Sweden had been a country in which advertising was basically prohibited. There was no television advertising, no radio, and there was basically print and outdoor. So I learned a very different way of thinking abut strategy, because the Swedes were very strategic, and very logical in the use of imagery, particularly in using still imagery to tell the whole brand idea in one photograph. That was very much a Swedish art form.
Then, all the laws were repealed and there was just this explosion of creativity. There was no history of how advertising was suppose to be done, unlike in North America, where you have clients that have 60 years of how their advertising is supposed to be done. So we had clients whose idea of a TV spot was a Fellini movie. It was really easy to create good advertising, and also innovative marketing, because so many of the clients were in IT, like cell phone makers. They obviously wanted to break boundaries, change behaviors, and find new ways of connecting customers. There was a global market opening up for Swedish multinationals.
I did that for 10 years, and I learned a few things. First of all, a very small, very focused, and very talented group of people could guide and guard a global brand. You don't have to be huge corporation.
|"You need to be a little bit on the outside lane to see opportunities and possibilities to network with people that are just a little bit off-center, because otherwise you just trample the same beaten path that everyone else does."|
Canadian journalists have attributed at least some of your success to your upbringing in Montreal. As a Canadian, they argued, you were raised to see the broader world and not just in terms of your native country, as Americans are prone to do. Were you unafraid to live and work abroad because of that, and did that lead you to start StrawberryFrog in Amsterdam?
I have no idea. There's a certain amount of fearlessness you are raised with when your father owns a company. You have to stay focused on your goals, and sustainability is the key issue for an independent organization. I've never really been panic-stricken by running companies with a lot of employees and clients. The Swedish example was great because it proved you could do international global brand work for major corporations on international basis with clients that were not prepared to ram advertising down people's throats, but needed an approach that would bring people together and inspire them to work together based on universal insight.
And, there are a lot of Americans in Amsterdam and a lot of Americans in Sweden. It's becoming increasingly popular amongst young people to live in a world without borders. I do think that growing up in a social democratic country like Canada, you tend to compare yourself to other people, because you always want to feel that you're growing up in a society that is better than other nations. You have a natural openness and curiosity about what happens outside of your own country. A lot of my friends went to work in New York or Toronto after school, and it just felt natural to go a totally different way. I think to some extent that's why we've managed, through the company, to establish ourselves. I think that you need to be a little bit on the outside lane to see opportunities and possibilities to network with people that are just a little bit off-center, because otherwise you just trample the same beaten path that everyone else does.
You founded StrawberryFrog in 1999 near the peak of the Internet bubble and on the cusp of the Euro integration. What was it like to start a pan-European and would-be-global agency at that moment in time?
We were the only agency that set itself up, from the beginning, to be a global ad agency. There were no Dutch people in the Amsterdam office. After two years we had 325 nationalities in Amsterdam and clients all around the world. So I don't think there was ever an agency that could be a brand that worked across all borders. Back in those days, most national agencies believed their ideas would go to the border, and you would never consider going for a French account or -- God forbid! -- a European account. That was just never done because that's how Europeans thought of the market. If you were French you worked with French companies; if you were German, you worked with German clients. We were the first agency to say that's all poppycock, and the first of its kind to be a non-nationally based agency.
While we chose Amsterdam for a number of reasons, it wasn't because of the fact we were Dutch. It was the center of Europe, it was because Weiden & Kennedy had an office there and we could easily attract talent if we wanted to bring people into the agency and, from a cost perspective, it was much cheaper than London, Paris, or Berlin.
How has the advertising business changed since StrawberryFrog launched? A number of firms, like Mother, reached many of the same conclusions you did and have had similar success. And if you were able to serve clients globally from Amsterdam, why open a New York office?
We started out to be about "total engagement." What we meant by that was we'd find an idea that was on the rise in culture and then we would take that idea and create a connection between the brand and that idea in such a way that we would create communities and build, basically, a popular grassroots movement. After five or six years, we did several campaigns that became quite well-known not only in Europe but also internationally. We won the 42-country Mitsubishi Motors account after starting the agency with the Smart Car, which was created by Swatch and DaimlerChrysler. Our relationship with Daimler evolved to the point where we were asked to pitch the Mitsubishi Motors European account. We won that, and it was an example of how sophisticated StrawberryFrog could be for what was probably one of the most demanding kinds of clients, which was not only a car account but also a retail car account with multiple markets and multiple languages.
At that point, we started to meet clients in the United States who were taking an interest in what StrawberryFrog was doing in Europe. After many discussions, people would fly in from the United States to talk about campaigns, and we would do work for people in the United States, but out of Amsterdam. After a while, I thought it was time to try something totally new, so I left the Amsterdam office and moved to New York with a backpack and the same idea. We won our first piece of business from Pfizer, whom we worked with for two years, and from there we started to win accounts. We'll be three years old in February.
In March, you delivered a keynote address at the Global Future Marketing Summit in which you basically called for an end to the agency model as we know it. In the future, there would be boutique ideas shops earning big money for supplying ideas to the clients, while everyone else would essentially work for Kinko's. Is that where the industry is headed over the next decade?
I think there are a couple of things. First of all, the advertising industry is not unique to business today. Every business is going through a revolution. I think the advertising industry does a better job hiding the fact that it's going through a revolution, but the reality is there's a massive shift right now. I think the bigger organizations won't disappear, but they are going to have competition in areas that they never thought of in the past. The thought I had, back then when I wrote that essay, was the idea that a company stating today that is the FedEx of execution -- when it absolutely, positively, has to be done overnight -- is not a crazy thought. Clients could buy the best ideas and have companies that simply, and purely, are in the business of execution. I think that day is coming quickly. Pure ideas are where the industry is going to have to go. If the execution side of the business is a commodity and people are being squeezed for money, the only way that value can be created in this business and attract the type of quality thinkers that it needs is to come up with great ideas.
Small organizations like StrawberryFrog are trying to find ways of generating income in that respect. No one has really solved that yet, but I think clients are starting to look and be open-minded to trying new things. I think that the reality of business is that if someone is doing something successful, everyone stops and says, "Wow, if they can do that we can do that too." Everyone starts to run a bit faster, people are inspired, and there are new brands and small companies that join the race and ideas get better and clients have more choices and there are more alternatives. In that respect, I think it's better all-around for the industry, because you have more competition that's not just relying on the established institutions that have been around forever.
[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]