Dial “M” for Joel

Joel on Skype, his primary platform for holding meetings, surrounded by graphics from his animation for Bose.
Joel on Skype, his primary platform for holding meetings, surrounded by graphics from his animation for Bose.

By Todd Feinburg

Published May 19, 2016, issue of May 19, 2016.

We’ve all heard about the perks – sometimes generous, sometimes odd – that companies offer workers now to keep them happy and productive. Google is famous for its climbing wall and free all day gourmet cafeterias at its Silicon Valley headquarters. Facebook workers get free dry-cleaning, $700 a year in gym subsidies and free service for their bicycles at the in-house bike shop. At “m, inc.” a creative design and branding company in Salem, MA, Joel Markus also receives the perks that matter most to him – such as being left alone in a comfortable office to generate ideas and meet the needs of his clients with few interruptions. Keeping him happy is pretty easy considering he’s the boss – and m, inc.’s only employee.

Not that the grass isn’t always greener – Markus naturally pines, on occasion, for a co-worker or a partner. “I wish there was a bad guy around,” he said, sitting in his comfortable one room headquarters in the Small Business Center in Shetland Park. “Clients are always asking for more and more and more,” he complained, “and I’m always saying okay, okay and okay.” The bad guy’s job would be to say no to clients, or to require extra charges for extra services… and to insulate Markus from the business side of business so he could stay focused on the creative side of things without interruption.

Markus thinks they should drop the word “Small” from the Small Business Center. “I may be a one man shop,” he explained, “but I put a unique team together for each project I do.” In other words, being small means being agile, being able to bring just the right mix of talent to each branding challenge. That’s big.

A screenshot of a show Joel Markus, a one-man visual branding expert based in Salem, created for audio titan Bose Corporation in which he could include no Bose products or use on-screen language.
A screenshot of a show Joel Markus, a one-man visual branding expert based in Salem, created for audio titan Bose Corporation in which he could include no Bose products or use on-screen language.

Which is why you can imagine Markus being an important resource for a large company, where in-house communications teams might lack a certain skill-set or a product might need an infusion of fresh ideas.

One of m, inc.’s clients at BOSE told Markus about an idea for a video the company wanted for a sort of product festival they were planning. “We’re going to be in the minds of our engineers,” the client said, conveying the idea they had for a video meant to show how Bose engineers think and problem solve and create products. The catch was there were some rather severe restrictions on how the video could be made. “‘You can’t show any Bose products,’ they told me,” said Markus, “‘it’s going to be international, so it can’t be a typographical piece (no on screen words), and it can’t have an audio voiceover because they don’t want to do translations.’” Despite those restrictions, Markus would have to find a way to demonstrate for the audience how a pair of wireless headphones, music throughout your home, and home theater featuring surround sound went from concept on through the development process.

The video shows pencil sketches developing ideas on pads, imaginary figures moving around the workspace, complex equations floating out of an iPad and product ideas evolving into plans.

No words spoken, we are left to feel our way through the experience of product development. “They had the problem and the problem was they wanted to show an engineer’s thinking process, but they didn’t want to show the engineer as a character or anything.”

Large companies often feel more comfortable hiring big vendors, assuring they don’t have to work with multiple companies to get all the needed skills. But the bigger an organization is, the slower it can sometimes be to pick up on changing trends and new technologies. Markus says the reason he has worked successfully with so many good size clients like ESPN, Bose, Discovery and The Home Depot (whether directly or having been brought on by another vendor) is because he knows what’s happening now and because he knows where to find the best people for any particular task.

But Markus also enjoys simpler projects for smaller clients, many he’s done for his own synagogue, Temple Emanu-El in Marblehead. “He’s got a wonderful sense of vision, of artistry that works on a number of different levels which makes his skills unique,” said Rabbi David Meyer. “Very special.”



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