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Don’t let the cute name fool you. If you ever happen upon a “strawberry frog”—a rare species found in the Amazon, with a red body and blue legs—you should be aware that the colorful little frog is capable of taking down much larger predators.

Likewise, if you happen to be in charge of a large, traditional advertising agency and you ever find yourself going head-to-head with a playful, quirky little ad shop named StrawberryFrog, be forewarned: This frog is liable to leave you flat on your back.

Since StrawberryFrog was opened eight years ago in Amsterdam by Scott Goodson and a couple of partners, this unconventional small agency with the funny name has swiped business from some of the biggest names in advertising, ranging from BBDO to McCann Erickson and Fallon Worldwide. Major advertising accounts from companies such as Mitsubishi, Microsoft, Miller Brewing, Frito-Lay and Procter & Gamble have bypassed the multinational ad networks to turn work over to StrawberryFrog. Why? Because “the Frog” has successfully demonstrated that in today’s marketing environment, sometimes it’s better to be small, fast and agile.

In its New York office, a three-year-old offshoot of the original Amsterdam operation, the agency runs lean and mean with about 60 people, all crammed together in one bustling, wide-open workspace; the Amsterdam operation is similarly modest (as is its newest office in Brazil). Yet between them, the offices juggle marketing campaigns that appear all over the world, to the tune of more than $200 million in billings. For support, the agency regularly turns to outside help—freelancers, specialists, hired guns—while striving to keep the operation trim and relatively free of overhead and bureaucracy. This is the model Goodson envisioned when he launched StrawberryFrog as an assault on an ad industry that, to his mind, had grown big, bloated and antiquated.

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“The idea was to take on the dinosaurs,” Goodson says, using the term he often applies to the big establishment agencies. Goodson, 44, is a veteran of a big agency himself and his startup incorporated what he’d seen and learned in his own far-ranging travels through the ad world.

Born in Montréal, Goodson traveled around the globe in his twenties and settled in Sweden in the late ’80s, working for a Swedish agency known as Welinder (“the Hal Riney of Sweden,” he says). He rose to become co-owner of the agency, over a ten-year stretch, then returned to Canada for a stint at J. Walter Thompson in Toronto. “While I was there, I found myself doing three hundred tv commercials a year,” Goodson says; even as the world was changing with the rise of the Internet in the mid-to-late ’90s, JWT seemed to be locked into doing advertising the good old 30-second way. Goodson eventually returned to Europe, determined to create an alternative to that kind of business-as-usual approach.

The Frog idea emerged during a late night at a coffee shop in Amsterdam, Goodson says. “I’d learned while working in Sweden that you don’t have to be big; you can be small, innovative and smart, and still do quite well,” he says. “That was the concept behind StrawberryFrog—a faster, more agile, convergence agency. To me, a frog is a good example of that. We are in the outside lane, the opposite of the dinosaur.”

And Goodson wanted his new company to be the opposite of a big agency in terms of how it operated. First off, the structure had to be lean and efficient. “The thinking was that an ad agency could be more like, say, an architectural firm. If you look at someone like Rem Koolhaas, he has his core team, but he turns to outside specialists for each project—if he needs the best glass guy, he knows where to find that person.” Similarly, Goodson says, an ad agency should be focused on the core value of creating ideas—everything else, from broadcast production to design to digital can be outsourced to specialists. StrawberryFrog was set up to run this way, with small internal teams providing core services to each client, supplemented by outside support.

The second big difference Goodson had in mind involved process. Instead of automatically thinking in terms of TV commercials and print ads, Goodson wanted to pursue a more media-neutral approach focused on creating communities and sparking cultural movements around each brand. You don’t create such groundswells by blaring out messages via mass media; instead, he contends, you have to find fresh ideas that resonate with certain segments of the culture, and begin to carefully seed that idea at the ground level—using the Web, community building or various unconventional communications tactics. If you do it right, he says, “You tap into a social phenomenon, connect it to the brand, and then surf on the wave of popular culture.”

What we’ve been doing is driving a wedge between major, established clients and their big-agency networks. And now? Now the floodgates are open."
 

A good example of this was an early campaign that the agency created for Sony Ericsson and its new T300 mobile phone. The agency’s idea was that this gadget was so desirable to tech-hungry youth that it made them drool. But instead of just doing commercials to that effect, StrawberryFrog began circulating the notion that drooling was an emerging teenager trend that was spreading globally; the viral campaign was disseminated via flyers, postcards and even drooling dogs (who, with permission from owners, were enlisted to wear doggie jackets promoting the product). The drool campaign became a phenomenon in Europe, and helped put StrawberryFrog on the map.

