Provocation, Comfort & Sustainable Design — How to Know When to Dare According to Katee Hui

Kelcie Gene Papp
December 26, 2023

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TORONTO - Canadian-born Katee Hui is sharp and intentional. Hui spent almost six years at Pentagram, with stints at Sainsbury's and senior roles at agencies Nice and Serious and Kindred in between. She moved on from Pentagram, after two years as an Associate Partner, towards the end of 2022. Continuing life in Toronto, Katee is now Senior Director of Client Strategy at Public Inc. Public is full-service social impact agency. And although we've been in conversation for only four minutes, her presence is familiar and reassuring. We're catching up like old friends and even though she specialises in social impact and sustainability, our discussion isn’t steeped in arithmetic or demographics.

Hui begins by explaining what it was like stepping back into a role at Pentagram as the pandemic was advancing. “I spent three years working at Pentagram back in 2012, but in a communications role. I started my new role a week before the pandemic was known and then two weeks later, we went into lockdown.” Working for Naresh Ramchandani, Hui was grateful to be part of a small team. She says, “We were really adaptable. Our industrial designers and architects rely on the studio in London, and materials are a huge part of design. So we were fumbling our way through trying to see what working from home could look like,” she reflects. In a moment of time where digital seems to rule elite, stories of the "man that comes in and physically makes boxes that go on to clients as samples" is a melodic relief. And I'm eager to know how much tactile creativity I can find within the commercial side of the agency.

Legacy Proofing

“The founding principles of Pentagram are based on being able to protect legacy,” says Hui. Sadly, one of the founders of Pentagram, British graphic designer Colin Forbes, passed away in May last year at 94. Still, his writing survives. "He wrote a famous piece in 1992 about how, in typical agencies when the founder passes, retires, or leaves to do something else, the agency goes. And it was so important to Pentagram for that not to be the case. It's having a partnership. Friends who share and critique work, who share a portfolio, bring in new partners. You're constantly legacy proofing what you're doing, because you're bringing people in who have to be best in their class, but also entrepreneurial and capable of running their own studio. There's something about Pentagram that makes it an institution.” And the beauty of Pentagram being a multidisciplinary design house was one of Hui's "favourite things" about the agency.

Dynamics and How Brands Live in an Audio Space

Ramchandani was the only partner that is not a designer at Pentagram before leaving in Spetember 2022. With a background in advertising, he is also the founder of Karmarama and St. Luke's. Hui says, “He's such a mind and brings a community layer level of communication to design and words in a way that makes the work so dynamic.”

Reflecting on other Partners like Luke and Jody Hudson-Powell, she says they create "fluid, generative identities..., recognising that logo design is no longer flat." Equipped with a team of illustrators, animators and 3D renderers, these out-of-the-realm 'things' of design are what Hui adored. “Yuri Suzuki is a Partner who is a sound designer - a sonic designer,” she says. Suzuki spends his day “thinking about how brands live in an audio space," a facet of design which intensely inspires Hui.

Hui's heart is in sustainability and social impact. And although Hui's vision for the world (in her words) is "completely biased," when talking about agencies and client-agency relationships, she states, “Some agencies will deliver lip service to a brand that wants to look green or look socially responsible. But an agency's job is to be provocative with creativity and with sustainability.”

Agencies, Provocation and Social Impact

Agencies pushing clients toward sustainability are a bone of contention for many, and Hui is well acquainted with both sides of the discussion. Stating the need for positive provocation from agencies, she says, “Because you [the agency] are the external perspective who can say - that's not good enough, arguably, people will say, that's not a creative agency's role - it's the role of a sustainability consultant, engineer or people that work outside the realm. But I think it is the agency's job to state that consumers' expectations are changing; policy is changing, and you can get ahead of it.” Hui continues, “Putting your brand in a place that may mean operational changes or simply changes in the way that you're pushing your targets, as opposed to the greenwash because sustainability is super complicated.”

Reputation, Consumers, and Sold for Scrap

Hui recognises a struggle when discussing her time and lessons learnt as corporate responsibility and sustainability manager at the supermarket chain, Sainsbury's. “It's difficult for brands to communicate when they are doing the right thing. And many brands get away with not doing the right thing because they're amazing at protecting their brand and reputation. The same goes for agencies that can help perpetuate the image of how a brand wants to look versus what they're doing. There's a disconnect there.” She states, “In an age of cancel culture, more tools and information are available for consumers to make up their minds.” Hui is adamant that the role of an agency is more amplified than ever before, saying, "It's the responsibility of agencies to challenge, not find and hire expertise."

