How a purpose-driven agency performs so well (with the right technology)

“One of the fundamental conditions of happiness is to know that everything that one does has a meaning in eternity,” once said Titus Burckhardt, philosopher and supreme connoisseur of Islamic art, civilization, and culture. It is a quote that struck me as painfully real, even as a non-believer.

Self-fulfillment often seems to be entwined with the search for a higher meaning, a purpose that helps you leave the world better than you found it.

Curiously enough, Titus Burckhardt was born in Florence, like me, but was a Swiss citizen like Marc Ammann, with whom I believe he shares more than the passport color.

It is no coincidence that the word "purpose" was probably the most recurrent in my conversation with Marc, founder of Matter Supply Co, a relatively new agency that lives and breathes purpose with an already impressive resume and a knack for JAMstack architectures.

I read your bios, and I really liked the way you all talked about your past experiences without overindulging in a long list of professional accomplishments.

Yeah, we don't like to talk about ourselves because our clients and good products come first. It’s a big item for us.

You and I also share the same passion for minimal techno, neurotic border collies and being called Max by others without reason. That said, would you like to introduce yourself to our fine readers?

Sure, I’m Marc, and I moved to the United States seven years ago to work at a creative agency called Huge where I took on a technology director role. First I worked in New York on a few clients like Target and HBO Canada and then moved out to Portland with Huge to take over the Nike portfolio as a technology director and led a few interactive projects with Nike over four to five years, ranging from in-store/kiosk experiences, apps, websites, and companion sites.

After four and half years I thought it was time for a change and I asked my company to give me a separate role, so I ended up taking on a team in Colombia and got involved with our development team in Medellin. I started setting up best practices and a leadership-focused management training program, then Huge closed their Portland office, and I decided at that point to start my own company. I was like “Hey, I can do better than what I’ve done before moving to the US; I can build a better team, I can build a purpose and value driven agency,” so I asked Josh – my co-founder and former colleague at Huge – to join me that same day. The same day I also got a call from one of the leaders in the Medellin office [Edgard Aguirre] who asked me what I was intending on doing after Huge and I was like “wow, what a coincidence.” I said “I'm starting my own company” and he asked me if he could join right away!

That was the three of us who started this little agency two years ago. We grew from three people to 26 as of yesterday, and we’re working with a lot of fun clients, like Impossible Foods which is one of our biggest ones.

Impossibile Foods Web Design by Matter Supply Co
Impossible Foods Web Project

Wow, a big client indeed!

One that we’re also trying to move to DatoCMS, by the way…

Do you have other customers you love to work with?

Sweetgreen, for example, it’s a restaurant chain specialized in sustainable and local dishes. They serve high-end salads at an affordable price.

We also had the chance to work with United We Dream as well, developing an app for DACA recipients, or “DREAMers” as they call them in the United States. DACA enables children of undocumented immigrants to remain in the country for two years and shield them from deportation.

We are lucky enough that all our clients have amazing mission statements, people who are actually trying to do the right thing.

Android app for Sweetgreen made by Matter Supply Co
Sweetgreen Android App

How important is it to work with clients who share similar values with you?

I think it's essential, especially if you look at what the team wants to do. If you create an incredibly purpose-driven squad, you cannot stop or just undercut them when they work with the client. You can’t say you are a mission-driven and purpose-driven team when your clients are not. It just doesn't work that way, and the passionate people you employ will walk away.

So far we looked for clients with a powerful mission statement because it’s easier to work with like-minded companies.

It also comes down to us believing in that mission; if leadership is cynical or doesn't believe in the purpose of the client, it trickles down to the whole company with disastrous results. Luckily it hasn't happened to us [smiles].

As an agency, who is your ideal client?

Do you mean the client itself or what we can do for them?

Both?

Ok, the ideal client would be somebody who wants to be successful at doing the right thing, somebody who cannot rest themselves. Companies like Apple and Google are fun clients, sure, but they're already at the top of the pyramid, and while you can do a lot of exciting things for them, they need to be careful that they don't become the "number two."

Working for the underdog is a lot more rewarding because you can usually push quite a bit more, you can approach things from an iterative perspective and take some risk.

That being said, I think we'd love to work with a client like Lego. Lego is like one of our "white whales." I also would like to work with the New York Times or the Washington Post, because they do such fantastic journalism that I think it's well worth supporting professionally. We're small for now... but we're getting there [smiles].

We saw one of your most recent works for Nike, and we loved the way it enters boldly in the global conversation about empowerment, redemption, and change through sport and self-expression. Can you tell us something about your experience working on it?

There's a kind of two tales. For one we were able to build this within a short time: this current site and the last were both made within two weeks of getting started with design. As a product, it goes relatively quick but the message behind it, what you see the team in Nike doing, it's incredible. From the outside, it may seem very cynical, but when you work with the incredible mission-driven team over at Nike, you understand it's not about the bottom-line, at all. You see, the shop is the last item on the list; it's all about the fact that there are many women out there whose stories need to be heard and it's well overdue for them to get the stage they deserve. It really resonated with us.

I have to be honest: after four and a half years on Nike at Huge I was burned out; I was like "Yeah, these are just ads for shoes and sneakers, whatever, they don't believe in anything."

Since we started working with them here, we were able to collaborate with some of the teams in Nike that are really trying to push these things, and I think Nike can really make a difference. They own up to that right now.

Why did you choose to use a JAMstack architecture for this project?

