Egotist Briefs: Odysseus Arms

By Egotist / /

When you win a Small Agency of the Year award, you’re clearly doing more than a few things right. So we decided to pick the brain of Libby Brockhoff and Franklin Tipton – the founders of Odysseus Arms. Check out why they think small is better, why they give XBoxes to every employee and what they wished they knew before they started their shop.


Congrats on the Small Agency of the Year (1-9 employees) Award. What do you think it was about Odysseus Arms that stood out among all the other entrants?

First of all, we’re big fans of EgotistSF because the publication is positive.

We may have stood out because they wondered where in the hell we came from? Actually, O-Arms is not the first startup we’ve been involved with. Libby co-founded Mother, London. She came up with the name “Mother” (you should get her to share that story). And we were snuggly with KesselsKramer when they started up in a nunnery annex. So we’re weird on purpose, building a shop with a Euro-centric touch. We spent a big chunk of our careers in England, where people don’t fast forward through the commercials; they enjoy them. We always make sure that we’re doing that.

You’ve successfully turned “small” into a major selling point for your shop. Explain that and how clients usually receive it.

This is the Post-Agency of Record (AOR) world. A lot of the work out there is short term or project-based. Often, we’re in pitches with agencies ten times our size, for a project. Rather than complain about it, we decided to build a model that embraces project work. We can marshal a force of about 60 people in the space of two weeks, then disassemble the group down the line. That’s how we produced the massive, national YouTube “Creators” campaign in 10 weeks. Our projects have been getting bigger and bigger each year. Some of those have turned into AOR. So we don’t dwell on long term commitment early on. It’ll happen if it’s meant to.

What are some of the creative challenges that come from being a small shop in SF?

The economy was so slow for our first two years, we think we’ve earned our scrappy merit badge. Also, our competition is not necessarily other agencies. We’ve seen media, TV production, PR and even a retouching company all declaring they are “full service” ad agencies. They have reels, creative departments and everything. So pitches these days can be bizarre. Here’s a good one: companies built in the Silicon Valley look to ad agencies with disdain. Our very existence is confirmation that their genius piece of sure-fire utilitarian code needs help reaching critical mass. We’ve changed a lot of minds on this point, and we’re proud of that.

You give every employee an Xbox. How did that idea come about and how does it contribute to the agency?

The original goal was to build a company we actually wanted to work for. Declaring gaming is mandatory and handing you an Xbox on your first day is exactly the kind of antics employees expect from us. It’s also something no CFO at any agency on earth would allow. But AAA games are insanely creative, wildly artistic and the most dynamic digital experience you can have. People are gaming at different levels of intensity. And if you ever have a problem with your boss, you can take it on-line.

We’re definitely having game nights with other agencies at the new space.

What excites you creatively these days?

Evolve from Turtle Rock and 2K games looks pretty killer.

What disappoints you most about advertising?

Snark. Negativity. This is the coolest job in the universe. Every day is different. If you’re skilled, you can turn any lackluster brief into an amazing creative solution. Mother, London, was built on dusty, derelict briefs that no agency would touch with a barge pole. We took them all on and looked for a truth, no matter how ugly, and turned that into a populist piece.

There are so many great agencies popping up in San Francisco these days. What is it about this place that allows for so many shops to flourish?

This is a destination city on ten different levels. Topography. Size. Micro-climate. Innovation. Architecture. Vacation. Style. Culture. Plus SF lives and breathes prototype culture. We’ve already made the idea before NYC settles into its chair with its grande mocha latte.

How do you want Odysseus Arms to evolve? If you could triple the headcount, would you? Or are you happy to just keep doing what you’re doing?

We’re going to triple our headcount. That’s already happening. But our model thrives on keeping the water in the aquarium tank fresh. We have nine of us here at the moment. But we’re constantly orbited by about 40 short contract specialists, freelancers and other small companies. People seem to dig jumping in on a project with us, then heading out on a surf trip for a while. They come, they go, they come back. Thus, the “arms” part of our name.

What do you wish you knew before you started Odysseus Arms?

We had no idea how cool the modern workplace could be thanks to technology. We would have put more time into learning about collaboration techniques and tools, rather than figuring it out organically. We also didn’t know how receptive large companies would be to hiring us. Our roster was built on a hunch.

What are three pieces of advice you’d give any creative?

Be good, but don’t be a snob. We work in the best industry in the world. We’re the lunatic fringe of commerce. The fun part of your client’s day. Act like it.

Avoid being snarky. It’s much more difficult to be positive and optimism indicates higher intelligence. We all chuckle at snark, but secretly, everyone thinks they’re miserable dicks.

Look for the opportunity in a tough situation. It’s there. Rather than going dark side about a blown pitch or killed campaign, think about what you just learned.