Alex Ostroff on Saint Urbain’s cosmic new site and creating unique voices that tell amazing stories
Based between NYC, LA, Montreal, Mexico City and beyond, creative agency Saint Urbain are back with a bang. They have recently launched a new website, and with it, a considered rebrand – something that represents the spirit, evolution, and work of the practice. And to mark the occasion, Founder Alex Ostroff joins us for a chat. Here, he dissects all things Saint Urbain. From starting the agency from scratch to the impact of his family’s Montreal-based business on his own practice; as well as the many lessons he found in Mad Men throughout his career. Perhaps most importantly, Ostroff reminds us how having a personal, relationship-centred mindset is invaluable to running a creative business.
PT Hey Alex, how’s it going? How has 2023 been so far?
AO It’s been great! Obviously, running a creative agency isn’t easy and when I hang with other founders I instantly start complaining, but I’m honestly very happy and grateful for where we are as an agency. 2023, in particular, has been very special so far. We’re at a cool place when it comes to the most important things. We’ve perfected our process and our work is better than ever. We have an incredible team of people and it just feels like the past six years of hard work are paying off. I think it shows in the type of clients we’re signing and venture partnerships we’re embarking on. We also gave ourselves a little brand refresh and launched an awesome new website – something we’ve wanted to do for years!
We’re a one-stop creative agency that turns great ideas into extraordinary brands.
PT In your words, what is Saint Urbain?
AO To put it succinctly, we’re a one-stop creative agency that turns great ideas into extraordinary brands. Our process is rooted in understanding and imagination. We never impose limitations on ourselves which allows us to collaborate with clients of all sizes and develop exciting, memorable and meaningful brands that people can’t stop thinking about. We do this by listening deeply to our clients to discover who they are, who they want to be and what they want to accomplish. In many cases when they themselves don’t really know, so we help them uncover that. Everything stems from our core belief that the world’s most exciting brands don’t exist yet – we want to be partners in creating them.
PT And what do you think makes Saint Urbain special as an agency?
AO That’s a good question! And I think there are a lot of potential answers. It goes without saying that our creative team is extraordinary and their vision and ability to create unique and memorable brands is unquestionably special. With that said, I think our secret sauce is made up of a bunch of things. The most important element is probably how genuinely in love with branding we all are. It’s sort of a job requirement. Everyone here loves doing exactly what we’re doing and I think it shows in both the work and in how we interact with our clients. As professional as we keep things, this process is really personal. The truth is we’re our happiest selves when our clients are deeply moved and beyond excited to see their brand come to life. We’ve had clients moved to tears and those are the best moments. I think another major ingredient of the not-so-secret sauce is that we’re a team of creatives based all around the world. That global perspective gives us a ton of insight, helps us to think differently and allows us to draw inspiration from a wider range of sources. It enables us to connect with our clients in more ways and to create relevant brands for an increasingly connected world.
PT Where did the name Saint Urbain come from?
AO Saint Urbain is the street in Montreal where my family’s business ran for 60 years. My great-grandfather started the business back in 1925, shortly after immigrating from Ukraine. From then, it was passed down from generation to generation to my father. When I think about how hard it was to start that business and keep it running successfully for so long, I get really inspired. They had clients and staff members for decades, which is crazy when you think about it. The world is different now and it’s a different industry too, so it might be unrealistic to expect the same for us, but I’d be really stoked if, when all is said and done, some version of that story was true for Saint Urbain. Having the agency named in honour of their business is really motivating. I also think that it’s a cool-sounding name, which really goes a long way when naming any business. This is the street sign across the old office. It’s still there and I’m dying to steal it, but I know I’d get caught – I guess this is evidence now!
PT Can you tell us the story of Saint Urbain? How did you get started?
AO I started Saint-Urbain in 2017. Before that, I had gone to film school, worked a boring pharma job in Montreal, where I’m from, and eventually moved to New York to help a friend with a few restaurant projects. Once those projects were finished, I applied for jobs at a bunch of companies that I loved (GrandArmy, A24, etc.), but I had this weird resume with no name brands. I didn’t get hired anywhere, which really sucked. After some introspection, travelling, freelancing and watching the ‘Shut The Door and Have a Seat’ episode of Mad Men, I decided to just start my own agency.
