StrawberryFrog is up for sale, but will anyone want to buy it?

November 3, 2011

Word reaches me that StrawberryFrog, the maverick international advertising network, has hoisted a discreet “For Sale” sign. Whether it will succeed in its objective is open to doubt, as will be seen below.

First a little background. StrawberryFrog – curiously named after a colourful, nippy and spectacularly poisonous Latin American amphibian – was founded in 1999 by Canadian entrepreneur Scott Goodson as an agile alternative to the big, cumbersome, advertising holding companies. Goodson, who remains to this day head honcho, likes to see himself, and his company, as an avatar of what is called Movement Marketing, a concept first dreamt up by sociologist Neil Smelser. Stripped of jargon, this means “avantgarde” or “revolutionary”. In practice, Goodson was one of the first to spot that small, manoeuverable agencies with strong creative ideas that travelled well could use digital leverage to undercut the legacy giants – with their expensive but increasingly quaint bureaucratic structures wedded to traditional advertising.

For a time things went extraordinarily well. With only 2 offices, one in Amsterdam and one in New York – which deployed a staff of no more than 70 “Frogs” (but rather a lot of freelancers) – Goodson and his co-founder in Amsterdam, Brian Elliott, pulled in some extraordinary global business. We’re talking Sony Ericsson (when that was still a name to conjure with), Mitsubishi Motors Europe, Pfizer, RIM’s Blackberry, Ikea, Heineken, Morgan Stanley, PepsiCo, Emirates – to name but a few.

In 2009, the agency reached its apogee when – against all odds –  it seized the prized global digital account of Procter & Gamble’s biggest brand, Pampers, from under the nose of Publicis Groupe’s Digitas and WPP’s Bridge Worldwide. It was not even a P&G roster agency. Pampers remains StrawberryFrog’s most prestigious account.

But that was then. From thereon in, it seems to have been downhill.

Already, the cracks had begun showing when in 2008 Elliott broke away, rechristening the StrawberryFrog Amsterdam business Amsterdam World.

True, Goodson (left) patched up the network. He set up a new Amsterdam office, and had already opened a successful Brazilian boutique in Sao Paolo, a shop in Mumbai and disclosed his intention to set up an office in London (project later aborted). But he signally failed to control his New York hub, which has gone into freefall.

Not a week seems to go by these days without news of redundancies, stories emerging of Goodson’s increasingly tyrannical behaviour and acrimonious exits by senior staff. Two of his former top team are, I’m told, suing. One, ex-chief strategy officer Ilana Bryant, wants $2m for alleged breach of contract (I should add in fairness that StrawberryFrog is counter-suing her for $50,000).

All of which, as can be imagined, does little to impress clients, who have become still more alarmed by rumours that StrawberryFrog’s NY office is increasingly reluctant to pay its suppliers’ bills.

By way of illumination, some interesting “numbers” recently came into my hands – from what appears to be an unimpeachable source. They are as follows:

NY office: Dire. Revenue has declined from $17m (2010) to  about $12m (2011). A loss of $600,000 is expected this year. NY has about 40 employees, down from 76 a year ago.

Amsterdam and Brazil have different ownership structures to New York: Amsterdam is smaller by revenues, and expected to generate a $200-300,000 loss this year; Brazil has about 80 employees with $8-9m revenue – it is profitable.

Back in 2007, StrawberryFrog came quite close to sealing a deal with Publicis Groupe (it failed at the due diligence stage). This time a sale is more urgent. But I wonder whether Goodson will be able to find a buyer.


Buckle your safety belts: GM has put Joel Ewanick in the global driving seat

December 21, 2010

You’ll have to forgive me. Unlike former Porsche marketer Joel Ewanick, I don’t live in the fast-lane – meaning, I’ve just caught up with the news that he has been appointed to the new position of global chief marketing officer, General Motors.

Even by his standards, that was quick work. He only joined the organisation eight months ago as US vice president marketing, after a brief and apparently stormy sojourn at Nissan. But what an eight months that’s been. The relentless cutting-edge of the whirling dervish has left no department intact, no slogan unchallenged, no strategy unexamined, no agency relationship unmarked. Most notoriously, it will be recalled, he summarily despatched Publicis Worldwide only weeks after it had won the $700m Chevrolet account, and replaced it with (off-roster but on-message, so far as Ewanick is concerned) Goodby Silverstein & Partners. Then, judging perhaps that he had gratuitously made an enemy of one of the most powerful admen in the world, he placated Maurice Lévy by firing BBH from $270m Cadillac and giving the business to Fallon instead. I’m sure there were other reasons for this move: but it cannot be entirely coincidental that Fallon is wholly owned by Publicis Groupe, of which Lévy is the ceo, whereas BBH is only 49% owned by the same company. More money, then, into the main exchequer.

Any way, back to Ewanick. There are at least two, not entirely contradictory, ways of looking at his brand of marketing management; the success of his current appointment will depend on which is uppermost.

The first we have already seen: the change agent on steroids who will stop at nothing to become the world’s most famous car-marketer, in a vainglorious attempt to salvage the apparently unsalvageable: GM’s reputation.

The second is a man with an indisputable reputation for turning around troubled car marques. He did it at Porsche Cars North America during the nineties (no fly-by-nighter there – he stayed nearly nine years as general manager marketing); and he did it again during his 3-year stint as head of marketing at Hyundai North America. Hyundai is now – arguably – America’s most successful car brand.

In this new role we’re going to discover whether success has gone to Ewanick’s head or not. According to the man who appointed him, GM CEO Dan Akerson (himself a new kid on the managerial block), he “will ensure consistent global messaging fro all brands including Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet, GMC, Holden, Opel and Vauxhall. Ewanick will provide oversight for global brand enhancements in the markets in which they are sold and work in association with the regional presidents in countries where GM has partnerships and joint ventures.”

The key regional bosses we are talking about here are the ones with dominion in Britain (Vauxhall), Australia (Holden) and Germany (Opel) – Ewanick already controls the rest. And the key issue is how much these brands desire, or even require, “consistent global messaging” – still less an American-centric version of it. Let’s not forget that these were the successful bits, devolved from GM’s incompetent Detroit management – the bits that didn’t have to go into Chapter 11 a while back. I wonder whether Ewanick has the forbearance to acknowledge that. Somehow, I can’t imagine tact is his number one quality.

Whatever happens, it’s going to be an interesting ride for GM’s European roster agencies. DLKW Lowe, McCann Erickson, Scholz & Friends and Amsterdam Worldwide, fasten your seat belts.


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