Inside Think Brownstone’s invite-only ‘leadership summit’ at the Union League

The design agency with offices in Conshohocken and Center City gave its clients the special treatment with a one-day, all-expenses-paid conference, replete with cocktails and a steak dinner at Del Frisco's.

At the Union League for Think Brownstone's first leadership summit.

(Courtesy photo)

The most important thing to remember is this: No jeans, or you won’t get past the front desk.

Once you’ve made it that far, head all the way down the hall of the members-only Union League and up the stairs, past the paintings of white men and their Civil War-era conquests, and you’ll find the Library Lounge, named for the hundreds of books that line the walls, all encased in glass and wood. An enormous wrought iron chandelier hangs from the ceiling. There’s paisley carpeting underfoot. The WiFi password? “Golfcourse.”
Here is where design agency Think Brownstone held its first User Experience Design Leadership Summit, an all-day, all-expenses-paid conference for a curated group of clients. The day ended with cocktails in Del Frisco’s private “Vault Bar” and dinner in the showy steakhouse.
This wasn’t a user conference, the kind that Philly product companies like Monetate and eMoney Advisor host for marketing and user acquisition purposes.
“We didn’t want anything about this to be a pitch,” said Think Brownstone executive vice president Russ Starke.
Instead, it was their way of “giving back” to their clients, Starke said. A way to send the message that Think Browstone’s clients get the special treatment.


Think Brownstone swag at the leadership summit. That’s “thinking putty” on the right. (Photo by Juliana Reyes)

In planning the event, Starke was heavily influenced by LEADERSHIP Philadelphia, the exclusive private-sector training program and network run by Liz Dow that he participated in. (“I’m such a fan of Liz Dow,” he said.)
Priding themselves on being experience designers, Think Brownstone wanted the event to be “of a certain caliber,” Starke said. That meant “being deliberate about who’s in the room” and plenty of “high-level thinking,” he said. Plus: an environment where you could really talk to someone. He thought back to the packed open house for Think Brownstone’s Center City office and grimaced. “It was deafening,” he said.
About 75 people attended the event, though by the end of the day, only about half the attendees remained. (Starke said they’re still figuring out the best way to run these types of events. Maybe all expenses paid isn’t the best way to go because people won’t mind leaving early, he said.)
The event, much like the company’s open house, felt inspired by Think Brownstone’s corporate roots — its founders and earliest employees, like Starke, came from the consulting world. The agency is one that tends to choose suits over jeans and Del Frisco’s over National Mechanics, and it has the client roster to match: pharma companies, Comcast, WHYY.
Speakers included Chris Satullo, who recently left his post as WHYY’s vice president of news and civic dialogue, Wharton’s senior director of marketing and communications, Malini Doddamani, and content strategist Sara Wachter-Boettcher. They spoke about all kinds of design, from digital accessibility to storytelling.
“We didn’t want it to just be designers speaking to designers,” Starke said.
Instead, they wanted to pull from many types of industries.
Attendees ranged from Jefferson VP of Technology Innovation Neil Gomes, a senior director at Johnson & Johnson, Analytical Graphics product development exec Kevin O’Brien and Story Bellows of the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics.


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