When, late last year, I had the temerity to claim that was indeed the case, SF founder, chairman, chief executive and great panjandrum Scott Goodson took venomous issue with my impudent suggestion.
Yet, less than 3 months later he has done just that – sold out. More specifically, APCO, a PR agency specialising in crisis management, has acquired a controlling interest in the financially troubled New York agency. (It is not yet clear how the sale will affect SFNY’s freewheeling Amsterdam counterpart.) The sale comes hot on the heels of news that Goodson has also parted company with the only profitable part of his organisation, StrawberryFrogPeralta, in which he held a 30% stake.
The spin on the APCO deal is that it is an inevitable sign of the times. As digital becomes the key communications channel between marketers and consumers, the traditional lines between PR and advertising are being extinguished. If anything, PR is culturally more sensitive to the “conversational” requirements of social media than advertising, but often lacks the technical expertise to be found in advertising agencies. Consequently, many PR firms have taken to hiring Madison Avenue creative executives over the past few years.
StrawberryFrog is indeed an accomplished expert in digital creativity. Goodson and his co-founder and fellow Canadian Brian Elliott (once best friends, who set up the company on Valentine’s Day, 1999, but later spectacularly fell out) early realised that strong creative ideas combined with digital know-how was a winning way of undercutting the big agencies, tied as they were to the bureaucratic “account team” legacy of traditional advertising.
And for a time, they were spectacularly successful. Even today, nearly 4 years after Elliott broke away, StrawberryFrog can boast a client list that includes Procter & Gamble (Pampers), Emirate Airlines and bourbon-maker Beam Inc.
But it is also a troubled agency, headed on a downward financial spiral and suffering from an unenviable reputation as a place to work (not least because of Goodson’s mercurial temperament).
Last year, I reported that agency staff had been cut from 76 to 40 in New York, while revenues had plummeted from $17m in 2010 to an estimated $12m in 2011. In the event, that last figure has proved a bit conservative – The Wall Street Journal cites $10m revenue. So, while Goodson may be quite right in asserting that the APCO deal will “give us the ability to work with clients in more markets around the world” (APCO has about 30 offices), it’s also true to say Goodson had to sell – or else suffer financial disaster.
APCO will be wise to treat its new acquisition with kid gloves. As one source familiar with StrawberryFrog put it to me: “Placing a value on this agency will not have been easy. What’s the IP value? How are they going to deal with the reputation issue? And has outstanding litigation with former staff been settled prior to the deal being signed?”
One thing APCO won’t have to worry about in the short-term, however, is dealing with StrawberryFrog’s prickly CEO. I understand he’s rather busy at the moment promoting his first book: “Uprising: How to build a brand and change the world by sparking cultural movements”. Perhaps some unintended irony in that title, the way things have turned out.