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Video Interview: Getting to know Cosmic, a Santa Cruz-based social impact creative agency

Presented by Cosmic

Lookout’s own Ashley Holmes sits down with Eric Ressler, Founder and Creative Director at Cosmic, a Santa Cruz-based creative agency, to talk about their work with social impact organizations both locally and across the US.

Eric Ressler, Founder and Creative Director at Cosmic, a Santa Cruz-based creative agency and Ashley Holmes, Director of Sales & Marketing at Lookout Santa Cruz, sat down for a quick Q&A about the agency’s Santa Cruz origins, the arc of the company over the last decade, and the changes they made to adapt to the pandemic.

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Read the full interview below, lightly edited for clarity...

Ashley: Hey, everybody. I’m Ashley Holmes, director of sales and marketing at Lookout Santa Cruz, and I’m here today with Eric Ressler, founder and creative director of Cosmic. And we’re just going to jump into some questions and hear his story. So, Eric, how did Cosmic get started, and have you always been based in Santa Cruz?

Eric: So, we have always been headquartered in Santa Cruz. And Cosmic got started, really, we launched out of NextSpace, which is a coworking space that’s in downtown Santa Cruz. And at the time, I was doing a lot of freelance design and web development work, and had an office at NextSpace. Really, I was trying to escape. At the time, I was living with roommates and a lot of them were working restaurant jobs. It was really hard to concentrate working out of my room. I was like, “I need to get out of here. I need to be able to focus on my work.” That decision has really shaped the course of my life and our company in really awesome and profound ways that I never planned for. But really, by being at NextSpace, we became really networked in the community, started to meet a lot of really great entrepreneurs. At this time, it was about 2009, 2010.

The economy was kind of in mayhem and everyone was trying to figure out, “Hey, what’s next?” The good news is that it bred a lot of really cool, innovative ideas and companies and entrepreneurs in Santa Cruz. And we were able to network and connect with them and really start to build a relationship with the business community, and that led to a lot of really great partnerships around design and development, to the point where I got way too busy and needed support. That just sort of organically grew into building out a firm, and we’ve been around ever since.

So, started officially in 2010 as a company, and we’ve grown since then. Our team has been, I think at the most, about 11. We’re currently nine people, and that feels like a really good size for the work that we’re trying to do.

Ashley: That’s great. It’s a good problem to have. I like that. So, is Cosmic a design agency or how do you brand yourselves?

Eric: Yeah, so we call ourselves a creative agency, and that’s kind of a broad term. That’s intentional because we do like to work very holistically with our clients instead of being pigeonholed into like a particular, “We only do branding” or “We only do development.”

“...we focus our work on partnering with nonprofits and social enterprises and foundations, and generally people who work for organizations that exist to do good in the world and to move humanity forward.”

— Eric Ressler

Our team is kind of split between designers, developers, and strategists. So, we build digital experiences, we build brands, and, kind of most importantly, in our recent trajectory is that we’ve really put a stake in the ground around working with social impact organizations. So, we focus our work on partnering with nonprofits and social enterprises and foundations, and generally people who work for organizations that exist to do good in the world and to move humanity forward.

Ashley: That’s a great mission. I love that. Can you tell me more about the clients that you work with? Locally, nationally? Are you stuck with Santa Cruz nonprofits or where do you have reach?

“I think there’s a lot of really awesome work going on in Santa Cruz around social innovation and social impact work.”

— Eric Ressler

Cosmic helps social impact organizations embrace a digital-first culture.

Eric: So, we’ve been really lucky to do a lot of great work locally in the community, and some of my personal favorite projects have been right here in Santa Cruz. I think there’s a lot of really awesome work going on in Santa Cruz around social innovation and social impact work. And so, that’s one of the reasons we’re so proud to be headquartered here, even as we’ve become a distributed team and not based in just an office downtown.

So yeah, we’ve worked with a lot of great local nonprofits, including the Community Foundation, the MAH, the Romero Institute, FishWise and others, and been able to support the really good work that’s happening right here in town. We’ve also always been connected outside of Santa Cruz as well. So, even in our early days, we were doing a lot of work just in the general Bay Area.

And as we’ve really deepened our commitment to social impact, we’ve been getting a lot more interest and attention nationally, which is excellent and also great. We love working in Santa Cruz, but we also love bringing on clients from other parts of the country so that we can have a more diverse set of experiences, and opinions, and partnership with clients not just here. And so, we really like that balance as an agency of being able to do good work here, right in our backyards, but also bringing folks in who we really feel like we can help and whose missions really aligned with ours that we can do good work elsewhere as well.

Ashley: I love that. When you say content strategy and what you design, could you go into a little bit more detail about what that looks like for folks?

The Cosmic team quickly went remote early on in the pandemic.

Eric: Yeah, definitely. It really kind of depends on where the organization is at. Sometimes we’re working with organizations that are brand new and it’s just an idea, or a new program, or a new campaign. In those situations, we’re really helping from the very beginning to define the strategy, the positioning, kind of the theory of change, all of that kind of stuff, and then, building a brand off of that.

