Smart, witty and distinctive, with a hint of calculated misbehaviour. This is how Frances Webster describes the work that she and partner Deacon Webster wanted to make when they co-founded New York agency Walrus in 2005.
Frances, the agency’s CEO, was new business director at well-loved agency Mad Dogs & Englishmen prior to launching her own shop. She previously spent four years at Butler, Shine, Stern & Partners and worked at Saatchi & Saatchi on the General Mills account.
She was, in her eyes, ‘raised by a family of leaders’ and recently witnessed a huge schism in the agency world, which she believes could spell trouble for the ‘mediocre middle’ of our industry.
Frances and LBB’s Addison Capper dive deeper into all of that and more.
LBB> You have been the CEO of your own business for a large part of your career. How do you feel that’s shaped the way you approach leadership and the way that Walrus operates as a business – versus you spending more time at other agencies?
Frances> Deacon Webster and I founded Walrus for two reasons. One, we wanted to put advertising out in the world that was smart, witty, and distinctive, employing a bit of calculated misbehaviour to help our clients stand out. And two, we wanted to be in a position to ensure this type of advertising actually got made.
As Walrus’ CEO, my primary job* is to raise the agency’s profile so we can connect with like-minded marketers who want to create that standout, brand-building work. The companies we choose to work with matters. Walrus has one of the best teams in the business, so it’s critical to bring in opportunities that keep this group engaged.
Over the past 12 months, Walrus has been very fortunate to work with some of the biggest, best, and most innovative companies in the world, including Amazon and Colgate. We have also built a solid book of middle-market regional clients who are investing in growth and appreciate good work. The team has been busy.
- My leadership style summarized in this ESPN clip.
LBB> Where did you grow up and what sort of kid were you? Were there any clues that you’d enter the world of advertising?
Frances> I grew up in Columbia and Charleston, South Carolina, two wonderful places to spend a childhood. I was raised by a family of leaders. My maternal grandmother was the executive director of the Historic Charleston Foundation for nearly 40 years, and my paternal grandfather was the CEO of South Carolina National (SCN), South Carolina’s largest bank, which was acquired by Wachovia. My mother founded and ran a thriving children’s clothing shop, and my father was a successful lawyer and real estate executive, and continues to be a well-respected business leader in Columbia. He sits on Walrus’ advisory board, and without him, the agency would not be where it is today.
Having such civic- and business-minded family members as my earliest mentors taught me from a young age the importance of hard work and that you can achieve anything if you put your mind to it.
Growing up, advertising as a career was not on my radar. Of course, I saw ads on TV, and Tide was in our pantry, but it never occurred to me how the two might be connected. Early on, I wanted to be a lawyer, like my dad. My sister and I would go with him to the office over the weekends. It was so much fun. We would type ridiculous things on the typewriters and call people from the assistants’ phones. I guess you could say I formed a love of the office from a young age. I get that ‘love of the office’ is out of style these days, but I still hold firm that nothing replaces working together in real life.
LBB> Once you got your foot in the door, what were the key moments or phases that helped you grow into the leader you are today?
Frances> I have had the good fortune of working at some fantastic agencies, including Butler Shine, Stern & Partners (BSSP), Mad Dogs & Englishmen, and Munn Rabot. While each agency was distinct in its culture, clients and work, they shared a common thread in that they were all growing, entrepreneurial organisations with talented leadership who also happened to be good people. Working in these types of environments was like having a front row seat to running a company and agency.
A note about getting my foot in the door: I moved to New York City in the fall of 1996 after taking a year off post-college to backpack around Southeast Asia and ski in Crested Butte, Colorado. PSA: Kids, if you can, take a beat before entering the workforce. It’s a small window where you have a lot of freedom and not a ton of responsibility. You will thank yourself 20+ years down the road. It also gives you something to talk about in interviews. Prospective employers know you have next to zero experience. We are trying to figure out if you are smart, have a high social EQ (emotional intelligence), and are interesting. Go out and live that interesting life. You will have something to talk about.
LBB> In terms of the type of work that you’re focusing on for clients and how it’s showing up in the world, what are some key focuses for Walrus right now and what is driving them?
