Ian Schatzberg’s career trajectory as an LGBTQ business leader has not been easy nor linear. The 38-year-old CEO and cofounder of brand agency General Idea Agency kept silent about his sexuality early on in his career, believing it would make it easier for clients and peers to trust his perspective if he remained silent about his own identity.
“Far too often, queer and trans-people are not given a seat at the decision-making table,” Schatzberg said. “When my partners and I set out to create our own agency, we knew first hand how important it was to foster a culture that uplifts and empowers marginalized voices.”
In 2018, he shifted his approach when he founded General Idea Agency to break the mold of leadership predominantly comprised of white, heterosexual men whose behavior was still influenced by societal norms at the time.
He’s also encouraged his employees at General Idea Agency to be themselves. And is mindful that these collaborative environments — where everyone feels creative, safe and heard — will lead to growth.
The New York-based shop, which works with luxury clients like Swarovski, Fresh, Prada Group, Louis Vuitton, Snap and Mattel, among other brands, has 27 employees. By being honest about his identity, as well as fostering an environment where employees feel comfortable doing the same, Schatzberg believes that the agency can push brands to be better for everyone as General Idea Agency provides education, role models and mentorship to tackle these topics.
“We are a group of diverse, LGBTQIA+ people who have a seat at the table of who gets to represent brands, and we’re keeping brands accountable and ensuring they’re prioritizing who they cast and elevate,” said Schatzberg.
That belief has helped inspire employees like Lucas Lefler, creative director at General Ideas, who has led creative and art direction over the last two years for brands including Swarovski, Tory Burch and Lanvin Group. “General Idea pulls inspiration from all aspects of art, culture, design and technology when creating work,” said Leffer. “Ian’s leadership and insights allows us to stay at the forefront of the industry while encouraging us to develop work that tap into the world around us.”
Henrik Zachrisson, an associate creative director at General Idea has been with the company over the last two years and worked for brands like The Parent Company, Fresh, Veronica Beard and Moncler Genius. “The cross-disciplinary nature of the work has kept me engaged at General Idea,” Zachrisson said.
In some cases, General Idea is working with clients to solve an immediate project or business challenge; others in an ongoing capacity. For example, the agency is currently working with Prada to bring physical out-of-home experiences to its retail stores. “Ian has a sharply strategic mind and an acute understanding of the luxury, retail space,” said Chris Bugg, Prada Group, group communication director. “He is highly creative, reinventing the nature of his work and how he works with brands. He understands what it takes to work with big, global brands.”
Schatzberg is looking to expand beyond fashion and luxury clients into the hospitality space, as well as into health and wellness. The agency recently created a digital branding strategy to capture the nuances, look, and textures of Ash Hotels across the country. In 2022, The General Idea Group’s revenue is $25 million, 30% higher year-over-year from $7.5 million in 2021 according to Schatzberg.
Schatzberg wants to expand the agency’s capabilities beyond branding and at the end of last year acquired Reference NYC, a four-year-old technology arts studio that has focused on areas like spatial communication and and motion design. Reference’s clients include LEGO, Levi’s and Byredo. And with this acquisition, General Idea will continue to focus on emerging fields like Web3 and future-facing aesthetic experiences.
Acquisitions for the better
By acquiring Reference NYC, Schatzberg aims for General Idea Agency to lead in strategy, design, and experience and also having an inclusive and diverse staff. Through collaboration with its partners from General Idea, Tanner Graham, co-founder and managing partner and Semjon Doenhoff, co-founder and executive creative director, the company hopes to fight commoditization by transforming behavior at the highest level, not through ads or commercials.
“We are not a traditional branding advertising agency,” said Schatzberg, “We are interested in the holistic presence of how brands enter the world and stay at the forefront. We’re thinking about total brand and customer experience as it relates to building worlds for businesses and are thinking about what it means for a brand to find their place, how brands can design products and experiences in retail, technology at pop-ups, conceptualizing story design and more.”
With Reference NYC, Schatzberg is working on closing the diversity gap in the industry, which has been a challenge for agencies and brands in the past. According to Schatzberg, its agency consists of 36% BIPOC individuals, though he did not provide an exact report with diversity stats.
“I firmly believe that excellent work breeds more excellent work and my strategy has always been to offer a strategic mindset to clients coupled with excellence in execution across design, story and experience,” said Schatzberg. “This strategy has fueled our growth and should continue to do so in the future.”