Like many businesses it started with doing everything myself: design, copy, account management, photography, etc., until I got to the point where I had no time to do anything else. That’s when I was able to bring on some really amazing designers who I always wanted to work with — mostly from Montreal. My first clients were all restaurants, bars, and cafes. I’m a food nerd and that’s what my network mainly consisted of. Funny enough, my sister had carpooled with one of the owners of Mile End Deli and Black Seed Bagels, two amazing Montreal-inspired restaurants in NYC. They were our first big clients in the city. Our next major project was Sweet Chick, where we created a completely custom font from scratch. This was a really important project for us.
Restaurant owners in New York liked the work and it led to a bunch of other great clients like Milu, Ray’s Bar, Emmy Squared, and more. During the pandemic, we pivoted from restaurant projects (because they were all closed) to other types of food and beverage-related projects like RTD (ready-to-drink) cocktails, meal delivery services, alternative meats, and non-food projects, like Nashville-based dog hotels, pickle ball brands, academy award-winning production companies, and more.
Great work comes from connection and emotion – and that’s people.
PT Since then, what have you learnt about running an agency and the design industry in general?
AO Value and nurture your relationships. It might sound like an oversimplification, but it’s because it really is just that simple to me. The closer and more real the relationships are, the better you’ll know each other, the happier you will be working together, the more honest you will be with each other during tough conversations and the better the work will ultimately be. The same goes for your team members and clients – they’re all among my closest friends. Life is just better this way. We live in a human-to-human world and whenever I get into conversations about AI replacing human designers in the future (which is a whole other conversation), I say that things will obviously change and we’ll learn to use this tool as much as it makes sense, but great work comes from connection and emotion – and that’s people.
For the creative process, I think the biggest thing we learned is the importance of detail and patience in the alignment phase. I think a big mistake a lot of agencies make (including young us) is getting into creation too fast. From early chats and Q&A to strategy and mood boards, we’ll go as many rounds as it takes to align ourselves and fully see eye-to-eye before really starting to cook.
And again, the relationship thing is huge. Because if you have to get through difficult conversations with clients about the work, it’s better if you know, like and respect each other. And maybe had a beer and a personal conversation before so they don’t just see you as a moody creative who wants their way, but as a person and friend. Over time, the more I think about Mad Men, the more I appreciate Roger and Pete. It’s not easy to be an accounts person. I’ve mentioned Mad Men twice so far in this interview, but I really feel like it has so many lessons for this business, especially when it comes to client situations.
PT Why was it the right time for a new site? What was the vision behind it?
AO We just started seeing the site differently. It didn’t ‘feel like us’ anymore. Don’t get me wrong, our last site was really nice and clients loved it, but it didn’t make much of a statement or really tell our story. Also, it was a few years behind (even at the time) modern web practices like movement and UX. With our new site, we wanted to create something clean, sleek, and fun that showcased our work while clearly communicating who we are, what we do and how we do it. We collaborated on the design with our friends at Mill3, my favourite Montreal-based web studio. We’ve worked a lot with them in the past so they immediately connected with our vision. They loved our branding and totally got the ‘retro-future’ feel we wanted to go for and really helped give it life.
PT What was the inspiration behind the rebrand, the visuals and the story?
AO We wanted something that was equal parts classic ad agency and modern design studio. It’s everything when you think about it: Old and new. Known and unknown. Safe and dangerous. Opposing forces drive the best ideas and, as an agency, I think we have both sides in us. We love having a personal touch to how we work as a team and in the way we treat our clients – it’s a somewhat old-fashioned process that you don’t see much anymore. With that said, we also love creating new things and challenging ourselves to be innovative. Our vision is a blend of both worlds, a sort of analogue futurism. We apply a human touch to looking into the future.
In our research stage, we started looking at brands from the past and their interpretation of the future, including 70s record labels, Kubrick films – anything vintage space. We’ve always been drawn to the simple yet beautiful graphics that came from that time. There’s also a sort of irony that comes from using these antiquated graphics in a digital format.
