Rik Campbell and Steve Le Marquand

 Best Design Awards 2018 Annual - case study

 Stranger Things

The Internet, font of knowledge that it is, can make it hard to separate fact from fiction. Improbable-sounding things might be true; plausible-sounding things might not. In the middle is a host of part truths and red herrings, misdirections and obfuscations. The truth might be out there but it can be hard to discern.

Somewhere, in this Internet, lives Resn – New Zealand’s best digital company (probably a fact), which was founded in 2004 by 2018 Black Pin recipients Rik Campbell and Steve Le Marquand, and, subsequently, formed in their own image.

Resn, according to Resn, peddles “gooey interactive experiences that will amaze and stupefy” to the world. They also self-describe as “the Internet energy ball”, “Self-proclaimed Web Perverts”, “Digital boffins/idiot savants” and “Creators of the Digital Disco Breakdown”.

In short, they are an internet mystery, occupants of a digital halfway-house built at the crossroads of reality, a Kiwi Upside-Down – a place, at the wrong end of the world, with portals (a.k.a offices) in other realms, The Netherlands, China and America. From Wellington, Campbell and Le Marquand have implement their own inconoclastic vision of the Internet. They disregard convention, make their own way, and have what appears to be a huge amount of fun in doing so.

They’ve made masterful digital campaigns for some of the world’s biggest brands – and have done it with such rude good humour that you might wonder if they’re serious or not. But they are, of course. It can just be a bit hard to separate the myth from the man, or, judging from some of the photography, the pirate from the person.

Sons & Co.’s Matt Arnold touched on this when introducing Le Marquand and Campbell at a Designers Speak® talk in Auckland.

“They are seriously smart people doing seriously good work. They are New Zealand's best digital designers. One of the most admired in the world. Respected unconditionally. They have 75 people in four countries. And not crap countries. Proper ones.”

Their humour, said Arnold, is a “a New Zealand thing”, a deflection, a diversion tactic.  

“It's a form of modesty, but it's this irreverence and sense of mischief that makes them so distinct in an industry that is typified by self-important blowhards. Resn is the Trojan Horse: looks like a novelty-sized wooden pony, but open the hatch, and you're staring at 75 cold-blooded killers…On the one hand, a clownish, immature ridiculousness, and on the other, a serious, no-nonsense rigour that is frightening in its intensity.”

Interestingly, there’s not much biographical information available about Le Marqand and Campbell (and disclaimer – the interview that follows might not put too much more flesh on the bones) which suggests, to me, a desire to avoid the creation of self-aggrandising mythologies. Either that or it’s a cunning plan to exaggerate personal mythologies through absence of information and swell of rumour. I think it’s the former – they live to do great work.

Well, we should start at the beginning, I guess. Rik, where did you grow up? What were you like as a kid?

Rik: I grew up in Nelson where I was raised on a steady diet of pulp noir and light jazz. Because of this, I have no background. Everything is foreground. Like many people, I grew up trapped inside of my own body. I desperately wanted to break free, but that would have been very messy. As a kid, I can only describe myself as childlike. Except for the beard, obviously, which foreshadowed the man that was to come. A five-o’clock-foreshadow. It was only after discovering my talent for design that I really came into my own. I like to think design school made me what I am today: a corporate manager. Percentage-wise I am 20% designer, 50% blind and 40% Creative Company Manager and 10% undecided. I like long walks on the beach, deep conversations and holding hands.

 What about you, Steve?

Steve: I grew up in the fertile mangrove swamp of the Manawatu in the 1970s and 1980s – a mystical age of multimedia saturation and lack of parental supervision. It was the ideal environment for a growing mind. Music was an early obsession and I taught myself to play piano by ear. When that resulted in a sum total of zero girlfriends, I took up the guitar instead. Between my totally rad thrash metal band and finding commercial and critical success in high school art class – my art teacher bought one of my sculptures – I thought I might make this creative thing work.

Years later, while playing in bands and studying design, I discovered Flash. Here was an opportunity to combine all the skills and passions I had acquired over the years. I’d finally found my calling. Maybe I’d even get a girlfriend. I decided to quit design school and get on board with the future. Turns out the future was bright. Until Steve Jobs (RIP) killed Flash. Great Jobs Stevo!

The rug of Flash ripped from under your feet. Did you display any special early abilities in the digital realm? Were you interested in sci-fi, dismantling and re-building computers…?

Steve: Yep.

Rik: I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the internet except through me.

How did you two meet and when and why did you start Resn? Did you receive any advice that was good, bad or otherwise in the early days?

Steve: We met through our combined love of horses, two of which featured on the old Resn site homepage. I am more of a gallop kinda guy whereas Rik likes to trot.

Rik: Horsey!

Steve: We could not get enough of the work that was happening in the creative digital space online at the turn of the century. It was incredible work to experience, with designers mixing amazing new graphics styles with interactivity and animation. All of it was happening overseas and we were on an island that was not on many maps. There was a real feeling of something new emerging. We were inspired by this, we wanted to make this kind of work and to inspire others, but from New Zealand.

For those who don't know – what's the best way to describe what Resn does?

