Hans Neubert, Frog's chief creative officer who broadened the consultancy's mission from "Design" to "Advancing the Human Experience," has departed for the digital agency Huge. The surprise part: Frog will not replace Neubert with a new CCO.
Frog is one of the largest and most storied design consultancies in the world, and it has always been defined by its chief creative officer. In 1969, Hartmut Esslinger founded the company as the German industrial design firm Esslinger Design, where he established the aesthetic of Sony and Apple. When Mark Rolston took over Frog as chief creative officer in 2005, he focused on digital experiences, in a world that was less about hardware and more about software. When Neubert took over in 2014, he brought an ad man perspective to the design firm, to juggle increasingly complicated service design experiences, like Disney MagicBands. He also launched an incubator for big-bet startups, an experimental research lab, and a platform for social innovation.
Frog CEO Harry West published an open letter to explain the announcement:
As much as it would be comforting to continue with the tradition of one chief creative officer as a singular point of reference for the firm, we realized that the only way to make it work in today’s more complex creative environment would be to have a supporting team of design leaders on each continent. But that would make the chief creative officer essentially a design figurehead, and Frog doesn’t do figureheads. Never has.
So, in true Frog fashion, we are setting a new precedent and establishing the creative leadership team, a nontraditional leadership model made up of a group of five diverse and experienced Frogs. This will foster more collaboration and connections among each of the designers across Frog’s studios, in turn delivering greater value for our global clients as we partner with them to advance the human experience.
The five leaders are Rainer Wessler, executive creative director for Asia and based in Shanghai; Tjeerd Hoek, VP creative and based in Amsterdam; Fabio Sergio, VP creative and based in Milan; Ethan Imboden, VP of venture design and based in San Francisco; and Jeff Williams, VP creative and based in Austin.
So Frog is spreading decision-making across five people rather than giving it to one. It’s unclear how this will play out in day-to-day logistics. Will disagreements be settled by vote, or will the final decisions formerly reserved for the CCO just end up on the desk of West (who is himself a designer)? But the new structure may hint at larger ambitions—to distribute Frog's business to different talent in far-flung corners of the world, without having to filter everything through a central design officer. Presumably, it could allow Frog to scale.
Which is harder in today's climate than you'd think. While design is more in demand than ever, the business of design consultancies has been in flux. Mega business consultants Accenture and IBM have each been making $100 million-plus bets on increasing their design fluency. Meanwhile, design firms ranging from Lunar to Ideo have reassessed their business strategies, and firms like Yves Behar's Fuseproject have sold outright to foreign investors.
Frog too has had its share of turmoil. When Neubert took over as CCO in 2014, he did so following a mass exodus of mid-level to senior-level employees, including former president Doreen Lorenzo, CCO Mark Rolston, principal design technologist Jared Ficklin, executive creative director Jan Chipchase, and chief development officer Mark Gauger. "Companies of this scale and this type, there’s obviously an interval of some commotion [when someone leaves]," Neubert told me at the time. "You look at any big ad agency, one of the most important people decides to leave, usually the other people are leaving, too."
To some extent, Frog’s business has been in transition since 2006, when it was purchased by the software company Flextronics, which later became Aricent, which is itself owned by the investment firm Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co (KKR). While Frog makes an estimated nine-figure global revenues, its affiliation with KKR demands lofty, quarterly revenues from Frog. These financial demands put considerable pressure on top creatives, who are tasked with selling clients as much as they are designing for them.
Meanwhile, Frog, like all design firms, has to adapt to thrive in the modern era. In overly simplistic terms, Esslinger’s Frog would have sold like Lunar or Fuseproject. The UX-driven Frog first defined by Rolston would be swallowed like Adaptive Path, which joined Capital One in 2014. Of course, neither of those things happened, as Frog evolved under each leader. But West’s five-person, cross-discipline creative board seems to be betting that a diversity of skills and geography is the best way to position Frog to own those widely encompassing, signature experiences that Neubert was after.
Market uncertainty isn't an entirely new problem for Frog. "We faced growing as a strategic firm and getting better and better at that, while balancing what we brought to the world, which was being really great at design," Rolston says of his tenure as CCO. "There are things Accenture and IBM do well," he adds, "but they still don’t actually make products."
With or without Neubert, Frog will continue to be one of the world’s only design consultancies that's capable of building real things. However, Frog has never been a company without a CCO—a singular perspective to ground its strategy in the future. And it’s with some level of irony that, as many corporations around the globe are hiring the position for the first time, Frog has abandoned it.