On entering the 30,000 square foot offices of Swift, the Portland-Based creative digital agency co-founded by Liz Valentine and Alicia McVey in 2006, you’ll pick up on a lot of things. The warm, light-filled work space with soaring ceilings, anchored by weathered wood beams and exposed, shiny ductwork. Dogs peacefully curled up at their owners’ feet. A hip, curated playlist that fills the air, but never dominates. Wine and beer on tap. Then, perhaps, you’ll notice the people who work at Swift. How so many of them are women.
Seventy percent of Swift’s workforce is female. While being a female-founded company in the tech and digital world is rare in itself, the fact that so many want to work here speaks to something less obvious in the typically male-dominated industry.
“We talk a lot about empathy, transparency, collaboration, and communication—all of which are all feminine traits,” says Valentine.
“So naturally, our approach to work and how we support each other is uniquely feminine, and we think that’s a good thing.”
While some women downplay their femininity at the office to gain respect, Valentine won’t. “I bear my ‘feminine’ traits as much as my ‘masculine’ ones, because I think our clients like that. That’s why people want to work here as well.”
In fact, Valentine believes embracing these feminine qualities helped Swift thrive during (and immediately after) the financial crisis of 2008, instead of folding like so many other young companies. “We invest a lot in our employees, to understand what makes them tick, and their whole person—instead of trying to get them to work 60 hours a week,” says Valentine. “And we take the same approach to our clients. We really get to know them as people.”
While establishing deep emotional bonds is all well and good, Valentine points out that having business acumen bears equal importance. After spending years on the client side managing various agencies, both she and McVey co-founded Swift, to establish “one that really understood business, budget, and return on investment, and was incredibly focused on client goals.”
Its unique ability to match business savvy with emotional intelligence has resulted in a wonderfully diverse client base, including Adidas, Starbucks, Google, and Nest. But more often than not, these established companies also enlist Swift for its keen understanding of and impressive track record with social media campaigns. “We got into social incredibly early, and believed in it when no one else thought it was going to matter,” says Valentine.
“From the very beginning we believed that social would be one of the most powerful ways for brands to interact with consumers, and transform communications. So, that was a good bet.”
Despite the client or scope of work, consumer research lies at the heart of it all. “With everything we’re doing, if it doesn’t resonate with people it won’t work,” says Valentine. “We conduct true, ethnographic research to inform digital, and that’s unusual.”
For Project Harden for Adidas, the first signature sneaker for basketball star James Harden, the challenge was building hype without revealing it before dropping in October 2016. To that end, strategists held what Valentine refers to as “friendship interviews” with teenagers—casual meetings in their homes, shopping malls, and wherever else they’d socialize with their peers—to better understand their Instagram habits.
What they discovered was revelatory. “These kids were curating their own feeds, with nine-image grids that they’d take down and replace right away,” says Valentine. “Wouldn’t it be interesting if a brand did that? Because up to that point, no brand ever did that before.”
Three months leading up to the launch, Project Harden’s account posted a series of nine images to complete grids that engaged followers with podcasts, scavenger hunts, and questionnaires. In the process, an enthusiastic (and very loyal) community was built. And when it came to the official drop date, Harden Vol. 1 became the fastest-selling Adidas basketball shoe ever. Despite the commercial success, along with the buzz and awards resulting from the project, Valentine recognizes it all circles back to what she knew all along:
“There’s this draw to do things just digitally, but nothing ever replaces a real conversation.”