2 Minutes With ... Drew Ungvarsky, Founder and CEO of Grow

Curating spaces where technologists and creatives can do their best work

Drew Ungvarsky is founder and CEO of Grow, a creative innovation agency based in Norfolk, Virginia. Under Drew's leadership, Grow has created innovative digital experiences and marketing campaigns for leading brands like Google, Adidas, Spotify and EA Games.

In addition to his role at Grow, Ungvarsky is also founder and CEO of Assembly, an iconic building campus coming to downtown Norfolk that will bring together leading creative and technology companies—sharing energy, inspiration and resources.

We spent two minutes with Drew to learn more about his background, his creative inspirations, and recent work he's admired.


Drew, tell us...

Where you grew up, and where you live now.

I grew up in Virginia Beach, a neighboring city to where I now live and work today in Norfolk, Virginia—where Grow is headquartered. Both cities have a great culture and play off each other well, creating a unique environment with a mix of beach and urban culture.

What you wanted to be when you grew up.

I probably wanted to be an astronaut when I was little, but by the time I got to high school, I wanted to make video games. I started teaching myself to code through hacking graphic calculators, of all things. I made my first game (Duck Hunt), and I was hooked. I decided to go to college to study computer science.

How you discovered you were creative.

When I started making websites, I knew early on I couldn't design as well as I could code, try as I might. But when my hobby started to turn into a company, and I was able to find someone to join my team as a designer, I discovered how much I loved working with other creative people and helping shape creative ideas, even if they could run circles around me in Photoshop.

And then later I figured out that those creative skills were really useful to me in helping lead the company—whether it be shaping our work or our company culture. You have an idea about where you want to go, and then you surround yourself with other talented people to figure out how to get there.

A person you idolized creatively growing up.

I don't think this qualifies as a traditional creative idol, but I really looked up to Bill Gates when I was growing up. He was a technology pioneer. Once I started to discover web design, though, I had tons of idols who were early pioneers in the interactive web space—people like Gmunk and Shane Mielke. 

A moment from high school or college that changed your life.

I found Flash in college, and that changed everything for me. I was learning traditional coding in my classes, but everything was in the command line and lacking the on-screen magic I was looking for. Flash opened up all the possibilities I'd been wanting: interaction, animation, interfaces, and so on. Once I found it, I couldn't put it down.

I made my first Flash website and then emailed a band I liked at the time to see if they needed any help with their own. A couple of hours later, they got back to me, and I traded them a website for two T-shirts and a CD—a good deal, I figured. The day I launched their site, their promotion company called and asked me to do similar work for other bands they represented, and within weeks I was making websites, e-cards and other digital experiences for popular bands at the time.

The first concert you saw, and your favorite band or musician today.

My first job was taking tickets at an amphitheater. I don't remember which concert I saw first, but I saw a lot of them that way. I remember crushing pretty hard on Gwen Stefani of No Doubt.

Favorite bands today ... my top-five for last year on Spotify were the Appleseed Cast, White Lies, the Beatles, the Midnight and Weston. It was a nostalgic year for high school pop punk.

Your favorite visual artist.

Probably Sagmeister. He has such a unique way of looking at the world, and shaping a creative idea. I was also fortunate enough to spend a few hours with him years ago when he visited our AIGA chapter, and I don't think he knows how much that time and attention he gave me shaped my career. Among other things, he told me everyone was figuring it out as they were going along, no matter how successful they looked, and that took so much of the pressure off.

Your favorite fictional character.

I have two kids, so I've got nothing but children's movies on my mind. Maybe Mary Poppins?

The best book you've read lately.

I read a lot of leadership books now, trying to live up to the shoes I've created for myself. Recently, I enjoyed Radical Candor by Kim Scott. I also loved Steve Jobs' biography, both as an inspiration and a watch-out for how—and how not—to create greatness.

Your favorite movie.

I don't know if I have a favorite. But a few recent ones I really liked were 1917, Joker and Bohemian Rhapsody.

Your favorite Instagram follow.

@thisisgrow

How Covid-19 changed your life, personally or professionally.

Personally, I've enjoyed getting to spend more time with my family. Professionally, it's been amazing to see our team adapt quickly and continue producing high-quality work, despite the changed environment.

Your favorite creative project you've ever worked on.

It's hard to pick just one. I loved our project with Adidas for the Boston Marathon, where we created personalized highlight reels for every runner in the race. I also love the marketing kit platform we built with Google to create customized marketing assets for every small business in America, using their Google business data and machine learning to help them find their differentiators. Both projects highlight the magic that can happen when you connect innovative technology with a great creative idea.

Your favorite creative project from the past year.

I've been leading the creation of Assembly, a multi-building campus for creators and innovators in downtown Norfolk. We're restoring three historic department store buildings and connecting them together with inspiring common areas and shared amenities to help the companies go further faster, and to connect a community of like-minded people. Assembly will be the future home of Grow and a bunch of other creative and technology companies I'm excited to share a roof with.

In a broader sense, that's what I'm most excited about these days: creating the environment in which amazing creatives and technologists can do their best work. That's what gets me out of bed every morning.

Someone else's creative project that inspired you years ago.

I probably watched The Mill's 2010 showreel a hundred times.

Someone else's creative project that you admired lately.

Bluecadet's digital canopy at Lit Brothers.

Your main strength as a creative person.

I never run out of ideas. I love coming up with new things and am always trying to figure out how to make new things happen.

Your biggest weakness. 

Having too many ideas. It's hard to stay focused and not want to do them all.

One thing that always makes you happy.

My kids, Austin and Annabelle.

One thing that always makes you sad.

Work envy.

What you'd be doing if you weren't in advertising.

I'm excited about creating change in my community, so I'm sure that would be a big part of it, whether or not I made a living out of it. I love solving problems with creativity and innovation, and making things people love.

2 Minutes With is our weekly interview series, publishing every Wednesday, where we chat with creatives about their backgrounds, creative inspirations, work they admire and more. For more about 2 Minutes With, or to be considered for the series, please get in touch.

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Tim Nudd
Tim Nudd is editor in chief of the Clio Awards and editor of Muse by Clio. Previously, he was creative editor at Adweek.

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