POV: Interview with Deacon Webster, Co-Founder of Walrus
Deacon Webster is the chief creative officer and co-founder of Walrus, which recently won Ad Age’s Small Agency of the Year, Northeast Region. Located in New York City, the agency has produced work for Amazon, Comedy Central, Grand Marnier and AMC.
Welcome to The Agency Post. Tell us about yourself.
I live in Brooklyn with my wife, Frances, who is also a co-founder of the agency. Our house also contains two young children, 18 fish, a cat and a guinea pig.
I began in the industry in 1995 as an unpaid intern at Mad Dogs & Englishmen in New York. I finally got hired as a writer about a year later, moved out of my parents’ house and worked my way up from there. I opened the Mad Dogs San Francisco office in 2000, and in 2003 I moved back to New York as ECD of that office, which just goes to show that you still can work your way up from the mailroom if you’re willing to put in the time. We started Walrus in 2005 and, despite a recession, have managed to create a strong business. We have ongoing relationships with a diverse group of national clients and have been growing by leaps and bounds.
Tell us more about Walrus and the type of work that you do. Where did the name ‘Walrus’ come from?
Walrus is a creatively driven ad agency. Our work really runs the gamut in terms of how and where it’s executed, but regardless of the form we always approach problems with the same two goals. 1) We want the work to be smart, strategically sound and drive results, and 2) we want to make sure that we look out for the people who are on the other end of it. If we’re not being useful and/or entertaining, then we’re probably just being annoying. When we do a good job at both solving the problem smartly AND not being an intrusive ad-like object, the proof is in the numbers.
Walrus and walruses (or is it walri?) as a species are a nice analogy for what we are – they’re amusing, but they also don’t mess around.
A visitor to your agency’s website is guided through the site by a talking Walrus. Where did the inspiration for this come from? What do you think an agency website should accomplish?
For the most part, visitors to agency sites are either potential clients or they’re agency people looking for a new place to work. In both cases, you could imagine that they’d be sifting through a multitude of boring agency sites, so we knew that anything entertaining would be greeted as a blessing and a relief. From there we just put it into the creative department and lo and behold, this is what came out.
As for the purpose of the site, every agency has a different philosophy on what role a site should play in the new business process. A lot of agencies are trying to provide just enough detail to get somebody to pick up the phone and call their new business people who will sort out the good leads from the bad. Philosophically, we look at everything we touch as an opportunity to do something memorable, so “mailing it in” on our own site in the name of playing it safe was really not an option. Have we driven off some conservative clients that we might have gotten a meeting with otherwise? Probably. But if you want to stand out, you’ve got to be OK with being somewhat polarizing. I think it’s probably gotten us more meetings than it’s prevented, but maybe if we had a more traditional site we’d be rolling in the Splenda dollars right now.
Walrus recently won Small Agency of the Year in the Northeast region. What differentiates the way you work with your clients and the types of projects you produce?
We honestly and truly approach not just every project but every element of every project as a creative opportunity. When you do that, it changes the tenor of your client relationships because they start wanting to use you for everything they possibly can rather than sitting around questioning why they’re paying you so much money every month. We often have to put together case study videos for pitches and such, and we always have a hard time getting them down to a manageable time because there’s so much we want to put in there. To me, that’s a sign we’re doing the right thing for our clients.
Walrus works with a variety of top brand names from Howard Stern to Liz Claiborne to Amazon. With a 20-person agency creating these types of relationships, what cues do you think large, international agencies can learn from you and your team?
To build on my answer above, I think a lot of clients are tired of paying sizeable fees and getting the B team on everything but the TV spots. We don’t allocate teams or time by media spend or sexiness. We have literally gone through three weeks of internal creative development on a set of Google AdWords campaigns until we were happy with them, which I know sounds insane, but we wanted them to be great. Big shops, as they’re currently structured, can’t allocate resources in this manner, so we’ll always beat them on the little things, and the little things add up.
How do you think the creative landscape in the digital world evolve over the next couple of years? How do you think this will impact the role of creative director in agencies?
I think it’s going to be exciting. It’s exciting right now, so it’s only going to get better. We’re really just getting beyond the point where bandwidth is something you need to worry about, so there’s a lot that just hasn’t been talked about until now. Look at web banners. Standard IAB units largely came into existence because sites didn’t want their content bogged down by big intrusive ads that take forever to download, so these little crappy rectangles with tiny K requirements were developed as a solution. At the time it was reasonable, but fast forward to today where print is collapsing under the pressure from digital, but digital “has to be free” so the only way to fund it is through these highly ignorable, annoying low-impact units that you can’t charge enough for.
Now, with rich media technology and more ubiquitous broadband, things are going to change. I just read that Flipboard is implementing big full-screen ads within their content and charging print rates for them. If they can manage to get print money for digital ads, that’s huge for the industry, and it opens a lot of doors for people like us to dive in and do innovative things. Platform-wise, I’m bullish on tablets. It’s just so nice to have these lean-back devices that you don’t have to sit at like some 1950s data input drone if you want to use the Internet in your house. Location aware technology will undoubtedly be the next big thing (it already kind of is), and our devices will do a lot better job of talking to each other from both a data and user experience perspective.
In terms of managing the creative process, creative directors will need to be intimate with more and more types of media, but that should be a no-brainer for anyone who’s naturally curious. I will say that having an understanding of, and interest in, analytics, tracking and how ROI is determined is becoming more and more essential. In the old days it was just, “Trust us, in six months sales will be through the roof,” but now there is real time data, and lots of it, so it’s important that creatives take an interest in what all these numbers represent. All this data is a boon to creatively driven work, but you have to know what you’re looking at and to make sure that the correct things are being tracked if you want to properly tell the story.
