Anatomy of an Interview: Dissecting Jay Melone


Jay Melone is head honcho at New Haircut, a uniquely nimble digital agency known for their suspiciously strong coffee and team of creative lions who are endlessly trying to whack digital design mediocrity upside its giga-head. Alongside co-founder John Vetan, Jay leads in the unofficial synergistic role of Digital Strategist, prompting both his team and his clients to refresh their old ways of thinking in order to better express their true selves. In talking to him, it became evident that Jay believes everyone is special, dammit, and he just won’t have it any other way.

This seems like a good time to kick off the year with some professionalism and deft knowledge (as well as some words from Jay himself) so I called him recently to ask his thoughts on the state of New Haircut.  Jay is known to enjoy his team’s against-the-grain creativity so I thought it might be fun to ring him at around 3 in the morning for the interview. Needless to say, I think it says a lot that he sounded as if he had just been out chopping wood, let alone wide awake.

January 18, 2014, 3:14 a.m.

[Jason] Hello, is this Jay?

[Jay] Yes sir. Who’s this?

[Jason] Hey Jay, it’s me, your favorite copywriter.

[Jay] Mom?

[Jason] Close, it’s Jason. Was I interrupting anything?

[Jay]  Yes, but like anything you’re “working on” at 3AM, it’s probably best that you did call and stop me. What’s up man?

[Jason] I thought it would be a good time to hear about the new goings on at New Haircut. Should I refer to you as Jay, Mr. Melone or Honcho?

[Jay] When I was 21, my first gig after college was at Accenture. I worked with the greatest group of awkwardly intelligent engineers from India, and they insisted on calling me Mr. Jay.

Mr. Honcho is fine.

[Jason] Great.  Let’s start with some basics. With the explosion of digital marketing many business owners really want to know what a digital agency can actually do for their business.

[Jay] Bad ones do an awesome job of wasting your money and building you crap that won’t drive engagement or sales. Good ones [ahem] can provide all sorts of outsourced services.

But agencies come in all shapes in sizes. The big Daddies (e.g. BBDO, IDEO, R/GA, Big Spaceship) offer everything from brand definition to interaction design, product development, PR, media planning, video production and then some. There are 1 and 2-person shops at the other end of the spectrum that may just focus on Rails Development or user experience design. 

Some agencies are local (US onshore), lots are offshore and lots more have people, teams and/or offices spread all over the place. Location should have nothing to do with talent, but 96 times out of 100, it does.

[Jason] As much as I hate to agree with you, I see from experience that you’re right on that point. How do you convey the value advantage to your clients in working with a team from all over, so we can set the record straight on this?

[Jay] If a global agency nails their process, they can use time differences to their advantage. For example, while we have an office in New Jersey, there are other parts of our team in our Romanian office. Our project managers there make sure the team there has what they need so that when our US clients wake up their requests have already been completed. This essentially turns us into a 24/7 agency.

And of course, by spreading your talent around the world, you can typically offer better pricing than an entirely US-native agency. However any agency worth their salt will never compete on price, but quality.

Truth is, it took us years to get to this stage, and we’re still learning more every day. I had a career’s worth of experience setting up and managing remote teams, as well as a decade-plus of project management process. We spent our first 3 years getting the team, tools and process perfected. Our company setup should feel seamless to our clients, but it takes loads of training to get to this stage. Most global/offshore companies fail here so it’s a crap shoot unless you know how to screen them.

Honestly though, if you can find local talent that fits your budget and has all of the skills in-house, go with them. Unfortunately, the tech giants here own most of that talent, so it forces you to find local freelancers working in their “spare time” which means long cycles to achieve anything.

[Jason] Give me three words that begin to describe New Haircut?

[Jay] Creative. Edgy. Passionate.

[Jason] Edgy. That’s different than a lot of other agencies who preach more about function and data – how do you find and keep that attitude, do you bring that edge to your team or do you seek out employees with that edge?

[Jay] When you’re a service company, your people are your brand. In my seven years at Accenture, and while the experiences there still serve me, I built New Haircut to take the polar opposite approach to engaging with our clients… humble, expressive, light-hearted, and down to Earth. That stuffy, Ivy League attitude ain’t for us. I’m not knocking it – it’s just not us. The team here is super tight, like a family.

We also tend not to follow our clients’ blueprints. We push back, a lot. Doesn’t mean we’re jerks about it, but you know your business and we know ours. That’s why you hired us to begin with, right? We’re demanding because our clients are. And why shouldn’t they be?

In the end, our clients breathe a sigh of relief because we take ownership and let them focus on growing their business.

[Jason] How does all of the magic begin? Can you tell people a little bit about the first steps in the process of creating a visual identity for someone?

[Jay] When we’re creating a brand that’s shiny and new, it starts with discovery of the people within the company within the market, and who their customers are. We ask lots of questions… Who is your customer?  When are they thinking about consuming your products, at home or at work? What colors resonate? What are the words they use to describe your products? How does the competition position themselves and does it work?

When the brand is getting a redesign, we work our way through their existing assets. If data shows us that something’s been working, we’ll try to re-brand based around those assets.

[Jason] New Haircut seems to have organically found a size that is both flexible and yet complete. How many people does it take for New Haircut to make a great website?

[Jay] People? Didn’t you know web designers are aliens? I’m talking to you right now out of my elbow.

[Jason] That explains a lot actually. How about for real, how do you structure the team?

