StrawberryFrog on agencies and purpose: ‘It’s no longer acceptable to act independently’
Scott Goodson is co-founder and chief exec at ‘purpose activation’ company and creative agency StrawberryFrog. He’s also a columnist, author of two books, podcast host and investor. We sat down with him to talk frogs and dinosaurs, dependence and independence, and what agencies are for.
In an industry that draws talent from all over, Scott Goodson is something you meet surprisingly rarely: a family adman. His grandfather, a native Brit, moved to Canada to found a publishing house (called Victoria Press); his father ran an ad agency; and his mother was creative director for department store Morgan’s (now part of famed Canadian brand The Bay). But, he says, “I did not in any way want to work in marketing or communications. I thought they were all flaky.”
StrawberryFrog’s Scott Goodson on his agency’s origins and future – and why he chose the name
A world tour
Goodson studied law, but the family business chased him around the world. Post-graduation he went first to Japan (teaching English), then met a Swedish woman on a holiday in Greece: now-wife and StrawberryFrog executive vice-president Karin Drakenberg.
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When he moved to Drakenberg’s native Sweden, advertising finally caught up with Goodson: he found work as a copywriter on the newly-launched Björn Borg fashion line and then for agency Welinder, on the Ericsson mobile phone account. With that network booming, travel was again in the offing as he went from “market to market launching the brand”: to Thailand, Australia and Brazil, for example.
Goodson’s journey as a business owner started there at Welinder. The owner announced that he was going to sell the agency, “so I said to him, ‘would you be open to selling to me?’ He laughed at me, ‘you’re a little kid, what are you talking about?’”
They agreed that Goodson would work late on pitches, and if he landed big clients he could use the profit from them to buy out the owner. It was the time of conservative Carl Bildt’s Swedish premiership, with large corporations being sold into the public sector, and Goodson won an account on one of those privatizations (Procordia). “We got hired by a couple of huge corporations within the same group to build their brands afterward. I used the profits from that to buy out the shareholders and ended up owning 50% of the company.”
Goodson later left Sweden for Amsterdam, but not before Scandinavia left its mark. “The huge corporations that came out of the Nordics never liked working with big corporate ad agencies. They thought they were expensive, bureaucratic, slow, not innovative. They were much more open to small, creative, independent firms. Seeing the Swedish companies believe in themselves and go on and compete with these huge companies made me realize that you can.”
The strawberry poison-dart frog: ‘a rebel with jeans’
That David v Goliath mentality became the founding purpose of Goodson’s next venture, StrawberryFrog. “We wanted to use creativity for good and do it better, smarter and faster than the big corporations.” After an article in AdAge described larger agencies as dinosaurs, he says, he knew how to brand the agency: frogs not only outlived dinosaurs but flourished in the wake of the asteroid strike that killed their prehistoric counterparts. But which frog? Well, the strawberry poison-dart frog is “rare and poisonous – look at it and you’ll die, so it’s highly effective.” Even better, some varieties of the red frog have blue legs, making it “a rebel with jeans.”
(In one early pitch, he says, “the client said, ‘I can never hire an agency called StrawberryFrog,’ so I walked out of the room and a representative from Google was sitting there. I remember saying to him, ‘I don’t think you’re going to do very well in there.’”)
Many agency heads would be more cautious of the ‘David v Goliath,’ ‘poisonous frog’ talk. But, for Goodson, “it’s not antagonism. It’s channeling the frustrations that clients have. Those frustrations are typically around cost, speed to market ... they just happen to be things that are typically related to big corporations. Just because huge corporations have always done it that way doesn’t mean it’s the best way. New ideas come from places that don’t have a vested interest in keeping the world the way it is.”
Speaking of that broader ad ecosystem, Goodson has spent a lot of time thinking about agencies’ place in the world. “It’s no longer acceptable to act independently,” he says. “You have to take into account the health and welfare of human beings.”
The core of his philosophy, he says, has always been that “communications can drive positive change.” These days, that means that StrawberryFrog positions itself as a global leader in purpose-driven transformation. It has worked with clients including Google, Emirates and Walmart to reposition with purpose at the heart of their positioning and comms. All of that is backed by their yearly ‘purpose power index,’ which, he says, proves that “purpose does significantly increase the willingness of people to work for a company and or buy from a company.”
Agencies, he suggests, would do well to look at their role in the global ecosystem with a little humility. “There is no reason why we should exist as a firm,” he says. “There are thousands of firms that do what we do. So why should you choose us?”
“The two largest ad agencies in the world today are Facebook and Google, not Publicis or Omnicom. The world is changing ... I certainly don’t want to run a company that focuses on selling services that are a dime a dozen. What’s the point? That’s a race to the bottom; it doesn’t fulfill our purpose; it doesn’t fulfill the dreams and aspirations of our talent.”
At the risk of making the word ‘purpose’ lose all meaning, then, agencies’ role, for Goodson, is to help brands realize and deliver on their own true purpose, “so that it’s not just a ‘purpose’ that hangs behind the CEO’s desk, but a way of being and a way of doing. How do we turn this huge corporation into a company that’s selling products, but also not poisoning our customers? Not killing animals and plants and ruining the environment? How do we help people and sell them products?”
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