On an Island with Tim Neal

This month we are on an island with Tim Neal, owner of The Engagement Party. The Engagement Party is a Design and Advertising studio located in Saskatoon. We first met Tim while we were working for our old agencies in Saskatoon. We have since crossed paths many times, most recently working together on Nutrien Wonderhub. We love the work Tim does and always appreciate the opportunity to collaborate with one of Saskatoon’s finest designers. So, sit back and crack open that can of coca-cola, and learn a little more about The Engagement Party.

Island: Tell us about The Engagement Party?

Tim Neal: The Engagement Party is a Design and Advertising studio located in Saskatoon, SK. It’s now about 5 years in, and the name and reputation of the studio is getting more awareness in First Nations business circles as well as in the general Saskatchewan business forum.
The studio is primarily focused on First Nations projects, yet there’s lots of room for non-indigenous projects as well. I always state to prospective clients, that all of the awards and business success stories I’ve accrued have been mostly for non-Indigenous clients.
As a studio, it’s more or less just me working on projects and doing the project management. When a project needs more capabilities, I partner with a select group of industry heavy hitters. I have a comfortable relationship with this group and they tend to augment my services.


Island: What do you think separates your business from others in the industry?

TN: Locally, the differentiator would be the focus on design for advertising. That narrow piece of the pie in the overall marketing matrix is my field of operations. I’m pushing for design and advertising to play a bigger role in many of the province’s marketing initiatives.

With a province that has no design or advertising school, the general thought is that marketing is all important. Except that marketers have very little experience with advertising, and even less with design. I’m amazed every time I hear “I have X piece of software, I can do Y” – as if advertising and design are reliant on appliances and applications. I figure the core issue is that marketing has more to do with theory and research, while advertising deals with practice and craft. I’ve honed my skills in the Advertising and Design profession for the last 20 years and I’m quite comfortable advising clients to do things that are viewed as unorthodox in this province.


Island: On your site it is noted that you are the only First Nations agency-level Creative Director in the province – and one of the few Certified Graphic Designers of Indigenous descent in Canada. That’s a major accomplishment and a pretty crazy statistic. What are your thoughts on
representation in the tech and design industry?

TN: The somewhat depressing part, is that I was never really aware of this being a big thing, until I was looking at my personal strengths and weaknesses while I was considering starting my own studio. Now I use this fact as a tool for awareness and engagement with companies and initiatives – if you want to establish TRC94 responsibilities within your marketing/advertising/design project, I’m a good option!

Not having a large and diverse set of First Nations representation in design and advertising is causing issues with visual communications for Indigenous projects. It’s a huge issue that has very little overt signals of being problematic to a general viewership. It takes a keen eye and a diverse background to see the overall situation and understand the areas that are lacking an Indigenous viewpoint.

Currently – Indigenizing a design is basically applying the same rote colour scheme, using a poorly made display font, adding some ancient icons, and then overlaying it all on some type of textured background. (If generic non-specific First Nation/Band visuals are used, this is called Pan-Indianism/ Pan-Indigenism) What is actually needed, is a fully developed School of Indigenous Design that begins to address the missing graphic elements of our visual language – across the country. A specific example is Syllabics – the defacto Indigenous form for our written language… made by a Jesuit priest… with no discernable structural elements or historically accurate use of our rich catalogue of pictograms. Our own written language isn’t even Indigenous!


Island: What is the difference between branding and design?

TN: To put it bluntly – Design is a formulated process of thinking and application of craft while Branding is a marketing strategy used to accelerate how a business/product/initiative is perceived. The common perception is that brands are logos or ad campaigns – essentially the visual side of things that a viewer encounters via commercial media. This is why terms like Visual Branding and Visual Identity came to the fore as there needed to be some differentiation – or demarcation – of what was the visual communications aspect and what was the marketing strategy.