What is your company culture like? How do you work to retain talent and encourage professional growth in your staff?
We try to keep it fun. We get out of the office on a regular basis – sometimes we do cultural things, sometimes we go to bars, sometimes we go to the shooting range (really). Last week we took a sailboat around New York Harbor for the afternoon, which was basically going to a bar, but at sea.
On the personal growth front, we do our best to let people pursue things they’re interested in, even if they’re not directly related to what they do. We pay for classes, let people migrate departments, try to stimulate them intellectually — you know, all that good stuff. Right now we also have three moms on staff who all work flex schedules. It’s amazing for us because we get great, senior-level people working here who otherwise wouldn’t be able to, and it works out for them because they don’t miss out on any fun mom stuff like changing diapers and forcing their children to eat beets.
What trends to do you see in advertising for television networks in the next three to five years? How is technology enhancing and changing the viewing experience today?
The types of technologies and ad platforms we’ll be seeing in the next few years will largely be shaped by the form television ultimately takes. If you look at the way video content is being consumed today, it’s not looking good for the long-term health of the buffet-style cable model where you pay a flat rate for access to hundreds of channels. Certainly it’s in the interests of the cable providers and the networks to keep this model afloat given the amount of advertising dollars that are at stake, but the likes of DVRs, tablets, iTunes, Netflix and Amazon are all providing viewers with viable reasons to cut the cord. Cellular networks are on their way to being able to deliver speeds that approach today’s fastest cable connections, and they surely will provide à la carte video programming options as well. It all adds up to a level of consumer choice in the video space that really hasn’t been there since cable companies started laying down wire.
For cord cutters, suddenly there’s nobody out there forcing you into the hundreds of channels that you spend absolutely zero time watching. This shift is going to make things really interesting for advertising because today’s disruptive model of commercials is primarily designed to work within the linear nature of live TV streams. When you can pick and choose your programming (like on a DVR), it’s much harder to insert four minutes of commercials within every half hour without really bothering people. Think about pre-roll ads on Youtube and Hulu: they’re way more annoying than your typical commercial because they’re not just popping up in the middle of the flow. On live TV you can turn to a channel, and you may get an ad or you may get a show. If you hit an ad, you could switch to another channel and maybe you won’t see one. It’s luck. On the other hand, there’s a 100 percent chance that the first thing you see is an ad when you start a video on Hulu. In that environment, seeing an ad is not unlucky, it’s a toll, and it makes anything that bears resemblance to channel-surfing intolerable. When everyone is watching TV like this, it’s going to make for a much more hostile environment for advertisers.
Of course, content could end up going the way of HBO GO and Netflix where you just pay a monthly fee and you don’t see any ads at all. Live events like sports and breaking news still hold a certain un-DVR-ableness, but beyond that there’s no real reason to have 1,000 “always-on” advertiser-funded TV networks anymore. This will be a huge boon for viewers, but for advertisers and advertising agencies whose bread and butter is TV commercials, it’s a big scary question mark.
What advice would you give to agencies that are just starting up?
1. Start with a retainer client if you possibly can.
2. One A-level person is worth three and a half B-level people.
3. And whenever you find yourself doing things purely for the money, stop for a second and think about why you started your agency in the first place. Proceed accordingly.
How do you see collaboration among the advertising industry evolving over the next couple of years? What type of collaborators does Walrus partner with?
We have a lot of collaborators actually: we have some in-house development capabilities, but when things get beyond our abilities, we partner up. We work with web developer 14four in Seattle a good deal (they’re excellent), and we also have a developer in India who is something of a rock star. We use Open Mind Strategy, which is run by former Mad Dogs partner Robin Hafitz, for planning, largely because she’s the best. Media-wise, we do a bunch ourselves and then we team up with a range of bigger agencies like KSL & Targetcast.
Though we have lots of partners, I am a firm proponent of clients choosing a single agency partner that runs the entire show. It keeps the work more single-minded, clients have less people to manage, communication is streamlined and budgets can follow the idea, not the other way around. It makes a world of sense. We are in a ton of relationships where we are but one of many agencies on the roster. And while we work very hard to make it seamless, it baffles me that clients willingly put themselves through it. It’s a logistical nightmare on so many levels and ultimately the work suffers from it. Agencies will always need partners, but if a client has the choice of picking a single agency to lead their business across the board or multiple “best in class” agencies, I’d go with the former every time.
Favorite ad: The 15-second Old Spice ad with the guy in the locker room who says, “I used to think my brand of antiperspirant didn’t matter. Dumb.” And then it holds on him for 10 seconds while he stares at the camera. So good.
One reason you love what you do: What’s not to love? It’s comedy. It’s technology. It’s film. It’s business.
Mentors: Dave Cook, Nick Cohen – My first two creative directors at Mad Dogs & Englishmen. Both British. Both awesome. If anyone reading this has the opportunity to work for either of them, do it. Though Nick might sexually harass you a little bit.
Must read book list: I’m a big non-fiction fan. These three will make you reassess your place in the universe: “The Fabric of the Cosmos,” by Brian Greene; “Annals of the Former World,” by John McPhee; “Ancestor’s Tale” by Richard Dawkins. Fiction wise, I’m a big fan of “The Naked and the Dead” by Norman Mailer and “Catch 22.” War is one of those topics that never ceases to fascinate.
Music that gets you in your zone: Pretty much any Grateful Dead from the year 1977, and lately I’ve been listening to a lot of early ‘70s Nigerian Funk. Soundway Records is an awesome label in that regard and worth checking out if you like that sort of thing.
Anything else you’d like to add? Thanks for thinking of us!
You can connect with Deacon on Twitter @thori.