Episode 7: Graham North, Co-Founder, Frank.

Graham North is a recognized marketing expert who has worked on projects for the world’s top brands, such as the NBA, Cisco, BMW, SodaStream, Frito-Lay, Kraft Heinz, and many more. He was also awarded Strategist of the Year in 2020 and is the Brand Camp founder, the former Brand Strategy Director at Goodby Silverstein & Partners (GSP), and more. After working with marketing legends Jeff Goodby and Rich Silverstein at GSP, Graham has embarked on a new journey with co-Founder Laura Petruccelli to start their own new-fangled agency thing (as Jeff Goodby calls it) – “Frank”. In this interview, Graham talks about brand strategy, Brand Camp, some of his experiences with Goodby Silverstein & Partners, the changing aspects of reaching people through branding and marketing, and more.



  • Joe: So you talked about, you go back, I don’t know how many years back that was, but being introduced to brand strategy. And fast forward, you’re leading a brand camp at GSP. So obviously you’ve got pretty good at brand strategy along the way. Can you talk about the most important aspects of brand strategy, if there’s a company that’s trying to develop one or overhaul theirs?


    Graham: Totally. So top down commitment to the whole thing. I think one of the great things about brand camp is that we’ve developed non-negotiables, where the CEO needs to be in the room where we don’t do it. I mean, we don’t do it just to pat ourselves on the back. We do it because the times that we’ve seen it fail is when those folks aren’t involved.


    Graham: And so truthfully, the CEO has more to do with brand strategy than the CMO. The CMO and the chief marketing officer in many cases might be the long term steward of the brand. But if you don’t have the CEO in each of his or her conversations going around and talking about, “Here’s precisely who we are and why that matter is, and why that’s culturally relevant.” And they’re not just throwing that to the chief people officer or pitching that to their head of sales or head of product to make sure that each feature of the technology, for example, is living that. You’re really just not going to be … It’s not going to feel like a cohesive brand.

  • Joe: Fair enough. Good, cool man. All right. I guess what we’ll dive right in. Can you kick off by just … I know your background. But just for those that’ll be watching this, can you just take me through your work history and kind of bring us up to today?


    Graham: Yeah, totally. So I think most people in advertising, in the creative industry more broadly, have pretty zigzaggy career pathways, and I’m no exception to that. So I kind of started my career, and I had business degree background, started my career in nonprofits, working first in Botswana to do HIV prevention using kind of theater and sports to educate young kids about kind of the dangers of HIV. Went back into journalism school to kind of develop more of a writing background, inspired by a lot of that work. And then ended up going back to Africa this time to a place called Zanzibar, Tanzania, a little island off the east coast of Tanzania, working in early childhood education.


    Graham: And anyways, somehow within that, stumbled my way into the world of education. And so did a grad school degree in a master’s in education, focused predominantly on kind of the role that technology and innovation can play in education, a little bit outside of the K to 12 system, and what does that look like in terms of the ability to maybe disrupt a pretty calcified model inside of the traditional education system to try to come up with new and interesting ways.


    Graham: And all of that strangely led me into a startup that I was working on coming out of grad school. It lasted a year. We were working in basically trying to take liberal arts students who had amazing four year degrees that taught them how to think, but nobody could do that. And three bucks to get you a cup of coffee in terms of a job coming out of undergrad.


    Graham: And so we helped them upgrade their college education with publicly available online education. So this was right around the time that massive open online courses. You could take courses from Harvard and Stanford, and not to mention more practical courses around UX and design and data science. And so we were curating the ability to do … We would work with employers to figure out the skills that they need, curate online education for free and equip students to do that and kind of take them along the pathway to make them more hireable.


    Graham: Anyway, all of that became a little bit weird when the corporation started making pretty specific demands, and it was feeling a little bit icky. So we shattered it. And I was kind of just looking for a next step. And a friend of mine who was working in what was called brand strategy, which I didn’t even know coming out of the East Coast. I’d worked for a little bit as a copywriter in Halifax and in St. John’s at a couple of agencies out there.


    Graham: But he was kind of like brand strategy, which I didn’t even know what it was, and went in to meet some of the folks at an agency in San Francisco called Goodby Silverstein & Partners, which is pretty iconic ad agency with a couple of absolute legends that still work there to this day. They’re famous for got milk and I love this game. And they launched EA, and they launched Netflix and NEST and a bunch of big brands.


    Graham: But went and kind of met with the head of brand strategy there at the time, a guy named Andy Grayson, who’s an absolute legend, and was just really inspired by the way that they approached the kind of blend of strategy and creatives. It can be like really, really interesting. And so it was mostly, more than anything, it was just the people. And then I got into that.


    Graham: Within that, founded a really cool process called brand camp. And brand camp was essentially the big problem we were facing in brand strategy is you could come up with the best strategy in the world. If it was words on a PDF somewhere that nobody was actually using, then it was completely useless. Whereas if you could get leadership teams aligned around what that brand strategy was, then you can move mountains, if the entire team is actually feeling like everyone’s job at the company is to live up to this brand strategy. And so we were working with some startups in the Bay Area, basically just like doing hackathon, brand hackathons, for lack of a better term, to get founders aligned around that. And then it just started to grow.


    Graham: And so I’ve been building that for the past seven years or so with Goodby, on my own as a consultancy back with Goodby to build it. And then just recently, left that wonderful place with another creative partner to start my own thing. So we’re off to build, I guess, our version of what Jeff Goodby called some new fangled agency thing. And that’s where we are right now.

  • Joe: Cool. GSP, like I said, it is iconic, the company, the founders. Can you talk about just learnings that you have taken from working there, and as well as from Jeff and Rich?


    Graham: Yeah. I mean, there’s a lot of them. I feel really like it’s such a lucky place to have worked. And so much talent has flowed through there. I think first and foremost, the thing that jumps to my mind is that every time someone leaves there, the same cliches pop up, which is that the hardest part to leave are the people.


    Graham: And I think that everyone that has worked there has worked on some really awesome brands, some really trying brands, some really difficult projects, difficult clients. And at the end of the day, if you’re in love with the people that you work with, then it all goes away. You can have a really, really tough meeting and be excited to show up to work the next morning, because you know that you’re going to work with absolute legends. In this case, it’s that.


