Before I can ask what makes him think the flying public -- surely inured to pleasure or pain by years of deprivation and at any moment only three ounces of face product away from sheer barbarity -- will embrace refined travel again, Brule politely asks me to hold the line for a moment. I listen in as he speaks briefly to his driver in perfect German then walks briskly into the Zurich Airport. He apologizes for the lapse, but really I wouldn't have had it any other way. One fairly expects Brule to be running into a Swiss airport (Zurich is Wink HQ), pausing to swap a last-minute tip on sourcing artisanal Epoisses with a driver inexplicably outfitted in sinew-hugging Hedi Slimane.
Brule oversaw every component of the brand identity for short-haul startup Porter, which starts flying between Ottawa and Toronto City Centre this month. Work included the creation of the name and logo, livery design, service concept (simple, sophisticated and free), even advertising, which features a cheeky raccoon named Mr. Porter. The name, Brule says, is meant to evoke "someone who takes the burden off" while also being translatable to other markets and countries should the concept, um, take off. The model was a single-class airline, but Brule says the Porter experience will be different, starting with the cabins, which are more "Mercedes S Class or BMW 7 Series than airliner."
That premium approach has served Winkreative well since the company was founded by Brule in 1998 and particularly, he says, in the past few years. The company, which started as an arm of Wallpaper, has 31 well-groomed staffers in offices in Zurich, New York, London and now Tokyo doing a little over half its work on brand strategy and corporate ID as well as advertising, custom publishing and web design. Brule says the company once contemplated shutting its North America operation, but the last two years have seen a boom in the kind of work the company was born to do. "It's been more than just the economy," says Brule. "Part of it is because with a lot of brands in North America, they want the big idea, but at the same time they are also demanding the work gets dumbed down; it's always, 'Make it more mass.' I think agencies can do the work, but they are paralyzed -- they are scared to show things that raise the bar slightly. That is purely the type of work we are winning at the moment."
In keeping with its origins, Wink's business is informed by an editorial perspective. "We are fast," Brule says. The company's research methods are also rooted in the journalistic approach: Instead of traditional (and certainly poorly dressed) focus groups, Wink employs a network of correspondents around the world, "from Sao Paulo to Beirut to Kuala Lumpur," to supply intelligence.
As for whether air travel can be restored to a more graceful business, Brule says it's in part a matter of "if you build it they will come." "Carriers in Europe that have restored their service offer have won back customers," he says. But he also notes that "it's time for the North American service sector to raise the bar in general. Toronto is home to one of the world's leading hotel brands, the Four Seasons, so maybe within the travel sector it can do the same with airlines. Hopefully Porter can be a good starting point there."
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Teressa Iezzi is the editor of Creativity magazine and AdCritic.com. E-mail your big ideas to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.