SOCIALDEVIANT “iterates to great”



Combining traditional
expertise and
Millennial wisdom,
the Chicago shop
is proving that
“good guys
can win”

In many ways, SOCIALDEVIANT is more of an experiment than an advertising agency. It is a place where clients are invited to fiddle with work in progress, employees are expected to be restless, and beer is brewed onsite.

So far, the results have been overwhelmingly positive.

Since launching in 2012, the shop has won several major accounts including Red Wing Shoes and Lagunitas. This summer, it expanded its brick and timber West Loop office with a 2,400 square-foot production studio Named “All Oars.”

The growth reflects a mantra that SOCIALDEVIANT founder / CEO Marc Landsberg and agency President Linda Johnson push throughout the 20-person company.

“We’re a maker culture and a maker community,” he says. “We all make.”

Before opening his own shop, Landsberg served as President of Arc Worldwide and McCann Worldgroup. Charismatic, intelligent, and outspoken, he weaves industry know-how with a mesmerizing presence and motherlodes of compelling, homegrown wisdom. He also likes to illustrate his points by drawing graphs while he speaks, a habit that gives off a good-crazy kind of vibe.

Landsberg and newly hired Chief Creative Officer Hart Rusen recently gave Reel Chicago a behind-the-scenes tour of all things SOCIALDEVIANT. Check out the results below.


What inspired you to launch SOCIALDEVIANT? (Marc) I ran two large, global agencies — earning hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue, employing thousands of people — but I saw an opportunity to be better. To be more collaborative. More nimble. That’s why I decided to start my own thing and in the process build the world’s kindest company.

How do you define the world’s kindest company? (Marc) That means a lot of things but for us it means being accountable. Showing up, every day, and giving it your level best. It means listening. It means over-delivering. It means caring. It means trust. But kindness doesn’t mean just being generous, and we never say “nice.” Why? Because “nice” is benign. Nice is sort of just the absence of malice. Kindness is hard. Kindness is, above all, intentional and specific. There’s no ROI on kindness. You just do it because it’s the right thing.

What makes Hart the right person to lead SOCIALDEVIANT’S creative? (Marc) It’s a funny story. I knew his wife back in college, and she just reached out to me and said, ‘Look, we’re desperate, and, honestly, I need the guy out of the house.’

I’m kidding.

We’d been looking for a chief creative officer for a couple of years. I had worked with Chief Creative Officers at big agencies like McCann and Burnett. My stereotypical experience was the guy screaming a lot, kind of doing nothing, lording over everyone — and I just thought that that’s not the company we’re trying to build.

Marc Landsberg
Marc Landsberg

The person I was looking for needs to be highly collaborative, listens more than he or she speaks, is really transparent. They don’t just think about TV advertising. They think about product stories and brand-building from the bottom up. They collaborate with clients’ internal creative teams because, the stone cold truth is, all brands have meaningful creative teams now.

Back in the day, if you were a creative who showed up on the client side, you just weren’t that good. Now, that’s not the case. Look at LVMH and Virgil Abloj. Look at Apple, Puma, Riri. All brands are hiring amazing creative talent. Hart spent time at Mekanism, Goodby, and Publicis. And he spent time in-house at REI, which I loved because half of the people here at SOCIALDEVIANT have also spent time on the brand side.


Hart Rusen
Hart Rusen

What makes SOCIALDEVIANT the right place for Hart? (Hart) One of the things that really attracted me was the speed at which this place moves. On any given day, any given week, there’s a new client or a new project that we didn’t have the week before. At a place like REI … it’s like moving a glacier. The other side of the coin was being a maker myself. We can’t have a creative director who sits off in a corner and waits for people to present work and then says yes or no. We’re all makers at SOCIALDEVIANT. And I like Chicago, too. It’s a straight-shooting kind of place where the intensity is dialed up a little more, which is nice because sometimes on the west coast the intensity can be dialed back to a point where it can be slightly infuriating.

What else differentiates SOCIALDEVIANT from other agencies? (Marc) We’re a maker culture and a maker community. We have a fundamental belief that brands are built bottom-up, not top-down. Brands are stories. Stories are content. So we’ve got to be able to produce content at scale. We tell stories that can be video, TV, print … anything, but we have to be smart about the strategic plan. I think that’s the new model. We listen to clients. We collaborate with them. We share work in progress: ‘Here’s the Google Doc. You got an idea, pop it in.’ When Hart is working with the CMO of Lagunitas on a project, he and she are going back and forth in a Google Doc.

