North Texas Daily

Swash and Learn: Alum ad agency blends business and pleasure

Swash and Learn: Alum ad agency blends business and pleasure

Swash and Learn: Alum ad agency blends business and pleasure
June 14
14:11 2013

Tyler Owens/Senior Staff Writer

Josh Berthume, CEO and creative director of local advertising agency Swash Labs, attempts to vacuum dog hair off his futon in his office in a two-story house on University Drive.

The vacuum blows a fuse in the house and he laughingly rattles off swear words, deciding to just sit down and eat leftover pita bread from a home-cooked meal before diving into the day’s work.

From his company’s loft offices in Denton to his pet corgi, Noodles – jokingly called the human resources director – UNT alumnus Josh Berthume and the employees of Swash Labs bring their own brand of business to the city.

Berthume fused Denton’s artsy, creative vibe with his educational background in analysis and political science to found the advertising agency Swash Labs in October 2010.

“We’re a full service ad agency,” Berthume said. “That’s the easy way to say it, but the math and the science behind how we measure our campaigns and the stuff that we do is a lot deeper than that. It actually marries well with social science.”

Team relationship

The differentiating factor between Swash Labs and other ad agencies is its laid-back approach to working with clients and managing employees.

When asked how Swash Labs’ clients feel about the company’s easy-going style, he said that it probably hurts the company as much as it helps, but the company’s identity is very important to staff and clientele.

“People like to feel like the brands that they use or the places they go or the things that they do or the things that they buy are their friends,” he said.

The Swash Labs employees and clients could not agree more.

“You never know where things are going to come from,” art director Joan Wells said. “But I think if you’re really, really structured, sometimes it can inhibit your ability to come up with new ideas because most of the time new ideas are not coming from an ‘A-to-B-to-C’ space. Sometimes you have to get your brain out of the office to come up with new ideas.”

Marcus Watson and Chris Hawley, co-owners of Little Guys Movers and Swash Labs clients, said the agency’s style merged well with their company.

“It is very intimate, and a marketing company needs to know the ins and outs of your business, the ins and outs of your personality and the spirit of your company,” Hawley said. “Josh and his crew are very intuitive about focusing on that and then they don’t forget it.”

Andi Harman, who is also a UNT alumna, originally came to Swash Labs as an intern before becoming a graphic designer after graduation.

She said that the employees have a comfortable working environment.

“Besides having a pretty healthy working relationship, we all are friends,” Harman said. “We can joke with each other, we can blow off steam with each other. I don’t think I would have been well-equipped to work anywhere but here because it is so lax, and we all can give really honest feedback and not get offended. It’s not stressful.”

Political roots

Born in Michigan, Berthume grew up in Cleburne, Texas, and was originally introduced to UNT because he was a member of the north Texas percussion community.

He originally went to the University of California-Berkeley, but transferred to UNT after a hand injury, in hopes of continuing his education in music.

Once he realized that was not a possibility, Berthume pursued a degree in political science and began to work with advertising agencies while taking classes.

“I would take classes that would naturally allow me to learn more about the stuff that was interesting to me,” he said. “To me it was very much a ‘I’m not getting a political science degree that I can use in the traditional sense and go be a professor someplace.’ There were very specific things and practices that I wanted to get out of it.”

Berthume continued to get field experience while at UNT. In 2004, he worked in electoral politics with the Democratic Party. He said that this work was familiar to him because his work in his classes focused primarily on analyzing why people identify with and vote for certain political parties and candidates.

“I was always really fascinated with why people decided to vote for a candidate or buy a product or go to one website over another and stuff like that,” Berthume said. “That all came out of starting work on the Internet, websites and digital advertising before even Google existed.”

Swash Labs still does some work on political campaigns.

After remaining at UNT to earn his Master’s and before opening Swash Labs, Berthume took a job with Exclusive Analysis – a political risk analysis firm in London.

The company

Four other UNT alumni work at Swash Labs alongside Berthume, who graduated in 2005.

