TWIST Creative Inc. 05.12.22

The History of Fearless Thinking

Chapter 1: The Late Nineties, Uniting art and message (1997-2000)

It was a time when fax machines were big, computers were happy just being beige and Cleveland was as exciting as an 80’s suburban bank lobby. That’s when Mike met Connie and a mission was born.

The two were married in ’99 and by 2000 began TWIST a brand agency with a two-word mission: fight mediocrity.

“TWIST was founded to change the conversation about Cleveland.”

— Mike Ozan

With their honeymoon in the rearview, Mike and Connie began a multi-city search for proper agency inspiration. The couple sought to build upon the C. Ratka Design brand, the design agency founded by Connie in 1997 which already had made waves with work for Cleveland Public Theatre and several corporate brands. They visited with New York and San Francisco agencies who were committed to business objectives that included community enhancement and local small business growth.

The couple observed that significant neighborhood and community revitalization was so often led by the arts community. More than giving buildings new life and new purpose, uniquely arts organizations have the power to attract a city’s wealthiest citizens to neighborhoods most in need of investment.

By building the brands and attraction strategies of the city’s cultural offerings, TWIST could help to spark movements that improved the quality of life for Cleveland. The agency’s first clients were those in the city’s avant-garde performing arts community.  

These included: Cleveland Public Theatre, Red {an orchestra}, Verb Ballets, and Cleveland International Film Festival.

Chapter 2: From Arts to Neighborhoods (2001-07)

In the summer of 2003, TWIST moved from the Prospect Park Building in Midtown, Cleveland to the historic near west Cleveland neighborhood of Ohio City. The location was selected intentionally as emblematic of the agency’s pioneering spirit and desire to be a part of the neighborhoods where their growing list of arts and community clients were already located. The agency renovated a 19th century mill worker flop house into a spacious creative center for clients, the community, and its staff.

“When we relocated to 1985 W. 28th Street, we had to describe the location by triangulating between the West Side Market, St. Ignatius and Great Lakes Brewery. The neighborhood name Ohio City was unknown, by 2011 TWIST had changed that and solidified its place as a creative problem solver whose strategies attract development and create jobs.”

— Connie Ozan

Fighting mediocrity gained credibility as a mission, and the popularity of the campaigns created by TWIST demonstrated the agency’s unique ability to blend bold message and design in way that delivered significant value to clients.  Rapid growth for both clients and the agency followed.

From 2004 to 2005, TWIST experienced an 80% increase in revenue and was named one of Weatherhead’s 2006 Upstart Companies. By this time, TWIST had won over 100 local, regional, and national awards for design and creative excellence. In 2007, Connie was recognized in Crain’s Cleveland’s Forty Under 40 list and in 2009 Mike was named by Graphic Design USA as an Agency Leader to Watch.

In 2006, TWIST authored an entirely new brand strategy and launched a new identity for the Sisters of Charity Health System. The agency continued to guide their 20 member brand family for the next 15 years.

TWIST’s impressive network of local and national clients was growing — Cleveland Institute of Art, American Greetings, Time Warner Cable, Dots, Fifth Third Bank, and Cuyahoga Community College.

Chapter 3: Be a brand that matters. (2008-13) 

In 2008, the recession threatened the agency. Like many businesses, TWIST was forced to lay off some of its employees and national clients were costing too much to maintain. TWIST resigned accounts in both NYC and San Francisco to focus on Cleveland. The agency leaned into its community work, focusing on projects that contributed locally.

While there were many low periods during this era, TWIST was able to build strong relationships with the local brands it supported and find new opportunities close to home. 

In 2009, TWIST won the work to build the brand and attraction strategy for the Ohio City neighborhood, and for the centennial celebration of the West Side Market. The strategy and campaign reduced market district storefront vacancies from nearly 40% to zero in less 18 months, creating $100 million in economic impact and 400 jobs. Today, Ohio City is a thriving neighborhood in very high demand.

TWIST continued to take on projects that revitalized Cleveland. A year later, Downtown Cleveland Alliance engaged TWIST to change the conversation about downtown Cleveland and attract more businesses back to the urban core. With built outdoor moments and video content highlighting champions of the downtown area, the TWIST campaign reduced vacancies in class B and C office space by 60% in the first year, reversing the cycle of companies fleeing downtown for the suburbs. During this period, TWIST also created the brands and attraction strategies for the Cleveland Health Tech Corridor, the Old Brooklyn Neighborhood, as well as a number of other neighborhood CDC organizations and the nonprofits that support and advocate for them.

