Thinkso evolves: A conversation with our founder
Thinkso founder and managing director, Elizabeth Amorose, recently became Thinkso’s sole owner.
I spoke to Elizabeth about what makes Thinkso unique, how the industry — and Thinkso — have changed over the past seventeen years, and Thinkso’s next chapter.
What makes Thinkso stand out as a firm?
I think it’s our level of multidisciplinary integration. We have writers on staff, and that’s hard to find in a smaller firm. And even more so, our designers and writers work really closely together rather than in silos. Because they are staff members — many who have been with us and working as a team for a decade or more — they really know how to collaborate. Additionally, everyone at Thinkso — no matter their role — is trained to think from a place of business strategy: What business problem are we trying to solve for our client? What’s going to move the needle and not just look or sound good? We require a business-minded reason for every creative decision we make. I think this combination of collaboration and strategic thinking, as well as the level of quality we deliver, is really hard to find otherwise, unless you commit to a huge spend with a larger agency.
What made you build Thinkso this way — with writers and designers who understand business strategy?
When Brett and I started the firm almost 18 years ago, we both wanted it to be more than a “design firm.”
I come from a multidisciplinary background. I’ve worked in every discipline — design, strategy, editorial, project management — on both the client and agency sides. As a result, I’ve always had a good understanding of how the parts need to work together.
Frankly, at the firms I worked with prior to Thinkso, I was frustrated by one discipline dominating — and saw what that cost the work, the client, and the organization. I really wanted to do things differently and give each aspect of our work — strategy, editorial, and design — its due. And have the project managers really run things, rather than just push papers. Et cetera.
Brett came from Pentagram, one of the world’s best branding and design firms. He saw a lot of designers leave there and start their own shops with other designers. Brett recognized that being more than just a design firm meant offering clients a better solution — one that still held design to an extremely high standard, but that also applied this standard to everything else. So we had a collective vision of offering a high-quality, more full-service solution.
How does Thinkso’s equal emphasis on marketing strategy, editorial, and design benefit our clients?
It goes back to solving clients’ real business problems — or helping them seize a business opportunity. It takes all of these things — strategic thinking, sharp, clear copy in the right voice, and sophisticated, high-quality design — working together to have a real impact on our clients’ businesses.
Another thing I want to mention is our ability — and desire, really — to deeply understand our clients’ businesses. I’ve always said that you can’t write about something until you understand it. But I think the same goes for design, strategy, and even project management.
All the Thinksorts share a desire to understand what they are writing, designing, and managing. Many of us have extensive experience working on the client side in various sectors. We bring a specialized level of understanding to the work and collaborate with the designers who have only worked in agencies to bring a deeper level of business strategy to the project.
For example, we worked on a project for ISG where we were able to help them with the design for their flagship research report. Because our team has such deep content expertise in professional services, we were able to really dig in and understand their business’ needs and what their clients would be looking for. We didn’t just make the report look better; we made it work better too. You just wouldn’t get that level of strategy from a design-focused firm or even from most creative agencies — certainly not for our price.
And you see that same level of expertise throughout our projects. Of course, our clients are always going to be the ultimate experts in their businesses, but we really do take the time to learn and understand so that the materials we create are genuinely engaging to our clients’ target audiences. You see that throughout our work, from launching all aspects of a customizable-at-scale retirement product to writing blogs, white papers, and other thought leadership for clients in a range of industries.
It’s been 18 years since you and Brett founded Thinkso. How has the industry changed in that time?
The level of complexity has skyrocketed due to technological advances — in both good and bad ways. I look back on the website projects we did in 2006 and they seem so quaint. Things like SEO, analytics, and social media were in their fledgling stages. UX, even though it was talked about a lot, was also in its infancy. There were no smartphones yet, so websites didn’t have to work on mobile. We were still several years away from designing responsive websites. It wasn’t that long ago, but it was a completely different world.
One thing that hasn’t changed much: project budgets. The margins in the creative industry have really shrunk in the last 20 years. Projects are much more complex and salaries continue to rise, but project budgets stay the same — or in some cases are lower than they were. There’s constant pressure on our client companies to trim, trim, trim in order to continuously produce higher returns. The tight margins are especially difficult for small agencies, like Thinkso, to maneuver, and we’ve seen a lot of other agencies our size (or even a bit larger) cut corners in order to stay afloat. But that’s not in our DNA. Two of Thinkso’s core values are: deliver excellence and choose integrity. For us, cutting corners would undermine those values. I think there is still a need in the market for a creative partner who doubles down on quality and value. That’s the need Thinkso fills.