Steve: We make cyberspace (and now physical space) an absolute joy to experience.

Do you do any work for New Zealand clients these days? Or is it all overseas?

Steve: It’s mostly offshore but we do have a few New Zealand clients from time to time. We really enjoy working with big brands and global agencies as they usually have the budgets that fit their ambitious ideas. When working with local clients, you really need to either find really cheeky ways to bring down costs or simply compress the ideas into their essence. We are pretty flexible but prefer the compression technique as it allows you to stay true to the core idea, have razor-sharp focus and still deliver.

You are well known for having a decent sense of humour – is this a useful tool. Working overseas, do people get where you're coming from?

Steve: I think our irreverence played a huge part in winning the hearts and minds of our American friends. We were polar opposite to the big talk, look at me, car salesman vibe that they were used to. We didn’t really care if we came off a little whack. The work spoke for itself. I think if you do great work, and you always deliver, you can be forgiven for a few bad dad jokes.

Because you speak about your achievements quite humorously, it makes it sound like it's been an effortless ride. Has it been?

Let’s just say it’s easier to pretend that things are easy than admit that this industry can be very unforgiving. Today’s poster child is tomorrow's yesterday’s news.

Ironically, the work you do and the clients for whom you do it are I'm sure are very serious about achieving the right output. Who have you enjoyed working with the most, who has been most on your wavelength?

Creating things that engage the targeted audience is our part in the marketing and communications puzzle. We are fortunate that we are a trusted company known for delivering special projects. Standout ideas are anything but commonplace. Therefore, ensuring you have a team that can deliver it to the highest standard, in a short timeframe, is a key factor for clients to get on board.

We often work on projects with larger budgets, numerous risks, and short timeframes. Technology is a field of possibilities and a minefield of risks. Having a dependable corps of creative people who can harness the technology and make it sing and dance, instead of crash and burn, is one of the most important aspects of the business.

Collaboration with clients and partners is another important ingredient. Together, we grow an idea, pushing the technology to its limits and shaping it into its final form. We work on many different wavelengths. We enjoy projects that let us push the boundaries, that are a joy to work on, and are fun for people to play with.  We equally enjoy the more serious projects that require the finesse and detailing we are known for.

You have what, three or four offices now and I think 75 staff – have you observed any cultural differences in the different markets you operate in? Do you travel a lot? Or are you based mostly in Wellington? And with that many staff members, do you have time to do what you like to do, or are you bogged down in person management?

Globally, we have 9,064 bones, 879 toes, 95 eyes, and three harbours.  We love the work Resn makes and are always looking for more. With that many bones, we do need to spend a lot of time on making sure the boats we are on are free of leaks, comfortable, and headed towards plentiful seas of challenge and reward. It keeps us busy.

There are cultural differences, but those differences are similar within our various geographies. Some markets are more mature in the creative digital industry, some are more bound by legal fears, some are very small but have big ideas you need to reframe. Some are more open to trying new things and new partnerships. There are differences across remuneration, entitlements and job titles vs experiences and skill.  There is also a different appreciation for humour across cultural borders. Looking at you Netherlands.

Technically, as in technologically, what's changed during the course of your careers?

Many things have changed in our little-long time in the wide web world. Change keeps changing. Even past facts change. When we started the Earth was spherical. We found out recently it is actually flat. It makes sense if you don’t think about it.   

Explosive drone harpoons were a brilliant idea until we run out of whales. We will need to switch to a different form of renewable energy if we don’t start farming whales. It is a good thing New Zealand's backbone is farming. The internet is a hungry monster to power.  

Broadband, the iPhone and Facebook are younger than Resn. Even though they are struggling, we believe they will be a big deal and have an impact on internet usage, but don’t take our word for it.

Insider tip: Robots with human brains are worth keeping an eye on.

What's the composition of your office like? That is: How many people are there, are you all developers, what other sorts of creative types do you need, are you guys still on the tools, is it a man's world, or has that begun to change, who pulls in the work, and globally, how competitive is the sector – or how hard is it to get the jobs you want?

We have a range of creatives types, from designers to illustrators, animators to writers. They each bring their own unique perspective and qualities to the team. We have hovered around 20 people per studio for quite a while. It gives an extended family vibe while still having enough hands to shape world-leading projects.

Recipe-wise we are around 40 percent developers, 35 percent design/art/creative, 15 percent producers, 5 percent biz dev and 5 percent management. The rest is advanced Artificial Intelligence, a sheepdog, a Norsk Skogkatt cat, bath salts and beef OXO cubes in mineral water instead of the industry-standard espresso.

We are in a hyper-competitive industry. We are veteran battlers who like to make sensational singing shiny things that inspire others into the fires of commercial creativity. We have not yet found a way to free ourselves from competitors. We are thinking of buying them all. Or just becoming a client then we can give ourselves work. We think that might work.

Our work opportunities come via a postie who delivers us work by Par Avion mail. We have been told we cannot rely on this forever, which is kinda depressing. Some people are just killjoys. We also hire planes to take us to far away lands where people like our stuff.  We also enter awards where other people like our stuff.