The StrawberryFrog founder on the importance of kindness, Scandinavian values and the opportunities of helping blue-chips behave like disruptors
Next year StrawberryFrog turns 20. The agency co-founded by husband and wife team Scott Goodson and Karin Drakenberg has always done things a bit differently and it’s stood them in good stead for a time when a lot of agencies are struggling to break out of the standard old school model. They’ve never had any desire to become a hulking great network and their Scandinavian experiences (Karin is Swedish, and Scott started his career in Stockholm) have informed an agency culture that marries entrepreneurism with a sense of kindness.
But having strong values and a sense of purpose isn’t enough for Scott. While purpose-based marketing is all the rage, it’s something that Scott grappled with in the early years of his career. He quickly realised good intentions weren’t enough for marketers tackling real business problems and in need of practical ways to activate those lofty purposes. That’s where his concept of ‘movement marketing’ came from – while Scott is an avid reader of philosophy, when it comes to advertising he knows that theory alone won’t solve the problems facing his clients.
As the agency heads into their 20th year, they’re fresher and livelier than ever. They’ve just had one of their strongest financial years yet, have moved into new digs in the Empire State Building and are gearing up for a big year at Cannes, where Scott will be taking to the Palais stage with his SunTrust Bank client Susan Johnson and Selma star David Oyelowo.
LBB> You’ve just moved into the Empire State Building! What triggered the move?
SG> We were in the space overlooking Madison Avenue for 13 years, we’re moving to the Empire State Building. It’s a nice space; 48th floor with a view over the entire city. It’s such an iconic landmark.
It’s great especially when you have international clients. Everyone knows where it is! It used to be a building with lots of small businesses, but they’ve totally gutted it and renovated it. Our space is state of the art, it’s really cool.
LBB> And it’s nice timing, because if you go back to the original StrawberryFrog opening in Amsterdam that’s coming up for 20 years.
SG> Can you imagine? Oh my God, it’s crazy. Time is such a blur. And it’s amazing; during those years so much has changed.
Strategies that were bleeding edge even 10 years ago have become dated and obsolete.
One word that I’ve always stood for, especially as an entrepreneur, is optimism. There’s a lot of pessimism and vitriol around this industry but I think there’s great opportunity. A lot of the opportunity lies in working with these big blue-chip companies that see all the energy focused on the start ups and industry disruptors. A significant part of the economy is still coming from companies that have been around for a long time.
As an innovations firm, there’s so much space for us to play and work with the corporate blue-chips who are fed up with the big holding companies and all these groups. I’m very optimistic about it.
LBB> Things are changing so fast, how has StrawberryFrog’s model allowed you to surf those industry changes?
SG> That’s opportunity. If you’ve been in a system where your advertising agency is like a factory, with hundreds of people running around doing one thing and you’ve got senior people at the top, a few middle people and lots of young people who don’t even need to be particularly trained, that business model is profitable.
But as soon as that business model shifts and the client require a customised solution to their specific problems – anything from a three-sided hologram to a VR experience to a brand that needs to expand to twenty markets, transform its internal culture of the company… there are all sorts of opportunities. If your whole business is geared around delivering one product, yeah, that’s threatening. If you’re an enterprise-based business that reacts to clients, that creates opportunity.
LBB> When I look at your past, entrepreneurialism and trying new things seems ingrained in who you are. You moved to Sweden as a young man and setting up StrawberryFrog…
SG> When I started StrawberryFrog the best lesson was learning how to run a business and figuring out how you apply that learning to bigger, more challenging client problems. Entrepreneurism has always been the lifeblood of this company.
I remember when I started in New York City and a reporter asked me what I thought about the future of the industry. It was 13 years ago and we were starting in New York at the same time Mother and Anomaly and Droga. I said, “well, people are going to look outside their windows and see that we are succeeding in winning international clients and they’ll say ‘hey, if they can do it, we can do it too’. We’ll have a rush of people starting their own firms.” That’s proven to be true. There are new firms with new approaches appearing every day.
LBB> When you’re bringing someone into the StrawberryFrog team, I guess one of the great paradoxes is that you’re looking for someone with that entrepreneurial spark, but these are the people who instinctively want to start their own thing. When you’re looking for people to bring to the agency, how do you harness that spirit? Or, if they’re not natural entrepreneurs, how do you foster it?
SG> Recently we’ve been looking to hire someone as a strategic leader and as a creative director. I said to one person, one of the things we can offer here that I don’t think you get in many places is that you can work closely with the leadership, you’ll learn entrepreneurism and you’ll learn about running your own business. I listed twenty people who used to work here and had gone on to run agencies or start their own businesses. That’s a tremendous value that you can’t get at other firms.
A lot of creative people and strategic people underestimate the importance of being able to stand on your own two feet. They see themselves as talent, as writers, management people, strategists and don’t think ‘one day I could run my own business’. I think that’s one way we can bring people in.
