The self-starters: Beyond the Brief featuring Frances and Deacon Webster, Walrus
It’s always nice when your romantic partner gets the insanity of working in this mad, mad world. Even better when that romantic partner doubles as your business partner, like Walrus co-founders Frances and Deacon Webster.
The tag team both met at Mad Dogs and Englishmen back in 2002—Frances joined from Butler, Shine, Stern and Partners as the new business director while Deacon had started his career at Mad Dogs as a junior copywriter fresh from Syracuse University. Eventually, when Mad Dogs was in decline (it since closed and reopened in 2015), the two hit it off, soon deciding they had the know-how to start their own agency. That agency, Walrus, is twenty people strong, with a roster as vibrant as their culture: The History Channel, XOJET, Bloomberg Businessweek and General Mills among them.
Enough isn’t said about how much effort is involved in starting your own agency, but the Webster’s were more prepared than they’ll probably let on. Frances, who also holds the role of Walrus’ chief operating officer, comes from a family of leaders and entrepreneurs. The University of the South (Sewanee) alum also holds a spot on the 4As New Business Committee and as an advisor for the Babson Center for Global Commerce. Deacon provides award-winning experience to the shop, his work appearing in annuals for Cannes, Communication Arts, and the Effies. All that wealth of creativity and experience in this business gives the vet credence to say this industry is heading into its own apocalypse. (Kind of.)
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Already great individually, the two partners-in-business (and in-love) set goals for an agency that can be fun, yet compellingly serious. Twelve years, a chatty walrus tour guide and many wins later, they show how shared vision can translate to all facets of life and is crucial to living beyond the brief.
If you started an agency from scratch today, what would it look like?
Walrus opened as a pure play creative shop in 2005. Since then more of our clients have wanted to streamline their marketing communications with one partner, and have since expanded Walrus into a full-service agency with creative, media, and PR all under one roof. Marketers are facing an increasingly complex communications landscape and one of the advantages of being independent is that we can evolve and pivot quickly to ensure the agency’s offering reflects that.
If we started from scratch today, we’d start with our current model and add a robust training and recruitment program. Our current approach allows Walrus to “future proof” its talent, but staying at the forefront of marketing requires everyone to be constantly learning. On the recruiting front, it’s not just that the competition for talent is fierce, it’s that the brightest college grads are considering Facebook or Snapchat rather than ad agencies. That’s a problem. We have to show young talent that they can work in advertising and still be at the forefront of technology while building memorable, endearing brands.
What was your proudest career moment?
When we first started Walrus, the agency we were working for at the time was going out of business. We still had six or seven clients and our plan was to take as many of them as we possibly could with us. We were faced with the tricky prospect of informing those clients that 1) their current agency was going out of business, and 2) that we were starting a new agency, so things weren't THAT bad. Our whole plan hinged on bringing along the agency’s biggest client, and not surprisingly, they were the hardest to convince. We went up and down their organizational chain with a business plan, convincing everyone that it was going to be okay. When they finally agreed to come with us, that was a huge moment. It meant we were going to be able to start the agency, which feels pretty great.
What makes you excited about going to work every day?
When we first opened Walrus, our CFO’s advice was “It’s going to be a roller coaster. Hold on.” He was right. Owning and running an ad agency can be exhilarating, exciting, and nausea inducing all at the same time. What really gets us excited to go to work every day is the opportunity to put the type of work Walrus creates out in the world. Our mission is to change the way the world feels about advertising by filling it with ideas that are smart, funny, and respect people’s time and intelligence. It’s the guiding principle for everything we do. To witness our media, creative, strategy and PR teams work together to come up with creative solutions that deliver on that mission is what it’s all about.
What life advice do you give others?
Deacon: Take your craft seriously, not yourself.
Frances: Say ‘yes’ more often, especially to things that are outside your comfort zone. One of the most important lessons I’ve picked up along the way is that in order to be successful, you have to push yourself beyond what you’re familiar with and already know how to do. Sure, there are likely to be some failures and setbacks, but how else will you learn? Set goals that scare you a little bit and work diligently to achieve them. You’ll come out a better person in the end.
What non-advertising things do you draw inspiration from?
Frances: Inspiration comes when I am doing the things I love most—whether it be running, traveling or exploring my own city. As a long distance runner, I’ve come to fully appreciate the importance of setting goals and putting together a clear, realistic plan to achieve them—a skill that’s invaluable in the workplace. Not to mention, running for two or more hours at a time allows me space and time to think and reset.
Traveling has been a source of inspiration for much of my life. While travel to exotic locales is amazing, choosing destinations within the U.S. is critical for better understanding how people in our own country live. But even when I am not traveling, I am lucky to live in one of the cultural capitals of the world. In New York City, you can spend one night at a brilliant play, the next at a concert or gallery opening, and the next at a new restaurant. The creative energy that infiltrates this city is a true inspiration.
Deacon: I get a ton of inspiration from reading the newspaper, odd as that may sound. Every day there’s something weird or interesting in there that gets my mind going in a different direction and sometimes it leads to concepts. For example, during the financial crisis there was an article about how shoppers were asking for unmarked bags from luxury shops so nobody would know that they were spending gobs of money while everyone else was losing their jobs. We used that idea for a high-end steakhouse and made decoy “doggie bags” with Sbarro and Chipotle logos on them so customers with big expense account meals could sneak the leftovers back into their offices under the radar.
To celebrate its 100th Anniversary, the 4A’s has partnered with us at The Drum to pull back the curtain and look at an industry full of problem solvers, creative types and analytical minds. But what keeps them going once the briefs are written, the campaigns executed, and the pitches won (or lost)? We’re interviewing 100 people at 4A’s member agencies — across all disciplines, levels, regions, and agency types — to get a glimpse into what drives them at work and what fuels them in life.
To pitch someone from a 4A's member agency for Beyond the Brief, please complete this linked form.