Interview with Dennis Plucinik, the founder of ATTCK

Dennis Plucinik has twenty years of experience designing and developing websites and applications. Prior to founding ATTCK, Dennis led award winning teams at NYC’s biggest digital ad firms including Huge, R/GA, Sapient, Razorfish, and Wieden+Kennedy. He has designed and built enterprise products for clients including Disney, Nike, Uniqlo, Target, Morgan Stanley, & HBO.

In this conversation, he pulls the curtain back on what goes on behind the scenes at huge agencies, what he learned (and didn’t learn) there, why he chose to give up that life to establish his own studio, and the lessons he’s learned along the way.

I am interested to know how you came to start ATTCK, back in 2014. And what’s the story behind the name?

I thought, why not create an agency that elevates people to produce their best work?

Before starting ATTCK, I consulted full-time at the largest digital ad firms in NYC. I moved here from Buffalo in 2008, hoping to meet and work with talented and inspiring people. I have in fact met many exceptional people, but what I repeatedly found were corporate environments that stifled creativity and drove good people away. It was also clear that my own contribution would never leave a lasting impact on the world, no matter how high-profile the client.

I started the company because I ultimately wanted to create a legacy—something that would outlast me. I also aspired to create the perfect agency because I needed to know for my own sanity that it was possible to do great work without burning people out. For the past four years, I’m proud to say, our team has continually produced incredibly inspiring work that I am humbled to have been part of.

Written by:
Prabhav Khandelwal

06.05 2019

That’s pretty powerful.

Starting a company was an inevitability for me. I’ve felt the drive my entire life, and when the opportunity presented itself I did not hesitate.

I had been freelancing for years and befriended many rockstar designers and developers along the way. I also had many direct relationships with clients, ultimately earning a name for myself outside of my full-time consulting job. As a result, I was fortunate to have clients on day one and an all-star team to join me.

The story behind the name is interesting. I was worried at first about finding a short, clever name that also reflected my principles. I remembered a conversation with a friend about an old project. We recalled during that year-long project, the full-time employees called us “attack dogs.” We were called in like mercenaries to meet impossible deadlines on impossible projects. The metaphor stuck with me because I never loved the office politics and cutthroat ladder-climbing environment of big agencies. I always wanted to get in, do the job, and get out.

Our approach at ATTCK is also concise and direct. We don’t waste time. We don’t have much overhead, and everyone is a veteran. We’re not here to play games. We’re here to perfect our craft and do the best work of our lives. That is the spirit of ATTCK.

That’s very interesting because design firms and people in creative services are said to be very indirect in their approach, which can sometimes lead to inefficiency.

Clear and direct communication is critical to earning trust.

I’ve worked at large consulting companies where I didn’t feel comfortable because the process wasn’t totally honest. One company’s strategy was to win a project and then quickly book anyone just to rack up as big a bill as possible. One manager said about staffing a new project, “I don’t care if you pull them out of the East River, just get me people in those seats.”

I like being able to look at myself in the mirror, so I left that company. Jeopardizing my moral compass has never been part of my career path.


The ATTCK team

It’s interesting to see how design firms that promise a work environment different than the typical corporate lifestyle slowly descend into the same kind of stuff they were running from.

Our team is incredibly tight and dedicated to constantly improving.

We frequently review potential areas of optimization across the entire company. We welcome honesty and transparency and have a healthy enough environment to have candid and respectful conversations. Toxic environments ruin great teams. If our entire operation is transparent, there is nowhere for toxic behavior to hide.

I think it’s a really good sign of team morale when your own employees are willing to work extra without you incentivizing them or forcing them extra.

If someone’s super into it and wants to put in extra time, that’s OK. However, I would slightly disagree with the idea that it’s a really good sign.

I have a daughter, and my time with her is very precious. Not everyone has children, but that doesn’t make their time less valuable. Your time is yours, not your employer’s. If your company demands weekend or overtime work without compensation, they’re literally stealing your time. Please call us if you want a better job.

I think there’s a thin line of difference between an employee voluntarily wanting to work extra and an employer expecting the employee to work extra. That can be easily exploited by an employer, especially when the extra hours you put in are construed as a measure of your passion.

Again, we often discourage working late for a couple reasons. Basically, we want to avoid cultivating a hero mentality culture and avoid burnout. When people are heralded as champions for pulling all-nighters, it alienates others who aren’t able or willing to do the same.

I personally monitor our company’s GitHub account, and if I see someone committing throughout the night every night, I’ll pull them aside and ask if they need help or if something’s wrong. I don’t want my employees coming in tired and stressed.

It’s the company’s responsibility to cultivate a healthy work environment.

This sort of open communication is really key, and the fact that this dialogue exists between you and your employees is a great sign.

I’ve noticed that having regular feedback sessions with managers is very rare. It’s usually done annually. We do it monthly. Yearly reviews ironically become a source of stress since there is generally a substantial raise or bonus on the line. Companies will also tend to implement the pay increase further in the future, just to squeeze a little more out of our souls. This whole system feels pretty dishonest to me.


E-Commerce website for Fils Unique—a luxury cufflinks brand.


Website for Double Barrel—a company producing the next generation of vaporizing pens.

This resonates with me because the main commodity being traded in this industry is time. And if you’re not respecting the time people are putting in, you’re essentially stealing. It’s like you said—it’s theft.

I’m trying to even out all the negative experiences I had working in large agencies.


Subway Reads—a program in which publishers like Penguin and Random House donated the first chapter of about 500 of their books and anybody on the subway’s Wi-Fi could read them for free.


