Why We’re Always Reinventing the Wheel: Q&A with Neoscape’s Chief Creative Officer Rodrigo Lopez

MHN Editorial Director Diana Mosher talks to Neoscape’s Chief Creative Officer Rodrigo Lopez about marketing, storytelling, and more.

A lot has changed in the two decades since Neoscape, a creative agency for the built environment, first opened its doors in 1995. Today marketing is all about telling a story and Boston-based Neoscape has mastered the art of storytelling. Since its early days as a provider of computer renderings for architects, Neoscape has kept pace with emerging technologies. The current team is equipped with a marketing toolset based on 3D, film and photography, design and branding, interactive applications and sales environments. The goal of Neoscape’s artists, filmmakers, designers and consultants is to create meaningful and memorable experiences in order to foster a better understanding of the un-built environment. I recently visited with Rodrigo Lopez, chief creative officer, at Neoscape’s Manhattan studio.

MHN: What does your typical day look like?

Lopez: I’ve been at Neoscape almost 12 years and one of the reasons I’m still here is because my day is always different. Luckily we’ve been super busy the past few years, so there’s always something going on. I’m based out of our Boston office, but I’m down here [in New York] almost on a weekly basis. Primarily my day bounces back and forth between talking with clients (I’m usually involved with larger projects that have more moving parts) and helping our team and our clients stay connected at a high level. We’re very hands on. And there’s much interaction internally with many different disciplines working on any given project. We have graphic designers, developers, visual effects artists and 3D artists producing renderings and photography and shoots. So the beauty of it is that on any given day we’ll be doing different things for different projects and my day is never the same. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

MHN: Are there any best practices for naming properties?

Lopez: This is probably, without exaggeration, one of the trickiest things we have to do. It becomes such a personal and subjective thing—almost like naming a child except instead of two people making the decision it’s usually 10 people all of whom have different tastes. So what we try to do is come at it from the storytelling aspect. ‘Let’s invent a tale of who we think the user of this building is: where do they work, what do they buy, where do they shop, what do they like to eat?’ Or, based on input from the team, if there’s someone who likes Greek mythology and thinks we need to go there for the name—we might get even more esoteric. We also looked at the history of a site. Inevitably it’s always hard to find a name that everybody loves. You go on Curbed and you expose yourself to the world with your fancy name that you spent six months agonizing over and people will either love it or start poking fun. They’ll start creating their own narrative for it.

MHN: Is it better to get a head start on this process before the client is heavily involved?

Lopez: We like to begin every process by having a very serious one on one (it’s actually usually ‘ten on ten’) with the client. Just getting this brain dump from the client is helpful because usually there are ideas that they have already formulated. Sometimes the client will play down the value of these ideas, but knowing where their heads are at before we start is actually better and very beneficial. It can lead us in the right direction, and it informs how they think about things so that when we do our presentation it’s not too surprising to them.

MHN: How do you approach existing properties that need to be repositioned in the marketplace?

Lopez: We’ve learned a lot by watching consumer brands and how they reinvent themselves. Our residential clients delve into the lifestyle driven world, so they understand—and associate themselves with—the high-end luxury brands. Our commercial clients have a harder time understanding why that image and packaging matter to them. But that’s changing, and it’s changing rapidly. And now there’s an expectation across the board that you’re going to brand something. And that’s what we’re interested in, so when we’re brought into a project for branding we never just think about logos and those things that people typically associate with branding. Those elements are important, but we’re more interested in the entire presentation. Sometimes we draw from the architectural world, because architects can tell great stories and there’s usually plenty of raw material there. But sometimes it’s about a neighborhood or a vibe. We’re doing some work in Long Island City, and its story is not necessarily architectural. There’s a buzz that goes well beyond just the building or logos or visuals. Our challenge becomes how to leverage the energy of a new neighborhood that’s coming out of the ground.

MHN: Why and how did you get into real estate?

Lopez: I studied architecture and then I worked as a junior designer and as a project architect in a small firm outside Boston for seven years. I was always very interested in design and in the conceptual part of architecture, but I became less interested in the construction and technical aspects of it. I always gravitated toward the storytelling aspect, and I loved to go with the partners of the firm to pitches with clients to help them tell an idea to then develop visuals. This was in the mid-nineties when renderings were starting to become popular and accessible. I worked on presentations and did models and renderings. I was about to embark on my architecture licensing, when I had an existential moment… I asked myself, ‘Do you love this?’ I had become interested in filmmaking and contemplated going to film school. Then I came across Neoscape which, at the time, was starting to do animation work. There was a buzz about the company in the architectural and design community. I had met the owners, and I had learned that they wanted to do more animation work and filmmaking for marketing purposes rather than stick with traditional walk-through animations. A bell went off [in my mind] and I said, ‘That’s what I need to be doing.’ I wasn’t really interested in going back to school. I joined Neoscape and haven’t looked back since.

MHN: What would you be doing if you weren’t doing this?

Lopez: I would probably be a starving filmmaker trying to get a film shown at some film festival. I would probably be making movies that not a whole lot of people would be going to see. I like the art flick. I don’t think I would have stayed in architecture.

MHN: What’s the most challenging aspect of your work life?

Lopez: I like to look for challenges and this is a mindset shared by the Neoscape team. For better or worse, we don’t like to do the same thing twice—so we’re constantly reinventing the wheel. It keeps things fresh which is important in marketing. The challenge, then, becomes looking for the next challenge to keep it fresh. Another challenge is getting clients to think outside the box even when they say they want to. There’s a risk involved, and real estate clients can be risk averse for obvious reasons. The return on investment becomes when our clients feel comfortable using our materials that we created. They can walk into a room and nail a deal.

When we do our best work it resonates with people. They have a gut reaction. They connect with it. What matters, at the end of the day, is that our clients do need to rent spaces, fill spaces. Sometimes you come up with this idea and for one reason or another it doesn’t work. You need to be able to think on your feet and change course. I have to be able to read a client at every moment. Where are they with this name or with this brochure? And if they’re not with us, that’s a huge red flag. It could be the coolest marketing idea in the world, but if they’re not buying into it, it’s not going to be successful.

MHN: Neoscape is based in Boston with a second studio in New York. Will you be expanding into other markets?

Lopez: 2015 marks our 20 year anniversary and over the past 20 years, we’ve done work all over the world. We’re probably going to hit the century mark in terms of employees this year. At the moment we have work all over the U.S. which is great. We’re doing a ton of work in New York, a lot of work in D.C., and a lot of large urban projects in Boston—that’s always been our hometown. New York is constantly going and going. Things never slowdown here between Hudson Yards and Long Island City. D.C. is hot. And so are Chicago, L.A. and San Francisco. We’re doing a couple of projects in Seattle now. We did a few big retail projects in the Far East over the course of the last year with 2015 American Institute of Architects Gold Medal winner, Moshe Safdie, FAIA. Moshe does work all over the world and we’ve worked with him on a ton of projects. We’ve done projects in Kazakhstan, Singapore, Abu Dhabi and Dubai. That was interesting, especially for me who loves architecture. We get to work on all these amazing projects, and I don’t have to worry about the construction side of it—just the fun part.