Getting to Know HEROfarm
A Q&A with co-founder Shaun Walker
HEROfarm is a New Orleans-born marketing and PR agency founded on a social mission. It arose from the ashes of Hurricane Katrina and the Great Recession to help businesses of all sizes make a profit while making an impact. The agency’s philosophy is, "Do great work for good people."
Biz New Orleans caught up with creative director and co-founder, Shaun Walker.
Biz New Orleans: How did the idea for HEROfarm come about?
Shaun Walker: There's nothing quite like having your industry collapse around you to make you evaluate the future. The advertising world is usually a good prognosticator to the health of the economy. Having worked together at the same ad agency for several years, it dawned upon Reid Stone and I more than once that a great shift for the industry was on the horizon.
To work in a typical advertising agency during a recession is like sitting in a waiting room waiting for a doctor to stroll in and give you the news that you have a terminal illness. You can accept the inevitable news and begin interviewing at the few, still profitable agencies, or you can create opportunity, and that's what we did.
When the market tripped and the axe fell in 2008, due to scared clients and shrinking budgets, our "what ifs" turned into "what nows?" Thankfully, we had pondered the idea of a new breed of ad agency and, at this point, just had to find a way to make it a reality.
We envisioned a new approach for advertising and utilized the lessons we learned during our previous career stops.
HEROfarm began in 2009 with a simple philosophy: Do great work for good people. We’ve discovered that when following this principle, everything else falls into place. HEROfarm is founded on creative work that serves the greater good. We not only want to do great work, we also help make the world a better place at the same time.
Biz: What is your experience in the field?
SW: Reid Stone graduated from Mississippi State University International Business Program. He then worked with Citi Bank in New York City. He worked at an advertising agency for two years as an account executive and finally co-founded and ran HEROfarm for 7 years as CEO and chief brand strategist.
I graduated from the University of Southern Mississippi with a degree in advertising. Then I interned with Moroch Leo Burnett for two summers. I interned with Sony/Columbia Pictures for another two summers. I then co-founded and have now run HEROfarm for 7 years where I serve as the creative director.
Biz: What can clients expect from the experience? How many clients do you take on in a year?
SW: We know how beneficial and impactful advertising can be for the viewer when it is paired with a client who has a good mission. When you add value to a person's everyday life you do more than just sell a product; you create a lasting relationship of goodwill and a connection that goes far beyond sell-buy-consume. Our goal is to help evolve advertising into something people don't run from but applaud.
Clients like to know that we're about more than just the bottom line and collecting invoices. We formed HEROfarm with a social mission not only to help us break away from the old way of doing things and stand out, but also because we wanted to make a difference. Working just for the sake of completing a task may finish the job, but does it provide any added value other than checking it off your to-do list? If not, what's the point? There will always be more work that needs to be done, and once it's done there's another assignment ready to take its place. Why not make it meaningful? Why not stand out? If you're not trying to change the world for the better or having some kind of positive impact on it, all you're doing is taking up space.
HEROfarm strives to maximize a client’s budget, regardless of size. It is our job, like any good agency, to make their $1 work like $10 and treat each dollar as if it were our own.
Biz: How did you decide to start your business in New Orleans?
SW: Both Reid and I were seniors at Mississippi State and Southern Miss respectively when Hurricane Katrina smashed into the Crescent City. Many "experts" continually claimed young people were fleeing the city in droves and would never return.
After graduating in May 2006, we both set off to New Orleans determined to prove the critics wrong and become part of a defining generation of young professionals that would rebuild the city and help it be better than ever.
Biz: What are the biggest challenges your business has faced?
SW: The advertising industry has never been highly regarded, ranking right along with car salesmen, lawyers and the guy who ran over your dog when you were little while also telling you there is no Santa Claus. As a physical representation of the old ad industry, we battle a negative stigma before we even meet a potential client. But our vision has been to change that perception into something positive.
For the longest time, advertising has been about building brands up and creating a feel good perception for them, but along the way it was forgotten about the ad industry itself. Ad execs helped brands like Coke and Apple turn into amazing, barrier-breaking companies that are recognized the world over, often glowing with feel good personalities.
Yet the ad industry fell by the wayside for the good of the clients, focusing everything on them. While noble, it hinders our line of work. In response, HEROfarm strives to help both clients and agencies alike create better public perception at the same time by doing relevant and beneficial things for the customers while helping to improve the world.
Staying on top of our game can be difficult. In advertising, we're expected to know the latest and greatest methods for getting client messages out to the right people. Everyday we're pulled in hundreds of directions. Whether it's a meeting, making sure the column we've ghostwritten is done and submitted by deadline, nurturing social media, strategizing the client's year or handling public relations, it's tough to keep up with not only what's hot, but also with what may be big down the road.
We are constantly on the lookout for the next big thing and how we can incorporate it into our business and also utilize it for a client. At the same time, it keeps us sharp and on the forefront of what's new and exciting. We've seen several trends that have been huge in Asia but sputter in the U.S. and vice-versa.
Finding time to accomplish everything on our lists is also a challenge. Although we thrive under pressure, our heads and stomachs would thank us for some more time off. As entrepreneurs, it also comes down to pushing each other. The business doesn't run unless we do, so it is up to us to make sure things get done no matter how tired or overworked we may feel. And we wouldn't have it any other way.
Biz: How do you market yourself and compete with other businesses like yours?
SW: An old saying goes, "In seeking happiness for others you find it for yourself." We truly believe that, which is why our experience over the years has geared up toward making it our mission to give back, and both current and potential clients see that. They know we are about more than the bottom line and trust us more with their hard earned money.
You have to be a little crazy to be in the ad industry. You have to be even crazier to want to work in it. Every client wants their brand to “break through” and “standout” or be like Nike. Almost every piece of work you do needs to be creative. It can be maddening and extremely stressful, but it can also be rewarding to see your work out in the world. Our team at HEROfarm is an eclectic bunch of do-gooders who have an odd sense of humor, a creative spark and an unquenchable ambition to change the world.
The creativity grown on the farm is a testament to the incredible relationship all the workers here have. When HEROfarm was founded, we decided not to name it after the founders, but after an idea that was bigger than any one person. It is an idea that there is a hero inside of us all, that goodness grows naturally and it just needs to be cultivated.
Here you get to be a part of something bigger than yourself so that everyone, regardless of status in the company, has a sense of ownership in the brand. You become invested in it not because you work here, but because of what it stands for: You and what you believe in. HEROfarm isn’t Reid Stone and myself, it is the common, uniting goal that everyone here works toward for clients, the world, and ourselves. True success comes when everyone focuses on the bigger picture and here, the bigger picture isn't just about doing your job, it's about doing your part and trying to change the world for good.