    Graham: And I think it’s the balance of three things that tends to within those people. There’s talent, first and foremost. It’s a lot of very, very talented people. There’s a lot of work ethic in terms of people actually just showing up and the ability to trust that, while you are doing your job, other people are doing theirs. You don’t really need to chase people around. And there’s just like a real sense of pride in the work so that people really show up.


    Graham: And then there’s just kindness. It’s a very human place. It’s kind of an unexpectedly and human place with a lot of kind of family values. But that trifecta, it’s kind of if any one of those things falls off, it doesn’t really work. And actually folks tend to not survive there for very long if they’re not embodying all three of those things. So a lot of really talented, really hard working people who are not necessarily the kindest people, they don’t tend to stay very long. They kind of get like weeded out.


    Graham: So I think anyway, that is the biggest thing. And I’m still learning. And my co-founder Laura Petruccelli and I are really on a journey right now of now crafting our own creative culture. But the biggest learning is just how to build a creative culture that is sustainable. These guys, got milk, was 35 years ago. These guys founded an agency forever ago. And the fact that it’s been able to make it through and reinvent itself on multiple occasions, they were agency of the decade in the 2000s. They were last year’s a campaign agency of the year in fast companies, most innovative ad agency in the world.


    Graham: And so the ability to consistently reinvent with different brands, different applications of creativity, is a function of a sustainable creative culture that I’m still like learning from. When you talk to Jeff and Rich, that’s really their legacy, because the other really cool thing is you talk to Jeff, and one of his proudest things is not just that they’ve built this iconic ad agency that survived time, but every ad agency of note in San Francisco is founded by Goodby alums.


    Graham: And so it’s really cool to know that you’ve built a culture that then not only nurtures creativity, but nurtures creative entrepreneurship and kind of builds that drive in people to be able to want to go and leave. And so he’s incredibly happy for Laura and I to go and start our own thing because of exactly that. So that’s one big thing. That’s the people side of it.


    Graham: And then in terms of the work, I think a really big lesson that Jeff talks a lot about is kind of vandalism and the importance of creating … One of the original kind of organizing ideas for the agency was a term that Jeff came up with. That is art serving capitalism. And it was just that idea of kind of creating something beautiful that actually has utility in an economic value. And it comes from his parents.


    Graham: And anyway, within that, the idea that you can … Worst art is … Advertising is interruptive, but at its best, it’s this strange sort of piece of graffiti that makes you think differently. And it does interrupt. Maybe it disrupts your traditional notion of what something’s supposed to be. But then in doing so, it actually changes your mind and changes your behavior.


    Graham: And so I think that lightly rebellious, to be both kind and rebellious is a really interesting dynamic that is really, really true to the agency. And I think we try as much as possible to foster that so that people show up willing to do things that aren’t by the book. And in doing so, that zag energy makes the work more interesting. But it’s done from a place that’s strategic and creative and thoughtful along that time. So those are a couple things for sure.

  • Joe: One of the things that you run into in an agency is sometimes you’re limited by the appetite of the client to do something that’s disruptive, to do something that steps out of convention. And I think agencies dream about the day that they can like, “We just don’t work with those people.” At GSP, did you see that? Are they at a place where they just only work with companies that kind of share that type of value? Or is there work that they do that’s kind of pedestrian work that pay some bills and stuff? How does that get talked about?


    Graham: I mean, there’s a couple things there. One is what work are you making? And so obviously there’s a general decline in agency of record, kind of massive retainer type client contracts. Within those though, we would end up doing banner heads for Xfinity and Comcast and BMW and some of the bigger clients. Certainly that work would tend to be more pedestrian. The idea, as much as possible, is it an opportunity for maybe some more junior folks to really flex their muscle. It’s a tiny sandbox to say like, “Hey! What can you do with this thing?” That does bring convention.


    Graham: So each of those is still an opportunity. But I think the bigger conversation is around the sort of power dynamics within the client agency relationship that allow an agency to be honest with the client enough to say, what is and isn’t in your best interest, and which of those battles are you willing to fight. So do you fall in your story for a banner? Probably not.


    Graham: But I think there’s a world in which … There’s a really interesting read that I can’t remember the author, but it’s called The Win Without Pitching Manifesto. And it was written by the founder of a design agency, essentially as an internal culture thing. And he eventually published it. It was a really amazing piece of work. And he talked about how the most honest you can ever be with a client is at the beginning of a relationship because you come in fresh and you’re kind of … The role of an agency, the role of an outsider is to be able to call the emperor naked. Rich Silverstein, who’s the other founders is an incredible kind of lifelong, he has a lifelong commitment to this. That’s been really admirable.


    Graham: And so that’s the goal of the agency. Your ability to do that at the beginning is a hundred percent because you’re just coming in. It’s kind of like, “Well, the only way that we’re going to work with you is to tell you what we see.” And what happens is that ability erodes over time. The more enmeshed you become, the more there’s maybe a little bit of trauma in the relationship based on bad projects. And it’s one of those things where the ability to do disruptive work is built on trust. And so that’s the hardest thing to foster.


    Graham: And there’s a couple of ways to do that. One is to do incredibly kickass work. I think of probably some of the agency doing some of the most interesting work in branding and advertising right now is Mischief. And it’s because they’ve consistently been putting out hits of amazing bodies of very disruptive work.


    Graham: They launched one just today where I guess NFL stars are not allowed to promote beer as part of whatever bylaws of their contracts with the NFL. But they got Patrick Mahomes to promote Coors Light by building a silver long flashlight called the Coors Light. And so it got around this like sidestep thing. Anyway, this is a ridiculously disruptive ad that Coors, maybe is like way outside of their traditional comfort zone as being a good old mountain beer. But part of that comes from, in their case, the trust that they’ve earned by a consistency of doing great work, why the entity gets a lot of credit for this, I think could be does as well in terms of like, “Oh! You have to trust us. We’ve done enough of this that it’s amazing.”


    Graham: The other way to do it is to kind of set the rules of engagement. We do a lot of this in brand camp where you actually set the rules of engagement to maximize the likelihood of trust. So we have a thing called the brand camp commandments that are a series of rules that both we and the client are going to be beholden to, but if you can set those up front.


    Graham: It’s really, really hard to renegotiate the nature of a relationship in the middle of a relationship. To do it at the beginning though, to say, “Well, the likelihood of success is going to be increased if we kind of reduce job titles, if we listen like we’re wrong, if we maximize kind of the willingness to provoke each other and to kind of raise our hands and to ask them questions.” All of those types of things. If you can build that into the beginning, then I think it actually levels the playing field and maximize the free flow of honesty.


