The co-founder and chief creative officer of Walrus on the Beastie Boys, reading “trashy adult spy fiction” as a kid, and why Binet and Field studies are must-reads
Deacon Webster was told in the ninth grade that he was destined to sell ointments. We can’t be sure what his teachers meant by that - maybe he showed some kind of penchant for oily medicinal treatment - but it was a comment with an odd amount of foresight given his career as an ad creative. That career started at New York agency Mad Dogs & Englishmen. It was, in his words, the only place that he ever wanted to work at, which is the kind of throw-away statement that’s bandied around a lot. Deacon is a man of his word though. After his studies he worked there for nothing for an entire year, taking the earliest train into New York City and one of the last ones out, before eventually getting employed and working his way up to be the agency’s executive creative director. It was only the prospect of launching his own agency that could tempt him away from Mad Dogs & Englishmen. He did so in 2005, launching Walrus in New York with his wife and business partner Frances. As the talking walrus on its homepage would suggest, the agency’s work is full of sass while being rooted in what’s right for the client, and we are all for it.
LBB’s Addison Capper chatted further with Deacon.
LBB> What was your early life like? Where did you grow up and what kind of kid were you?
Deacon> I grew up in the outer suburbs of New York in the mid ‘70s. That entire period had a degree of post-Nixon post-Vietnam malaise that hung over everyone and you could sense it as a kid. If you listen to ‘A Horse With No Name’ by America and stare at the cover of The Allman Brothers album, Brothers and Sisters - that's what my childhood felt like.
I marched to my own drummer. My ninth grade yearbook had me ‘selling ointments’ in 20 years, which was oddly prescient. I was really into sports like soccer, tennis and lacrosse, but I also was obsessed with text-based video games like Zork. I wrote a few of those games back in the day which was kind of like programming a super primitive AI. The talking walrus on our site takes some inspiration from that experience. I drew a lot. I had a big stack of Ed Emberley drawing books that I worked my way through. I also read all sorts of stuff that was not really what most kids were reading; adult, but not necessarily ‘good’ books. I remember bringing ‘Day of the Jackal’ to sleep away camp in third grade and the counselors were like, "Dude, why are you reading trashy adult spy fiction?" I saw my first Grateful Dead show at age 13 in ‘86 and that set me on a whole different course. From then on I was extremely into listening to and playing music which I still am.
LBB> You started your career at Mad Dogs & Englishmen - what are your fondest and biggest memories from your early years in the industry?
Deacon> Coming out of Syracuse, Mad Dogs was the only place I wanted to work. Their stuff was all hilarious, raw, and New York-y. Tibor Kalman had a huge influence over the philosophy of the shop. I somehow managed to get a gig as an unpaid intern after I graduated. I lived with my parents in the suburbs and would commute in on the 6:10am train, and out on the 11:15pm. We would regularly be there all night and I had zero money. I did that for an entire year before I finally got hired. That was one of those life-defining experiences because I was all-in on getting a job at this ad agency. If it didn't work out, I was entirely broke and still living with my parents. I eventually ended up as the ECD so I guess it was worth it. My parents are still bitter though.
Mad Dogs holds many fond memories, but the one defining element was the creative internals. Everyone in the department presented ideas to a big group and there was always SO much great work. It was such an adrenaline rush to be presenting next to all these incredibly talented people, praying that you didn't get destroyed. There was a high bar. I remember one particular meeting after all the teams had presented. Nick Cohen, the owner, just sat there for 10 minutes staring at the wall of work before finally saying, "You know how you're at a party and it's really late, and all the attractive people have left, but you have to go home with SOMEBODY? That's how I feel right now." It could be harsh.
LBB> WOW. But you trundled on and eventually launched Walrus in 2005 with your wife Frances. What inspired you both to launch your own agency? And why this specific agency? What were you aiming to achieve?
Deacon> At Mad Dogs, everyone except the owners was under 35. It was immediately obvious to me that if I wanted to continue doing this job, I had better own the agency. Working at a large shop cranking out TV spots on some legacy brand has never held any appeal for me. First and foremost I wanted (and want) to be making stuff that I'm proud of. Otherwise, why not just go work at Goldman Sachs and make some actual money. Frances comes from a long line of leaders and entrepreneurs, most notably her grandmother who founded the Historic Foundation of Charleston, S.C. back before preservation was cool. If it wasn't Walrus, Frances would be running something else. It's in her DNA.
Walrus' mission is to "change the way the world feels about advertising", and we mean it. Advertising is 99.9% horrible and annoying and treats its audience like they're a bunch of idiots. BUT that .1% can be as good as any other form of entertainment. That’s the work we want to make. It’s as simple as that.
LBB> Maybe I’m just nosey but I always find husband-wife business partnerships interesting. How do you find your romantic partner also being your business partner?
Deacon> Running a business with anyone is a very personal and intimate experience, and a lot of founding partners don't have any idea what they're getting into until the first crisis. We have the benefit of knowing exactly who we're dealing with already, so it's a huge advantage when things don't go as planned (as happens pretty much constantly).
LBB> Why Walrus? What is it about that animal that made you want to name your business after it?
Deacon> Walruses are fun to look at yet they don't mess around, just like our work. Walrus also begins with a W like Webster. And we just like them.
