Julie Bauer has worked for some of the largest advertising agencies in the world. She’s currently the founding partner of the independent, New York City-based agency, Grok, which Inc. Magazine listed as one of the fastest growing private companies in the U.S. three years in a row, calling the organization a “giant killer.”
In a world of ‘synergy’ and doublespeak, Grok certainly stands out. But how was this word chosen as the name of the company? “Grok means to communicate with deep empathy or to understand someone/something profoundly or intuitively,” Bauer explains. “It comes from the book Stranger in a Strange Land, a 1961 science fiction novel where Grok/’grok’ was coined by American writer Robert A. Heinlein, and is now a term widely used in Silicon Valley tech companies.”
Bauer and her two partners, Tod Seisser and Steve Landsberg, thought the term was perfect for their company. “This is the name for our agency, because we feel our difference is embodied by the very definition of Grok — because we gain deeper strategic understanding of our clients’ business,” Bauer says. “We develop profound empathy with the target audience, we uncover richer insights that are differentiating and motivating, and we use all of this to create work for our clients that will drive success.”
There’s “success,” and then there’s success. And when your company is recognized as not only one of the fastest growing companies in the country, but also a giant killer, the burning question is how has Grok managed to dominate the market?
The Grok Story
It turns out that all three Grok partners came from big agencies. “We have a combined 90 years of experience working on big brands such as IBM, HP, P&G, Johnson & Johnson, General Mills, American Express, Coca Cola, General Motors, Kraft, and many more.”
In fact, Bauer was a global strategist for IBM at Ogilvy & Mather. “Prior to Ogilvy, I spent nine years with Saatchi & Saatchi, first as CEO of Saatchi / San Francisco and then relocating to London to run Saatchi’s P&G, Sony, Visa and T-Mobile businesses across Europe, the Middle East and Africa, while also running Guinness in Asia and Africa.” Early in her career, Bauer was also vice president of marketing at Commodore Computers, and she’s served as EVP of Global Advertising at Motorola.
“We have used this experience to help smaller, challenger brands breakthrough in the market,” Bauer says. “We’re a challenger agency: we started our business in 2008 at my dining room table with nothing but the desire to help challenger brands compete and win against the giants.” Bauer notes that there are very few boutique agencies that have been founded by people with the skills that she and her partners bring to the table.
“We felt this was something that we could build a business around,” she explains. “Working at major companies has allowed us to bring big-agency expertise, process, and discipline to a small-agency environment that’s agile, flexible, and fast.”
But the agency’s success is based on more than just the experience of its partners. “We hire young, ambitious, wildly-talented people and encourage them to challenge themselves – to step up and stretch their skills,” Bauer explains. “Every day, our goal is to over-deliver for our clients.” Bauer says the company even challenges its clients. “Not for the sake of argument, but for the sake of bringing objectivity and doing what’s best for the brand.”
Grok, which is located in the Flatiron District of New York City, now has over 25 employees, and boasts $75 million in billings. We asked Bauer to describe some of the agency’s success stories:
- Cision – In just 6 months, Grok built a new Cision brand, including the logo, messaging and marketing materials – all leading toward an IPO. The entire agency attended the IPO at the NYSE on June 30, 2017, and Cision was the 2nd largest tech IPO of the year.
- Culturelle – This is a CPG supplement brand. Grok originally worked on a small project for their parent company under another brand, Estroven. After the success of that project, Grok began working on the Culturelle brand and has been working on this brand for about 9 years. Culturelle has gone up against P&G and has become the #1 probiotic supplement in the market.
- Capatriti – A small, local NY-based company that sells olive oil. Grok helped Capatriti in every aspect – from brand strategy, to website design and development, to social media, in addition to partnering with their media agency.
- Zicam – After a product recall and a low profile, Zicam, a homeopathic cold remedy brand, needed to relaunch its brand. Based on the insight that people don’t catch colds, colds catch people, Grok created a new Category of One in cold medicine: the Pre-Cold™ category. They created a “Cold Monster” that was utilized throughout television, print, digital and social. The results of this campaign were an 11.4% sales increase from the previous year, a 46% increase in daily unique visits to the website, and over 100,000 Facebook “likes.”
Advice for Women Entrepreneurs and Executives
Bauer says she advises women to do the same thing that men would do. “First, pursue your passion – too many people start their careers pursuing the money, but if you are passionate about what you are doing, the money and jobs will follow.”
She also warns against listening to anyone who says you can’t do it, and she believes it’s important to follow your dreams and your instincts. “When I look back at some of the things I have done, if I had thought too much about them, I would have never done them.”