After years of working with incredible people, we felt the need to create an identity that would be able to speak for what Saint Urbain is all about, creating exciting and unique brands while having fun throughout the process.
We just love space movies and all the aesthetics that come with them!
PT We love the new typographic direction and diagrams – what was the thinking behind them?
AO We just love space movies and all the aesthetics that come with them! It felt right to bring those ideas into the mix. We took inspiration from the diverse and eclectic systems of old VCR/VHC packaging systems and movie posters, space crafts diagrams and old video games were a big reference for us. This whole identity is pretty much a summation of everything we really appreciate and enjoy. It’s a step into the future of the agency – an exciting and thrilling step into the unknown, while being rooted in history.
PT Can you explain the font and colour choices for the rebrand?
AO We wanted a font system that showed maturity while still allowing us to be flexible without crossing into quirky territory. To achieve that, we decided to pair the classic and beautiful ITC Garamond with Pangram Pangram’s Neue Montreal. The pairing was inspired by the credits and title heads from 2001: A Space Odyssey. An unintended bonus is that Neue Montreal happens to be a neat little callback to our hometown roots – it really felt meant to be.
Our colour system is inspired by interior design from the 60s and 70s. We liked the utilitarian qualities leftover from 50s design combined with the warm colours and free-spiritedness of the 60s and 70s. We wanted to keep the system fairly simple and straightforward – we were already pretty happy with our existing colours so we wanted to keep them the same only with a more thoughtful usage designed to achieve a better and more mature result.
PT Were there any hurdles or lessons you’ve taken away from the process of rebranding yourselves?
AO Yeah, it’s surprisingly hard being a client. It’s not the first time I’ve sat in that chair, as I’ve partnered on a few venture startups and had to be on the other side of things, but naturally, Saint Urbain is the most personal thing for me, so it was extra hard. I think the biggest hurdle was the battle between my personal taste and the right thing — things like the site feeling a bit less human by leaning into the sort of analogue computer vibe that I love.
PT Which projects do you think encapsulate the spirit of Saint Urbain? Why?
AO Here are a bunch!
Front of House (FOH) is a ‘digital collectables’ (NFT) brand for restaurants that we created. It was our first venture project. We really believed in it and wanted to be involved beyond the agency/client relationship. It was recently acquired by Blackbird from the founder of Resy/Eater, which is cool. I think the reason FOH feels the most like us is because we were allowed to be fully unleashed creatively. Because of that, we were able to create this super weird and expressive 90s internet-era-inspired food world with tons of animation and graphics. It didn’t take itself too seriously and yet if you look at the design system, it’s very structured and thoughtful. Organised chaos.
Can-Tini – we love anything vintage and thematic. The brief for this new espresso martini-in-a -can brand was ‘James Bond meets Wes Anderson.’ Equal parts stylish and camp. I can hardly think of a project we were better suited for. With Can-Tini, we got the opportunity to create a brand that felt like it was from 50 years ago by developing a bold, custom script logo (one of my favourite logos we’ve ever done) that also felt entirely modern. To create the logo, we took a deep dive into old Italian magazine archives for inspiration and emerged with a logo that was rooted in a particular time and place while still being unique in its own way. This is the type of project that’s right up our alley – it combines our love of retro-futurism with the F&B space we’ve always been drawn to.
YouTube Shorts Drive-Thru – last year, we got the opportunity to work with Google to create a giant drive-thru for the 2022 edition of Vid Con. Google’s in-house team were incredible partners in this project and hired us because they saw how dynamic and varied our bag of styles was and knew we could deliver an incredible product lighting-quick. Over the course of one month, we created the concept, brand identity, and packaging design for 5+ unique brands – each derived from the distinct style, personality, and iconic characteristics of specific YouTube creators. For me, this project showed the strength and resiliency of our team rhythm and our ability to keep standards high even with a suicidal turnaround time.
Cottage M – movies have always been a major source of inspiration for us. So, when the opportunity came to work on our first movie-related project – we were chomping at the bit. Founded by Academy Award-winning producer Shane Boris, Cottage M is an independent production house focused on making films that push the boundaries of conventional forms in order to tell timeless stories. We developed an identity that could balance the depth of the movies produced by Cottage M by taking the name and turning it into a timeless icon.
