I am the Walrus: spotlight on the agency’s founder, Deacon Webster

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How does a boutique agency like Walrus compete with Madison Avenue? It doesn’t. Deacon Webster tells ClickZ how his irreverent agency thrives by doing its own thing.

In a way, Walrus started because of the Atkins diet. Did chief creative officer Deacon Webster find the confidence to start his own agency after losing a bunch of weight? Not quite. The real story is much more off-the-wall, fitting for an agency whose whole thing is being a bit off-the-wall.

Webster’s advertising career began as an unpaid copywriter at Mad Dogs & English, shortly after he graduated from Syracuse University in 1995. He moved out to San Francisco during the height of the dot-com bubble, eventually returning home (Webster grew up in Westchester) in 2002 to run Mad Dogs’ New York office. The agency had one superstar client in particular: Atkins.deacon-webster

“When we got the Atkins account, it was amazing. It suddenly became this huge phenomenon, but by the time it was spending $35 to $40 million a year on measured media, Dr. Atkins slipped on the ice and went into a coma. They put him on a glucose drip and he gained all this weight in the hospital because he hadn’t had sugar in 50 years,” recalls Webster.

Sadly, Dr. Atkins died nine days after his accident. His weight gain hurt the diet’s popularity so much that Atkins stopped spending so much money on agencies. Mad Dogs’ New York office struggled for a while, eventually closing one Friday in 2005. In its place, Webster and his wife Frances founded Walrus the following Monday.

Signature style: in theory

Mad Dog’s strategy was “to be very funny and disarming, and treat its audience like it was smart,” as Webster puts it. That philosophy carried over to Walrus, evident from the homepage, which features a walrus-centric search engine that actually answers your questions. The arctic mammal can direct you around the site and also tell you its favorite color (either alizarin crimson or Van Dyke brown, by the way). If it doesn’t know something, you’ll get an answer like, “I’m a walrus, not an oracle.”

“We spend our lives telling our clients to do something different. I think it’s ridiculous how bad advertising agencies’ sites are and how uncreative they are, so that was the first thing,” says Webster. “It turned into, ‘We’re called Walrus, so we should have a talking walrus on it.’ If you can appreciate that, you’re someone we want to work with.”

Webster likes sharp creative that breaks the fourth wall, kind of like Isaiah Mustafa’s Old Spice ads or the blatantly obvious product placements in 30 Rock. Everything Walrus does reflects that and the brands it works with tend to align with that style.

“The work we like to do kind of understands what’s going on in marketing and advertising right now, and tries to sort of subvert it or be self-aware about it,” explains Webster. “Our stuff knows it’s an ad, just like the people watching it know it’s an ad.”

In other words, respect your audience’s intelligence.

How do you get a client to let you do something unorthodox? It comes down to trust, something that can be fueled by increasingly rare, but valuable long-term relationships. When the Websters started Walrus, they retained some of Mad Dogs & Englishmen’s New York clients, five of which they still work with.

Signature style: in practice

One of Webster’s proudest campaigns is what Walrus did for Smith & Wollensky, the iconic New York City steakhouse, back in 2011.

Throughout October, the restaurant changed its name every day. Everything was switched out daily: napkins, matchbooks, awnings, jackets. The new names – Webster & Wollensky, O’Brien & Wollensky, you get the idea – reflected loyal customers who pledged to make Smith & Wollensky their steakhouse.

“Steakhouses are all about loyalty. Dudes pick a steakhouse when they’re 40 and never go to another one. Smith & Wollensky is amazing with regulars: there’s a plaque on the wall, they know what you like to drink. It’s the best customer service in the world, but some young people don’t know that,” says Webster.

The campaign generated $300,000 worth of dinner reservations and coverage by The New York Times. The “transmedia” aspect is why this particular campaign is so special to Webster: that fusion of all different kinds of marketing is what he’d like to do for every client.

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Benefits of a smaller size

With around 20 employees, Walrus is a small agency, though it still attracts some big names. Clients include Amazon, Staples, Pret a Manger, and Bloomberg Businessweek. It may sound intimidating to be a smaller agency in the land of Ogilvys and McCanns, but Webster doesn’t see it that way.

“I think they should be more worried about us than we are about them. A small account to a bigger agency is generally something much larger to us, so we can service it with a lot more passion,” he says. “The overhead is such a different beast; a $10 million piece of business is huge to us and we’re going to put our best people on it.”

Another advantage to being smaller is that there’s much less bureaucracy, he adds. There are also less instances of a process-slowing discrepancy between something, say, that you like but your boss doesn’t.

“At a big agency, there can be three or four levels just to get something in front of a client. It’s a whole lot slower, like turning around a battleship,” says Webster.

Either way, Webster doesn’t feel like he’s in competition with the bigger agencies. Both sides of the industry have their strengths and it’s clear that the current strategy is working for Walrus. Some of its upcoming work includes campaigns for General Mills, Rémy Cointreau and a new show with Craig Ferguson.

Webster wouldn’t give me any details, so I asked someone else: the homepage walrus. It sighed dramatically and accused me of being arbitrary.

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What’s your philosophy in 10 words?

Here at ClickZ, we’ve been doing these profiles for a while – you guys like them; Google Analytics says so – and we decided to give them another element. Going forward, our profiles will close out with the subject’s philosophy in 10 words. So what is Webster’s?

Approach everything as if it’s the biggest creative opportunity ever.

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