How Instincts Explain the World: Friko Starc Believes we are Animals, and Makes a Living From it.

Isaac Myers III 

Issue No. 2 - Autumn 2017.

 Friko Starc walks with the precision and focus of a man on a mission. He moves with an excitement and confidence which gives off the vibe that the party may commence (or keep going) whenever he walks into a room. He speaks five different languages, and grew up in Argentina, but has lived in five different countries: Russia, Belgium, Italy, India, and the United States, which he moved to in 2000, and as he tells it, planned on staying for only two years, but has stayed for seventeen.

He has a way of capturing the energy of a group of people, but also passing the light, and letting it shine on someone else. In March of 2016, he was listening to an audio-book version of Brian Tracey’s The Psychology of Selling (1985), and as he and I were at our office space on Jay Street in Dumbo, and sitting in the lounge area, he on a beanbag chair, and me on one of the sofas, he showed me the notes from the book that he had taken on his phone. From the first line on the first page, he read, “A sale is the transfer of enthusiasm from one person to another.”

Given this definition, it makes sense that Starc would head a company that helps individuals and companies create emotional and meaningful connections with their customers, or potential customers. He’s a strategist; a position within advertising agencies that you won’t see portrayed within any one of the ninety-two episodes of Mad Men, which covers the fictitious 1960’s advertising agency, Sterling Cooper, as the position wasn’t around until the 1980’s, and was originally pioneered by the British.  

One afternoon in April, as we were sitting across from each other on a picnic table in Brooklyn Bridge Park, with the Manhattan Bridge sailing above us and the N & Q and the B &D trains being pulled across them from Manhattan into Brooklyn, and from Brooklyn into Manhattan, Starc set out his definition of brand strategy. “In advertising, traditionally there were three branches: the guys who make the commercials, those are called the creatives; the guys who talk to the clients and sign contracts, they’re called the account people, and the guys who buy the space on magazines or TV channels or networks, those are called media. The Brits invented a discipline whose mission is to understand consumer behavior and motivations, and use that understanding to advance the brand’s needs, or objectives,” he explained, “It’s also known as account planning.”

By almost all accounts the person most responsible for bringing strategy over from Great Britain to the United States is Jane Newman. In 2014 the American Advertising Federation inducted Newman into their Hall of Fame. “It took a woman with Jane’s restless spirit and sheer British fearlessness to move to New York in 1982. Not only was Jane a woman in an industry just-slightly-evolved-post-Mad-Men, but she was a planner when account planning was unheard of in the US.” 

 Of the three areas, the account management, the creative, and the media, Starc initially thought that he’d find his way within the account management branch. He remembers growing up in Argentina in the eighties, and making decisions about his career. “It was a time when a lot of the things that people were looking up to were very materialistic,” he said. “It was all about money, and the movie Wall Street, and successful bankers, the idea that money never sleeps, and greed is good, and business is good, and Lee Iacoccca. I guess my roll models outside of my dad were business guys. So I figured that I should go to business school, although I was a bit wishy-washy about it, but frankly, in my country those days, you either went to architecture school, law school, business school, or medical school. There was no being a designer, or a creative person, or a writer or a poet, or anything like that. So of all of those, business sounded the best.”

He attended Universidad de Belgrano, in Buenos Aires, Argentina and graduated in 1993. He majored in business. After graduating he was living in Brussels, and thought he would apply what he had learned as a business major to the marketing field. He started looking for work with marketing firms within Europe. “I was living in Brussels and I was looking for jobs in marketing because I went to business school, but I didn’t want to be a banker. So I applied for marketing jobs everywhere, all of the big companies: P&G, Unilever, all of the big ones, all over Europe, and when they would interview me, they would look at my resume, and they would say, ‘Oh, school here, school there, then nothing until last year, what happened up until last year?’ And I would say, ‘Oh, I went traveling all around the world.’ They would say, ‘Okay, thank you Mr. Starc we’ll call you.’ And then would never call me. If they would call me ‘Mr. Starc’ then they would never call me.” 

I asked him how he was able to make the transition away from marketing, and toward the advertising industry. He offered that one afternoon he was walking through the rain in Brussels, when he met a man who was working in accounts in advertising. He explained that those in the account management branch served as a liaison between the clients, and the agencies’ creatives, who are working within the agency. The idea interested him. “I thought, oh, that’s great. I went to business school and I’m a creative person. That’s perfect.”

Starc’s curiosity and creativity are innate. He was born on an Air Force Base in Córdoba, Argentina. His mother is a Congolese of Belgian descent, and his father was trained as a test pilot in Northern Argentina. They met in 1962 when his mother was living in Congo and his dad was sent there by the U.N., as a pilot to help prevent Katanga from breaking away from the newly-formed Republic of Congo. “Since I was a kid, we travelled a lot. We lived in Argentina, and then in Russia, and Belgium. We lived everywhere, and I’ve always been very curious about almost everything.”

Continue reading: Issue No. 2 - Autumn 2017. 

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