Like many Millennials, Shaun Walker and Reid Stone found themselves facing an unprecedented level of fear over their future prospects when the economic downturn hit in 2008. But after the epic disappointment of being laid off from their jobs in advertising, they took a chance and struck out on their own as entrepreneurs, creating a first-of-its-kind social good ad agency in the process. HEROFarm is an appropriate name as any for such an endeavor, and we had a chance to talk with co-founder Shaun Walker about the journey to creating it.
Dustin Clendenen: What was the defining moment when you realized you needed to start HEROFarm?
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’ve known it before you ever even walked into his office—you felt it coming. Things weren’t going right. It’s not personal. Hell, you’ve been healthy and productive. But circumstances outside of your control have made you the walking dead. And there are several other people just like yourself in that same room.
Your choice at that point is to accept the inevitable news and begin the scratching and clawing that is interviewing at the few, still profitable agencies, or you can create opportunity. And that’s what we did.
When the market tripped and the ax 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’d be great politicians if we could say with a straight face that we were 100% sure that our idea would pan out… 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 that serves the greater good because we not only want to do great work but also help make the world a better place at the same time.
DC: Why is the focus on the local New Orleans and Gulf communities so important to you?
SW: While we work with clients all across the nation, the Gulf Coast, especially Louisiana and Mississippi, is very important to us being born and raised there. My co-founder and I’s story began when experts claimed young people were fleeing New Orleans in droves after Hurricane Katrina hit and would never return. We were both college seniors at the time. After graduating, we set off to NOLA determined to prove the critics wrong and become part of a defining generation that would rebuild our hometown.
Reid and I met at a New Orleans agency in late 2006, where we helped do a branding campaign to show New Orleans was “open for business.” Everyone loves a comeback story and we wanted to play a part in one that meant so much to us.
DC: What’s been the biggest breakthrough you’ve had as entrepreneurs?
SW: In October 2011, we helped our pro bono client the New Orleans Mission launch the Make a Move event at the Morial Convention Center. The event was the largest public assistance event in the history of the city and aimed to help struggling and homeless individuals by providing the resources they needed to jump-start their lives. That day we saw kindness and compassion surround us. We were overwhelmed by the amount of people willing to volunteer and help others. We couldn’t have been prouder of how everyone banded together to help the people in our community who needed a hand. As we walked around, we saw so many people, smiling, and crying tears of thankfulness that it hit us to the very core. It was so very special and is something we will never forget. That event made us feel something that no amount of money, power or fame could ever give us. If you are in business only to make money you will fail. You’ve got to be a part of something bigger than yourself.
DC: What have been the biggest challenges in starting your business? What are your current challenges?
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 US 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.
DC: How do you market yourself and compete with other businesses in your area? How do you keep your business fresh?
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 “breakthrough” 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 Shaun Walker—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.
DC: What’s coming up for HEROFarm?
SW: We just unveiled and are growing the #DoGood Network, an online place where socially responsibility professionals connect with other like-minded people and companies for work and make a pledge to use their abilities to help improve the world. Also, sometime this Spring, we’ll be launching the LIFT Social Responsibility Awards of The South which will recognize the South’s top leaders in giving back.