[Jay] Most of the projects we work on at New Haircut are larger, custom web platforms and mobile applications. They kick off with a Product Manager who defines the digital strategy for the brand. Then we bring in user experience (UX) designers who lay out the personas and how they’ll interact with the media via user stories, sitemaps and wireframes. User Interface (UI) designers create the visual identity around the brand; i.e. logos, iconography, typography, web pages, mobile screens. Front-end (HTML5/CSS3, JavaScript, Bootstrap, node.js) developers at New Haircut are a separate group from our back-end (PHP) developers, all following the application architecture laid out by our CTO. QA Analysts are testing early as wireframe designs. And the Project Manager is making sure everything goes according to plan. All told, as few as 6, or as many as 9 or 10.

[Jason] Jay they say sharing is caring so share with us what three marketing tools no startup founder should be without?

[Jay] Buffer for social sharing and analytics.
SpiderQube for social listening and prospecting.
Google Analytics has become less and less a “tool” for measurement, and more of the glue sitting between all of the other tools we leverage.

Bonus: Yesware. Tracking and analytics behind your inbox, plus it’s integration to Salesforce (keep reading).
Inverse Bonus (tools to avoid): Salesforce. What a huge steaming pile of $#!%.

[Jason] While you’re looking into the digital future tell us how mobile affects the current landscape five years from now?

[Jay] I think mobile is hitting its pinnacle right now. Laptop sales are in decline while tablets are crushing it. Responsive design is creating seamless experiences across all devices and screens while app stores are delivering new sales channels to both digital founders and the developers building them. There should be very few (and still dwindling) experiences that cannot be offered on mobile these days.

Oh, your question… in 5 years? Wearable tech and the internet of things phenomenon are the new darlings and will continue to surge forward. Who knows, in 5 years, mobile phones may become legacy, only to be replaced with web-ready gadgets, clothing and sensors littered on our bodies and the world around us.

Forward-thinking companies should continue to bridge the gap between online and offline with a  multi-channel sales strategy, or “integrated marketing”. Advances in geo-targeting services like Apple’s iBeacon will make finding and communicating with your customers seamless. Frictionless mobile payments will enable customers to pay via social and even voice commands.

[Jason] Is there anything companies can do to be poised to take advantage of all of this?

[Jay] Anyone with a website or mobile app needs to do their best to stay current, minimally within their market. Hopefully your digital partner is keeping you up-to-speed here and recommending what’s necessary now vs. later.

[Jason] If your agency was a band or music group who would it be in 2014?

[Jay] I’m going to let our upcoming video showreel answer that question.

[Jason] Can we have a hint?

[Jay] No. 

[Jason]Is it Culture Club?!

[Awkward silence]

[Jason] It’s the Red Hot Chili Peppers, I just know it.

[Jay] Just tell people to watch the reel. It’s gonna be $%#ing awesome.

[Jason] Fine. Let’s switch it up. Tell me what will social media do more of in 2014 that it wasn’t doing much of in 2013?

[Jay] We have a new partnership with a SaaS platform called OneQube that’s bringing to market a set of tools that will allow you to better report on, listen to and manage your social streams, without having to turn down the volume, only the noise.

I pray that all of the content spammers, er, marketers, take their foot off the pedal a bit in 2014 and realize that quality trumps quantity. If they don’t, I know that Google will slap them around until they get it.

[Jason] Being the founder of a creative agency and someone obsessed with design, what creative people, products and brands inspire you?

[Jay] Might sound lame, but for starters, the designers on our team inspire me. I’m a huge fan of their work, which is why they’re part of the team. OK, moving on…

I’d be remiss if my list didn’t include Steve Jobs. I just wish the era of Tim Cook were remotely as exciting.

Also love what the designers are doing at Paper. Warby Parker takes my vote in the fashion world – granted I don’t wear glasses and my wardrobe is suburban-strip-mall-pathetic. When I do get around to shopping for myself, it’s typically dominated by brands like Nike, DC, Nixon, Vans, RVCA and Arnette. Big fan of the styles on Dogfunk… Jersey boy dreaming of California, I suppose.

Product design goes to Karma and Myo.

I’m also a customer and adorner of Jay Sall‘s ink work. More coming soon to an arm or rib near me.

[Jason] Do you see a different use of data in 2014 and if yes how so?

[Jay] Data is the game changer. With the tools that I hinted at above, big data products are enabling you to look at more data while gleaning exponentially more value. And this has no boundaries. Data is continuing to change everything from products on your wrist, to hiring, to industries at large.  Short answer, yes.

[Jason] If wearable tech becomes a prominent reality what fashion brands should take the lead?

[Jay] All of the smart ones.

[Jason] What’s the first question a potential new client should ask you when they call?

[Jay] First, what they shouldn’t ask me is “How much does a website cost?” This is the equivalent of asking “How much does a vehicle cost?” Do you need a Ferrari or a ’92 Jetta?

Instead, ask about our services and the types of projects we like to work on. This could immediately qualify or disqualify either of us. But whatever you do, be prepared to talk about yourself, how you ended up here, your idea and why you’re so excited about it. Pitch us like you would an investor so that we get it and have some valuable questions or feedback for you. Worst case, you’ll learn something new from our talk. Best case, you’ve started the relationship off on the right foot.

[Jason] It sounds like it really is all about them?

[Jay] It is. It’s almost the reverse of that Seinfeld bit where George says “It’s not me, it’s you!” I say it’s NOT me it’s YOU!

[Jason] Last question. Guess what it is I’m thinking right now?

[Jay] Why did I call Jay tonight?

[Jason] Sorry man, it’s not you, it’s me.

[Jay] Buh bye now.

Interview by Jason Veduccio