Building Brands: A conversation with Molly Young at Warby Parker
Molly Young is one of those people that you google and instantly feel bad about yourself. She is not only the Director of Copy at Warby Parker, she also makes crossword puzzles for the New York Times, is about to publish a book with Penguin Press, and creates apps in her spare time. In this interview she talks about how to shape a brand voice, how clear brand guidelines enable you to be more experimental, and how side projects help you become more creative.
Could you tell me a bit about where you’re from and your path to becoming the Copy Director at Warby Parker?
Yeah I grew up in San Francisco and I moved to New York after college. I was always creative as a kid, you know, I was into art class more than science class. I wrote in college and took a lot of art classes and was always sort of interested in working with artists and people who were more visually inclined.
When I graduated from college I started writing for the New York Observer, and then for GQ, and Elle, and The New York Times. I came to Warby Parker when I met one of the CEO’s at a party. Warby was tiny at the time, and he was like “We need someone to do writing” and I was like “Great I’m in!” That was five years ago.
Obviously writing for a brand is very different from writing for a magazine, but in some ways it’s similar, because magazines have specific editorial voices and brands have brand voices. So you’re kind of projecting a personality either way through writing, and at Warby that’s expressed in every piece of information whether it’s a description of a pair of glasses, a bookmark that has a company story on it, or a speech that the CEO makes. It’s all written in that same voice.
Where was the brand at when you joined Warby? Was it 2011?
Yeah it was late 2011. We were like 50 people. There was already a blueprint in place for what the CEO’s wanted the brand voice to be. There was a really robust creative vision, I just had to come in and learn it. I didn’t have to invent it.
And what was that creative vision like?
It was very literary, and quirky, and fun. They had mood boards with a very specific bike, and a very specific edition of a book, and a calendar that they really liked the graphic design of. There was very specific reference points. They would describe it to me as “Warby Parker is the person you want to sit next to at a dinner party. They are funny and smart, and they get up to do the dishes.”
That’s great! So there was a creative vision in place when you joined, and then did you work with the designers to move that forward?
Yeah, we’ve always had design and copy super integrated. We’ve always sat next to each other and I think that’s really important because we have a lot of young graphic designers and young copywriters, and for a lot of them this is their first job. A copywriter will come in and not really know what a designer does and a designer will come in and not really understand what a copywriter does. If you put them next to each other they’ll be looking at each others screens, and asking each other questions, and interrupting each other, and learning from each other. Once a copywriter knows how a designer thinks and vice versa you can work together really seamlessly.
How did you translate the creative vision and the mood boards into something that helped you and the team make decisions on a day to day basis? How do you determine what’s right and what’s wrong for the brand?
I think it starts as intuition, and then we put together a brand book and a style guide. The brand book is more visual and the style guide is more copy guidelines. Actually, I’ll grab it right now, I think it’s really useful.
This was one of the first projects that I started. It’s basically all copy guidelines, but I worked on it with our head designer. To me it was a crash course in how she was thinking about designing it, and to her it was a learning experience to think about the copy and how it could be helpful for the people who were going to use the book.
I’ve followed the Warby brand for many years now, and my impression is that it’s moved on from everything being blue and started to have a lot more variety in color and photography. How have you seen the brand evolve during your time here?
I think the main thing is that after a year or two we just started putting everything down in writing, and once you have those guardrails it’s a lot easier to expand because you can be more experimental if you know that you have a certain DNA. We became less obsessed with defining Warby as one thing and more like well, this is in the Warby spirit even if it’s not in the Warby blue.
And how do you select which topics to talk about?
That is another thing that we put down in the brand book. We have five cultural pillars that we like to talk about: books, art, film, music, fashion. But again, it comes back to that person that you want to sit next to at a dinner party — what would you talk about with that person? Politics is not a really fun dinner topic because everyone gets in a fight, so we don’t talk about politics.
How is the brand team, formerly known as the marketing team, structured? We’ve talked a bit about the copywriters and designers. What are the other functions?
The other functions on the brand team are digital marketing, which is like Facebook ads, SEO, retargeting and all that stuff, a social media team, and a person that specializes in events.
Cool. And how many are you total?
And the brand team is guiding the experience on every channel?
Yeah I mean every single thing that the customer sees or experiences passes through the brand team. From social, blog, website, and press releases to a receipt you get in the store and an email from customer service. Everything is branded.
And what about the physical stores?
All the retail signage passes through us. There are some stores that have photo booths and the little slot right where the photos come out have some copy above it that we write like “Your photo will magically appear here”. So there’s always surprising little bits of design and copy everywhere.
Could you give me an example of a project and tell me a bit about the process you follow?
What’s a good project? Ok here’s a good project. So for our website we’re doing a new section called eyewear A-Z. It’s basically an online encyclopedia of everything related to your eyes and eyesight. The information is going to be branded and really helpful for customers, and it’s also for SEO.
So with a project like this, that’s going to live on the website permanently, we work together with the brand team. One of the Project Managers will be in charge of the project and writes the brief. We get briefed in on a Monday during our weekly creative briefing, which all the copywriters, designers and project managers attend. The Project Manager projects the brief on the wall and answers any questions. Then the Copy Director, which is me, and the Art Director assigns the project to a copywriter and to a designer. Those people’s names are put on the brief as being responsible for it. During the week the designer, the copywriter, and the project manager meet and go over the brief in detail, start work, and do two creative reviews with our bosses who give feedback, and then they iterate. So there’s usually a team of a copywriter, a designer, and a project manager. Sometimes more if it’s a complicated one.
What’s your favorite project that you’ve worked on at Warby?
I think it’s one that we did recently actually. It was our 7th birthday, which is you know, who cares? But we thought it would be really funny to do a lucky sevens promotion. So we made these scratch off lottery cards, and you could win glasses for life. We gave them out for free to all our customers and they were scratching in our stores and we had unlimited supplies and they were free and people just went crazy for it. 7 is a lucky year, so we we’re like ‘good luck!’ So just crazy ideas like that. It was a fun way for people to engage.
You’re also working on a lot of side projects outside of Warby. You’re a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine, you make crossword puzzles for the New York Times, and this fall you’re publishing a book with Penguin Press. Congrats!
How do you balance all of this stuff?
I don’t really know. I mean I’m really stressed out all the time.
That’s so awesome that you’re admitting that! Most people are like ‘oh no, it’s not hard’. But I’m like ‘how can it not be hard?’
No it’s really hard, I’m always stressed out. And I don’t really exercise enough or, you know, whatever. I just have a hard time saying no to things, and luckily Warby Parker is really nice about letting me pursue things outside of work. I think a lot of companies are really threatened by employees who have outside work and they want employees to be 100% company focused. I feel like that’s a mistake because employees are more creative if they’re allowed to be as creative as they want to be. The more stuff I do outside of work the cooler my stuff is here, because I’m absorbing influences and getting practice and being inspired and all those things. And, when I hire people I’m always looking for people who have a lot of side projects, because I just feel like the more stuff you do the cooler your stuff is.