The agency grew rapidly in its first few years, signing up big-name clients such as Smart Car, Credit Suisse, Daimler Chrysler, Mitsubishi Motors, Diet Coke, Heineken beer and Asics Onitsuka Tiger sneakers. The latter account represented another big creative breakthrough, and once again demonstrated the agency’s ability to generate cultural momentum without relying on a big-budget TV campaign. The Asics campaign tapped into retro Japanese pop culture imagery and used it to create a grass-roots movement fueled by funky T-shirts, posters, an agency-made indie short film and even an online karaoke competition. Thanks to StrawberryFrog, Asics went from being a nearly-forgotten brand to one with lots of ironic hipster cachet—and sales growth from zero to 400 million. Just as the Amsterdam shop was gaining a worldwide rep, Goodson did something surprising. “I decided it was time to come to New York,” he says. After all, he notes, if you’re really going to take on the dinosaurs of advertising, you’ve got to go to their home base. Goodson set up shop on Madison Avenue in 2004, joined by a newly-recruited and well-regarded creative director named Kevin McKeon, who’d been the creative leader at Bartle Bogle Hegarty’s New York office, Ilana Bryant, who’d also been at BBH as strategic director, and Tori Winn, a creative director from AKQA London.

In New York, StrawberryFrog became part of a wave of creative-driven agencies, which were just starting to shake up Madison Avenue, that all had odd names like Mother, Taxi and Anomaly. Goodson saw them as kindred spirits in the revolution, but also felt that some of them were still more traditional in terms of, for example, their reliance on TV advertising. He felt that StrawberryFrog could stand apart even in this crowd. And he was quickly proved right, as the agency nabbed a number of high-profile projects in New York, including a big piece of business from the Old Navy clothing brand, as well as Wal-Mart’s Sam’s Club stores.

While StrawberryFrog was snapping up accounts, often at the expense of big Madison Avenue agencies, these larger competitors no doubt saw the Frog as a pesky annoyance. But from Goodson’s perspective, he had begun the process of dismantling the old advertising establishment. “What we’ve been doing is driving a wedge between major, established clients and their big-agency networks,” he says. And now? “Now the floodgates are open,” he says.

The idea was to take on the dinosaurs."
 

Goodson may be right about that. A growing number of big clients such as Procter & Gamble seem now to be working with a roster of smaller agencies, enabling them to get the best and freshest ideas. It doesn’t mean they’ve abandoned the big agencies, necessarily; it means there’s a lot more sharing going on, with important projects being parceled out to the StrawberryFrogs of the world.

Or, as Goodson puts it, “The one-agency relationship is going away.” If that amounts to a breakdown of the old advertising establishment, Goodson thinks it’s long past time. “It’s amazing the industry has stayed together as long as it has,” he says. “It’s been held together by Scotch tape and Band-Aids.”

In the new ad world, everything is up for grabs, and reinvention is a way of life. StrawberryFrog seems well-suited to that, as it constantly morphs with each project. The agency has even invented its own language, it seems: what other agencies refer to as a “brainstorm” is, here, a “FrogLogic session.” The office is the “FrogPond” with various parts occasionally turned into “habitats,” wherein the walls are covered with iconography and images that bring to life whatever sub-culture is being infiltrated by the agency that particular week.

In months ahead, the agency has many unorthodox campaigns on tap: For the Toyota car Scion, StrawberryFrog aims to create a whole subculture based on “Scion speak”—with its own hieroglyphic language of symbols, to be shared by fellow Scion owners by way of online clubs and decals on cars. The agency also plans to create an innovative social network portal for P&G, and it will launch a whole new line of healthy snack foods for Frito-Lay called True North. These are big projects, for big name brands: “We don’t want to do quirky little things,” Goodson says.

Not to say the agency doesn’t try quirky things with some of its big clients. For the drug giant Pfizer and its Viagra brand, Goodson once suggested creating a nonprofit foundation devoted to making Leaning Tower of Pisa more...upright. Pfizer passed on that idea, but it didn’t put a damper on the relationship between the client and the agency. At this point, clients and competitors alike seem to have accepted that a StrawberryFrog in the vicinity keeps everyone on their toes. ca

Warren Berger (warrenberger.com) is a writer and speaker specializing in design, advertising and innovation. He is the author of several books, including the newly revised A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas (Bloomsbury, 2014). Berger lectures and conducts workshops on innovation and creativity in business, and he is a frequent contributor to the Wall Street Journal, Fast Company, the Harvard Business Review and CA.
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