Industry Watch

From left to right: Eric Frost, Christian Erickson, Rob White, and Adrian Ho of Zeus Jones

A wide-open approach

Traditional marketing rules — and roles — have been thrown out the window at Zeus Jones

By Erica Rivera
Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Imagine an advertising agency with a barely-there hierarchy. Where many employees work at one big table. Where a creative can go from intern to hire to project head in under a year. Where companies collaborate with their marketing team.
 
That agency is Zeus Jones, based in the Uptown neighborhood of Minneapolis.
 
Christian Erickson, Eric Frost, Adrian Ho, and Rob White are the founders of this anti-establishment agency. The four met while employed at Fallon, an international, award-winning creative agency headquartered in Minneapolis. They worked well together, but envisioned something different for their future. 
 
“One of the realizations that we had was that even in the best agencies in the world, advertising isn’t that effective,” Ho says. “Fallon was the very best of that model,” says White, a Scotland expat and former Fallon president. “But we all had our frustrations with the old advertising model.”
 
One of those frustrations was their roles felt too restrictive. Frost recalls pitching non-traditional ideas and digital solutions — much to his clients’ excitement — only to have the suggestions scrapped when they didn’t fit in the structure of a traditional ad campaign. 
 
In 2006, the quartet began discussing striking out on their own. In 2007, after many months of contemplation, Zeus Jones was founded. The company had zero clients.
 
“We didn’t exactly know what it was going to be or what services we’d offer, but we had a fundamental belief that actions speak louder than words and modern brands are defined by what they do, not what they say,” Frost says. 
 
The crew furnished their “dirt cheap, fairly crappy office space” with second-hand tables and used phones. (The coffee maker, however, was new.) They bartered making a website for their landlord in exchange for reduced rent. 
 
By keeping overhead costs low, the company didn’t have to say “yes” to projects they didn’t want to do. In fact, the beginning of Zeus Jones was strongly defined not by what they did, but by what they wouldn’t do: Zeus Jones did not seek out long-term accounts, it eschewed competitions, and it refused to pitch — a policy that still stands today.
 
“We’re not going to pitch,” Frost tells potential clients. “However, we can show you exactly how we’ve solved this problem for another company.”
 
Rather than adapting old campaigns to the current market, Zeus Jones encouraged companies to take a blank-slate approach. Together, they figured out what the company’s “brand purpose” was. In other words: What can the brand do that doesn’t just sell products, but helps people in their daily lives?
 
“The best product marketing is not a layer that you’re building on top, but opening up and showing people the interesting, innovating things you’re doing and the passionate people behind that,” Frost explains.
 
One such instance was when Betty Crocker brought in Zeus Jones to re-educate consumers on the importance of homemaking, which was the original idea behind the brand’s conception. Zeus Jones’ solution was the Betty Crocker Families Project. This included a video that featured bright animated graphics of families interspersed with stats on the changing structure of American households, including the surge in same-sex couples cohabiting. “At the heart of every family there’s a homemaker,” reads the text on the screen. In a sidebar on the project’s website, Betty Crocker states, “We’re on a mission to understand what it means to be a family — so we can share the strengths that make every family part of a home.” Visitors to the site are encouraged to post what makes them proud of their families, what their biggest struggle is, and how they work together to make a home.
 
“We believe that if a company can do more valuable things for people, they’re going to get more business,” Ho explains.
 
Gordon Wade, the director of marketing at Purina, is a longtime client of Zeus Jones. “They are invaluable to us,” Wade says. “We work so closely with them that they feel like not even an extension of us, they feel like us. An outsider would not be able to tell, ‘There’s the agency and there’s the team.’”
 
Tim Moynihan, the global brand manager for Post-it at 3M, came to Zeus Jones looking for “thought leadership” to revitalize marketing and engage consumers in a novel way. What started as a digital campaign “blossomed to a full strategic partnership,” Moynihan says. 
 
“It’s hard to get someone who can both be strategic and develop things that are on brand, but then be able to execute them in an elegant and beautiful way,” Moynihan says, but Zeus Jones excels in that area and has become an integral part of many Post-it campaigns.
 
Zeus Jones now employs 43 full-timers, and it recently opened an office in San Francisco. Frost describes Zeus Jones’ employees as proactive, multifaceted, cooperative, high-performance people. The agency prides itself on a “sink or swim” atmosphere — and teamwork is not just in the job description, it’s an ethos.
 
“If you can’t collaborate, you can’t thrive here,” White says. “It’s a very open, unstructured, un-silent environment. We want and expect people to participate.”
 
“No one is spoiled or coddled or resting on their laurels,” Frost adds. “No one is taking the work that we do for granted. Everyone pitches in.”
 
And not just on the advertising. All of the Joneses share door opening, phone answering, and dishwasher loading responsibilities. Everyone is expected to be “a doer” and no task is beneath anyone. The concept of higher-ups or department delineation is strongly discouraged. 
 
“We never talk about seniority,” White says. “We look at people as incredibly capable, resourceful, and able to solve problems. Our job as the management is to put people in situations where they can thrive, provide support, and empower people to go where they had no idea they were capable of going.”
 
Because employees cannot be promoted, per se, the founders motivate them with the prospect of “increasingly interesting opportunities to challenge and stretch them,” Frost says.
 
When hiring, the founders look for candidates with “wide open creativity” and avoid those who consider themselves “specialists.” 
 
Everyone faces clients. No wallflowers allowed. Those who interview for a position at Zeus Jones must stand before the staff and answer three to four questions on the fly. The queries can be as concrete as finding a solution to a hypothetical problem or as open-ended as “What inspires you?” It’s a test that forces interviewees to shed their façades.
 
Once a year, all the Joneses take part in an off-site event meant “to raise our own bar,” White says. The company reviews the benchmarks from the previous year and then sets goals for the future. Success is measured by how often clients return to Zeus Jones for new projects, and whether they recommend the agency to their colleagues.
 
 “If we make our clients happy,” says White, “that will spawn more business.” 
 
“At the end of the day, when we've done great work for a client, no one can say who came up with the original idea,” Frost says. “It’s got everyone’s fingerprints on it.”
 
“It’s got the client’s fingerprints on it,” White adds. “We workshop our ideas with clients. They’re very much a part of finding solutions.” 

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