So we used Contentful before, in a previous experience, but Nike wasn’t too fond of it. We needed something more focused on the user experience, with user-friendliness in mind, and that works incredibly well and looks good.

Do you think it is important that a CMS is pleasant to look at?

It’s critical! If the CMS doesn't look good, you can’t win your client over. The CMS also needs to feel nice, light, and easily accessible for the clients when they update their content.

Obviously, you need excellent scalability; for the Nike project we saw 200,000 visitors per day all of a sudden, so if you can't scale to that you're in big, big trouble.

The easiest way to scale is a static site because you can deploy it to something nice like Netlify, something that scales well, but then the CMS component came into that as well.

Why did you choose DatoCMS?

We were like “You know what, we're gonna try something new, we're gonna try the runner-up to the big Contentful.”

When I saw that you were backed by an agency I said to myself “well, these guys actually know what they need.” This is precisely what I want: a CMS that's been built by an agency because they know what my clients need. We tried DatoCMS, and the team loved it; it felt good, it felt very nice, and our team at Nike has been super happy with it.

This is precisely what I want: a CMS that's been built by an agency because they know what my clients need.

How’s the stack holding up?

I was talking with Netlify yesterday how everything has held up exceptionally well with multiple timed content deployments. I cannot thank you enough for Scheduled Publishing because at Nike they publish their content at 6:00 in the morning and I do not want to get up so early anymore. With Time Publishing I know that when a new video goes live, all I need to do is look at Slack and see that the deployment has finished and then go back to bed.

Was it challenging to sell your clients on the idea of JAMstack?

No no, they get it immediately. Sure, it's a little bit harder to pick a solution that's not Enterprise-focused, because it’s not like an SLA offering where you get that big contract, and you put it in front of your client.

Nike, fortunately, gives us a lot of free rein in terms of technology as long as we get the job done. Funny enough, the bigger the client, the less they care about what you use because if you mess it up, that is the last project you do with them.

Funny enough, the bigger the client, the less they care about what you use because if you mess it up, that is the last project you do with them.

What’s your favorite feature of DatoCMS? Mind you, “I can switch it off” doesn't count!

I think Modular Content is probably one of my favorite features. Being able to put together a piece of content that the client can see on one page and think: “hey, this gets very close to Squarespace.” It’s what all clients want: to have something like Squarespace but somehow better, even if it’s an unfair comparison given its success. DatoCMS comes close to that feeling when you can put content together very quickly.

Modular Content hands down has convinced Nike that DatoCMS was the best solution we could come up with.

The integration with Gatsby has also been great, for example, the Image integration via GraphQL; thank god it's there! I also like the Imgix integration that you provide transparently where we just have to send the Imgix parameters through, and we’re good. All that has been great, and we love it. The entire team loves it.

How Modular Content works

Why did you choose Gatsby for your project?

Because we've used Gatsby on Impossible Foods and a bunch of other sites for the static generation. We use a lot of React and Gatsby is perfect for building them and getting the stack under control. We think it is a really good product.

Is there an internal project you’re working on you can talk about?

We're building a few things internally, and one is an animation framework with a bit of a holistic approach for our animations and transitions. We have always been a very interactive-focused agency and what is available now for React has forced us to take a step back in terms of providing the interactivity we need. There is a lot of internal drive to make this happen.

There are a few other things I probably get my wrist slapped if I talk about them, but I can say there’s a more significant initiative for us to create our own big GraphQL API that we can use to build everything we need to and deploy for our clients.

I think working with DatoCMS has inspired us to take a look at what services we need all the time that we should build for all of our teams/clients.

If a kid walked up to ask for your advice on starting an agency and you only had a few minutes to give them your best tip, what would it be?

Even if people make mistakes or fail, try to make sure you know what you can do to make the situation better next time and understand that your team matters more than the work it produces. As a leader of a creative team, it’s your job to create room for people to make mistakes and let them try again. Always give feedback on the task without attacking the person; it's a piece of simple advice but really crucial.

Another thing is proactivity: you either create your own problems or you wait long enough for the problems to catch you, and I’d rather err on the side of creating my own problems and start things early.

Do I have another minute?

Matter Supply Team night out
Part of the Matter Supply Team

Yeah, sure!

Understanding that there's a difference between proficiency and creativity. That's probably one of the more significant learnings, really. Creativity means you create room for people to fail and try again; proficiency means you're making sure that people get better at what they do.

Those are two separate things, and you need to figure out where you stand on how you run your company. You can lead for both but you need to understand where you draw the line, and it needs to be clear and straightforward for people to understand.

Where's your line?

I'd say about sixty percent creativity and forty percent proficiency. Matter Supply is a creative technology + product design practice, so it makes sense, but we also have another agency that's more of a production studio called Outpost, and I’d say it’s eighty percent proficiency and twenty percent creativity.

At Outpost we get better by doing the same thing over, quality through iteration, really.

Creativity means you create room for people to fail and try again; proficiency means you're making sure that people get better at what they do.

How would you introduce DatoCMS to the same kid as before?

I would call it a Swiss Army Knife. If you need a pragmatic CMS that allows you to work fast without standing in your way, providing all the tools you can possibly need to make a good experience happen, DatoCMS is there for you.

I think there's a lot that could be added, but everything that you need is already there to build everything yourself: there's enough duct tape, there are enough knives, there are enough zip ties to make everything work as you need it to on top of a seemingly rock-solid foundation.

Get inspired by Matter Supply's work on its official website.

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