You’re letting the client tinker with your brainchild? (Hart) Gone are the days of walking in with the thing and mic dropping it on the desk. That just is not the way it works anymore.

(Marc) Yeah. We don’t believe in the grand reveal. We iterate to great. That’s one of the principles we had when we started SOCIALDEVIANT. Clients are smart. They know their brand. They just want to see and touch it early. It actually saves a lot of rework. If you keep them out, then they’re going to go: ‘Wait, I like red better than blue.’ We want to avoid debating things that are purely subjective. Collaborating closely with clients at every turn ensures we’ll get there sooner, and in better fashion with better work that we all love.

(Hart) At some point, every CMO has to sell the work to the CEO or the COO, or someone up the line, and if they don’t feel like they own it in some way, they can distance themselves from it.

(Marc) We’re sort of McKinsey meets Weiden+Kennedy. We do a lot of brand strategy / brand purpose work that leads to tone, personality, and voice, and then we build content from that. We show clients what the creative expressions are, and sometimes they’re like: ‘Oh wait! That scares us too much.’ It’s almost like Rorschach, but it gets to ‘yes’ a lot quicker.

What about the notion of defending the creative? (Hart) There was a time when you really fell on your sword for things. But when there is strong pushback on an idea — even if you sold it — you’re doing yourself a disservice. You try to push for the ideas you believe in, but if you shove anything down anyone’s throat, you know that’s death. That’s a short-term win.

All Oars production studio
All Oars production studio

(Marc) Hart is exactly right. “You’ve got to defend the work” — that’s an old model. It’s like, Game of Thrones, man: let’s defend the castle. It sets up an us-versus-them. We do business strategy and then marketing strategy and then creative strategy. We completely decouple those. We can have strong debates each step of the way. If a client says I just like red and Hart says, ‘Well, we recommended blue,’ then, at some point let it be red. Because we’re sharing work all along the way, we don’t get to those grand reveal, dig-your-heels-in moments. By the time we get there, we’ve had small debates 20 times.

One of our favorite expressions at SOCIALDEVIANT: we iterate to great. Science, hypothesis testing, the work always gets better, and we keep turning the crank. Einstein never just had the answer in one fell swoop.

Do you pitch differently? (Marc) Number one, we’re sort of pitching all the time, every month, every week. We were just in California yesterday. Next week, I’m off to New York. We don’t wait for the big whale. Number two, we have a lot of entry points. We’ve codified our service offerings to a pricing sheet like a consulting company. We have 16 service offerings. Each one has a beginning, middle and end. A lot of times we’re doing brand strategy work, which leads to creative.

Last year we won eight new clients and we grew 70 percent on the top line. We only added about 25 to 30 percent on the payroll line. I’m proud of that. No agency talks about how to scale a services business. How many people are you? That’s not the right question. Look at our clients and the work we’re doing and our growth. That’s the question.

How does your traditional experience benefit SOCIALDEVIANT? (Marc) We usually enter at the CMO and sometimes CEO level of multi-billion dollar clients. They see me, and it gives them comfort because they know that I know about brand strategy, brands, and consumers. Then they see the team, and it’s a beautiful confluence of strategy, experience, and modernity. It’s this beautiful intersection. An agency just of Millennials? I’m not sure. An agency just of people like me? No way.

(Hart) I like the access we have to big clients … The conversations we’re having with C-Suite people … those are amazing.

How does your personal life benefit SOCIALDEVIANT? (Marc) I’ve been married 26 years, and the number one thing for my wife is me emptying the dishwasher. I hate emptying the dishwasher. But she’s like, ‘Well, that’s what you need to do.’ And finally I said, ‘Lindsay, I don’t have enough time for a dishwasher. I mean, I really love you, but I hate emptying the dishwasher more than I love you, so I’ll do it, but then I’ll resent you.’ That’s a lesson for organizations. You can make them do things, but they’ll resent doing it. So what I finally said to my wife is, ‘Look, what we need to do is cooperate here. What matters to you is my emptying the dishwasher. What matters to me is season tickets to the Blackhawks. What matters to us is our financials and our children. So let’s spend our time on the things that really matter to us. I’m not going to try to make you like the Blackhawks. Don’t make me empty the dishwasher.’