In 2011, the team at TWIST launched an entirely new brand strategy and fan engagement campaign for the Cleveland Indians and continued for the next five years as the MLB team’s brand agency.

The agency’s clients had grown to include St. Ignatius, Cuyahoga Community College, Cleveland Guardians, Sisters of Charity, and Paladar.

Chapter 4: Claiming Fearless Thinking (2014-18)

In 2013, TWIST joined forces with the City of Cleveland to attract and host the 2014 International Gay Games. TWIST donated their work and built the identity and messaging that welcomed the world to Cleveland.

In 2014, now President and Partner Charlene Coughlin joined the TWIST team, creating the account services department. Before TWIST, Charlene held leadership and management positions at both advertising and nonprofit agencies. Using her expertise, Charlene developed a sophisticated business model that set the TWIST team — and clients — on a path toward sustainable growth. She was later promoted in 2017 to Managing Director.

In 2015, the agency rebranded itself and claimed a new philosophy: Fearless Thinking — the permission to boldly explore new ideas, uninhibited by the way things have always been done.

Motivated by an expanding pool of clients, the addition of new team members, and expansion in several service lines, TWIST relocated to the Cleveland neighborhood of Tremont continuing the agency’s commitment to participate in positive economic growth. Now, in the renovated Fairmont Creamery, the agency had the open floor plan and a build out that reflected their brand values and connected the business to its community. 

As a demonstration in Fearless Thinking, TWIST launched an outdoor advertising experiment in 2017 that sparked national conversations. These strange billboards were named one of the best outdoor campaigns by Adweek that year and proved that outdoor advertising was still an effective medium to start conservation.

“We were overwhelmed by the online response to our experimental billboard campaign and the feature by Adweek inspired us to keep thinking fearlessly.”

— Charlene Coughlin

Chapter 5: Cleveland’s Brand Agency (2019-23)

TWIST’s fearless mindset was proving to be successful. By 2019, the company had won over 250 awards, was Emmy nominated for its creation of the CHN Housing Partners mini documentary, and had won the work of billion-dollar company PURELL®. 

Just as the agency was hitting its 20th anniversary, COVID-19 moved everyone out of the office for an unexpected two years of working from home. 

The agency, however, would not be deterred by a global pandemic, and its momentum to serve Cleveland brands and causes continued. In the spring of 2020, TWIST launched Brand X — a team of local branding, creative, marketing, culture, and business experts dedicated to helping Cleveland small businesses, causes, and their leaders navigate through changing economic and cultural times – pro bono. 

Along with Brand X, the agency also created My Pandemic Pivot Tool Kit, a response to the needs of smaller brands, businesses, and nonprofits, who lack the resources but have a great need for agency guidance when it comes to restoring sales or donations. 

Amid COVID recovery, TWIST solidified what it had known since the beginning: Cleveland clients deserve better. That’s why, to this day, TWIST continues to stand up for our community, our clients, our team, and our values. 

Despite a global pandemic, 2020 was the year Charlene was selected as an Adweek Executive Mentee and spoke at Brandweek on issues related to equity and diversity in advertising. Today, she still uses her platform to share TWIST’s values with industry professionals across the country and expand our creative network. The next year, she was named President of TWIST and included as an Adweek Women’s Trailblazer. In 2022, she joined Mike and Connie as an equity partner in the agency. 

Under the leadership of Mike, Connie, and Charlene, the agency continues to live and grow our dedication to the community. The Fearless Thinkers care not only about the projects we work on but about the clients themselves and their values. In 2022, TWIST introduced charitable giving opportunities for our team and clients, flat rate pricing for non-profits and educational institutions, as well as new wellness and continuing education incentives and benefits for TWIST employees.

With eyes on the future, TWIST is still growing its team. Two years after the pandemic began, TWIST hired the first member of its expanding content writing department. In 2022, the agency has worked to elevate the client experience and tailored its services in a way that delivers the highest performance for the challenger brands and disruptive causes it serves.  

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