LBB> I feel like Walrus, as a brand, is fun - the logo is the animal's head, you've got a talking walrus on the agency homepage and the work that you do has got good amounts of sass too (like this cheeky work for Smith & Wollensky). Would you agree with that? Does advertising take itself too seriously sometimes?
Deacon> God yes. Most advertisers are terrified of actually drawing any attention to themselves at all. Comments, press, feedback, opinions - all of these things are considered major negatives to a lot of marketing departments. But the thing is, no matter how much they wish it to be otherwise, a big product shot with 10 RTBs doesn't work very well as advertising because the people on the other end of that messaging don't give a shit. We try very hard to take into consideration those poor people who are being subjected to our ads.
With every ad, we're trying to make someone fall in love with our clients because of the ads themselves. We want people to see the work and think, "I like this company for putting something funny, smart, or entertaining into this space instead of something completely uninteresting." You cannot elicit that reaction if you're being quiet and boring.
LBB> I read an interview where you said that the work Walrus does is work that "understands what’s going on in marketing and advertising right now". Well, what IS going on in advertising right now?
Deacon> Right now marketers are waking up to the fact that marketing tech companies have been running a long con on them for the past five to 10 years, and that con centres around data and tracking. The data is mostly flawed; one-to-one marketing is expensive and ineffective at scale; and true attribution is still a black art that is unlikely to ever be completely solved. CMOs from the likes of Coors, adidas, and Old Navy have all come out to say that they've gone too deep on short term activation and have lost the thread when it comes to brand. Binet and Field are must-reads on this subject and I am 100% behind their findings which show that a 60/40 split between brand and activation is what we should be striving for to drive long-term growth. Right now, that ratio is flipped because marketers have been drinking the direct response Kool Aid, but we're feeling the rumblings of a shift. The next few years are going to be a boon for creatively focused shops that know how to actually do memorable brand work.
LBB> One thing that is definitely happening is the ever-changing ways of the holding companies and their big, flagship agency networks. Walrus is independent and still quite small in size. Talk to me about that and your thoughts on it. What does being small offer you in 2020? Does headcount even matter anymore?
Deacon> Nothing kills a good idea faster than layers. When a concept needs to go through six internal layers of creative direction, strategy, and account management before it even makes it to the client that's really bad for the integrity of the idea. Because we're small we can put very little friction between the work and the client so it arrives in a much purer form than if it had gone through the big agency ringer - and by purer I mean better and more effective.
Our business focus is on smaller mid-cap companies with revenues between $20 and $200 million, and we have staffed around being able to run businesses of that size really well. We regularly work with Fortune 500 companies like PayPal and Amazon and although that's not our focus, we don't have trouble servicing them. Certainly there are some bigger accounts out there that require some major staff, but for where our business is being sourced we feel like we're in a good spot.
LBB> Despite being 'small', Walrus boasts its own fully-functioning media department. When did you launch that and why? And how have you found the process of setting it up and implementing it?
Deacon> We built the media department in 2016 for three reasons:
1) Early in the planning process, when you have media separate from everything else, you have two separate entities independently developing your audience profile in two very different, non-compatible ways. We wanted to bring strategic and media planning together so media could learn from our qual/quant research and our planners could learn from our media tools. It's common sense but nobody does this.
2) We felt like the creative idea was being ignored whenever we worked with the bigger media shops. They developed their plan in a vacuum - what we were doing was giving lip service in the form of a Snapchat filter or something but that was about it. We didn't feel like it was out of the question to want the creative idea to inspire the media and the media in turn to shape the idea.
3) We wanted to have a better window into results. With outside media partners it was like pulling teeth to see how a campaign was performing, and any optimisations that were made were done without any input from creative. We knew that by bringing everything together, we'd be able to deliver better performance.
Setting it up and implementing it was not nearly as easy as we thought it would be. Because it's an entirely different discipline we didn't really know what we needed in terms of staff, expertise and capabilities. There are also a lot of upfront costs - subscriptions, data, trade desks, etc. so you need to commit and be willing to lose money for a while in order to get it up off the ground. We're finally over the learning curve, and we don't ever want to go back.
LBB> Which pieces of work over the years are you particularly proud of and why?
In 2016 we handled the launch of General Mills' first new cereal in 15 years called Tiny Toast. That work was particularly absurd and fun to make. There's a spot in there where a gigantic sheep is shaving a man's back, which I consider a life achievement.
More recently, we're really liking the work we've been doing for a magnesium [supplement] called SlowMag. Being able to do something so fundamentally different from the rest of the category is always exciting, and this one is a great example of what we can do when we handle everything from planning to creative to media - we even redid the packaging. The quality of every single element is raised.
LBB> What do you get up to in your free time? Any current obsessions?
Deacon> I just finished listening to the Beastie Boys book on audible and it's pretty amazing. The list of readers is everyone from Mike D and Ad Rock, to Steve Buscemi, to Elvis Costello, to Rachel Maddow to Chuck D, to Jon Stewart. It's crazy. Throughout the book they talk about all the music they were listening to, so there are loads of playlists which would be awesome to be able to dig into if somebody actually took the time to put them all into Spotify. Well, some saint of a human did, and it's amazing. Here's a link. You're welcome.