Q & L: Jeremy Pelley, OMFG Co.

By uptra / /

Q&L is questions and lessons with Portland’s advertising community. This edition of Q&L has been brought to you by SURFING Magazine Managing Editor // Writer and Strategist, Stuart Cornuelle. You might have seen him on Adpulp telling his story about trying to leave the surfing thing and breaking into the ad game. Talk about jumping out of the pan and into shark infested waters.

The Portland Egotist



Jeremy Pelley

Co-official and Thing Maker, OMFG Co. When Jeremy Pelley describes himself and his three-man creative operation OMFG Co. as “thing makers,” it comes off as that sort of ironic, self-aware literalism. Thing makers — a too-clear discernment from the traditional branding agencies, creative shops, design studios, and endless permutations thereof. But then Pelley proceeds to explain OMFG Co. (short for Official Manufacturing Company) and its body of work, and “thing making” naturally arises as an apt summation. Recent evidence is Spirit of ’77, the bustling, multi-level sports bar in NE Portland that was basically an empty barn when OMFG Co. was brought on to help develop it. Under the creative lead of Jack Barron, OMFG Co. handled not just the bar’s branding but also acted as general contractors for the space itself. Pelley and his partners worked “pretty much every day for 16 straight weeks” constructing each interior accent, from the bar’s wood tables and walls to its pop-a-shot game (dubbed The Buzzer Beater) as well as the trademark indoor and outdoor signage. In short: they made things. Between them, Pelley and his partners Mathew Foster and Fritz Mesenbrink have made things for Google, Nike, and a laundry list of local brands and restaurants. Perhaps most notably, their design work has helped to make Stumptown Coffee Roasters into the Ace Hotel of the coffee world — and to make the Ace into the Stumptown of hospitality. OMFG Co. is behind much of the branding for both entities, which are routinely fawned over in editorial pages from GQ to the New York Times. Below, questions and lessons with Jeremy Pelley.



Questions: Q: Describe your most recent workday. Jeremy Pelley: My last workday…I woke up and started researching vintage art pieces and ship knots based around this city in Sweden called Gothenberg for a client of ours — we’re working on their interior space. Made coffee. Then I jumped on some work that we’re finishing up for Google, including a poster that’s going to be printed very shortly, as well as Scout Book distribution. We’re coordinating with our new studio’s master lease people about the security system, so I was in that meeting for about an hour and a half. We got some business cards going for a restaurant we just did called Natural Selection…and that was more or less the day’s work, juggling all those clients, and calling it good around 5:30. Or no, actually, calling it good around 7:00.



Q: Describe your most recent non-workday. JP: Last non-workday…Jesus, I can’t even remember when that was. I would say that my last non-workday was when I was forced to go to Florida with my family due to my grandfather’s 90th birthday. I was in Tampa, Florida for five days and felt completely alien to everything in the entire city. Tampa’s not really my favorite place…not at all. I was definitely super grateful to get back into Portland, back with my friends, and really relish how good my life is.



Q: If you were reduced to a single media outlet for all your needs, where would you turn? JP: It sounds crazy, but I might say something like The Daily Show or The Onion. When they’re on, they’re all those things and more — entertaining and educational all at once, and have a point of view. So I would probably say The Daily Show — even though I don’t watch it every day; I don’t even have a TV. My main media source is the New York Times, but it’s a little serious.



Q: Name an organization or individual doing under-sung creative work in Portland right now. My friend Kate Bingaman-Burt — she’s great on so many different levels. Not only is she a creative and an illustrator doing her own work, creating her own books and putting on her own art shows, but she is also a professor at PSU, so she’s influencing other kids to do their own work, which is cool. She’s a super positive force out there in Portland right now.



Q: Who is your dream client? Truthfully — I think this is going to be a valid answer, but I realize that it’s sort of a cop-out also — I would love to change the focus away from clients and actually build our own brand out as much as possible. That means getting in on the ground floor of other ventures and businesses and building ongoing relationships, where they’re not necessarily clients, but where we’re invested in them — literally, financially, and emotionally, design wise, aesthetically, all those things. That’s the dream for us and how we want to run our company; we want to get away from client work ultimately and get more toward residual income through various projects that we have our fingers in. So it sounds weird to say but…we, ourselves, are ultimately our dream client.



Lessons: There’s no wrong path to creative success. Pelley’s CV bears no resemblance to that of the droves leaving portfolio school and the Art Institutes, inculcated with theory, toting fat and polished books. Pelley was just some Texan skater when he narrowly gained entrance to Wieden + Kennedy’s WK12 school on the merits of an application he styled after a children’s book. Before WK12, he’d never had his own computer. Upon graduation he landed an art directing role at Ace Hotel, presenting a Ziploc’d stack of his Polaroid imagery to kick off the job interview. Pelley’s success proves that non-traditional experience is no less valuable — and that pedigree is for dogs.



Don’t be defined by your title; in fact, consider creating a new one. At WK12, Pelley showed polymathic interest in the creative process: writing and photography, concepting and production — he fancied the gamut. But this became a liability when it came time to be neatly stamped with a job description and packaged for work. What was he? “You really need to focus on one thing. Wieden doesn’t hire ‘dabblers’,” he recalls being told. But instead of conforming to a model that didn’t fit him, Pelley looked beyond advertising and was promptly hired by Ace as lead art director. There, his “dabbling” skills came in handy as he took on everything from vintage neon and way-finding signage to branding and blankets and business cards, from helping shape the voice of Ace via the written word to shooting images for its website. Today, as a self-described Thing Maker, he’s turned dabbling into a bona fide career.



Know what your time is worth — and open negotiations above that figure. When Pelley, Foster and Mesenbrink became OMFG Co., one of the first things they did was sit down and ask themselves, “How much money do we want to be earning?” Several minutes of arithmetic later they’d deduced what sort of client fees would support that target salary. Specifically, they landed on the wage below which not to settle for any given project — knowledge that made future pricing discussions a lot easier. This is common sense for the finance set, but probably not for three entrepreneurial designers. And that’s OK. “None of us had a business background,” says Pelley, “so we just kind of figured it out as we went.”

  1. Nicole Lavelle April 12, 2011

    Great read! The OMFGCO dudes are super inspiring. Keep it coming!

  2. Keith Fenter April 12, 2011

    Thanks for a great interview! OMFG guys are setting up a dream model to follow.

  3. Reid Schilperoort April 20, 2011

    Love this interview. Keep this creative flow coming. I am banking on OMFGCO to be the next big deal in the near future. Best of luck guys!