A REALLY, REALLY BIG SHOW: THE BROADCAST DESIGN FIRM THAT STARTED THE FIELD 15 YEARS AGO IS NOW THE INDUSTRY'S 500-POUND GORILLA. BUT CURIOUSLY, PITTARD SULLIVAN'S NEW NETWORK IDENTITY FOR ABC PROVES THAT THE FIRM HAS LOST NONE OF ITS EDGE. WHAT'S BEHIND THE SUCCESS? A KEEN EYE FOR DESIGN, SURE -- BUT ABOVE ALL, GOOD EARS.

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Screens. I just thought of it as screens," says Billy Pittard. "It didn't matter if it was a theater, a TV or a computer -- screens was our unifying theme." Fifteen years ago, Billy Pittard and Ed Sullivan sensed the early glimmerings of convergence. Television screens at that time carried the three big networks and upstart CNN, along with a smattering of local cable stations. Pittard, an art director, was toiling in the trenches at a TV station, KCBS in Los Angeles, and Sullivan, formerly at JWT/Chicago and others was moving up the ladder as an ad agency CD. Recognizing an opportunity, they decided to gamble on a newly emerging field and opened Pittard Sullivan, a broadcast graphics design firm. Today, they share the title CEO/president of the largest broadcast design company in the world, producing work for screens of all kinds.

With his slight southern drawl and boyish good looks, Pittard wouldn't look out of place sippin' mint juleps at the country club. Sullivan is more intense and overt, but both of them are unfailingly courteous listeners. The art of listening is one of the foundations of their business. As Pittard quips, "We each have two ears and one mouth; we use them proportionally."

In left brain/right brain fashion, Sullivan has the talent to organize the streams of data into a usable context, while Pittard processes the information on a more emotional, visual level. Together, they produce some of the finest visual personae that television stations or networks can hope for.

Pittard Sullivan, based in Culver City, Calif., has done 200-plus broadcast launches. That kind of experience puts the company in a very small peer group. With millions of dollars riding on each launch or redesign -- not to mention a variety of egos and careers -- networks and stations are loathe to take chances on design firms that are not fluent in their language and culture.

"We had worked with other companies in the past, but redesigning the entire channel is an enormous assignment," says Alan Cohen, VP-marketing at ABC Television Network. "A lot of companies wanted this job, but Pittard Sullivan won it hands down. We loved how they understood all the brand strategy as well as being immensely creatively talented."

Cohen and Kevork (Corky) Cholakian, ABC's VP-CD of graphics and design, are in charge of ABC's on-air identity, and started a redefinition of it when they hired TBWA/Chiat/Day in 1997, resulting in the controversial "Yellow" campaign. (It featured statements such as "It's a beautiful day, why are you outside?" and "If TV is so bad for you, why is there one in every hospital room?")

"Chiat did ABC a great service by having them boldly differentiate themselves by using that yellow," says Pittard. "We adapted that and actually made television out of it." Pittard Sullivan added black and white still photography to the signature yellow, then took the idea of minimalism farther to create an elegant look that stands out from other network promos and IDs.

Part of what makes the company successful is patience and perseverance. ABC's decision to broaden the brand was a multi-year project, and each division president and marketing officer had to sign off on it. Undaunted, the design firm assigned teams to each division to ensure that the new work would find company-wide acceptance. That effort culminated in the successful launch of the 1999 fall season. "The difference when you work with Pittard Sullivan is, they have people who have done a lot more than promos or just marketing," explains Cohen. "They get the bigger picture and understand what's going on in the environment and in the competitive framework, and they also have a tremendous amount of depth."

Pittard Sullivan is a 500-pound gorilla in a booming business, likely to grow even bigger as foreign networks, too, are starting to take their branding efforts more seriously. Take the Canadian Television Network, for which the company developed a new identity last year. "CTV existed for 30 years, but the network [brand] was never as well-exposed as it should have been," says Rick Lewchuk, VP-promotions at CTV. "This was a once-in-a-company's-history opportunity to relaunch a network."

Lewchuk needed more than pretty pictures. The design firm he was looking for "had to really understand broadcasting and be able to intelligently package our on-air look. [Pittard Sullivan] spent a lot of time listening to us, to our clients, to our viewers, before they made any decisions. That was key."

"We try to make a unified team that includes the client," says Pittard. "We don't kid ourselves that we have all the answers." CTV rolled out the new network identity last fall to unanticipated results. "We did tracking surveys with our viewers and clients," recalls Lewchuk, "and it was all positive. So much so that we had our research people look at the numbers again because they were so much higher than we ever dreamed they would be. What came back to us was phenomenal."

Meanwhile, Pittard realizes his business will change as the long-predicted convergence is finally starting to happen. "At the simplest level, it is television converging with interactive capabilities," he says. "What's coming is that the individual will be in more control; that will be a major factor in people's lives. What we do is to help all of our clients find out how they can be more relevant and provide more personalized service to the viewers; and to continuously develop experiences that are worth people's time."

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