when two of the top corporate women in America-eBay's Meg Whitman and Hewlett Packard Co.'s Carly Fiorina-need strategic marketing advice, who do they call? The same guys Paul Pressler confers with as he tries to refashion the Gap: the small San Francisco design-cum-strategic-marketing firm of Stone Yamashita.
The shop, founded on April Fool's Day 10 years ago by former Apple employees Keith Yamashita, 37, and Robert Stone, 43, has been below the radar-and under the skin of some traditional ad agencies-as it rapidly increases its influence in major global corporate transformations. Working out of former printing plant not far from the San Francisco Giants' SBC Park, its clients have included Nike, Walt Disney Co., Public Broadcasting Corp. and a division of the World Bank. From the outside, the shop might be viewed as little more than an interior design and collateral provider; its projects range from flip charts for engineers to a cafeteria for high-powered corporate visitors, and it offers lessons in the use of "strategic visualization tools." But its greater mission is as corporate change agent.
"They have an ability to triangulate corporate culture, business strategy and brand strategy to drive change," said Allison Johnson, senior VP-corporate marketing at HP, who first worked with the shop in the mid-1990s during her stint at IBM Corp. and continues with it today. "They are central to our marketing strategy and design strategy for a number of years."
"They are the vanguard of a fundamental sea change in the whole advertising and marketing space," said Paul Saffo, a director of the Institute for the Future, a Silicon Valley-based think-thank. "It's a world of difference from traditional branding or marketing-it's almost Zen-like."
And the Zen Master is Mr. Yamashita. "Their secret sauce is Keith," said an executive at a direct competitor who has seen Stone Yamashita's work at his client's office. "The thing they do quite well is storytelling, the way they create their strategy and present their strategy to the internal audience."
A look at how Stone Yamashita interacts with HP tells some of that story. When Ms. Johnson came to HP in 1999, the world was dot-com crazed, yet HP had remained on the sidelines. Stone Yamashita set about the reinvention: It helped write Ms. Fiorina's speech at the important Comdex conference in 2000 and developed a series of pamphlets placed on the desks of 30,000 HP Enterprise group employees with headlines like "Life. People are analog, not digital." Its study for HP to uncover "the next big thing" resulted in "Roaming," a book of artistic photographs of mobile phone users in Finland and Japan that waxed on the emerging mobile technology which "offers a balm to the spirit: freedom from the constraints of time, place, and circumstance." (Stone Yamashita's staff of 40 includes two poets.)
Mr. Stone and Mr. Yamashita were among a handful of outsiders in the so-called "clean room" where a select group of high-ranking HP and Compaq executives were plotting strategies and core values as the company merged. An outcome: "One Voice," a program in which HP broke down individual marketing fiefdoms among its divisions, pooling the company's resources behind the "Invent" tag line.
Stone Yamashita also overhauled HP's executive briefing center in Cupertino, Calif., where its biggest customers come to browse. It eliminated the security-guard feel of the front desk and replaced it with a more concierge-like setting. State-of-the-art white boards controlled by electronic panels replaced old-fashioned overhead projectors. Each visitor is given an electronic device through which they can beam information typically found in corporate brochures onto a personal Web site HP built for the visitor. It also created a customer-experience lab.
While Stone Yamashita has found its way into the C-suite, it leaves the yeoman's advertising work to its client's main agencies. Omnicom Group's Goodby, Silverstein and Publicis Groupe's Publicis & Hal Riney have been the main drivers of HP's creative output."We set up prototypical systems and step back and let other agencies go forward," Mr. Yamashita said.
And that sometimes can cause confusion. Goodby, for example, has generally been given credit for coming up with HP's "Invent" positioning, but some industry watchers have pointed to Stone Yamashita. Ms. Johnson settles the argument: "The `Invent' idea came from Carly."
At Gap Inc., Stone Yamashita is "helping Paul and the leadership strengthen the culture across all of Gap Inc.," said Mr. Yamashita. The company examines questions such as "What is the next 35 years of this company? What is it its purpose. What are its values? Its key traits? How do they behave?"
Mr. Yamashita noted that former chief executive Millard "Mickey" Drexler operated on his gut artistic and style instincts, and was "a renegade, which was the smartest thing to be at the time," he said. But successor Paul Pressler "runs a very different company than Mickey," said Mr. Yamashita. "Paul is a much better balance of art and science. He's emblematic of what the Gap has to be. He can be more planful and be much more bold going forward."
To answer Gap's questions, Stone Yamashita developed a number of small group leadership summits dubbed "purpose, values and behavior sessions." The sessions started out including only the top 12 Gap leaders and have been rolling out to executive groups of about 100 at a time. Within a year and a half, most of Gap's 30,000 employees will be "touched" by the sessions, Mr. Yamashita said.
One type of session Stone Yamashita has devised to spark teams to fire on all cylinders has been dubbed the "ringside." In it, about 50 people gather around a tarmac, much the way fans would gather around a boxing ring. Ten topics are placed on the mat, such as "shift to value" or "super-size." Participants are asked to pick a topic and tell the group everything he or she knows about the topic. One Old Navy merchant in a session where "super-size" was the topic discussed the possibility of doing more to help sell to larger-size customers. Another employee chimed in that he had worked in marketing at Lane Bryant. "After meeting they had a great collaboration on plus sizes," said Mr. Yamashita. "Leaders were connected in a new and different way."
Executives from Gap did not return calls seeking comment. Another Stone Yamashita client, eBay, declined to comment.
Mr. Yamashita, who holds a B.A. in quantative economics and an M.A. in organizational behavior from Stanford University, said companies seeking to reinvent themselves often fail when using traditional branding methods. "The temptation is to put shellac around the company," said Mr. Yamashita. "The temptation in branding is just to do the surface things-adopt a new look and feel or launch a new ad campaign," said Mr. Yamashita. "But if you're not trying just a quick fix but want a daring turnaround, you need to pair [rebranding] with cultural reinvention."
Whether Stone Yamashita is reinventing the culture of marketing, however, is debatable. "I understand they are a very successful business and make money hand over fist," said a San Francisco executive familiar with the company. "They're very good at what they do, but I'm not sure what they do contributes. ... They create wonderfully long and beautifully illustrated decks, but I'm not sure what to make of it." He added, "The old joke was that you hired a consultant to tell you what you already know. In the case of Stone Yamashita, I don't know what they tell you."
Another executive who has worked with the shop says their presentations are so pedantic, long and laborious, he's joked about buying a gun to shoot himself. "What's the waiting period? Six months, two years? It's OK. The meeting will still be going on."