The employees at Winking Fish have a knack for thinking “outside the bowl” to make you notice a business. Other people’s businesses, that is.
If you have lived in, worked in, eaten in or passed through Arlington during the past eight years, the odds are good that you’ve spotted the creative strategy and design firm’s work at least once.
Perhaps you’ve seen their branding and design work for the Columbia Pike Revitalization Organization, such as the lamppost banners and marketing materials for popular events like the farmer’s market, wine and craft beer festival, movie nights and jazz festival. Or maybe it’s the menus and promotional items they design for Vintage Restaurants Group — which owns Ragtime, Rhodeside Grill and William Jeffrey’s Tavern in Arlington and Dogwood Tavern in Falls Church. They also do pro bono work for the Arlington Free Clinic.
Director of strategy and engagement Maria Gallagher says working with local clients — in addition to national clients like LinkedIn and the Cure Alzheimer’s Fund — is important to the whole four-person Winking Fish team.
“We’ve got a pretty solid mix of some nationally-based clients… and a really nice mix of local Arlington businesses,” she says. “It’s nice when you’re supporting the businesses around you and then you’re seeing your work in action, too.”
The Winking Fish employees’ tasks vary a bit from day to day, but they all revolve around developing and maintaining businesses’ identities. Gallagher spends her time contemplating communications and messaging strategies while art director Parisa Damian sketches out ideas and digitally designs marketing materials.
Meanwhile, senior graphic designer Robyn Davis examines color swatches to determine which visual elements fit best with a particular client’s style. “I haven’t been able to do anything ‘pretty’ in a while because I came from an academic environment where it can be kind of boring,” Davis says. “It’s nice to be able to do different kinds of work.”
There is one thing, though, that remains the same each day: The team members get a lot of “together time.” A lot of together time.
Gallagher is married to Winking Fish principal Kieran Daly, and they’ve been friends with Damian and Davis for years. The four work together in a row of three adjacent offices and spend time together outside of work. Plus, they have lunch together nearly every day — sometimes on-site in the MakeOffices Clarendon lunchroom and sometimes at nearby restaurants. “It’s kind of nice to have that break and down time together,” Gallagher says.
Having an office in the coworking space has strengthened not only their connections with each other, but also with other businesses at MakeOffices Clarendon.
“Within two weeks [of moving here] we had a new website client,” Daly says. Fostering such connections was part of the whole plan, Gallagher explains. “That is one of the reasons we were thinking about a space like this, for the business networking it naturally promotes,” she says.
In addition to drumming up new clients, being in the coworking space creates an environment for learning different business strategies. “There’s a lot of natural opportunity to get different perspectives on running a small business. That’s a big plus,” Daly says.
One learning opportunity the Winking Fish employees especially appreciate is the once-a-month breakfast MakeOffices hosts, which includes various tenants as guest speakers.
“I went to one of those and realized I had no idea that kind of business was here in the building,” Gallagher says. “It’s nice to hear about those working models and how people are challenged and overcoming some challenges.”
For a creative firm like Winking Fish, image really is everything. The team finds that the coworking space portrays a positive, professional image to clients who visit. “It’s always fun to bring someone in here for the first time,” Gallagher says. “Everyone always comments on the energy. It’s vibrant.”
Daly explains that even though Winking Fish was in its previous building for five years, the space wasn’t very conducive to interacting with the other people there. “There really is a great energy change for us,” he says.
A standalone space also doesn’t offer the same flexibility, Daly says. “As a smaller business it’s nice to be able to have the option to add another office a couple of doors down if we need to and not be locked into a five-year term on an office space that might be too big or too small.”
And as an added bonus, “We don’t have to empty the dishwasher,” he says, laughing.
Preserving that humor and positive attitude is important for keeping the ideas and creative juices flowing. Another good motivator is being around other entrepreneurs and creative individuals.
“The opportunity to be a part of a collaborative environment and to be around… the energy of other businesses really helps to inspire a creative business like ours,” Gallagher says. “We feed off that energy and it helps us with our work.”
There are times, of course, when that energy may wane while the Winking Fish employees are working particularly long days. That can happen during the busy autumn months when the firm works on strategies for their clients’ many fall events. But Daly strives to make sure employees feel like their time is valued and that the business is not dealing with an unending string of client emergencies, even during its most hectic periods.
“As the pace of business and life gets faster and faster every day, it gets challenging to protect [that],” he says. “We work hard to create realistic timelines” and to protect workers’ personal time.
Such a philosophy contributes to making Winking Fish employees feel like they work at a family business — even though it’s not technically all family.
“Not to be cheesy,” Damian says with a smile, but “I think of all of them as family.”