McGrath Lets Them Have Fun

February 28, 2005
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GRAND RAPIDS — Structure Interactive (S:I) was a different company when Director of Creative Services Charles McGrath joined the firm 10 years ago.

Then known as Woller, Cook and Misamore (WC&M), the company had just a third of its current headcount. Its offices weren’t downtown and definitely didn’t fill a floor of the McKayTower. There was only one interactive employee and the company had just completed its first full-scale interactive project. Internet and Web development were a few years away and Wi-Fi was still sci-fi.

“The progression from WC&M to Structure Interactive wasn’t one you could predict,” McGrath said. “We weren’t one of those companies that said computers are the future or the future is plastics and then went after it. We have just let our customers tell us what we’re good at and go from there.”

The same could be said of McGrath’s career.

As a teenager, McGrath bounced between Grand Rapids and New York, having moved to West Michigan with his family and back to the Big Apple for college.

After college — and after being turned down for jobs across the city — McGrath launched the short-lived magazine GRYE.

“If you ever want to lose money fast, start a magazine,” he said.

But through that yearlong endeavor, McGrath learned all about Mac computers, typesetting and how to use some interactive tools, which he turned into free-lance employment with advertising agencies.

“Before I knew it, I had a reputation.”

His father is a theologian-turned-programmer, and McGrath has been involved with computers for much of his life.

“I remember the programming my dad used to do with the big machines and the punch cards. I thought it was the most boring thing in the world,” he recalled. “I wasn’t going to work with computers unless I was being blackmailed or something.”

However, the multimedia tools with which McGrath would forge his career didn’t exist in his father’s workshop.

Soon enough, McGrath’s free-lance career turned lucrative, and it was at that time that he came to WC&M.

“I was looking for free-lance work and they said they didn’t like using free-lancers, but offered me a job,” he said. “I was doing pretty well in free-lance work, but I had just gotten married and decided that there was a certain stability involved in getting married.

“I took a cut in income to take the job, but it’s the kind of thing you do when you’re married.”

McGrath became only the second employee in the interactive software group founded by Brett Chaffer.

“Charlie brought a real strong creative force and technical understanding to interactive design,” Chaffer said. “It really took us to another level.”

The business-to-business advertising and public relations firm had long adopted new technology for competitive advantages. While other agencies were trying to figure out if computers were a fad, WC&M was adding a digital prepress department.

Chaffer finished the firm’s first full-scale interactive media project in the early ’90s, and then launched an award-winning trade show kiosk product. From there it followed a natural progression into promotional CD-ROMs.

With the firm’s traditional B2B communication skills, interactive group and programming and interface knowledge, the firm had accidentally positioned itself as a Web site developer.

When the Internet arrived in 1995, WC&M was able to take full advantage, and interactive work became the firm’s driving force.

“It was really a fun time because there were no standards, no rules,” McGrath said. “A lot of mistakes were being made, things like spinning logos and the stuff that people make fun of now.

“Our experience with interactive design gave us a real edge,” he said. “Others could communicate and design as well as we could, but we had discipline.”

This attitude helped attract B2B client Dow Chemical away from a New York Web developer.

Dow had approached WC&M to serve as a caretaker for its Web site, but after a lengthy period in that capacity, signed a three-year agreement placing WC&M as its sole Web provider.

Just as the unusual relationship between the small agency and the large conglomeration soon opened doors to other large corporations such as Universal Forest Products and Whirlpool, the Internet opened doors for McGrath.

In the eyes of the managing partners, he was No. 2 in the interactive group to Chaffer. The Internet gave McGrath a chance to distinguish himself, first as a developer, then leading a development team, and later as creative director and Internet director.

“One thing I’ve worked hard at is finding good people and letting them work,” he said. “It’s hard for creative people to let people do their work. It might be good stuff but it won’t be the way you would have done it.”

In 2000, McGrath, Chaffer (now director of technical services) and Michael Brown (director of account services) purchased WC&M.

Within months, they renamed the firm Structure Interactive.

“The old partners thought their names held a lot of equity,” he said. “We researched it and found names have no equity, it’s people. We wanted a name with equity. WC&M could be a law firm (or) accounting — nothing in there that said what we did.”

Since 1996, Web development and interactive media have accounted for the lion’s share of S:I’s revenue, which was capitalized at $25 million last year. It is one of the largest advertising agencies and Web developers in the region.

Neither of the original interactive designers believed that their work would one day drive the company.

“It was something he did for fun,” McGrath said of Chaffer. “He didn’t have any vision. I had illusions of being a filmmaker and this was a way to make films cheaply and quickly.

“It was kind of a shock that it was something we could turn into a revenue stream.”

As McGrath explained, the firm was in no a position to drive such a progression itself, much less plan or predict it.

“Agencies tend to get pigeonholed,” McGrath said. “Customers will very clearly tell you who you are. If you wanted a catalog or business-to-business promotional materials, we were the company to go to. If we wanted to be a consumer-to-consumer agency, they would say, ‘You’re great at catalogs and you’re great at moving parts, but …’

“Then we started to get these, ‘By the way, do you know anything about …?’”

The firm had developed a tradition of hiring “cowboys,” as McGrath calls them, employees like Chaffer and himself who were excited about new technologies on a personal level. Through this, the agency has branched into both consumer advertising and branding.

“The secret is to let people have fun,” he said. “Then when a client starts asking, we can say, ‘You know, we have a guy that’s been playing around with that.’”    

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