Evolution Bureau on thinking like a startup


This article has previously been published in Dutch marketing magazine Adformatie.

In recent years Boulder, a little town at the foothills of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, has developed into one of the main advertising and technology startup hubs in the US. In this column I’m highlighting some of these startups, in the hope to provide some inspiration to industry peers in The Netherlands.

Today I’m meeting with Steve Babcock, who recently left his comfortable job as Executive Creative Director at CP+B to start digital agency Evolution Bureau in Boulder (EVB). The moment I walk in the EVB Boulder office, Steve is apologetic: “Not all walls are painted yet. There’s only one bathroom which is also the only source of water in the building. We call it Ghetto fabulous.” All very stereotypical startup. But let’s be honest here. There’s nothing really startup about EVB. It’s an established Omnicom-owned agency, founded in 2000 in San Francisco, with now over a hundred employees in their San Francisco headquarter. However, there’s more to it. EVB’s philosophy has been for years to think like a startup. And here’s a few important things we can learn from them.

1. Being a startup is a mentality, not a stage

Culture has nothing to do with the age of an organization, it’s a mindset. EVB founder Daniel Stein has honed a startup culture from day one. In today’s ever-changing business environment companies need to be agile and continuously innovate. The moment you get complacent is the beginning of the end. Steve: “For us, thinking like a startup is about figuring things out as we go, following our gut, taking risks. Everyone in the organization has to be OK with that. It requires a certain level of confidence.”

2. Startup culture is about passion

EVB chose to open an office in Boulder, and not in New York or another  obvious place. Why? Because the authenticity of the startup culture in Boulder is the perfect complement to San Francisco. Steve: “In a world where Facebook is a movie, entrepreneurs are the new rock stars. Zuckerberg is now on par with Beyoncé. San Francisco has become for startups what LA is for the movies. In LA everybody wants to be an actor, in San Francisco everybody wants to be the latest hot startup. Instead of focusing on their passion, the change they want to be in the world.  Boulder is different. The startup culture is less fabricated. We wanted to bring that energy to the company and get access to Boulder’s unique digital talent pool.”

3. Transfer startup culture to your clients

As befits a true startup, EVB thrives off of assignments where innovation has to be found within limitations. Most recently, they’re famous for their #tweetingwithmittens campaign with V&S for retailer JCPenney that made it the second-most mentioned brand on social media during the Super Bowl, after official sponsor Budweiser. The limitation: JCPenney had nothing to do with the Super Bowl, nor did they have a commercial during the event. Steve: “The Super Bowl is a time where a lot of people are hypersensitive for media. Last year, Oreo opened everyone’s eyes about real-time marketing. So this year, brands and agencies have set up huge command centers, desperately looking for their Oreo moment. We looked at it differently. The Olympics would start shortly after the Super Bowl and we decided to focus on JCPenney’s “GO USA” mittens, by tweeting messed up tweets with typos during the game. Brands piled on, wondering if someone at JCPenney was drunk, or whether we were hacked. Our 2 tweets have done more than any TV commercial could ever have done. And all the other brands sitting in their command centers helped us get there.”

In conclusion, old approaches don’t work anymore in a world that’s in constant beta. All companies, large and small, new and old, have to be agile and continuously innovate in order to stay relevant. They need to think like a startup.