Ex-Montrealers make good in Europe
Small Amsterdam consultancy competes with ad-industry "dinosaurs"

When ex-Montrealers Scott Goodson and Brian Elliott decided to set up their European cross-border creative consultancy, Strawberry Frog, early last year, they could have located it just about anywhere on the continent. But they chose Amsterdam.

"Amsterdam has a reputation as an international city and a center of advertising creativity," said Elliott. "It's also about an hour-long flight from several important European centers where we do business."

The growing use of the Net for correspondence and creative proofing has been a boon for Elliott and others like him, who increasingly get to both live and work where they want. "Clients are not as concerned with where their agency is located as they used to be."

According to partner Goodson, Amsterdam offers advantages over some of the larger, European capitals. "The people here are open, and the quality of life is exceptional," said the third generation marketing executive. "Although expensive by Montreal standards, it is much cheaper here than Paris or London."

Amsterdam is also less threatening. "National pride may prevent a Berlin-based company from giving business to a Paris-based agency since Paris is perceived Berlin's rival. But no one is threatened by Amsterdam"

Oddly for an agency located in the Netherlands's capital, the firm does little advertising targeting the local Dutch market. Strawberry Frog specializes in international cross-border advertising for companies establishing themselves in multiple markets.

"There are two distinct trends in advertising," said Goodson. "One is toward the internationalization of many brands, and the second is a hyper-sensitivity among a segment of consumers toward local customs and traditions."

"And with the increasing deregulation in European financial services and telecommunications industries, there are lots of opportunities opening up for smaller, more flexible agencies such as ourselves."

The way Goodson and Elliott see it, Europe is at an earlier stage in the recovery cycle and thus has more upside potential than the United States, which saw massive deregulation and business restructuring more than a decade ago.

"The recently announced capital gains tax cut in Germany is a strong sign of support to the financial services sector," said Goodson who worked as a creative director at the J.Walter Thompson affiliate in Toronto, and at a Swedish agency before setting up shop in the Netherlands.

"Companies are realizing that if they want to compete in this new deregulated environment they will have to increasingly focus on establishing their brands on-line."

Strawberry Frog was able to capitalize on its strong Internet savvy to land work from the prestigious London-based European Stock Exchange. The exchange, a European version of NASDAQ, is developing an on-line discount trading system, and signed the fledgling firm to help with its branding strategy.

"Big agencies, with their large bureaucracies and committees, are too slow to respond to a lot of the fast-paced changes taking place in today's business environment," said Goodson, who first met his partner at Bishop's College School in Lennoxville.

After heading to different universities, whose rivalry they like to play up - "Queens sucks," said Goodson, who went to the University of Western Ontario, "Western is for losers who couldn't hack Queens," retorts Elliott ­ they eventually stumbled into the same profession. Then with a third partner Karin Drackenberg they founded Strawberry Frog on Valentine's day of last year.

They chose the Strawberry Frog (native to the Brazilian rain forest) as their symbol because it is "small, agile, and leaps precisely without effort in a planned and methodical fashion," said Goodson, reciting almost verbatim extracts from his company's PR material. "The frog also contrasts with the slow-moving dinosaurs many big agencies have become."

But that PR material may have to be updated soon. For a small agency, the folks at Strawberry Frog boast a lot of big name brands: Pharmacia & Upjohn, Tektronics, and Swatch - on their growing client list.

In fact the speed at which they are picking up accounts - the day of Goodson's interview the agency was selected Elle magazine in the to do its on-line branding in the U.S. - makes one wonder how long the agency will remain small.

Although they still have only 15 full-time staff at the Amsterdam office, the agency, works with a network of about 60 freelance artists, designers, photographers and other creative personnel.

But Goodson denies plans to become just another big agency: "the internal structures in many of those shops have become so convoluted that its impossible to get any cutting edge creative work done, yet alone approved. That's why we plan to stay small."

Both partners still have family in Montreal including Goodson's sister Anna, who runs an Internet-based representation bureau catering to agency demand for talented photographers and designers.

According to Elliott, because of objectivity and creativity generated by their multi-cultural environments, Quebecers and Canadians have unique advantages handling international brand problems. And even though Strawberry Frog has no direct Canadian clients for the time being, it has placed ads in Canada to recruit local talent.

"Over the Internet the only thing that matters is the quality of the work you produce," said Goodson. "I gave one guy I met on the Web, a contract to do some programming in the software Flash. He was so good I offered him a full time job."

"He turned out to be a 14-year old kid, who was one of the most world's authorities on the subject," said Goodson. "He told me he would consider my offer when he got out of high-school."


Photo caption: Ex-Montrealers Scott Goodson (top) and Brian Elliott at Strawberry Frog's headquarters in Amsterdam.


Diekmeyer can be reached at peter@peterdiekmeyer.com.




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