    Graham: And so that’s been a lot of the work that Laura and I have been doing is trying to figure out how can we be more honest with one another? Because it’s not just the agency being honest with you. It’s also you being honest with us, and that being an ongoing, like any good relationship, nurturing that.


    Graham: But I think what you can do is you can … Our thesis is that you can get to more disruptive work if you can be honest enough with each other to talk about why the work could go astray, or why this work could be amazing, or why the brand is in bad shape. If you’re in those honest conversations, you can do brave stuff. And it builds the trust necessary to take those leaps together, because every time that you’re doing something disruptive, there’s a moment where you’re holding hands. You’ve got something that you think is potent and you have to jump together, and that entails trust.


    Graham: And if there’s no trust, there’s just no ability to do it. And those are the clients that you need to, I think in my mind, either have some kind of corporate therapy to try to repair the relationship, or politely part ways. And that’s where a new pitch might come in.

  • Joe: So you talked about, you go back, I don’t know how many years back that was, but being introduced to brand strategy. And fast forward, you’re leading a brand camp at GSP. So obviously you’ve got pretty good at brand strategy along the way. Can you talk about the most important aspects of brand strategy, if there’s a company that’s trying to develop one or overhaul theirs?


    Graham: Totally. So top down commitment to the whole thing. I think one of the great things about brand camp is that we’ve developed non-negotiables, where the CEO needs to be in the room where we don’t do it. I mean, we don’t do it just to pat ourselves on the back. We do it because the times that we’ve seen it fail is when those folks aren’t involved.


    Graham: And so truthfully, the CEO has more to do with brand strategy than the CMO. The CMO and the chief marketing officer in many cases might be the long term steward of the brand. But if you don’t have the CEO in each of his or her conversations going around and talking about, “Here’s precisely who we are and why that matter is, and why that’s culturally relevant.” And they’re not just throwing that to the chief people officer or pitching that to their head of sales or head of product to make sure that each feature of the technology, for example, is living that. You’re really just not going to be … It’s not going to feel like a cohesive brand.


    Graham: And all of the best brands in the world have leadership wide alignment to say, “This is who we are.” You should be able to go into any leadership team of like six, seven C-suite and say, “Hey, who are we? Or why do we exist? Or what’s the organizing idea of this company?” That’s why we call organizing ideas, these kind of like sharp, pithy, actionable ideas that are maybe three to five words, just really nice shorthand that everybody could answer that in the same way. And it has a point of view, and it’s provocative and it’s real. But at the very least, everyone should just be able to align on what are we trying to change, either reinforce in our super fans or change in the minds of our audience about who we are. Everybody should be able to say that.


    Graham: So I think the biggest thing is that level of alignment is completely underrated. A lot of times we’ll talk about like a C-minus or a C-plus kind of weak brand strategy that’s completely aligned on by a C-suite team is far more valuable than an A-plus strategy that lives on a sheet of paper somewhere that some random people on the marketing team use for social content, but it’s not embraced by the entire leadership team, and therefore by the entire audience base. And so I think that alignment first and foremost was the thing that I learned the most, and the importance of investing in alignment so that when you’re actually going through an experience or an exercise of doing this, it’s company wide. So that’s one.


    Graham: The other thing that came up a lot at GSP is just the value of getting really, really close to the audience as it relates to all of this. So we have in-house … We have sort of a brand strategy team at GSP, an in-house media strategy or communication strategy team, which is essentially audience insights first, but then also that goes into eventually placements in terms of how we reach those folks. But a lot of it’s just rooted in audience insights.


    Graham: And then we have an in-house research and analytics team whose job it is to run, like we do, custom, qualitative research, custom quant. And then the ability to like be close and be working with those folks, not every agency is going to have the scale to be able to do that. But there are amazing partners like that in developing not just transactional, but deeply relational situations where you can get super, super close.


    Graham: Again, it’s not like there’s the Steve jobs, or I think I actually technically Henry Ford quote of just like if I’d ask my customers what they wanted, they would’ve said a faster horse, sort of thing. And I think a lot of people use that as an excuse not to listen to their audience. The truth isn’t about them offering you the solution or the answer or the creative idea. It is though about them articulating the nature of the problem, and sort of a nuanced version of insights that can allow you creative solutions to problems that you didn’t even know necessarily existed.


    Graham: And so I think a huge, huge, underrated portion of brand strategy is just getting close to the audience. And so I think if you can mix those two things, a lot of brand camp boiled down to its essence, it’s just sort of a therapeutic safe space where we can have brave provocations about the audience, and where the brand meets the audience. And then from that get to a place of alignment where the entire leadership team is like, “Yeah. This is exactly who we are, and this is how we’re going to meet people.” And so I’d say that confluence is pretty important.

  • Joe: And what would be the most important things that clients would come out of that whole brand camp experience with, the tangible things?


    Graham: It’s funny. The most tangible thing, I’ll describe kind of there’s inputs and outputs. The thing at the center is this thing that we call an organizing idea. A lot of people have different names for it, like a brand point of view, or sometimes even a brand promise, whatever that looks like. But alignment around that, not the words on the paper, but the idea that … We do a big job of actually, because we do it six weeks of research for brand camp, pretty exhaustive research that includes anonymous stakeholder interviews and audience qual and quant and third party syndicated research, culture research, all of that kind of stuff. And then we bring it all into a room for two days and let the leadership room, we like the leadership’s phone and their job titles away and we just kind of hash it out.


    Graham: And so we all but promise to land the plane in the room, which is a really, I think, rare thing. A lot of times you would have a work session like that maybe feels a little bit less bespoke, a little bit more like we’re walking through the chapters of like, “Let’s talk about our mission. Or let’s talk about our vision,” or whatever. And it’s not an offsite like that. It’s in fact, the goal is we’re going to land this thing in the room together because it’s a thin line between, “Okay. Let’s have a bunch of interesting conversations.” It feels a little bit unresolved. And then three weeks later you get a PDF that’s a series of different frameworks or something like that. And people are kind of like, “Oh! I remember loosely seeing my voice associated with that. But I don’t feel emotionally bought into this.”


