OMFGCO cofounders Fritz Mesenbrink and Jeremy Pelley push past creative boundaries for themselves and their clients.
Interview by Lauren Mang
Photos by Chris Dibble | A relaxed conference room at the back of the studio provides staffers a quiet place to work and read.
Designers Fritz Mesenbrink and Jeremy Pelley founded their fearlessly bold branding, strategy, and design firm OMFGCO in 2009 while sitting in Pelley’s dining room. A decade later, the Portland-based firm is behind campaigns for big-name companies including Japanese retailer MUJI, Portland’s Stumptown Coffee Roasters, and LA-based Ace Hotel. Looking to the next 10 years, Mesenbrink and Pelley say they’ll relish breaking even more rules, delivering nowhere-near-the-box ideas, and proving that work—even the most routine—doesn’t have to suck.
Where did OMFGCO’s overarching tagline, “We build brands for visionaries,” come from?
Fritz Mesenbrink: Four years in, we had a meeting with a hotel brand and presented a concept that we felt solved all their problems. The pushback we got was “No one does this. Why would we do this?” We came back from that meeting so disappointed because we’d wanted them to say the exact opposite. That’s when we realized we wanted clients who were visionaries—willing to do things differently and ask the big questions. We wrote our tagline to challenge our clients and ourselves to always do visionary work and be unafraid to question things.
Jeremy Pelley: Something we learned is that you have to vet your clients really hard. We start our new business meetings with questions like “Do we care about this product or service?” or “Do we like the people behind this product or service?” If they check both of those boxes, and it’s something we believe in and feel good about birthing into the world, then we then ask about budget, scope, timeline, and so on. But we don’t start there. We start with that feeling. We want to align with things we believe in.
That’s got to be a challenge when you’re a young firm. How did you get to the point where you could actually vet clients?
FM: Early on, we said yes to a lot more [work] and quickly got to a place where we said yes to too many things. So we looked back at what we shouldn’t have taken on, and which things made us miserable, and that led to [noticing] a lot of red flags in our vetting process. We did a lot of projects early on that timed well with Portland’s growth and national fame, which helped us get us into the right conversations. Maybe not immediately, but eventually. It’s a luxurious spot to be able to choose who we want to work with.
Why did you decide to go out on your own and cofound your own firm?
JP: Literally, Fritz and I were sitting at my dining room table, and we were like, “We should start doing work together and make our current clients, Ace Hotels and Stumptown Coffee Roasters, hire us as a duo.” Then Olympic Provisions approached us and we thought, “Between Olympic, Ace, and Stumptown, we can totally make this happen.”
FM: We focused on the joy of collaborating and how the work just grew better, faster. At [Wieden+Kennedy,] we worked all the time and learned a lot, but after a while it wears on you. You don’t have much of a life outside work, and you don’t realize it until after you’ve left. We didn’t want that situation. [Editors’ note: Pelley was in the experimental ad school that W+K hosted called W+K12.]
JP: We’ve learned over the years that it’s not about hours. Who is paying you for the time when you have an idea in the shower that’s likely the idea you’ll use for a campaign? No one. So it’s less about hours and more about output. We try to cultivate a studio that values what matters most, versus hours and butts in seats. It’s not a badge of honor to work more hours; it’s proof that we’re mismanaging a project. Work doesn’t have to suck. We try to build a lifestyle that we don’t need to escape from.
So, let’s talk about that name.
FM: It stands for Official Manufacturing Company. We were trying to find a classic generic name—like the kind you’d find on a metal badge on an old piece of furniture. So we started looking at manufacturing companies, and “official” was the most generic, most available thing we came up with.
JP: When we started getting bigger clients, we realized they loved calling us OMFGCO, not Official Manufacturing Company.
FM: Most of them were calling us just OMFG. It’s funny because we didn’t set out to have a meme-sounding Internet name, but it just happened.
JP: So we rolled with it, changed our URL to omfgco.com, and never looked back.
Have you ever gotten pushback from a client or been told an idea was too out there?
FM: It’s all about expectation management. Even if they’ve asked us for something that we’re not going to give them, we address it. But most people hire us because the work we do has honesty to it. So we’re not often fighting anyone.
JP: It’s part of that vetting process again. If someone is bringing us a bunch of BS to begin with, we won’t even touch it. I like to use a music analogy: our clients are really talented singer-songwriters who have already written some cool songs, and our job is to be an amplifier, to tweak the knobs, strengthen what they’re trying to do, and broadcast it to the people who need to hear it, see it, and feel it. There’s a fidelity that comes with good amplifiers.
You say that you operate under a meritocracy—that ideas can come from anywhere. Why does that make for the best working environment?
JP: It’s tied to one of our core values, which is that the best idea wins. That means it’s not about Fritz or me being creative directors. We’re not magicians who hold all the secrets. We’re talented and smart, but there are a lot of talented and smart people in this world, and a lot of them are in our studio. And they’re not all called designers. They’re studio managers or producers. So for us to shut ourselves off to how many great minds are in this studio would be foolish. It would limit us tremendously.
Is there one OMFGCO project, past or present, that has a special place in your hearts?
FM: The Laylow Hotel [in Waikiki, Hawaii]. It was our first opportunity to do a full interior design for a hotel. We learned so much through that process and felt like we got our master’s degrees in interior design. We tried a lot of things, made a lot of mistakes, and were very happy with the end result. Now whatever project we’re working on is the one that—
JP: —we really care about.
FM: [Laughs] Yeah, it’s our next chance to figure out how deep we can go as a company.