Though he said he does not actively seek out UNT graduates for hiring, he said that the university does an excellent job preparing its students for the real world because it does not “hold a student’s hand” while they are in school.

Though the website claims that the company is an agency “focused on digital and emerging media, social business and brand development,” Berthume said the short version is the company “tells stories and solves problems.”

“The era of everyone being able to advertise like a used car commercial and just have somebody shout at you constantly is over,” Berthume said. “It can’t feel like you’re preaching to people, it can’t feel like you’re yelling at them, you can’t hit them with a hard sell all the time. So if you can tell a compelling story about who you are, what you do and why you do things the way you do them, then I think you have a better chance of engaging someone in a meaningful relationship where they will recommend you or they will advocate for you.”

Swash Labs’ client list includes several local companies and nonprofits like AccessBank Texas and the Denton Animal Shelter Foundation, and brands like Lily of the Desert – the largest grower and processor of aloe vera that is sold in grocery stores across the country.

Even the company’s name comes from a mixture of fun and business.

“Swash,” comes from an ornamental figure that Berthume and friends used in their early advertising days. He said although the figure is “plainly a tiger,” his friends named him “Swash the Can Bear” and he has no idea the reason why.

When Berthume visited Washington D.C. for President Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2008, a friend gave Swash to him and after it sat on his desk for a few years, his budding company needed a name.

“Swash Labs” became the throwaway option in a list of names that were tested in front of a focus group of more than 300 people, and Berthume said that, although no one knew what the name meant, the results were overwhelmingly in favor of “Swash Labs.”

He said that at a later time someone told him that “Swash” is defined as “the turbulent, leading edge of a breaking wave,” – a definition he said was fitting for the company.

Denton: north of ordinary

When he decided to open Swash Labs, Berthume said it was a “really deliberate decision” to open the company in Denton.

He said that for seven or eight years, while working freelance in the DFW area, he complained because there was no business in Denton that did meaningful work.

In addition to that, Berthume said he loves the way Denton feels. He said that he likes the way the artistic community mixes with the business side, and that it is the perfect place for he and his wife, Diana, to raise their two-year-old daughter, Harper Mae.

“I like the idea of raising my kid here,” he said. “I like the people that are here. Being as socially progressive and liberal as I am, there’s plenty about Texas that I’m not crazy about, but Denton overcomes that. In a cost-benefit analysis there’s more that I like than stuff that I don’t.”

Unify. Simply. Amplify.

When working with a new client, Swash Labs goes through a process to get the project going on the right track.

Berthume said the first step is to unify all the members with the purpose of the client’s company.

“You would be amazed that if there are 12 board members in the room, how often we get 12 different answers,” he said.

After getting a variety of lengthy descriptions about the purpose of the company from the client, the next step, Berthume said, is to simplify the answer into a short sentence that anyone could understand.

Swash Labs then helps the company find a cost-effective way to tell the world why it should want to use its product or service, like the case with Little Guys Movers.

The local moving company began in 1992 as a summer side project for its founders to make some extra cash, but it has grown into a franchised company with 13 locations in various American college towns like San Marcos, Texas; Norman, Okla. and Fayetteville, Ark.

Watson said the company has grown more than he or Hawley had ever imagined it would. With such growth, Little Guys needed a way to communicate and market their company on a national level.

Hawley said it took Little Guys a lot longer than it should have to get on board with how companies like Swash Labs utilize marketing and social media.

“We held off for a long time without really recognizing the value of professional marketing,” he said. “We felt like, and I think a lot of small businesses do, that it was a needless expense. We can do it ourselves. We had only really acknowledged the value in a marketing company in the past three or four years.”

He said that he agreed that Swash Labs’ style works well with Little Guys Movers, which he called a “rough bunch of dudes.”

As small, local businesses like Little Guys realize the need for creative advertising and storytelling and Swash Labs continues to grow, Berthume feels like Denton will always be the company’s home.

“We’re doing cool things in Denton and I think that we’ve been able to prove for a number of clients in the last year or so that we can do absolutely world-class work and it doesn’t cost as much as it would cost in San Francisco or New York,” he said.

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