    Graham: If you instead are having really honest, raw conversations related to these provocations, and you can land that short, pithy thing in the room together, you don’t forget that. It becomes a moment in the company’s history and in your personal narrative of your career. A lot of people talk about this as being the best day of their career, because it felt like a sense of collective of breakthrough, not just the answer. It’s about that we aligned around the answer.


    Graham: So the most tangible thing is that thing in the center. And honestly, I have a hot take on brand strategy that these frameworks actually get in the way of decision making, because it becomes a large sort of madlibs where we can just everybody’s opinion and insight on every piece of it finds its way into some random box on this broad framework, versus the harder work is making trade offs so that we all agree on something sharper and smaller. So if you can get to that, a lot of the other stuff goes away.


    Graham: But in terms of the tangible stuff, we also have the research inputs themselves have tangible value because they can be used to inform other parts of the business. If you have a deep dive, like a lot of times we’ll do a huge deep dive on the audience and end up naming the audience as a mindset and not as a demographic. And that can have extraordinary impacts on muses for the tech to build itself out or media strategy. We have kind of problem IDs. We have hot takes sometimes on the business around culture, things that may or may not have anything to do with the organizing idea, but are really important. So a lot of the research provocations are just inherently valuable to the development of the company more broadly.


    Graham: And then on the flip side, we have a theory that trying to land the words of a strategy without having done the pressure testing of how it comes to life is actually a kind of useless exercise because I think anyone who’s working in this industry for any length of time knows sometimes you land on words that feel like a really interesting strategy, and everyone gets really excited about it. And you’re going to make stuff and you realize there’s nothing there, or there’s one idea there. The idea that we’re all excited about is the only idea. And then the thing falls apart.


    Graham: If you’re building a long term, five, 10 year sustainable long term brand strategy, you need to kind of prove out this thing has legs. Basically you start going across and saying, “Well, what would it look like as a manifesto? What would it look like as a series of headlines? What would it look like as the beginnings of a new design system where designers are at least just riffing around on how would it influence?


    Graham: If it’s going to be genuinely actionable, you want to make sure that it could work at the really minuscule level, as well as at the big can winning, massive idea level. And so for each of those, we do that proof. We build that proof of concept. It actually helps get to the alignment because you can all start to see like, “Oh, wow! I know how this would show up in the world. I can envision how it would show up.” So that we’re not just sitting here wordsmithing and judging naked words on a page, but actually you’re judging the general concept of the organizing idea and how it would influence how we act as a company.


    Graham: And so I think that, again, you wouldn’t necessarily go and make any or all of those ideas coming out of it. But it’s tangible in the sense of you could. They’re the seeds of future ideas that you can go, again, on both sides. Even though the research and the creative pressure testing are inherently valuable after the fact, they’re all in service of getting that one big thing. If you could only do one thing coming out of a brand camp, it’s that.

  • Joe: Is there any example you could share of a client that really benefited from that brand camp? To the point that you could share, what was the strategy statement, just to put some flesh on, or is that confidential?


    Graham: No. I can share one that I love dearly actually. You’ll have to forgive me. It’s an American example. But there’s a company in America, it was a startup, called One Medical. And essentially, it was founded on the idea that the primary healthcare system is essentially the gateway into the entire health. If you can fix primary care, you can fix a lot of the rest of the healthcare system because primary care doctors are so critical in terms of funneling folks into this.


    Graham: And so One Medical came to us. They had just had a leadership change. So they hired a bunch of … They poached like a new CEO, a new head doctor, a new head of strategy, I think even a new CFO, from Stanford health where all of those folks had been working, and a new CMO who is the former CMO that we’d worked with from Nest, which is the smart thermostat that Google acquired.


    Graham: And anyway., they showed up to a brand camp and the problem that they were having was they had done a couple things really, really well. They had actually pretty expansive growth. And the couple things that they’d done really well is, one, they were really rooted in convenience and they were kind of like, okay, well, instead of our doctors being in some far away place, often if you have a doctor’s appointment, it’s a huge pain in the middle of a work day, for example, you have to set it up days or weeks in advance, you’re calling people, you have to drive out to the middle of nowhere. And so they had amazing locations that were often in the center of very urban areas. So really right next to your office, was often the vibe.


    Graham: And the other thing is that the experience of it, they decided to really change. So they were known as kind of the spa of doctor’s offices. You’d go in and there’s cucumber water and there’s just a really … It smells nice. It’s a little bit of Virgin America of flight experience kind of. It felt a little bit nicer that in that sense. And that was really good to get them in the door because it felt inherently different. And you knew the experience was different.


    Graham: The problem was it really undermined the breadth of their ambition. And the reason that they brought on folks from Stanford Health is that they had a thought they wanted to genuinely revolutionize primary healthcare in America. And so when we got into brand camp, an example of sort of how to merge the audience in and then make or build a point of view that everyone was aligned around, was as we started to dig into the mindset of the audience, we referred to them … Basically, these are folks who had the ability to Uber Eats anything or call an Uber with the push of a button, or DoorDash, or Postmates, anything to themselves. They were just used to everything being really on demand.


    Graham: Healthcare just was never that to them. And so we referred to these folks as the inpatient patient. The idea that healthcare was a drive out to what people called hill hill, which was essentially this … It’s a literal part of the Bay Area. But some far away place to do this thing is insane. And the other truth of this audience is that, I mean, they’re humans, they’re messy, fallible people. We lose pieces of paper all the time.


    Graham: And the insight that came from this rigorous discussion with their entire C-suite team, who did this inside of the offices as it could be, was healthcare is kind of only as good as its ability to meet patients where they are. Patients are not some … You can’t expect human beings, who are also in many cases quite sick, to follow all of these perfect things and therefore to get … And a lot of people, they fall in the cracks of the medical system. We’ve seen this all over the place.


    Graham: And so instead, the ability to meet these kind of messy and impatient folks exactly where they are changes the entire dynamic and improves the quality of healthcare. And so we landed on this really cool point of view, which we just called real life care. And the idea was that if you can build the healthcare system, instead of you being a patient and having to go and work in a healthcare system that was built around servicing the efficiency of doctors and healthcare professionals, instead, if the healthcare system could be built around the patient, it changes everything.


    Graham: And so the idea of a spa-like experience and actually waiting rooms that you actually don’t mind waiting in, is an amazing experience. There was the convenience of the locations as part of that. And then they had same day bookings that were just a really kind of beautiful user experience. But then they were one of the first to do now normalized, but one of the first to do online video where you can talk to a doctor at 3:00 AM, when you’re going down your WebMD, medical wormhole, freaking out, thinking that your runny nose is terminal or whatever.