Branding requires design, and for certain parts of branding strategy, a designer is ultimately required within the strategic team. These days, designers tend to have quite a bit of marketing education and know-how, and are able to integrate more easily within corporate teams.


Island: You reference the term visual identity a lot throughout your website. What is a visual identity for a client and why is it important for them to think about?

TN: A Visual Identity is an extended program of cohesive design components that are developed to establish a consistent look and feel for a product, company, or initiative. These components are the visual elements that communicate on a variety of levels (conscious/sub-conscious, immediate/ delayed, etc.) and project a unified vision to allow for recognizability and memorability in a crowded marketplace.

For a client, it’s crucial to understand and appreciate the nuances of this medium – that each individual part contributes to the greater whole and doesn’t need to say everything. Having a strong Visual Identity allows for a product/company/initiative to concentrate on messaging. An old advertising quote of “no one reads ads” has some truth – however, it’s the strength of a robust Visual Identity that allows for viewers to let their guard down and let in a line or two…


Island: What is the biggest mistake you see people making when it comes to advertising?

TN:  Simply put – not investing enough. Whether it’s in the creative, or the deployment, most issues arise from not having a realistic budget from the start. It also includes time – sometimes it’s investing in a solution that takes a bit of time to develop and deliver.

The other common mistake is trusting advertising to non-specialists. They’re learning on your dime and making choices without strategy. This path leads into the world of copy-cat creative that has no functioning components that drive good advertising such as differentiation and memorability. In my profession, the things we seek out are: what’s the truth, and what’s the mnemonic.


Island: With everything going digital, where do you think print fits within marketing or advertising

TN: This is a question I rarely ponder – I’ve always used media to fulfill strategic goals – whether that’s print, digital, or any other medium used for communication. Print (or as I tend to call it, analgue), and to a greater extent publishing and printing in general, still has its use for audience targeting. I’m currently more interested in how social media is going to change with the awareness of how it impacts personal health – mentally and physically.

Did anyone think that Facebook and Google might end their corporate lives sooner than say, Postmedia?


Island: Where does your website and digital presence fit within the success of your business?

TN: I spend most of my working hours with online and digital deliverables for clients… and neglect my own. I’m trying to finish up the strategy for my various websites, honest!

I’m at a strange point where my personal site (www.timneal.ca) doesn’t necessarily need to show my portfolio anymore, as my studio site (www.theengagementparty.ca) has enough content now. This wasn’t the case to begin with as I’m a staunch believer in that you DO NOT represent work you did in an agency as your own studio work. It’s not. Now my personal site needs to show my First Nations visual communications concepts – stuff I’ve been working on for years. It’s my process of “Modern Traditionalism” and the concept of protecting parts of First Nations culture and celebrating adaptive usage to propel cultural touchpoints to a wider audience. I’d love to have the chance to give a talk – there’s quite a bit I’ve learned over the
years and most of it was trial and error – maybe give the next generation some overview so that
they don’t have to do as much heavy lifting.


Island: If you could give one piece of advice to someone thinking about creating or revamping their brand, what would it be?

TN: You need a singularly true message that pairs with a clear and relevant image. That would be the gold standard.

There’s lots of places that have A and no B, and vice versa – and the companies still create and do business despite it all. The issues tend to arrive when their market becomes saturated. The companies don’t have enough in their corporate toolbag to deal with the new challenges… and then they lose their market share.


Island: If you were stranded on an island, what is the one thing you couldn’t live without?

TN: Coke. It would be, unquestionably, Coca-Cola.
(All my life I’ve loved coke. Absolutely loved it… it always tasted amazing and always provided
something deeply satisfying. I assumed it was the caffeine and sugar. Fast forward to me getting my full “adoption profile” – this set of documents included several forms filled in by attending nurses at the hospital I was abandoned in (several times) during my first few years of life. On one particular form it was written – “He seems to love coke”… remember, I was just a baby. I came to the realization that coke is basically my “mothers milk”!)