Strategic, creative, and production agency.
Whether you’re here looking for your next ad partner or to make your next career move, there’s one thing we want to make clear about this business—we all have a choice: we can either follow or Defy.
The foundation of great work is a strong strategy. It’s what guides the courses we take to get clients where they want to go.
We prefer open communication with our clients to learn their businesses, develop relationships with their team, and jot down the small anecdotes that lead to big ideas down the line.
We believe an environment that promotes our team’s physical and mental health creates an atmosphere of inspiration and collaboration. So that’s just what we do. Together we’ve developed a flexible workflow that allows us to influence culture from the inside of our office or from the inside of our homes.
Our investment in people grows well outside our workspace. We understand this is all bigger than ourselves, so Defy continues to serve nonprofits and the ad community at large.
Defy DNA pays homage to the brands, artists, and ideas that formed the foundation of our agency and creative perspective. This month, Founder Nik Greenblatt interviews a longtime friend, Gunars Elmuts. Gunars is a creative at heart who, much like Nik, learned early on how to break the mold by combining his passion for extreme sports, art, and hustle.
The American cultural landscape of the 1990s surged with frenetic energy, brazenness, and change. It was an era that saw formerly imprisoned anti-apartheid revolutionary Nelson Mandela become President of South Africa, hip-hop become the most popular music in the world, and a youth culture hell-bent on rejecting conformity. It’s no surprise that this time paved the way for the worlds of action sports and art to collide, and to thrive through that collision.
Nik and Gunars are meeting over Zoom in 2021, in a world shaped and restricted by the COVID-19 pandemic, to reminisce about their shared history as artists and action sports enthusiasts in the 90s. After the compulsory technical adjustments, it takes no time at all for the men to settle in, and Gunars begins to narrate his personal origin story: his childhood in Massachusetts, his Latvian heritage, and his first skateboard.
Gunars recalls many occasions as a kid when he would injure himself trying to keep up with the best skater on the block. On days when he was out of commission, he would bring along a camera belonging to his mom – a woman whose own artistic passions, it would seem, were infectious. As Gunars began snapping shots of his friends fooling around on their boards, his love for photography was born.
“So I just started taking pictures of my friends, just to document it,” Gunars recounts, slowly as though it happened the day prior, “Then once I was in high school, I decided to enroll in a photo class. My teacher ended up seeing some of the shots I took while just burning through the roll and told me they were really good. So that started it.”
Even his minimalist efforts were extraordinary for the time. By the age of fourteen, Gunars had made his way to the 1988 U.S. Open with some friends. While at the half pipe, he ran into a well-known photographer, Guy Motil, who was inside the ropes of a snowboarding competition. Gunars asked Motil if he could hop over and take some photos too. A moment later, Gunars was standing side by side with Motil snapping the now monumental moments of the first half pipe ever featured during a U.S. Open.
“You know those photos, they’re not bad. They’re not great,” Gunars says candidly, “but they are history.”
And history they are indeed.
The fear of hearing “No” never phased Gunars. From just fourteen years old, he would send his own photography to various skater magazines such as Thrasher and TransWorld in the hopes of getting his work published.
“I was fourteen and in high school. It had to be ‘88 or ‘89, they didn’t pay me but I was still pretty stoked,” Gunars reveals in a light tone. His first photo was published in Thrasher magazine. His humility showing once again when asked how many of his photos were published in total while still in high school, “Ah,” Gunars pauses to recount, “Maybe about 20.”
Gunars’ love for photography continued to grow into his late teens and early twenties as he attended college in New York City. The streets were an education all their own. “The city was your campus when we were there,” says Gunars, “you’re just right in the middle of it all. We took our skateboards everywhere we went.”
This free spirit atmosphere established a world that allowed creatives like Gunars to break through, giving them a foundation for exploration. Weaving into this new lifestyle wasn’t exactly “traditional” yet, but, driven by his passions and work ethic, he found ways to make it happen. In years to come, this grind would land him a full-time role shooting photos for TransWorld.
In his time off from class, Gunars worked at PSNY – which at the time was just a small shop selling sweatsuits and rollerblades and was looking to sell snowboards. Though originally tasked with helping customers with blades for a mere seven dollars an hour, eventually his hustle and knowledge of snowboarding landed him as the head buyer for snowboards at PSNY.
He then did what entrepreneurs do best and connected his trades. “Once I was in at PSNY, I told the owner – who knew nothing about this world [of skateboarding and snowboarding] – we should sponsor these guys I’ve been photographing. It would be good for our brand.” These “guys” were the now well-known skaters, Harold Hunter (RIP) and Jeff Pang.
A more recent example of Gunars’ entrepreneurial work is his vegan cheese company, NUMU. He adopted a vegan lifestyle in 2011 while working as a DJ – another of his masterful trades. The lifestyle change began once Gunars came to understand the real horrors of the industrial food complex, in particular the harsh conditions to which livestock animals are subjected. “[Becoming vegan] was a new experience every day. It was like learning how to skate or work your first camera,” His modest tone getting a bit more professional as he dives into the details, “It’s fun overall. [NUMU] happened as I began cooking vegan-based foods. There was never a goal to be a vegan cheese company but here it is.” Gunars’ simple desire to avoid animal cruelty led him to start a business in a cut-throat industry, and his persistence is paying off. Despite his lack of experience in food science or production, NUMU’s vegan mozzarella can be enjoyed in pizzerias throughout New York and has become a gold standard for vegan cheese.
Whether it’s skateboarding, snowboarding, photography, DJing, or vegan cheese, Gunars continues to build his career around his passions. His formative years in the 90s taught him there’s always a creative path forward – even if it is an ollie over to a nose slide down a handrail. His ability to find the unconventional entry into whatever vocation is calling has allowed Gunars to become the successful creative entrepreneur he is today.
Gunars’ story reminds us that finding inspiration within your passions is the key to true success. Society provides us with scripts, paths, and boxes, yes. But sometimes that script sounds unnatural, that path feels too narrow, or that box is far too small for our ambition. What should we do then?
Let’s take our cue from Gunars and do whatever the hell makes us happy.