    Graham: And there’s kind of a sense of that was already the stuff that they existed in real life care. They did that. But became really cool is the way that it starts to … Once that group gets aligned and everybody, then the tech team is going and they’re building even more kind of clean user experiences that are built around real life and making it easier to take an image of your documents to upload them, and it’ll automatically turn them into text and go.


    Graham: And on flip side, on the marketing side, even from a design standpoint, if you go to the One Medical website, you can see a lot of really intimate human touches or we did the initial launch campaign. We had two campaigns that came out of this real life care thing. The first one was the world’s most contextual, hyper contextual thing, where the vibe was sort of getting sick is easy, but getting care shouldn’t be. And so you would show up in Times Square and be like, lot of tourists crawling around here, lots of diseases too, or something like that. And basically no matter where you were, or you’d be at the airport, lot of things airborne around here sort of thing, which is kind of triggering now in a post COVID world. But all that it was, it was kind of meeting you in your real life and speaking to you as a human.


    Graham: And then the next wave of that, which was a campaign I loved even more, was kind of just a series of uncomfortable questions that no doctor, nobody would ever, no healthcare. A lot of healthcare companies are very stock imagery. They all kind of look and feel the same. It’s like old, happy, healthy people having a good laugh and telling you to thrive. But this was instead it would ask how much screen time should my kids spend on their phone? Or is it weird to feel sad all the time? It was asking a lot of real and uncomfortable questions. And it doing so …


    Graham: Anyway, it was just really cool. Real life care sounds very simple on its surface. But sometimes that simple provocation that has attention baked in is a perfect way to make decisions on a daily basis. And so it’s really cool because the idea of real life care implies that not all care is built for real life. And then the question becomes the constant test in your head when you’re coming up with either creative idea, or informing the product, or making a speech at the CEO level is how might we ensure that this feels like it’s really rooted in real life, on the one hand, or that it’s pushing off of the sometimes inhuman ways that the healthcare industry can act at it’s worst.


    Graham: And so anyway, that was kind of, I think, a cool example of something that really infiltrated the entirety of the company. But if we didn’t get that leadership alignment around that one idea, it probably would’ve been an okay marketing campaign, as opposed to a holistic company transformation, which is at its best, what a lot of these … And honestly, since nobody cares about ads anymore anyway, then you kind of need to do a full brand transformation and not just an advertising, a new advertising campaign. I don’t know a lot of companies that would thrive off of just an ad refresh right now.

  • Joe: That’s a good segue. I had scribbled on the question here before about, like you mentioned, innovation and GSP being most innovative agency. What is your thoughts on the fact that, like you said, nobody wants to watch ads anymore and ad blockers and all these different things. I mean, I can predict that you’re going to say that the work still needs to be great, needs to be based on insights. There’s fundamentals in our business that aren’t going to change. But what are the aspects that are changing, or have to change to reach people?


    Graham: So it’s an interesting question that Laura and I are struggling with in our new agency, because we’ve worked in advertising for years. And we literally had a conversation yesterday about, should we not make Ads? Is that a pledge that we make?


    Graham: And where we landed on was that we’ll make ads, but we have to make actions first. So if you’ll agree to do an action. I mean, that Coors flashlight is kind of a funny version of that. They’re selling a real product, that’s a Coors Light. And then they made an ad about it that talks about it. That’s a nice side step. But I think in general, the internet allows for a sense of radical transparency so much. You could make a TV ad back in the day and nobody could really challenge it. And it was just a nice piece of work that made you feel something. But you wouldn’t go and Google it. Now anybody can go and Google anything and figure out what the truth line or what somebody else’s opinion is behind something. And so what you actually want to be doing is essentially bold brand actions.


    Graham: And so I think what we’re trying to do is to get to the point of the only actions, the only brand actions, that genuinely stand out tend to be ones that are kind of a braver commitment to the values that you stand behind. And that’s a lot of the focus, I think, of modern branding. I mean, I don’t want to discount. There are other things that are tools. There’s getting involved in like Web 3, and there’s being smarter with your digital strategy. And I still think video has a huge role to play. But in general, there’s a doing versus saying movement right now that audiences are smart enough to see through it. And they care. And the stuff that’s earning, frankly, more PR in the world right now.


    Graham: You don’t get a lot of PR for launching an amazing ad campaign. You get a lot of PR for doing an amazing action. And the braver the action, the more PR that you get. Whereas if it’s just kind of an action that lots of other people are doing, and you’re joining into the froth of it, you don’t necessarily get a lot of great PR for that. But I think that that action based movement is probably going to be the entire next wave where … Because the thing about that is that it’s true to the DNA of the company.


    Graham: One other example that I can share is there’s a lot of companies that are environmental brands that are doing kind of slightly more surface level environmental offset, carbon offset programs and that kind of stuff where they’re buying carbon credits to make sure that they’re carbon neutral and that sort of thing, because of the proliferation of especially young people that care deeply about climate change is their primary kind of source of social passion.


    Graham: And anyway, the ones who really care, like Patagonia has been doing for years, are the ones who are radically analyzing their own supply chain to completely kind of go at the source problem. Those are behavior. That’s a brand action in the sense that the action was taken, and they can eventually talk about that. But that’s a business level action. That’s like a fundamental change to the business. And I think that though is more sustainable, and again, less performative.


    Graham: And so I think one of the cool things about having leadership alignment around an organizing idea is that we can kind of go through and audit all of each other’s remits, whether you’re the chief strategy officer or marketing officer, tech officer, product officer, whatever, and say, “What is the biggest change that we could make to the part of the company that we own and operate that would have a massive perception impact if we did it well?” And you can start to commit to those types of actions in a way that’s not like, “What should we change about what we say on the website? Because again, nobody cares. Or they can triangulate different information if they wanted to.

  • Joe: Yeah. And those are the things more and more that people remember, and they’re going to repeat, they’re inspired by, impressed by. So I can totally see how that would be at the core of thinking about how could you really move the needle for a client. So we got about just 10, 14 minutes left here. Can you talk about Frank, the new agency that you’re building right now? And we talked about before in our kind of prep call, every agency is built on someone taking learnings from where they’ve been and saying, “Okay. We’re going to do it different.” Can you talk about the differentiators with Frank and what that’s going to look like at this point?


