Leap of Faith

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The tone of all the propaganda for the Amsterdam and now New York-based independent StrawberryFrog is decidedly friendly-from its self-description as "Your friendly neighborhood global advertising agency," to its manifesto, laid out in a whimsical children's book. All that happy packaging, however, is clever camouflage for the shop's more serious pursuits. The manifesto tells the David and Goliath tale of a tiny frog beating out the big bad dinosaurs, clearly a metaphor for the small, streamlined startup toppling the lumbering corporate giant. Moreover, while StrawberryFrog's moniker originates from a "tiny, cute, innocuous looking" species of amphibian, as creative director Shawn Preston adds, "in reality, it's quite potent. Tribesman used their poison to kill big pigs, or for marital sacrifice."

OK, so they're not exactly out for the kill, but the folks at StrawberryFrog are dead set on dethroning the process-driven giants of the corporate world. "We started this agency because we felt that the big corporate agencies had kind of run their course and we just wanted to compete with them, to do better creative work," explains partner Scott Goodson, who founded the agency in Amsterdam in 1999. To do that, the shop attempts to maintain a loose, caste-free structure. "The way StrawberryFrog works is ecumenical," Preston notes. "When you join, you kind of drink the Kool-Aid. There's no hierarchy. At other places, even creative shops like where a lot of us came from, there are still people who own the shares, a sort of delineation between them and everybody else. At StrawberryFrog, there's a much more democratic vibe." Preston is part of the core creative team, also comprised of founder Goodson, Andy McKeon, Jason Schragger, Gabriela Bayala, Mark Chalmers, Andrew Watson and Roger Hoard, whose combined backgrounds include stints at BBH/London, W+K/Portland, Goodby, CP+B, and Mother. As for business brains, there's partner Heather Fullerton, former M&C Saatchi head of planning Tracey Lee and former Y&R account director Jessica Davidson.

The Amsterdam headquarters has found success and a distinctly flexible identity, aiming to do things smarter, faster and not beholden to the traditional TV and print media mix. Clients include Sony-Ericsson, Ikea, and most notably, Mitsubishi Europe, a $100 million account the shop won in 2002. Since then, Goodson says the agency's multi-faceted campaigns have helped to drive sales 29 percent higher than expected, to the brand's first ever profit in Europe. Last February, the Frogs, as they refer to themselves, soft-launched a new pad in Manhattan's concrete jungle, where Davidson, Lee and Fullerton hold down the fort. The creative director post at this point is revolving, with talent from Amsterdam shuttling in until a permanent head is decided. So far, the New York outpost has signed as agency of record for Emirates Airlines, and both Preston and Chalmers led the launch of SF's first national campaign for the "Boomer Coalition." Created for Pfizer and the National Heart Association, it attempts to raise awareness about cardiovascular disease among Baby Boomers and launched during the Oscars with a spot directed by X-Men and Usual Suspects' Brian Singer. Featuring a nostalgic montage of celebrities who died of CVD, the commercial directed viewers to a website (boomercoalition.org), which on launch night registered 200,000 hits. Now, SF is gearing up for an all-star concert this fall in New York, bringing in help from the record industry and producers from the original Woodstock. "We wanted to link this illness to the entertainment industry the way breast cancer is linked to fashion," Goodson explains, with the point being not just to do spots, but to spark cultural movements. "Everything doesn't have to be a TV commercial. The creative frontier is the merger of advertising, entertainment and content. We believe that advertising can create culture."

With all due respect, though, what else is new? The Mothers and CP+B's of the world have already proved such thinking sound, with clients happily biting. "In one context, we're actually similar to some of those agencies," Goodson says. "We're in the same brain space in that we're different from the big corporate agencies. But also, we're totally opposite." The shop presents a unique model, he says. It boasts a trim figure of about 70 international full timers in Amsterdam and six in New York, morphing according to each project by tapping various independent contractors, from creatives to concert promoters. Whether this distinguishes them from the rest of the small independents isn't the Frogs' biggest concern, however. "The Crispins, the Mothers, all of us stand for difference," says Goodson. "Innovation comes from smaller organizations, so I think it's important that all of us make inroads. It'll be good for creativity in the long run. And being in New York now is really good timing. We believe a creative renaissance is about to happen in the U.S. and we want to be one of those agencies that are part of that."

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