Website for The Internet Society—a global nonprofit organization, dedicated to supporting and promoting the development of the Internet.

It’s surprising to see these companies do any wrong, because they’re seen as leaders of the industry.

I understand that larger agencies serve a different market. For example, Mercedes, as a global organization, requires a large enough agency like Razorfish to service all their regional websites through a custom enterprise CMS. That scale of work requires many teams to create content and manage updates, releases, and global deployments, etc. We aren’t well suited for that kind of work.

We start taking business from bigger agencies on almost every smaller project—and there is a huge industry shift where smart clients are seeking smaller, more agile teams with less cost overhead.

What's happening is effectively a race to the middle.

Large companies are struggling to be more agile, while smaller companies are eating their lunch. In our first year we worked directly with clients like American Express, the United Nations, Calvin Klein, and had ads running in New York City’s subway system for three months.

Clients are now more aware that they don’t need a huge agency in order to be successful.

That segues well into what I wanted to ask next. Are there specific kinds of projects that you guys like to take on?

One of the criteria that we use to decide whether we take a project or not is whether it could win an award. We’ve naturally built specialties around industries that thrive in NYC, but we can still afford to choose which clients we work with.

We don’t have to take work just to keep the lights on, which feels like a very fortunate position to be in.

One recent project that everyone loved was Subway Reads. We worked with the NYC Metropolitan Transportation Authority in partnership with another company, Literacy Partners. It was a program in which publishers like Penguin and Random House donated the first chapter of hundreds of their books. Anybody on the subway’s Wi-Fi could read them for free. So they’re essentially promoting literacy.

One of our oldest clients is the Robin Hood Foundation in New York. They do incredible work to combat poverty. We redesigned their website, built their donation platform, and helped streamline their charity workflow. We get to be involved in some of the interesting things that they do, like being part of the marathons they sponsor. It feels better to do that kind of work than, say, build a workflow application for a financial institution. It allows us to escape from what could otherwise be very grinding.

To our credit, everyone on our team has been with us for years, and even our new hires have been in our network for years. So we have a very tight group. And I think it’s the constantly fluctuating mix of projects that hit on all these criteria that keeps people interested.

Do you have any fun stories from the studio? Maybe offer a glimpse of what goes on behind the scenes?

We used to play a game where I would nominate someone to be a “Happiness Master.” They were given a budget of $100, and they would have to go spend that on a gift for everybody at the office. The catch was that the happiness master couldn’t reveal who they were. And if someone guessed and proved who the happiness master was, they became the next happiness master. People bought super fun stuff like hot sauce, small plants, etc. We recently started doing company Dungeons & Dragons night, and that’s been insanely fun.

What would a dream company for you look like? And what improvements would you make on what you have right now?

We actually talk about this a lot during our company retrospectives and reviews. I’ve started to refine—not my egotistical dream company—but what’s the best format for ATTCK. As far as the basic elements of our brand go, we focus on quality, the craftsmanship of the work that we do, and the relationship we share with our clients. Given that, and also the fact that we can’t scale easily because it’s hard to find people with as much expertise as ours, the company inherently can’t be very large. We’ve got basically two practice areas: design and development. For a perfect company, there needs to be a creative director as well as a technical director. So we need to work to finalize and hire a technical director to oversee the development side of our work. The ideal company would maybe have a couple people overseeing UX, since UX can also be split into strategy and implementation. Our art director is both a conceptual strategist as well as someone who can execute, but we’d like to split that workload.

We’re also expanding more into marketing and content production. We’re starting to take more responsibilities like brand positioning, branding, logo design, marketing copy, language, and even package design. It’s essential that the team be very small and tight, and I don’t intend to grow just for the sake of growing. I tend to grow with the right people, and if we don’t find them, we won’t grow.

What if a company wants to acquire you?

We’ve had those offers, strangely early on. And I really hadn’t realized what I myself wanted to accomplish with the company structure. I’ve seen companies get acquired that are still able to retain their company culture. They also get the advantage of the logistical benefits of being in a large company.


A new website for 700 Islands, reframing the experience of the Bahamian Islands.

I think it’s a very tough thing to maintain your company ethos while being absorbed into a larger company.

I don’t think I have any intention to do that. We’ve never had to take on any investment, we’ve been profitable and sustainable since day one, and also, we grow slowly. Actually, initially we grew a bit too fast and had to scale back to keep the team nimble enough. Now we have 10 incredibly powerful people.

I think the key there is to hire the right kind of people, and you clearly have a focus on hiring experts. Another thing I wanted to ask is, how would you summarize your last year at ATTCK? Are there any lessons you learned in the last year that you didn’t know before?

Last year was tough. We had some internal reorganization towards the end of 2017 which took me some time to clean up. I’ve learned how important it is to keep a close eye on specific elements of the business, mainly communication internally and with clients. We also spent a lot of time designing and testing new processes to establish a more structured and accountable framework for growth.

I think you also get to a point in your career where you need to balance actual work and handling the leadership and management responsibilities. So I think it’s nice that you’ve struck a clever balance between the two.

I’m definitely finding my calling as a leader. For a while, when anyone called me their boss, it struck me as odd because I am deeply humbled by the level of talent everyone brings. At the same time, they need a leader who is at the helm and setting the tone, giving direction, and inspiring people.

My goal for this year is to grow from 10 to 20 people.

One last question, what is your favorite part of the new website?

The team page is everyone’s favorite. You have to see it to understand.


Sneak peek of the new ATTCK website!

Credits: Dennis Plucinik, ATTCK

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