John Berg of Swirl: Brands Should Do, Not Say

john-bergJohn Berg, managing partner of Swirl Integrated Marketing, believes that literally anything can be interesting. The key, he says, is looking deep enough. As an account director at BBDO, while everyone else was fighting over who got to work on Pepsi, he quietly dug into Bayer Consumer Care, becoming fascinated at how this simple and mysterious compound provides such wondrous healing.

As Berg moved to president of DDB New York, Euro RSG, and then Taxi before becoming CEO of Y&R Brands in 2008 and then joining Swirl in 2011, he continually encouraged staffers to take that deeper dive, letting their curiosity take them in surprising directions.

Maybe that’s the strategy that led to Torani’s Chicken N’ Waffles promotion. Swirl’s April Fools press release announcing the apocryphal flavor garnered so much attention in traditional and social media that the syrup maker plans to release it for real.

Cost Plus World Market wanted to get greater exposure for its electronic catalog and videos on its website – without using paid media. Swirl redesigned the CPWM e-catalog to optimize it for the Google Catalogs iPad application and created an editorial spread featuring the videos, sending 92 percent first-time visitors to the site. For eBay Motors, Swirl created an original online video series, “The World’s Fastest Car Show,” drawing thousands of viewers each month of its two-year run.


Fifteen-year-old Swirl plans to stay independent, a big draw for Berg. The agency aims to bring big-agency big ideas to a more personal, nimble – and positive – environment. It recently opened Sidecar, a sister agency, across the bay from its San Francisco headquarters.

We sat down with Berg in Swirl’s office to discuss why brands need to move beyond advertising.

ClickZ: What’s your vision of integrated marketing in this increasingly digital era?

John Berg: It involves some kind of real experience; it’s the difference between trying to assert something and just showing you. For 50 or 60 years, the way we built brands was, we asserted what a brand’s point of view was. The primary job we did as marketers was telling that story: we said through a 30- or 60-second advertising piece that I bring good things to life. I’m the choice of a generation. The ability we had to cleverly and memorably do that was what built brands.

The future for brands – what digital and social media have created – is that the center of a brand’s behavior has to be not saying but doing. If I take action as a brand, the role of communications is making sure the right people participate in what I’m doing and there is credible amplification of that.

ClickZ: What kinds of behavior are you talking about? Philanthropy?

JB: It’s doing things based on your positioning and values. If I’m a company or brand that actually has a set of values and takes a point of view, if my consumers have a set of beliefs and point of view that I can figure out, I ought to be able to put some action in there based on what I believe and what they value. If I can give them that, I’m building my brand in a much more authentic way.

One whole tranche for me is helping brands figure out what to do and making sure the right people participate, and then ensuring the maximum effect of that is felt on the tail.

ClickZ: How does that change the way an agency works?

JB: We used to believe in campaigns built off ads. We grew up in world where campaigns typically built off ads. I need the 60-second ad that rally runs at a 30; maybe we do some print and a radio spot to go along with it. What makes it a campaign is it goes down a conveyor belt to direct marketing and the web, all based on the original campaign idea. As a marketer, I spend 12 to 18 months and my whole budget betting on that campaign. At the end, I have a generalized idea of whether it’s successful.

I believe that we’re not going to be doing campaigns any more. What we will contribute to brands are lots of very relevant ideas. We’ll measure the impact of those ideas and quickly drop ones that aren’t working, and triple down on the ones that seem to be gathering momentum. As we drop ideas off the front, we’re putting new ideas back in constantly.

What’s cool about this is, from a consumer standpoint, if brands start to compete with each other to do things for consumers that actually give them value, for example, an app or a concert. If that becomes the axis we’re competing on as opposed to trying to show you advertising that’s relatively entertaining or not, it will be great for consumers.

ClickZ: Why Swirl?

JB: Because Swirl is independent. I’ve worked for a number of holding companies, and in the holding company model, a lot of the decisions made were made on behalf of the holding company. For example, when I was president of DDB NY in 2001, I got a call saying, “We’re taking your media department and forming OMB.” How is detaching media strategy from brand and creative strategy going to benefit clients? In an independent agency, the way you create value and get remunerated is based on the decisions you make on behalf of your clients.

My hope here is to be able to develop something of real value that retains its independence. I believe that if we run a responsible margin, and take care of our people and our clients, we’ll succeed. People, product, profit. It has to be in that order.

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