To answer your question more specifically, we look for people with that entrepreneurial mindset, but, more importantly are aligned with our culture. Which has a form of entrepreneurism within it, but our culture has become a lot more defined and we’re a lot clearer about what it is. Be kind. There’s a kindness to the firm and how people treat each other. There’s an objective to create high quality work and not becoming a sweatshop. Trying to choose our clients wisely; those who wish to develop movements, those who want to be innovative. I think that attracts a certain kind of person. And the idea that we must be able to do more with less and be more adaptive, that’s also what the Frog culture has always been about. Ultimately, we don’t have to have 500 people to woo and win major clients. We can do awesome work for clients without needing seven floors.
LBB> That word ‘kind’ is an important one. When people talk about being lean, perhaps people can confuse being hungry or proactive with being aggressive and mean. Why is it so important to you?
SG> I think it’s a super important principle for us. Karin, one of the co-founders [and Scott’s wife] is Swedish and we spent a lot of time working there. Last year one of our teammates received 5 months maternity leave, which is unheard of in this country. You get six weeks and you’re expected to be back at your job or you can legally be replaced. For us it’s about putting out money where our principles are, so we’ve always been very supportive of women and I think we’re better for it. Our co-owner is a woman, our head of business management is a woman, our head of client partnerships is a woman, our head of strategy is a woman, our head of project management is a woman, our chief designer is a woman. There are a lot of women here. Not that that’s our only thing but you can deliver excellence for clients in a way that is humane. I think the industry has forgotten the humane part.
LBB> How did you get into the industry in the first place? I see that you moved to Sweden soon after you graduated – was that pursue a job opportunity?
SG> I’m from Canada originally and my initial goal was to go into law. I met my wife, Karin, who is Swedish, and she invited me to come to Stockholm to live with her. I grew up in a household where my father owned a publishing company and an advertising agency, and my mother was a creative director at the Canadian equivalent of Harvey Nichols – so I grew up in a media-marketing-fashion house. I completely hated it! I didn’t want to go into the industry.
But then when I met my wife, you could get a work visa for Sweden if you were in a relationship. You couldn’t get that in Canada, you had to be married. In Sweden, if you were together that was enough. So, I got a job in an advertising agency in Sweden to make ends meet and ended up working on the launch of Bjorn Borg’s first fashion line. I did that for a while and went to another firm where I helped launch the Ericsson mobile phone. That was a turning point in my career because we launched it in Scandinavia and then in Germany and then Spain and across Europe, then the UK. We launched in Australia and Vietnam and Brazil. I spent several years helping to build that brand. The Swedes were always very good at having small teams working on global work. They didn’t believe in networks, so it was about independent creative and strategic firms.
Sweden really exploded onto the world stage. I was working with most of the Swedish multinationals that were growing internationally, so I worked with Ikea, with Scania, and many others.
What I realised was that you don’t need a huge corporate network work for these global clients. I thought I would try it on my own. I was co-owner of an agency in Stockholm for seven years, which was sold to Publicis, and then two years later I moved to start StrawberryFrog.
LBB> So you picked up a lot of the values that inform StrawberryFrog from your time in Sweden?
SG> Absolutely. But I had the base from my parents, those Saturday night dinners where we’d talk. My grandfather was from London and moved to Canada in the 1900s and started a printing company called the Victoria Press and a publishing company. My father was in the Second World War and he came back, and he really wanted to get into advertising because that was where all the energy was. He started an advertising company called Cross Canada. So, I grew up with that culture. It was very provincial and very Canadian, though my Dad had a lot of clients in the Caribbean. He had a bit of a global mindset. It gave me the itch to go international at a young age.
Marry that with the Swedish learnings, which were about treating people well, flat organisation, doing more with less… and then this big idea that you could do that globally. You can work with clients all over the world and you can be as good as if not better than the Martin Sorrells or the big corporate agencies because you can provide a customised solution.
LBB> One of the things you often talk about is creating ‘movements’ – where did that originate from?
SG> In the early '90s, Northern European consumers demanded purpose from brands. They didn’t want just ‘stuff’. So, we did purpose branding in 1991, which was ahead of its time. Now in 2018, everyone is clamouring for a purpose but in the early '90s I found the purpose-based branding model was a little bit myopic and a little bit theoretical. The idea of creating movements rather than advertising came out of my experience with Swedish purpose-based marketing and its limitations.
You can have a great purpose but it’s super hard for marketers to activate it. If you have to sell a product, how do you activate a purpose? It’s difficult. Most brand marketers would say ‘I get it… but I need to sell diapers. How do I apply that?’ The whole Idea of movements was how do you take the idea of purposes to the next level. Societal movements are all based on trying to make the world a better place in some way. It doesn’t need to be a hyper noble cause, it could also be kind of funny and silly. That was really an evolution of purpose – how do you use it as a tool to motivate employees inside an organisation and how do you use it as a marketing strategy to ignite passions that move people to buy product externally.