    Graham: Totally. I mean, it’s a work in progress, which is fun. The premise of it, the reason that it’s called Frank, neither of us, neither Laura nor I are named Frank. But it’s built on radical honesty and it’s around that central belief that we … Basically, our central thesis is that the more honest that you are upfront and in an ongoing way, but especially in that really difficult upfront, self-reflective moment, where you’re identifying the problem, the real problem, the problem behind the problem, you’re pulling skeleton inside of the closet, laying everything bare, the more likely you can collectively commit to something that actually has meaningful change, and the more likely you can come up with kind of the bravest creative ideas, because brave ideas are really hard to … When I was talking earlier about that trusted leap where we’re kind of holding hands and saying, “This is really scary.” Like the day before they would’ve published that Colin Kaepernick billboard, Nike and Widen executives alike, they were kind of probably holding their breath a little bit.


    Graham: And so the ability to make that trusted leap is a function of having raw and honest conversations. And you would never get there if you just kind of gloss over that and write it into a creative brief and push it down the conveyor belt. That never works. So our whole thing is essentially the core of brand camp was having radically honest conversations. And I think Laura and I, just that’s the way that we’ve worked for a long time and are really trying to apply that level of more quickly getting to more raw and honest conversations with a wider breadth of decision makers, and a wider breadth of creative collaborators. We’re doing a lot of collaborations that aren’t just art and copy and design, but are actually with technologists and producers of kind of different walks of life.


    Graham: So that radical honesty up front is kind of the core thesis of Frank, which is that … And then the question becomes where do you apply that? Where is that best applied? And so in the sense of things that are maybe harder to do, GSP, an incredible agency owned by Omnicom, a pretty big holding company, and there are just more handcuffs associated with holding companies than there are with being a nimble independent agency. And so that allows us for a degree of, I think, experimentation, which is kind of the phase that we’re at right now.


    Graham: So we’ve seen that radical honesty where these kind of brand camp honesty model worked really well with big brands, for sure, to unpack maybe the pieces of their brand that they hadn’t, kind of the uncomfortable truths that they hadn’t surfaced, or maybe an opportunity that they’d been sitting on that felt like it’s just kind of keeps getting pushed. And so we can bring that in and surface it quickly and kind of work with that.


    Graham: One really cool piece is that the traditional model of especially big advertising agencies is that the brand will comp you, the agency, and say, “We have this brand problem. We want to increase awareness. We want to change people’s perceptions to who we are. We have a new product launch, whatever that is.” The agency comes up with an awesome idea, whether it’s for a Super Bowl ad, or just some campaign of some kind. And then you would reach out to a celebrity and say, and you’d be like, “Hey! We really want you to do this.” Anyway, but it ends up being a list of celebrities, because you don’t always get the one that you want. And then you get down to the 14th or 15th person, and they say, “Yeah, sure.” But the likelihood of them being intensely passionate about it is a little bit mitigated. They didn’t come up with the idea. They were told we’ll pay you this much to do it.


    Graham: And so anyway, we’ve kind of come to the idea that level of the authenticity of that is pretty compromised. And you can kind of see it. There’s certain folks who … Do I believe that Matt Damon believes that future favors the bold as it relates to crypto? I’m not sure. I don’t know. Maybe he does, and that’s true. But I don’t get that from him. Whereas there are other examples of this.


    Graham: One of my favorite stories, we do some work with Kraft Heinz at Goodby. And Ed Sheeran is obsessed with Heinz ketchup. He has a tattoo of Heinz ketchup on his arm. Or I can’t remember if it was on his arm. I can’t remember. And he DMed them on Twitter and he was just like, “I had a dream about this ad. And I really want you to make it. And it’s that I walk into a really fancy steakhouse, and I order a nice steak and I asked for Heinz ketchup. And all of the servers kind of look at me like, “What’s wrong with you? This is an incredible steak. Of course you wouldn’t put Heinz on it.”” So he takes Heinz out of his bag and puts it on because he loves Heinz. And they remade this shot for shot. And anyway, he put one on Twitter with just like, “I’m more proud of this than my album or my tour.” He’s happy about it because it’s actually true to him.


    Graham: So anyway, all of that to say that model is a little bit broken. The truth is that celebrities and influencers, anybody with an enormous audience and influence, there are things that are true to them that are not necessarily represented, that are not necessarily creatively represented in the world. And so what we want to do is hold these honest conversations with them and figure out what’s a part of your legacy that you haven’t tapped yet, and either build a business around that, connect them with the brand around that. So that’s a big space.


    Graham: And then the other big space that we’re playing a lot in is we’re … Because essentially we’re trying to apply honesty in places that are full of BS. And then the other big space is in the kind of NFT and Web 3 space, because there’s just so much kind of froth and scams and speculation in that space. And we do think that there is incredible kind of power in the underlying technology in a lot of that stuff.


    Graham: And so again, having honest conversations about that, that push the froth to the side, but actually help folks get to really honest stuff. So all of those, all three of those things that I’ve described are just a little bit harder to do at big agencies, but places where we feel like kind of radical honesty could be applied to make for some pretty cool ideas.

  • Joe: I don’t know much about it, to be honest, but Web 3, can you talk about that and just how that relates to advertising, how clients might be able to benefit from it?


    Graham: Totally. I mean the biggest thing is … I mean, I guess the context is the way that most people would’ve experienced Web 3 so far is either in cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin or Ethereum, which everyone felt late to the party, and then there was a recent crash. And it’s just been a really kind of messy, kind of icky speculative marketplace of kind of mostly financial gain or whatever. It feels a little bit like a gold rush.


    Graham: And then a similar space is then the emergence of what are called NFTs, which are non-fungible tokens, which essentially means you can … The easiest way to think about it is that the same technology that powers Bitcoin and Ethereum, which is called the blockchain, it’s the ability to essentially give digital property rights where those never existed. We all know about property rights as it relates to say your physical property. And there’s kind of a verifiable property rights system now available to digital stuff.


    Graham: And so for the most part, a lot of what people would see in it just feels a little bit like, “What are you talking about? Oh! There’s literal pictures of apes that are selling for millions of dollars. And it’s a JPEG and I don’t understand it.” And I think that’s very fair. And a lot of that’s very valid, and what the market crash is seeing right now is that a lot of the stuff that was that, which is speculative fluff, where value is always ascribed to however many people believe that something is valuable, like a dollar bill. That’s how valuable it is. And so what we’re seeing is a decline in that.


