The partner spotlight is a weekly series where we go behind the scenes with some of the companies that make VendorDB great. Next up is Free Association.
Name: Free Association (otherwise known as FA)
Locations: Brooklyn & SF
Year Founded: 2003
Specialties: We are a digital product agency. We are a new breed of agency built around a product team model. We work with ambitious organizations to envision next gen products & services, design elegant responsive platforms & applications, and optimize experiences towards business goals.
What inspired you to start your company?
Founding partners Michael Piliero & David Landa had been long time friends and collaborators before they founded FA. Meeting first night freshman year at Cornell University, they quickly realized they shared a similar creative spirit, drive and worldview. Throughout college and immediately after they played in a rock band together, started a graphic tee company, produced various musical & cultural events, and collaborated on a few short films. Amongst their flurry of entrepreneurial efforts, they started dabbling in branding & design and eventually got hired at Directors of Emerging Media and at a budding advertising agency.
Michael & David realized that it would be hard to live their values under someone else’s construct — to unlock their greatest potential they’d need to make their own way. Free Association was formed under the pursuit of excellence and meaningful challenge in a vibrant, soulful manner.
We are headquartered in Dumbo, Brooklyn and have been here eight years. The area emits a certain creative energy which is harmonious with our general outlook and temperaments.
What was the first job someone hired you for?
Our first job as Free Association was web design, packaging and label design for Padilla Cigars, a boutique cigar brand out of Miami. Not long after we were doing a lot of work for Viacom creating digital ad products for their myriad platforms, especially for MTV & VH1.
Which work or brand are you best known for?
We are probably most known for our work on eBay. The FA team led the visual redesign of ebay.com, moving them from an aging design system to a modern visual language.
Which project is your most underrated?
We’ve been called, “NY’s best-kept secret” and “a secret weapon” by our clients. Admittedly, we tend to focus on client projects over promoting our business. But, we’d prefer the secret get out!
Who is your most interesting staff member?
We’re excited to welcome Andy Titus as FA Partner and Experience Director. Andy had collaborated with FA for many years on the client side as Creative Director of Digital at MTV and then Associate VP of Digital at Victoria’s Secret. At VS, Andy was responsible for user experience, creative, and brand across all digital mediums. Under Andy’s direction, VS consistently broke sales and engagement records, reaching annual online revenue of $1.8 billion.
After Victoria’s Secret, Andy spent a year traveling around the world. His last stop was FA where he currently leads our account with Nest Labs as we overhaul their online retail experience.
What is the smartest work you’ve seen in the past year that didn’t come from your shop?
We’ve been long time fans of now defunct Teehan + Lax. With most of the team product leads and design directors at Facebook, we’ve seen a lot of fantastic changes with their platform that could only be the influence of the T+L crew.
How has the business changed since you started?
13 years is a long time in the Information Age. We’ve seen the rise and fall of Flash, the rapid evolution of web technologies, and a huge shift toward mobile platforms. Each progression unlocks new opportunities to create better, more valuable digital experiences. The only constant is change. Not just change, accelerating change.
What emerging tech trend will have the biggest impact on your business?
We think Augmented Reality will be a seismic shift. We believe it will be a boon for UX & interaction designers as, from what we’ve seen, AR means more interfaces, more ways to interact, more “virtual” screens, etc. It will also bring with it an explosion of creativity.
We think AI is another seismic shift. It’s hard to predict what it will mean — everyone has a digital assistant, freeing us for a life of ease? Hyper personalized targeted advertising and messaging follows us wherever we go? Collaborating at work with bots? The end of life as we know it? Whatever it is, it will change everything and it’s already happening.
What advice do you have for agency producers or creatives?
Learn how to keep learning and adapt to the changing tides. And as the Greeks said “Know thyself.” Life is short, know what gives you fulfillment and pursue it with reckless abandon!
What do you make of the trend where brands are skipping their agency of record to work directly with production partners?
The trend reflects why we started FA in the first place, we were seeing little value being created by the AoRs in the digital realm. Digital just wasn’t in their DNA. We saw the potential to do better, if we could just get to the brands. So, we’ve spent about 10 years mastering our craft and getting to the brands.
Eventually we pivoted to fully focus primarily on product, which a traditional ad agency has little business getting involved in, so we are less concerned about the topic at this point.
What is the best thing about working at Free Association?
We are convivial. A life worth living is a mix of challenge, growth & celebration. We’ve built an environment and working construct that nurtures these dimensions. And we’ve attracted great clients who continually challenge us with ambitious work.
Where is the best bar in DUMBO?
We love our office, our view of Manhattan is quite a sight to see at night. We host Whiskey Fridays here at the office weekly, after hours.
Any wild company party stories?
For a moment Michael & David were designers by day and party promoters / DJs by night. Under the moniker of International Disco Assassins (IDA), they would partner with renowned Tibetan monk turned furniture designer, Tucker Robbins, to throw epic bashes at Tucker’s workshop/showroom in Queens. The events were always themed and featured DJs, performance art, visual projections and way too many guests for the space.
The most raucous were the annual Halloween parties where thousands of people would pack into the sweaty warehouse, raging amongst Tucker’s masterpieces, priceless antiques, and deadly band saws. Despite all of the hazards no limbs or digits were ever lost to our knowledge.
What does the future look like for Free Association?
We try not to look too far ahead, things change too fast. We can say that, if history is any indication of the future, we will continue to hone our craft and apply it to new form factors and applications as they emerge.