Frances> Right now, Walrus is focusing on clients who want to jump to the next level. We prepare brands for takeoff. It could be a new brand with recent funding, an established business that’s ready to scale, or a new leadership or marketing team that comes in and wants to blow it all up. Walrus provides a fresh perspective and approach that creatively pressure-tests strategies, builds a world around our clients’ brands and, most importantly, develops work that stands out. (Only 4% of advertising is remembered positively!) There are no medals for being quiet. A great example of a company we’ve done that for is leading Carolina grocer, Lowes Foods. They have an entirely unique shopping experience that’s more like entertainment than a chore. We’ve worked together for five years now, and our mission has been to make the advertising throughout the entire customer journey as fun and exciting as a trip to a Lowes Foods store.
LBB> When I interviewed Deacon back in 2020, he told me that “the next few years are going to be a boon for creatively focused shops that know how to actually do memorable brand work” in response to too much short-term thinking and a bit of an obsession with “mostly flawed” data. Given that we are literally a few years ahead now, what are your thoughts on how that’s played out since then?
Frances> There’s been a huge schism in the agency world. On the one side is WPP’s consolidation of one ‘mega-agency’ that basically admitted there is zero brand value in the four agencies that were bundled together. On the other hand is the ever-growing troupe of independent creative shops that are churning out great work like Mischief, Walrus, and Preacher. It HAS been a boon for creativity, but mostly for leaner operations that are really driving value and pushing boundaries. Mid-size agencies that make up the mediocre middle of the creative pile are in big trouble right now because there is a large cohort of marketers that seem to believe that they can do just as well with an arsenal of sophisticated acquisitions and AI tools. Those mediocre middle agencies won’t be able to compete with the big guys on that front, or with the small guys on radical creativity.
LBB> An effective leader is always seeking opportunities to learn. What are your favoured ways to soak up wisdom and information?
France> Read everything and follow the money. I subscribe to The Wall Street Journal, New York Post, and The New York Times. I watch Bloomberg and CNBC, read the ad trades, our clients’ trades, and their local papers. I dig into what company CEOs and finance titans are talking about, excited about, worried about. I look at recent acquisitions, talent moves, and new product launches. I take note of which marketers are trying new things, investing in marketing, and winning awards. Consume, consume, consume. That’s one of the best ways to keep learning.
And in my experience, the best way to soak up wisdom is to push yourself beyond the familiar and beyond what you already know. No matter what industry you’re in, seize every opportunity to be outside your comfort zone. Say ‘yes’ more. Fail and learn from it. Take leaps and purposely experiment. Don’t be linear. Think ambitiously, creatively, and boldly about the life you want to lead. And be sure to do this throughout the course of your life and your career.
LBB> For you, is winning new business an important part of measuring achievement, as opposed to, say, creative awards?
Frances> It’s not an either/or. New business — organic and top line growth — is the lifeblood of an agency. If you aren’t growing, you have a problem. Growth leads to new campaigns, which lead to awards, which leads to more growth.
I never diminish the role awards play in an agency’s growth. They help both top talent and prospective clients find Walrus. Ad Age’s A-List and Small Agency Awards are like a ‘best restaurants’ list. It’s critical to win those. The Effies signal to prospective and existing clients that you actually care about results and moving the needle. And a Cannes Lion says that your creative is not only working, but also displays excellence. Awards absolutely have their place and purpose.
LBB> When it comes to creativity outside of the industry, who are the artists that you keep coming back to?
Frances> Walrus had a table at the recent Brooklyn Bridge Park Gala, where we hosted an Oscar-winning documentary producer, a documentary filmmaker, a blockbuster movie editor, a famed photographer and mandolin player, and an art historian who recently published a best-selling non-fiction novel. Walrus is headquartered in New York City, one of the most creative cities in the world, and our friends and neighbours are at the top of their game, living artists who are making their work here. That’s what inspires and keeps me (and Walrus) in New York.
On a less highbrow but equally enjoyable note, I love ‘Yellowstone’ and have watched it since the beginning, back in the days when Tractor Supply and a livestock feed company were the only advertisers.
LBB> Outside of work, what do you do to decompress and what motivates you?
Frances> Outside of work, I enjoy spending time with my family, reading, running, playing tennis, backcountry hiking and ski tripping, mountain biking, and drinking martinis (not always all at the same time).
Read the interview here.