry of the projects — is choreographed to values that didn’t exist or weren’t prominent in the past.
DW: What are the current challenges in the design world?
The challenge is how brands can adapt their propositions. Architecture demonstrates the formality of this new direction: what is now a series of gestures and actions that may or may not be involved in the surface will be critical to the success of the project. How do these buildings respond to the urgent requirements of energy use reduction and waste reduction? How do they perform as stories in hyperconnected environments where reputations are established in social media? These are now standard concerns.
DW: What are your future projects?
NR: I’m not sure yet. Being involved with Plumen, which is a global product business – albeit a tiny one — has given me a rounded skill set. I can kind of do anything, which sounds glamorous but presents me with a big problem – how should I spend my time? How do I focus my time and talents?
I’m known for being a polymath, but I’d prefer to double down on something. The sweet spot for me is where nobody’s written the rules, and there are a bunch of areas that are interesting here: start-ups, technology, energy. Anywhere there’s a combination of public interest and economics and regulation.
I’m interested in how these ideas are communicated. There’s a growing opportunity for that, but I’m just not quite sure how to insert myself into that world.
DW: Which areas are you interested in?
NR: I’m interested in establishing behaviour change, which touches on a lot of issues — especially emerging technologies. To make these shifts work, you can’t just pretend no change has happened. In the pursuit of adoption, you have to make it exciting.
You see it with Tesla, who took a position to make a car look like a car, so it doesn’t look like a huge change. They said electric cars are as good as conventional cars.
But now a different design language is taking over – people are pressing buttons that didn’t exist before. With food, for example, the issue of sustainability is unavoidable. We’re trying to recreate the hamburger, which is creating new forms and rituals around cooking, which in turn drives status and fame. It’s a killer move for brands to be potent in all facets of their realms: how they exist as stories, and not just as a product in the physical world.
Behaviour change is not a single discipline issue — design needs to be a part of fixing it together.
DW: Do you have any advice for those starting their careers in design?
NR: Engage in the subject fully — avoid work that lacks fundamental engagement and just pushing things around. It’s achievable to make something look great and impressive but aim to use design as a way to address and grapple with what something might mean.
You should always be learning. Now I have time to indulge my passions and be more effective. People starting the journey don’t have that privilege, so start close to your passions.