I tell you what: these days I never touch the dishwasher because we’ve agreed to it. But it’s not a joke because a lot of people and companies try to force those things together.

So at SOCIALDEVIANT we don’t put people in a box. Someone might be a writer, but they might want to learn about videography or lighting. I’m like, what matters to you? What are the things you want to put in your book? What skill sets do you want? What do you want to learn? What experiences do you want to have? Here’s what matters to me: a maker ethos, production scale, great clients, delivering great work. So let’s find the intersection. Let’s match that with the things we’re trying to get done and let’s focus 85 percent of our effort here. And anybody can come talk to me or Hart. We’re just all right here and together.


All Oars

What about when someone’s personal goals differ from the company’s? (Marc) We have this whole batch of things in the studio that we call Second Shift. Second Shift are all the things we want to do. It could be a client we want to chase. It could be a pro bono project. Or it could be a labor of love. One of our guys is a brewmaster. So he brewed his own beer. One of our designers designed the label, and we’re gonna give it out as gifts and drink a ton of it ourselves.

What’s the name of it? (Marc and Hart) Deviant Ale.(Marc) All we want to do is just make and produce content. So some of it is for clients. Some of it is fueled by personal interests. A lot of it is what we want to do together. So when the guys make Deviant Ale, it actually sits here (referring to graph).



What was the inspiration to build the production studio All Oars? (Marc) If we’re going to be a maker community and build magnetic brands, we needed our own studio. We’d already been doing it. Kevin, he’s our content director … he was just working around us all the time. We were also renting studio space. So the inspiration was, since we’re making so much stuff, we actually just need to invest and literally make that space.

In what way is SOCIALDEVIANT a “flat” organization? (Marc) We don’t have hierarchy. We’re 20 people and we’re going to be plenty more by the end of the year, but we don’t have a lot of layers. Going from junior to mid-level, mid-level to mid-senior to senior … that model doesn’t work anymore because it takes 20 years, and Millennials aren’t going to wait around. Their lives are mosaics and ziggy-zaggy. Careers are two-year increments. You might be a junior designer. Then you’re going to go be a writer and then you’re going to go write a script and then you’re going to travel to Europe and then you’re going to go to business school and then you’re going to have a family. No one’s going to be here for 20 years. But we’re really clear about what the next six, 12, and 18 months looks like.


The entrance to SOCIALMEDIA's West Loop office
The entrance to SOCIALMEDIA’s West Loop office

How did you come up with the name “SOCIALDEVIANT”? (Marc) I knew when we started seven years ago that we just wanted to be different. So, if you remember from math, a deviation isn’t bad or good, even though it has a pejorative interpretation. It’s just not the norm. So I like the word deviant. And the world is inherently social. Our ideas are viral and sharable and relevant to audiences and inherently social. “Social Deviance.” For people our age, it’s a weird guy in his mom’s basement. For Millennials, it’s just a cool word. You want to attract cool talent. Clients love it. So it works at both levels.

How have you personally grown since you started this agency? (Marc) I’ve learned a lot about what ’kind’ means. Back in the day, great creativity was sort of synonymous with crazy geniuses that bang the table and scare the crap out of you. Agencies put them on a pedestal, and the account person’s like, ‘I’m so sorry, there’s a mud puddle; let me lay over it so you can step on my back.’

I’ve also learned that small is hard. You have to over-communicate. You have to trust and be transparent. It’s 100 percent a people-based business. People are messy. They have bad days. They have needs, demands. Cat gets sick. When you’re CEO of a big thing, you’ve got armies of people. You’ve got leadership teams. You just show up, throw up a few slides, say a few smart, fun things, and then whip off to China. Whereas here, you know, we’re all right here. This is way harder.

I’m an old man in a hurry, and trying to prove the point that brands are built a certain way, and you can be a kind agency that models itself differently to get there. And I want to show that good guys can win. Full stop.

To learn more about SOCIALDEVIANT, click here.

Send your agency updates to Reel Chicago Editor Dan Patton,