Mark Bubula was earnestly describing the nimbleness and productivity of Friends & Neighbors, the Minneapolis marketing consultancy he co-founded in 2012.
Bubula, the firm’s president, and a small core of other ad agency veterans lead Friends & Neighbors. But they routinely draw on outside creative and other free-agent talent to assemble custom-built teams that deliver work designed, as he said, to connect brands to their believers.
“It allows us to do a broad variety of things and go really, really deep,” Bubula said. “You’d be surprised at how much work this little office is able to put out.”
Without missing a beat, co-founder and co-creative lead Tom Fugleberg seemed ready to offer his own equally earnest follow-up. Instead, the office erupted in laughter when he inexplicably asked a visitor, “Do you remember the ‘Shmoo’?”
I didn’t. I had no idea who or what a Shmoo was.
“I want to show you something,” Fugleberg said, “because this actually drives to the point. This is our business model.”
What Fugleberg showed, on his laptop, was a video of the opening theme of “The New Shmoo,” a short-lived 1970s cartoon featuring the Shmoo, a shape-shifting blob that accompanied a group of mystery-solving teens.
“He’s protean, he’s a shape shifter,” Fugleberg said, narrating the Shmoo’s exploits in the video. “He can be a pogo stick, he can be like a bridge, a hot-air balloon, whatever you need. And the Shmoo solves problems. He’s this really user-friendly experience, really nimble.
“We’re making a Shmoo,” Fugleberg continued, referring Friends & Neighbors. “Because the world needs a Shmoo.”
The Shmoo model — “to be a lot of things to a lot of people, very quickly” — enables Friends & Neighbors to carry out its philosophy, Bubula said. That is the belief, Bubula said, that “the brands that can create the closest connections to their stakeholders on a level of shared values, more than as a consumer, are the ones that are going to have the greatest long-term success.”
Bubula and Fugleberg left Minneapolis ad agency Olson, which they helped build to prominence, to launch what would become Friends & Neighbors. The idea was to reinvigorate their entrepreneurial spirit and apply their philosophy to “a model that is perhaps a little more structured for the places that type of thinking can take you,” Bubula said.
The small business column on Friends & Neighbors that I wrote for the Star Tribune unfortunately didn’t have room for the Shmoo anecdote. But it stands as one of the more unexpected turns an interview has taken. It also serves as fitting metaphor for the value of adapting in what we do and how we do it.
Fugleberg was kind enough recently to answer some questions about what’s been happening at Friends & Neighbors since we spoke last year. The firm’s core has grown from four to 10 full-time equivalents with two openings two fill in a junior art director/designer and a senior human resources/operations role.
Here’s a summary of our recent Q&A:
Q: What have been the biggest developments or changes at Friends & Neighbors since we met last year?
A: We are, indeed, “on the grow.” We’ve added a deliberate handful of incredible new clients since last we spoke, two of which are/operate within Fortune 100 companies we have yet to announce. The work is only getting stronger. And revenue is up 25 percent.
Q: How has the rebranding the Friends & Neighbors, from Human Brand Strategy, worked out?
A: Our goal was to have a name that reflected both our philosophy and model, and “Friends & Neighbors” has really resonated well. We also believe that as warm and fuzzy at it may sound at first, F&N is far from a provincial idea. The world is, at its heart, a great big village. Friends & Neighbors is a global idea. The fact that we find ourselves working with global brands more and more seems to provide further reassurance that we’re on to something big. Still, we’re committed growing in smart, thoughtful way.
Q: What’s the smartest move Friends & Neighbors has made since its founding?
A: Sticking with our guns. Staying true our beliefs. Remaining wildly optimistic through what is inevitably going to be a wild ride.
Q: What’s been the biggest learning experience?
A: Big companies will always be attracted to big agencies, on some level. Rightly so. There are some remarkable large agencies out there; we’re blessed to have played key roles in helping build one of the more impressive ones. However, what we see time and again — in companies of all sizes – is that truly progressive marketing minds just want great thinkers at the table. They don’t necessarily need, or want departments/levels/process-driven thinking. They want to connect with, and stay connected with, the people and ideas that will most add value to their business. So for me, the greatest learning experience is that market is more than ready for the way that F&N rolls. More than we even anticipated.
Q: Is the Shmoo model still in place? How has it changed, evolved as the firm has matured? Do you discuss the New Shmoo with clients or is that just an internal reference?
A: It is very much alive. And here’s why.
The Shmoo (or at least the 1970s Shmoo) was a shape shifter. He could take any form, at any time, and help you win the day. What drives us at Friends & Neighbors everyday is a simple question: “How can we help?”
More and more, the answers we’re hearing range from, “We need to transform from being a product company to a problem solving company” to “We need to become a sophisticated 1:1 marketer” to “We need to connect marketing to sales at the synapses.” Occasionally, we still hear ,“We need a new TV campaign/web site/collateral system, etc.”
That reality, combined with our own curiosity/eagerness to just “help,” demands a more protean approach. We need to first and foremost set the strategic creative idea that will best drive success based on the challenge at hand but then have the mindset (and yes, the model) to shape shift into whatever form that the proverbial big idea demands. That’s when we reach into that great big village mentioned earlier and align the best, pedigreed thinkers from whatever disciplines need to be at the table at that moment and activate them around the thing we need go make. On any given day, F&N is a 1:1 agency, a product naming/brand identity company, an ad agency, a new innovations think tank, etc.
We’re a Shmoo. And I don’t care who knows it.
Q: You referred helping clients find a soul before giving them “stuff” in so many words.
A: We believe brand humanity is the key to long-term, sustained business prosperity. Nowhere is that more evident in brands that truly understand their defining purpose. They’re reason for being. Their purpose. Their soul.
Call us Simon Sinek diehards, but it’s something we’ve been espousing – and architecting – since 1999. The brands that make a soulful connection based on a shared reason to be/believe are the ones that ultimately win the day.
I’ll spare you the deep details, but it is the place where we start for each and every client we work with. And usually it helps our clients finally state what it is they’ve believed since their inception – they just never found the right words/right expression. It’s also what guides us no matter what form the ultimate strategic creative platform demands we grow into.