How has Thinkso evolved to keep up with those changes and serve our clients?
We strive to stay on top of the latest advancements in digital design, editorial, and project management, from designing dynamic logos and exploring new software to adopting ever-evolving SEO strategies and ADA-compliance best practices. Recently we’ve been focusing on integrating AI into our workflow in sensible ways that foster efficiency without degrading quality.
And we’re not afraid to be scrappy — it’s another one of our core values. Our writers, designers, and project managers continually learn how to do something that they might not have done before, and that we can then use across our client accounts. Do this enough times and pretty soon you are a one-stop-shop for clients. As a result, we’re able to offer our clients the breadth and depth of high-value creative services fine-tuned for today’s market.
How do you feel about becoming the sole owner of Thinkso following Brett’s departure?
It’s so bitter sweet. When you’re partners with someone for 17 years, and then you’re not, you feel like you’re missing a piece. Brett and I were like yin and yang — very different but a perfect complement for each other. He’s such a good person and so talented. I miss his humor and ability to make me laugh even in the worst of times.
But I also know that even though he’s not working here anymore, he’ll always be a part of Thinkso in so many ways. The way he pushed our design team — and everyone, really — to challenge ourselves and grow will have a lasting impact on Thinkso’s culture.
And, at the same time, I’m very excited for a new era. It’s always good to shake things up a bit, and Shelley is such a talented creative director.
What excites you about Shelley stepping into the role of creative director?
I’ve always felt Shelley’s superpower was anticipating design trends and being out in front of them. It’s exciting to see her work that magic in this new role.
She also doesn’t have a signature style, but everything she creates or directs is world-class. She is a design chameleon, which is a real asset to our clients and to us as an agency, because it allows us to create something truly custom for each and every client.
You can really see her range and flexibility when you compare the work she’s done for Mindtree, Instinet, and Steve’s Camp. Even though Shelley led or directed the design for each of these projects, they all look completely different because they’re truly tailored to the needs of the client. The only thing they really have in common is the exceptional quality and thoughtfulness of the design.
And Shelley is just really great to work with. She’s a master collaborator — I feel it and the staff feels it. She’s never attached to anything from an ego standpoint. But she will hold fast to a concept or design that she really believes is in the best interest of the client and project. That combination of low ego and high confidence is so rare in the creative industry — and makes for such a terrific leader.
Why is it important that Thinkso is now a woman-owned, women-led business?
After Brett left, I actually considered not promoting our woman-owned, women-led status. I believe there can be a perception in the business world that women-owned companies are somehow less serious enterprises — something less legitimate than non-women owned businesses. (And I say “non-women owned” instead of “men-owned” because they get to be the baseline, the norm.)
But I ultimately decided that representation, as well as helping our clients meet any self-imposed mandates to work with a certain number of women- or minority-owned businesses, mattered more. I want to celebrate who we are — not shy away from it — because in a world where women make up 50% of the population but don’t occupy 50% of business leadership roles, representation matters.
And while representation matters, it’s even more important to do something with that representation — to be a good mentor and encourage others to be good mentors in this industry. Over the course of my career, I really didn’t have any mentors. I didn’t know how to go out and find them, and because most of my bosses weren’t the least bit interested in mentoring, I was on my own.
Since founding Thinkso, I’ve strived to be the mentor I wanted but didn’t have. Now being the owner of a women-led business, I can be that type of role model too, and hopefully help others do even bigger things.
How do you hope to see Thinkso change or evolve under your and Shelley’s leadership?
I think it’s all about working toward our ideal vision for the agency: Continue to do excellent work. Continue our evaluate-evolve-evaluate-evolve cycle. Double down on collaboration, because I think it really produces the best work. Continue to foster a workplace where people feel valued and stimulated. Shelley is bringing new, fresh creative and conceptual ideas. I have some of my own. Together, I think it’s going to mean a lot of exciting things for our team — and for the clients we work with.
Interested in working with Elizabeth and the rest of the Thinkso team to meet your strategic, editorial, or design needs? Drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.