    Graham: The good news for brands, and this is kind of day one of, I think, a long, long coming revolution is that it allows you to connect with audiences in a way that is unprecedented. It’s especially really good for creators. So it’s like a lot of agencies work for creators, but also agencies are creative people who can make things. But it’s the ability to make something and share. You can literally share ownership with them. So you could launch.


    Graham: Recently Diplo launched an album that is co-owned by the people that bought the album together. So they just cut the label out entirely. And that album is a whole bunch of different people. And not only do they get ownership on the financial upside, they can have voting rights to think about like what instruments, what songs, prioritize which tracks go on, who to feature with. Your audience can become decision makers. And so there’s a separation of kind of middle manning in all of this. That’s really, really, really exciting.


    Graham: And the other big, cool thing about it is, right now, we see these NFTs predominantly as JPEGs, as pieces of art, not always necessarily good art. But they can be anything. We’re working right now with a musician where he’s doing bits of music and then selling those NFTs where he will then work with his collaborators to have basically a new bit of music in kind of a really unexpected, multi genre collaboration of music. And what’s cool about that is if that then gets sold or remixed, both of the initial artists … The beauty of this kind of technology is every time that the digital rights get sold, the initial artist gets paid for it. And so our musician and the collaborative musician, if they made 10 different versions of this thing and sold it, the initial artists get paid.


    Graham: So there’s a really, basically the most interesting thing for your agencies. One is there are very few amazing creative use cases for this yet. So if you can understand the technology, the possibilities are absolutely limitless. And two is it actually kind of gives an option to rethink business models. And advertising’s business model in general is broken. It used to be based on the percentage of a media buy that you would get. Agencies would get discounts on buying media. And we would kind of make money off of that. Then it’s time of staff on an hourly basis. Now it’s more project based.


    Graham: But in general, the business model, the unit economics of advertising are kind of like going away. And what this allows to do is to get a little bit more creative and thoughtful and to be like, “Well, can I actually be a part of some of these communities and own a piece of their upside and be a creative source of community building or long term legacy building within these things, and actually own a piece of that as it grows?”


    Graham: So that’s like a high level thing. You can honestly spend like hours and hours and hours just talking through that world right now. But I would say everyone is rightful to be skeptical because I think 98% of this is full of trash, unfortunately. That’s just the beginning. That’s anything at the beginning. It’s that kind of wild west moment. But also within that, there’s opportunity. And there is a real technology that has pretty amazing abilities to deliver ownership and exclusive access to people and just kind of new experiences that no one’s ever seen before. So I definitely encourage playing in that space.


    Joe: So I think what you’re getting at there is that a brand of the future is a company that its customers are almost in a real time manner contributing to the development of products and services, as opposed to this latency that we have now with qualitative research, for example, where we are capturing their input, but it’s what’s in a far more rigid and latent way. That’s another benefit, I think, can come out of what you’re talking about.


    Graham: Totally. And the other thing too is that I think we actually dramatically underestimate the impact that super fans have on the development of brands. Super fans are the types of people who will go around, they’ll be at a barbecue, they just want to talk about a brand, which is the weirdest thing. It’s the weirdest thing to be like, “I’m going to go and spend my free time extolling the virtues of some brand that literally doesn’t know that I’m talking about them.”


    Graham: What that can start to do is reward folks like that because you can start to … Right now, that maybe happens on social media where you’ll have insane people commenting on every post that Wendy’s makes or something like that. But if you could actually start … What’s great about NFTs and tokens is that you could essentially reward that invisible labor for people. So if somebody’s being amazing, you can just surprise them and say, “You’re a super fan. We’re going to give you this.” It could be ownership. It could be on a smaller scale, just exclusive access to a product or a drop or something that nobody else has.


    Graham: But I think there’s something really, really cool about tightening that feedback loop and rewarding previously invisible labor in a way that right now on social media, great, you get a few likes on a platform that has already disintermediated you. But as a brand, I think one of the things that’s, I think, an important truth around this whole thing is right now, everyone’s seeing a brand maybe launching NFT. And it’s usually a piece of art, and usually nobody cares. That’s fine.


    Graham: It’s not going to be one NFT per brand. It’s going to be like the equivalent of launching a new line of clothing or whatever. They’re going to come out on a regular basis and have different utility for different types of people. And those people are going to inform that feedback loop that you’re talking about in terms of research and bringing people closer.


    Graham: And so it’s really an interesting way for brands to, I guess, get away from being enslaved by Facebook and Instagram and all these platforms that are changing their algorithms all the time and dictating it. You can just build a closer relationship with the audience directly and reward them for that participation in a way that even though you’re giving stuff away, it’s still going to be cheaper than the amount of money that you’re paying to some of these platforms. So anyway, that’s going to take time to get to that point. But it’s definitely bringing the brand and the audience closer together than they’d ever been.

  • Joe: Okay. Just a question earlier that came to my mind is, when you’re at, say, GSP, when you were working on brand strategy, were you then kind of part of briefing the creative team? So was it kosher for you to be coming up with initial ideas that represent the strategy that put flesh on it? I guess what I’m asking is, with strategy there, were they also allowed to bring ideas to the creative team that may or may not get used, but were you encouraged to be thinking about ideas right from the very beginning yourself as well?


    Graham: Totally. I think that’s actually critical because … My old boss, Andy Grayson, and I often refer to kind of the old version of strategy as very much like a baton passing or a conveyor belt approach where it’s like, okay, the client comes to us. And then the account team maybe does some kind of thumb printing or rejigging of the thing, then pass it off to a strategist who sits in a hole somewhere and gathers a few inputs and then passes it off. T.


    Graham: He problem with that is that it undermines the simple truth that we’re all collectively responsible for the big idea. And if you’re just pushing the thing down the conveyor belt, you’re actually putting a lot of pressure on the creatives to either come up … They’re going to be the heroes if they get to the idea. They’re going to be the kind of like the goat if they get it wrong. But it shouldn’t be just on them to do that.


    Graham: And so one of the ways that just maximizes the … Again, we try in brand camp to just squish all of that into the same room together so that we’re doing it together. But even in a traditional sense, it’s really, really important to show that you know how hard it is to come up with ideas because also even for yourself, as you’re writing the brief, if you can’t come up with ideas, it’s a sign that you’ve got crap.