Panzón – our clients/neighbours from Greenpoint came to us with a specific task: create the perfect mix between Brooklyn and Mexico City for their new mezcal bar. With the agency based in New York but with part of our team working out of Mexico City, we knew we were perfectly positioned to hit this brand out of the park. Taking inspiration from the vibrant street culture, graffiti and hand-drawn signage of CDMX, we blended it with Brooklyn’s raw yet refined urban sensibility to create a brand that was unique and playful while telling the story of the founder and paying homage to the brand's Mexican roots.
PT We’ve noticed you’ve gone from being based in LA and New York to being more global – what’s the story behind that?
AO We’re still very much based between those two cities as a business. I split my time between Greenpoint, NY and Los Feliz, LA and we have a lot of collaborators in both cities – I even came close to getting an office in March 2020 but, thankfully, dodged that bullet! Being relatively unmoored actually turned out to be the best thing anyway. We have a lot of folks working remotely in Montreal and Mexico City. We’ve had frequent collaborators from the UK and Hong Kong, as well. I really feel like our geographic diversity has always been a major ingredient in our secret sauce as an agency. When you live in different cities and countries, you’re exposed to different things in your life. Different tv shows and movies you grew up with. Different fonts at restaurants, colour palettes in nature, different jokes and sentence structure. Having all these different perspectives is one of our biggest strengths as an agency and is a major contributor to what makes our work so different, which is why I wanted that message to be front and centre.
PT How has the team grown? Both literally and from a maturity/experience standpoint?
AO We’ve really grown our roster of collaborators, from core people to freelance specialists, like copywriters and animators with whom we work regularly. I’m always conscious of the type of agency I want to run. The dream used to be to grow to a huge size with a giant office – and maybe we’ll do that one day – but for now, I feel like keeping things boutique is nice. I really like the closeness of working on projects in a tight-knit way.
And as people, we’ve grown a bunch. I remember when I was younger, I’d hear bosses and clients harp on wanting ‘experience’ and I always found it annoying, because I didn’t think it was that necessary. I’d say something along the lines of “it’s even better that I don’t have experience because I can offer a fresh perspective!” I was such a little shit and it would even work sometimes, but now that we’ve been through every kind of creative project – for better or worse – imaginable, I can say that experience really does matter.
Our setup comes down to flexibility and autonomy.
PT What does a typical day look like for you as a studio?
AO I get up early. I check my email first thing, especially when I’m in LA and things are happening in NY. Then, I like to clear my head and go for a walk or work out. The first few hours of my morning are dedicated to correspondences, either via email or text and to making sure the team is teed up for the day. The rest of the day is typically made up of meetings, both with my team to review work and with clients to present work. Towards the end of the day or after five is when I’ll work on proposals or side projects.
As for the rest of the team – they’re mostly remote. If we’re all in the same city, we’ll want to be around each other all the time. Occasionally, we’ll travel to visit clients for big presentations, but most of the time we’re having our own days. I like that we have the space to do this, not just for work, but to have the space we need to live our lives. Take breaks, be with family, and work from abroad. It’s what I would want if I worked for an agency that wasn’t my own. The golden rule!
PT What kind of set-up and working hours suit everyone?
AO I think I pretty much covered this, but our setup comes down to flexibility and autonomy. It also helps that we’ve developed meaningful relationships based on trust. I know my team – they’re pros, so I try to support them wherever I can and give them the space they need to work and live their lives. I know I’ve said it a lot but it’s all about relationships – and balance, too.
PT Do you have any plans in mind for the future of the studio?
AO I’d definitely like us to grow in terms of the range of clients and projects we work on. I’ll always want to work with small to medium-sized clients because they usually have more creative freedom and open to taking chances. Whether they have a decent budget or not, it’s very gratifying to work with them to help discover or rediscover who they are. With that said, we’d also love to have the flexibility to work with big, established brands, as well, to help them do the same thing. Lately, we’ve really been getting into the venture side of things – partnering with clients and friends on projects we truly believe in, we’re really excited about that. We have a bunch of cool things in that vein that we hope to announce soon.