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Freelancer Spotlight: Duet – Story & Design

March 19, 2019

Ad Industry, Creative, Design, Freelancing, RAF


Mike Durand and Ann Stephenson are the co-founders of Duet, a story and design studio. They moved to Rochester from Seattle last summer and bring a ton of experience with them.

Mike is a writer, strategist, and coach. Prior to starting Duet, he led corporate communications teams at Levi Strauss, Microsoft, Charles Schwab, and T-Mobile. He is also a veteran of big agencies: Ogilvy, Publicis, and Ketchum. Ann is a graphic designer, illustrator, and art director. She creates websites, identity systems, and all kinds of print and digital materials. Before Duet, she designed the Williams-Sonoma catalogue for 10 years.

As newcomers to the area, Mike and Ann are looking to make new connections so please reach out and say hello.

Do you have family in the area?
Mike grew up in Rochester. His mom is a local printmaker, Elizabeth Durand. She is in her 80s now and still cranking out new work.

Who was your very first client?
Mallomars. I was a Jr. AE at Ogilvy in NYC. We were hired to promote the return of the cookies after their summer hiatus (production stops each summer because the chocolate melts). My boss hatched a plan to float a giant Mallomar-shaped balloon outside the Lincoln Tunnel. But he failed to get a permit. The cops threatened to shut us down unless we “donated” the case of Mallomars we had on-hand. I learned a lot about NYC that day.

What has been a favorite project of yours in the last year?
We did a content marketing campaign about impact investing for a well-known philanthropy in Seattle. The goal was to show how financial investments can support the environment and society – and still have competitive returns. It was very satisfying to take that story mainstream.

What is on your playlist right now?
Beck. Zeshan B. Thievery Corporation. Alicia Keys. Mavis Staples, Brand New Heavies, Steely Dan, and The Caroline Chocolate Drops.

What’s your favorite song and why?
It’s a tie. “Sleep of the Just” by Elvis Costello and “Protection” by Massive Attack with Tracey Thorn. They actually play well back-to-back.

What’s the biggest professional challenge you’ve faced in the last year? How did you overcome it?
Relocating our business to the East Coast was very disruptive, logistically speaking. But it also forced us to rethink a few things and sharpen our focus on story and design. A move like that also makes you realize that you’ve got to stay positive and be flexible. It’s all about intention.

Where do you look for inspiration?
The grocery store. That’s where you see it all hang out. How people dress. How they shop. Even if folks are just going through the motions, you can notice their style and wonder about their backstories.

What do you do if you “run out” of ideas?
Stop working and let the unconscious mind process things without pressure. Also, we try to focus on the emotional side of assignments. That’s where the best ideas come from anyway.

Who is your favorite brand as it relates to advertising?
The ones that are original. There is so much gimmickry and groupthink out there. Brands that demonstrate how they are genuinely different or committed to a cause get our vote. Chipotle did a good job at this with “Back to the Start”.

Who inspires you locally?
So far, everybody. People have been very welcoming and supportive. There seems to be a close-knit community and that’s very encouraging for newcomers like us.

What do you see yourself doing in 5 years?
Celebrating 10 years of our business, Duet. That, and taking our daughters on college tours. Gulp!

What’s your favorite movie and why?
Hedwig and the Angry Inch. It’s tough and tender. A+ for originality.

What’s your idea of happiness?
A warm fall day, in a canoe, surrounded by color.

What would adult you tell child you about growing up?
Beware of Russian meddling in elections.

If you could choose one food to eat for rest of your life, what would it be and why?
Cheese… aka milk’s leap toward immortality. Or maybe sushi.

If you could have anyone’s job in the United States whose would it be?
Feeding baby manatees. ‘Nuff said.

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