    Joe: Bad brief.


    Graham: Right. So I think for me, a couple of general briefing lessons. One is spend that time coming up with ideas and try to hold space. I mean, the other thing too is a lot of times we’ll come up with those ideas as what if statements. So it’s like what if we did blank? And it could be an idea. But even framing something as a what if, as opposed to let’s do this specific idea, sparks a conversation, as opposed to it being like most of these thought starters are just like everybody’s first round. Even great creatives’ first round is usually pretty bad in terms of ideas. And so asking what if statements that spark a conversation’s really exciting.


    Graham: And then the other kind of lesson that we were really keen on, we sometimes took too far, is don’t underestimate the impact of an experiential briefing because you only get one chance to hear about a project for the really first time. And so I remember when we first briefed in a big Cisco project that was focused specifically on the CTOs of Fortune 50 companies.


    Graham: We went to one of the fanciest bars in San Francisco and went to the top floor and had cocktails and sat down, and it was kind of set up as though you were walking in, you were experiencing what it was like to have both a high class, but also a very high stakes decision. And kind of here are the decisions that you’re … Here’s a day in your life today, your busy life. And so then it was important to find ways to squeeze into a very important person’s world. Anyway, building strategic and creative empathy for the audience is really important.


    Graham: And the other crazy one that we did was we were working with Ashton Kutcher’s organization, which uses technology to help women who’ve been kind of trapped in the life of child prostitution to get out of that life. It’s an incredible organization called Thorn, that he started with Demi Moore. And anyway, to do that briefing, we actually rented out a room in the middle of the Tenderloin, which was one of the roughest neighborhoods in San Francisco, and kind of sat people on the bed where this poor woman would be.


    Graham: And you kind of immersed them in this empathy. And then we walked around the block. And you weren’t allowed to say anything. You just had to observe things. And then we all walked in and kind of walked back into the conference room at GSP. And people are bawling and having … I guess the difference between handing someone a sheet of paper that’s like, “Here are the statistics on child prostitution in America.” Versus, “Here’s what it’s like to be this woman.”


    Graham: And so the types of ideas that came out of that were so much more nuance and empathetic. One was we worked with a piece of technology that allowed you basically, if I was typing on my phone, because the ideas that your controller or whatever could snap your phone at any time, if the accelerometer in the phone snapped, if someone tried to grab your phone, it would just wipe all of your messages and go straight to the home screen so that nobody could see it. Or like another was we hid the helpline inside of a tampon because it was the only private place that this woman had.


    Graham: But that level of nuance had not as much to do with the thought starters of the brief, as it did with the experience of reminding people, this would work, this wouldn’t work, and that level of radical empathy. So I just think I’m a big believer, in addition to thought starters, take one hour and consider what is the experience that would maximize the likelihood that all of us feel like the audience that we’re trying to reach, and in doing so, come up with ideas to help you be like, “Well, what would change my mind? Or what would reach me in this space.” Anyway, that’s not what you were asking.


    Joe: No. It’s an amazing answer in the sense that it just gets my wheels turning of how can … I can see a bunch of ways I could apply that. And as a strategy person, you just don’t want to be that strategy person that’s like, “Okay. Another brief from Joe.”


    Graham: Totally. And that’s it. Eventually, you put in that extra 10% on enough, whether it’s on the ideas, whether it’s on the experience, whether it’s on the conversation that you had before actually delivering the briefing, I always really … It shouldn’t be the first time that the creative director has seen the brief is at the briefing. It should be like, “Wow! We’ve been like debating the actual problem together.”


    Graham: And the more that you earn that authority, the more that it’s not about the brief as a piece of paper. The more that you become a trusted voice of … I always measure my authority based on texts that I receive. You know what I mean? Or the relationship that Laura and I have is just cold calling each other and kind of promising each other that we’re available, because creativity strikes in such unexpected places. But to have someone to riff on that with, in a moment’s notice, is just such an important thing.


    Graham: And so anyway, the way of building up those deeply trusted texts and phone call based relationships are just like going the extra mile on your day to day on each of those little touches. And so going through the kind of, “What are the ingredients that goes into the brief? And how can that change it? What is the articulation of the brief? And how’s that change it? What’s the experience that I provided the briefing? And then what are the, not just like 15 minutes of riffing, but like actual, if I was on the hook, if I was the creative on the hook for delivering on this brief, what are the types of ideas that I’m bringing to the table that would be proud to show to a client tomorrow?”


    Graham: That’s a thought starter. You know what I mean? It’s a lazy approach to just throw a handful of your first dumb ideas out. Throw your good stuff out, really give it a shot. And all of that’s going to earn authority and build the relationship between you and the creatives, and ultimately make the project better, I think.

  • Joe: Well bud, I really appreciate your insights. A lot of awesome comments and food for thought, for sure.


    Graham: Sweet, cool. Thank you for the time. This is really fun to reflect on, especially we’re on a bit of like a listening tour right now for Frank since the first step to honesty is listening. So it’s really cool to be able to just kind of reflect on this. So thanks for the space.


    Joe: Yeah, man. Really appreciate it. Just on a quick side note, you can exit the conversation. But if you can keep the page open in your browser, it’s uploading as we speak. You should get a prompt there that says, “Okay. A hundred percent uploaded. You close the page now.”


    Graham: Okay, great. What a cool software. I’m totally going to use this. This looks awesome.


    Joe: It’s excellent. It’s worked out really well for us. It’s made for this, as opposed to shoehorning Zoom.


    Graham: Totally. It’s such a clean user experience. I’m definitely … Because we’re going to try to record some of these conversations that we’re having. So I’m 100% going to start using this.


    Joe: All right, bud. All the best with Frank. And I’d love to, when you get your website up, and presuming you have a website, maybe that’s-


    Graham: Yeah. It’s to be frank.com. We have the URL, I think, as of right now. It’s so funny because the only thing that we care about is our listening tour right now, instead of talking about ourselves. And so we’re just kind of writing a bit of a manifesto. And we’ll just probably be like, “Hey.” Basically I think the only call to action is if you’re ready to be frank, we’re ready to listen. But once at that ball, I’ll shoot it your way.


    Joe: Cool, man. Love to see it.


    Graham: Sweet, cool.


    Joe: Okay, bud. Enjoy the rest of your day. Thank you again.


    Graham: Thanks dude. Talk soon.


    Joe: Take care, bud.