At Zebradog, Mark Schmitz builds a corporate identity as unique as the company’s name
From the pages of In Business magazine.
Gazing at the wood-planked ceiling above the conference table at Zebradog studios, Mark Schmitz is awestruck. The antique beams, which came from the side of an old tobacco barn near Stoughton, date back to 1862. “These boards were put together when Abraham Lincoln was president,” he states. “The fact that we get to sit underneath them, there’s something great about that story.”
Schmitz, a history and Civil War buff, makes a living telling real, authentic stories. “You can’t create stories,” he says, “they have to be there from the beginning.” For 20 years, his company has been transforming corporate identities through storytelling in unique and often theatrical ways.
His own story began in the second grade at Odana Elementary School, the day his illustration “Where My Food Goes When I Swallow It” was put on display in a school hallway. From that moment on, he vowed he’d “always create things for public display that people would learn from and discuss.”
Calling himself a visual therapist, Schmitz describes Zebradog as “the absolute antithesis of an ad agency.” The difference is in the length and life span of the message. “The things we do here will be here long after we’re gone,” he said. That’s in stark contrast to his earlier ad agency experiences, in which creativity was fleeting. “You’d work so hard, but six months later it was gone. I thought there was something fundamentally wrong with that.” So he set out to change the rules.
“The things we do here will be here long after we’re gone.” — Mark Schmitz, Zebradog
Now, in a 102-year-old building that once housed Madison’s first public library, architects sit next to social media experts, engineers next to writers and producers, and interior designers next to historians.
Together, they reimagine logos, create long-lasting tributes, design new interiors, and develop everything from interactive, motion-sensor wall displays to way-finding software. “We’re not creating a six-month campaign,” Schmitz insists. “We’re creating multigenerational storytelling in really weird ways — digital, materials, lighting — and all of those things come together in a hybrid of sensory information.”
The company is 100% referral-based, and its client list includes Miller Brewing Co., the City of Madison, American Family Insurance, UW-Madison, Madison College, the Green Bay Packers, the New York Knicks, and even Duke University.
But one client in particular, Saudi Aramco, the largest petrochemical company in the world, was the most surprising discovery. Several years ago, the Saudi Arabian company was searching the Internet for interactive media walls. “Out of the blue, they called us because they loved our name,” Schmitz said. “It just proves that if you are relevant and provide something truly unique, the world can find you.”
In 2014, Zebradog worked on 157 projects for 45 clients in 10 states and four countries, and this May, the doors will open on a new heritage center in Stoughton that Schmitz promises will be one of the greatest learning spaces in Wisconsin. “That little Zebradog [logo] is all over the world now,” he says.
So why the name Zebradog? Years ago, when operating under its legal name, ZD Studios, the company frequently received phone calls and mail addressed to 3-D Studios, V-D Studios, or even Mrs. D. Studios. “No, it’s like ‘z’ as in zebra, ‘d’ as in dog,” Schmitz would correct, over and over. Finally, the name stuck.
“It doesn’t mean a thing,” he laughs.
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