We’re a very digital-first agency. One of the big things that we’re trying to get across to these organizations is they really need to embrace a digital-first culture, especially today when so much is happening digitally. So much communication happens through digital channels, and so we really are trying to help organizations start to think and act more like media companies instead of traditional charities.

So oftentimes, we’re building out brands, helping brands articulate their missions, their impact stories, and then we’re also helping them build out digital experiences that actually connect their communities, and activate them, and inspire action.

Sometimes we’re working with organizations that have been around for many, many years. So, we’re not really doing as much core brand strategy work for them, but we’re launching a new campaign or we’re launching a new digital experience that’s really driving towards an action or an outcome that they’re trying to reach.

Ashley: Amazing. How has that looked nowadays with the pandemic and everyone going remote? Has it been a big increase in the understanding of digital, the importance of going digital, or how has that impacted your work?

Cosmic has worked with a variety of local social impact organizations.

Eric: Yeah, it’s been a huge transition for us in many ways. One, we used to be based downtown in Santa Cruz in an office and all worked around a big table together. We decided pretty early on in the pandemic that it was time to embrace what we think is kind of the future of work, which is the distributed model. We’d been thinking about it for a while and the pandemic really just kind of made that choice pretty clear and obvious for us.

Presented by Design by Cosmic

Local creative agency, Cosmic, successfully transitioned from working in person to growing into a continent-spanning...

And so for us personally, as a firm, that was a big transition. The good news is that we already had a lot of really good workflows and processes in place. We’d had remote employees and remote clients, so it was actually pretty easy for us to make the transition as a firm. Certainly, there’s things we miss about working in person, but there’s been a lot of really good benefits that were maybe not something we’d expect to see from going distributed as well.

The Cosmic team consists of nine people from across five states.

In terms of what we saw more broadly in the market, we already had seen this kind of digital transformation happening, and it had been happening for five, 10 years at various levels and it had already been accelerating, but the transformation just accelerated essentially overnight for a lot of organizations.

Some organizations, there’s been a lot of change and difficulty for a lot of organizations, especially organizations that were civic institutions, where a lot of their membership fees paid their overhead and their revenue. But a lot of organizations really stepped up to the challenge and got creative and figured out how they could still create positive change and impact their communities in ways that they maybe hadn’t thought about before.

“One of the really excellent silver linings to all of this is that we have, as a culture, started to break down regional barriers in ways that weren’t really possible before.”

— Eric Ressler

One of the really excellent silver linings to all of this is that we have, as a culture, started to break down regional barriers in ways that weren’t really possible before. So, a lot of organizations have taken that, and we’ve really encouraged our clients to think about it this way — how can you actually scale your impact through leveraging digital channels and digital communication versus focusing only on the local region where you’re based? And so, there’s been a lot of change for a lot of organizations, but there have been a lot of beneficial outcomes as well.

Ashley: That’s great. It sounds amazing. I remember your office downtown. It was a nice space though, so I’m sure that was hard to separate away from.

Eric: Yeah, there’s definitely times that we miss it, for sure, but there’s been a lot of really good benefits. I mean, one of the things that’s been great is we’ve been able to bring team members on from other areas. So, we have nine people across I think five states right now. We’ve been able to really work a lot towards some of the efforts that we have around bringing more diverse voices into our team in ways that were a little bit more challenging when we’re only sourcing from local talent in Santa Cruz.

“...I actually feel like our team’s the most harmonious we’ve ever been, even though some of us haven’t ever even met in person.”

— Eric Ressler

We’ve been able to bring in new perspectives and other sets of experiences that have really, I think, just allowed us to round out our team in a way that wasn’t possible before. In certain ways, I actually feel like our team’s the most harmonious we’ve ever been, even though some of us haven’t ever even met in person.

Ashley: How interesting. I love that. Now, how can folks work with you all? How can they get in touch if they have questions or are curious to learn what Cosmic can do for them?

Eric: So, the best place to go is our website, and we publish a lot of great free content on the website. So, if you’re interested in the work that we do, especially if you’re focused on doing social impact work, we have an Insights tab that has a bunch of free articles, and white papers, and resources that you can use to take some of the ideas that we have and put them into practice.

We also published a manifesto that you can reach by going to the top tab that says Manifesto. That kind of just outlines our point of view on how we think organizations in this space should think and act. You can also listen to that, it’s on most of the podcatchers out there. It’s called The Revolution is Digital. So if you search for that, it’ll come up and it will be by Cosmic. People are always able to just reach out to me as well through the website. There’s a contact form or you can just email me, eric@designbycosmic.com.

Ashley: Great. Thanks, Eric. We’re so glad Cosmic is a marketing partner with Lookout. Thank you so much for your time, and I’ll see you around.

Eric: Yeah, thanks so much for having me on.

Cosmic Artwork

About Cosmic

Cosmic is a Santa Cruz-based social impact creative agency. We empower social impact organizations to catalyze real world change by helping them nail their impact story, build brand awareness, and inspire action. We believe that thoughtfully designed brand experiences can help create a more just and equitable world.

We work with leaders at nonprofits, foundations, and social enterprises who understand that capturing and sustaining attention in our complex, global culture is necessary to accomplishing their mission.

Visit the Cosmic website or experience our manifesto to learn more.