How David&Goliath’s Name Is Helping Employees and Brands Be More Brave

CMO Stephen Larkin on the power of facing fear


Specs
Who Stephen Larkin
Current gig Chief marketing officer, David&Goliath
Previous gig Chief marketing officer, 180LA
Age 49
Twitter @StephenLarkin

Adweek: What brought you to David&Goliath after nearly four years with 180LA?
Stephen Larkin: I wasn't really looking, but I was inspired by [founder and chairman] David [Angelo] and what this agency does and attracted to the "brave" philosophy. Lots of agencies are chameleons that say the same thing, but David&Goliath has a real point of view and identity. … They know who they are and who they want to be.

How is D&G different from previous agencies where you've worked?
I've worked with some great agencies in the past, and each one is different. But D&G has a great culture that is part of the organization, the recruiting and onboarding processes and the types of brands that we're attracted to. What I love in terms of simple branding is that it's really part of the agency's DNA. They live and breathe it every day. The perfect size for an agency is 200 to 350 people, and when you grow to 500-plus, it becomes hard to maintain a culture.

How would you describe that culture?
It's intangible; there are no assholes. We're a talent-based business, and to me, events, et cetera, are not culture. Nothing comes in layers here. We all have the same ambition to create great work for our clients.

Can you think of a specific example?
On my first day I was handed a frame that encourages people to attack their Goliath and "to face fear with courage." The agency asks people what they fear, and they built a wall in the hallway that is a mural of people's different Goliaths. Employees write their biggest challenges on the wall, and the agency encourages people to address them directly. It says, "A Goliath can be personal, everyday or even silly. The important thing is that it comes from you."

How does this principle apply to the clients D&G works with?
I think, by definition, every brand or company is a challenger in some way: an established brand entering a new market or launching a new product, for example. And of course new brands have been very disruptive. They all have a Goliath to address.

D&G has long been defined by its work for Kia. How do you see the agency expanding?
Kia is a cornerstone of the agency. It was the 28th largest auto brand in the U.S. [when D&G won the business], and now it's No. 8, [selling] 650,000 units per year. So we don't want to move away from Kia, but like any organization we want to grow and move into different categories. The perception in the marketplace is that D&G is only about Kia, but in actuality, the agency is also doing great work for other brands including CA Lottery, Jack in the Box, etc., and we just won two new pieces of business that I can't announce just yet.

What is your focus in the new job?
My primary focus is two things: drive growth and elevate the perception of the agency. Right now I'm basically just trying to embed myself into the organization.

How do you see D&G changing moving forward?
We're not going to change. From the day it was created in 1999 until 10 years from now, [D&G] will have the same philosophy. If I were 22 years old and had just gotten out of college, I would be doing what I'm doing right now. It's a great place to be as L.A. is the hottest ad market in the country and has been for two years. Culture starts here—if you want to know what's happening, go down to Venice Beach.

This story first appeared in the November 7, 2016 issue of Adweek magazine.
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