That’s what we built the company on.
LBB> As a chronic non-joiner-inner… I’d love to know how do you create a movement that people will want to contribute to?
SG> It starts, basically, with this idea of empathy rather than product. It starts from a design mentality. You need to understand the brand culture and you need to articulate the brand benefit - and if you’ve got a purpose that’s also good. But then you need to understand what’s going on out there in culture and you need to understand societal insight and how you tie that back to your brand. And that’s how you get an idea that people are already interested in. It doesn’t have to be your traditional ‘join a movement to save the seal’, more like, how do you align with an idea that’s already out there that you would be interested in.
When we did the big repositioning work with Mega Bloks, we spoke to mothers. They were crying because technology was taking their children away from then, they didn’t have the relationship, they were losing out on imagination and free play. So, Mega Bloks became a movement for imagination and free play. That’s a movement that is super easy for parents to get involved in.
LBB> And this idea of ‘movements’ is also applicable internally for businesses that are facing wholesale structural and cultural changes, right?
SG> You have these blue-chip companies that are facing an onslaught of start-ups. You’ve got to change your whole company to compete. Think about that. That’s a huge challenge. Changing a company requires a movement, not a traditional top-down mandate. Organisations that want to become more innovative need new habits and behaviours from leaders and from employees. It’s the opposite of what you get in corporations; they look for efficiencies.
Even though there’s a difference between private companies and social movements, you can learn a lot about how to motivate people with trust and conviction and passion in a movement, rather than dictating from the top.
LBB> And that idea of wholesale cultural and structural change in businesses is interesting at a time when consultancies are buying up agencies and some holding companies are repositioning to compete in the consultancy space.
SG> If you can motivate an entire organisation to behave differently, imagine how powerful that is at a time when you need to shift to compete with start-ups. Imagine you’re the CEO facing this challenge. It’s super difficult and we’ve been doing it with some of the biggest companies out there. We did it for Emirates. We did it with P&G with Pampers. We’re working with Sun Trust which is one of the top ten banks in the United States. It works. It’s a model that works.
LBB> And I’ve got to ask you about setting up and running a business with your other half. That’s amazing – how do you make it work?
SG> Rule number one when we started the business was not to talk about work at the dinner table! I don’t know many people other than Faris Yakob and Rosie Siman at Genius Steals who do that. But if you can make it work it’s a great model. You can build your life around what you love. You work to live, which can make you happier I think.
LBB> When it comes to life outside the agency, what do you do to recharge?
SG> I’m a passionate dad and husband, that’s probably the greatest thrill. The second is friends; my friends are all over the map in the UK, Sweden, Canada, the Netherland, in France, in the US, you name it. I also love skiing and boating. We have a boat here in New York, so whenever we can we like to get on the water. We have the boat just past La Guardia and I take it into Manhattan, just down the East River, past the statue of Liberty and up the Hudson River. It’s fun.
And then we have a cottage in Sweden, so we go and hang out with friends, which is a great way to recharge batteries.
And then I try to find ways to do good in a little way. We love travelling and some trips will just be pure fun and some of them will be more purposeful. We took a trip to Haiti and worked in an orphanage for a little while. My son has picked up on that and he took a trip to Nicaragua with his friends and built homes for a mountain village. So, trying to give back is a good thing for my kids to learn.
LBB> And in terms of people who have inspired you, who are your creative heroes?
SG> I grew up in the industry at a time when I loved great writing. From an industry perspective, I always loved the world that came out of Leagas Delaney. I loved the work that came out of BBH in the early days, the writing was beautiful, and the art direction was lovely. I loved the work coming out of Fallon McElligot. I always leaned towards those people. People like Tim Delaney, John Hegarty, Nigel Bogle. And then the ‘W’ out of TBWA, Uli Wiesendanger, who was a brilliant writer and creative mind. When we stared StrawberryFrog, he was our chairperson for ten years. Working with him hand-in-hand was probably the highlight of my career.
Other than that, I’m an avid reader so I love reading philosophical books, starting with Socrates. It sounds a bit corny, but any great philosophical books are always fun to read for me. Bertolt Brecht is also someone I always found fascinating. He had a very interesting perspective on life and went against the grain. I always lean towards people who had the courage and the audacity to stand up against the masses and have a point of view that was different. That’s inherent in the culture of StrawberryFrog. We talk about being a frog versus the dinosaur.
I’ve always admired creative people who go their own way, whether it’s Picasso or Samuel Beckett or Kafka. Men and women who have just had an idea and stood by what they believed in while everyone else looked at them and shrugged.