Sharing a brand tale from many moons ago, Hui says,“They wanted to make it known to customers that they restock or reshelve all clothes that had been returned.” At the time, Hui wasn't aware that when we return pieces we've brought from fast fashion, they "get shredded and sold for scrap because the fashion cycles are too quick that no one wants to buy them." The brand thought they were doing the ethical thing by stating, no, we don't do that. Hui honed in on the fact that "consumers don't know that you do that." Advising the brand further, she told them, “By saying you do that, you're admitting something people didn't know. You're revealing the problem and the issue.” So, Hui asked the brand not to "lead with that." She recalls, “It unearthed so much both consumers and brands don't understand and the need to tell a cohesive impact story, without revealing the industry's worst practices. When you think about the supply chain of the return, making sure the tags are on, getting it back to a store, and placing it back into an online shop and inventory - it's far more effort, and you'll make more money selling it as scrap.” Fast forward to the present, and more and more brands are now restocking clothing. Still, this was a problem that no one knew about at the time.

Consumers now also demand recyclable packaging, and Hui shares the problem faced by creatives stating, “Consumers don't recognise that when you have a ready meal that goes in the microwave, you physically can't recycle that material. But you're still buying it and then pressuring the brands to change that material. Consumers want the convenience of it, and also want it to be recyclable, but won't pay more for it.”

During Hui's time at Sainsbury's, with what they were doing around food waste and diversity, the 154-year-old supermarket was far ahead of its competitors. “But they were terrible at communicating it,” she says. “For Sainsbury's, it was business as usual and wasn't seen as a USP. They didn't dedicate a huge amount of their marketing resources to sustainability messaging.”

This year, Hui believes “the most progressive brands are those genuinely committed to sustainability and social justice. “Take, for instance, IKEA.” She says, “It's not just the wonderful every day; it's the sustainable every day. And its sustainability is becoming more embedded not just because it's the right thing to do but because it makes business sense. It's no secret IKEA know “sustainability is a huge thing for its customers.” Hui continues, “People are so much more aware of waste, ethics and diversity.

When looking back at her time at Sainsbury's, Hui often jokes with her friends that "it was like an industry MBA" and is grateful for her term client-side. She says, “When you're client-side, especially in retail, the pace is so fast. You're doing quarterly updates on profit, and you've got shareholders, and most things are a commercial decision.”

Of her previous role within the UK's second-largest supermarket chain, Hui comments, “There was always a platform to make a commercial decision that is good for the business and the environment. Sainsbury's was very open to innovation and piloting initiatives around sustainability. Anytime we saw something and knew there was a better way of doing it, we did it. Given how large an organisation Sainsbury's is, that's amazing.”

Client-side, Commercial Acumen & Puzzles

Dr. Orison Swett Marden said, "The golden rule for every businessman is this: Put yourself in your customer's place." Almost two centuries later, this simple, golden rule is still vigorously overlooked by many. Asking Hui what she thinks about the degree independent agencies understand the commercial heart of a brand, she says, “It can definitely be improved upon.”

Highlighting why it has such a bearing, Hui says, “As a strategist, you always need to know your audience. And that goes for your clients and people you're prospectively pitching to.” Doubling down, she continues, “If you don't understand their commercial pressures or what their day-to-day life looks like, it's hard to sell them work that's going to resonate with them, their stakeholders, and then their customers.”

From Hui's time client-side, she shares a lesson, “It doesn't matter how brilliant the creative is, if it's not hitting the client's strategic direction in that moment, and the targets they need to hit, it's not going to land.” And the same goes for work involving sustainability. She states, “Just because you care about a cause, or the world cares about a cause does not mean that a brand cares about that cause. So often with brands, it's completely related to their business model.” Hui expands on this puzzle with priority-sized pieces: “Do retailers care about the refugee crisis? Only to a certain degree. In actuality, they care about food waste, HR, diversity, raw materials and where they're being sourced from. Brands will set their priorities in relation to their own business models.”

Distilled Learnings & Independent Agencies

Before joining Pentagram, Hui could be found as a strategy planner at agencies such as Kindred and Nice and Serious. Hui shares her most powerful lessons from that time, expressing, "The vast majority of brands are facing the same struggles - how to deliver and how to communicate." For example, she says, “When working with Kindred, most of their clients were public sector.” Hui worked on a massive piece on loneliness and carried out copious amounts of ethnography to match. “The responsibility you get when working on campaigns that can touch millions of people - I learned so much about the human experience. The right touch points, the right mechanisms and how you can do giant public health interventions at scale. It doesn't always have to be an ad, it can be something else.” Irish Actor Thomas Moore once said, “The ordinary acts we practice everyday at home are of more importance to the soul than their simplicity might suggest.”

And in talking with Hui about her career to date, her family and daughter, Fiadh, it's clear how important her presence and day-to-day 'ordinary acts,' along with the creation of impactful work are to so many. Who knows what the coming years will look like and what form Hui's role within the legacy will resemble. But one thing is for sure - Hui will continue helping whatever agency or brand she is at to provoke, pursue purpose and create impact and so much more.

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This article was originally published in issue 6 in print and has been updated October 2023.

Kelcie Gene Papp
Founder & Editor