The “bigger is better” ideology has been debunked time and time again across contexts, and ad agencies aren’t necessarily an exception. Just ask Scott Starr, the founder and creative director of Milwaukee boutique agency Rev Pop.
Rev Pop’s small, yet spirited staff of five specializes in local businesses, providing them with an intimacy and care that larger agencies can’t. Starr has managed to recalibrate his firsthand expertise of working at branding behemoths to fit a smaller, community-minded scale.
In contrast to their size, Rev Pop is vast when it comes to ambition and offerings. They serve as the mothership for an impressive six additional brands: Manifold Printery (printing press), Press N’ Release (PR and copywriting), Super Volta (photo and video production), Check for Pulse (music), Rev Pop Shop (swag and merchandise), and Damn Nice City (Milwaukee guide).
I spoke to Starr directly to learn more about starting his own agency, the benefits of having a small agency in a small city, and dismantling the concept of “work-life-balance.”
(This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.)
How did you come to the world of art and design?
Well, I went to school for psychology. I thought I was going to be Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting, smoking a pipe and sitting in a library, talking to smart people. When I realized that that wasn’t the career that psychology was going to lead to, and that I’m really not that good with people anyway, I thought I should probably be making art and design, and all this stuff.
I used to do screen printing in college, just for fun. I was in a band and I’d make our posters, and I’d make political posters too—wanting to change the world! So I got an internship for a local design shop called Planet Propaganda, which kind of changed my life. It made me realize that I could actually do my hobby, which was design and art. That’s when I honed my true passion, and made me realize I could get a job doing that. So that’s when I quit school.
I took night classes at the technical college in Madison, because they were the only ones that, at that point, were working with QuarkXPress and Photoshop and Illustrator. Schools didn’t really have design programs. There were things like sculpting or painting, but there was no one teaching graphic design or “commercial art.” Having my internship at Planet Propaganda, I was able to accelerate through the courses at the technical college and graduate there within about a year and a half.
I really got lucky with the people that I worked with early on that were mentors and pushed me into this career; to make me obsessed with it. I was around the right people at the right time to feel confident. If you don’t have that, it’s hard to get a kickstart or even know where to start or what to do.
Have you ever had the experience of working in a big agency environment?
I worked with big companies like M&Ms, BMW, Snickers, Lexus, all within the first six months of getting a real job. It kind of me ushered into this thing full throttle. It takes a lot of designers years to realize that they don’t want to work for big firms or big agencies, getting lost in the mix of becoming a number within an agency, and they kind of skip around to different places. I learned all that stuff within the first couple years of working. I realized I didn’t want that, and starting a company was the best foot forward for me.
So at what point did you realize that you wanted to start your own agency?
It was the experience of working with the big agency; of light bulbs not going on fast enough. Everything that I was working on was getting passed around and touched by a lot of different artists and different people. The thing that ended up in the magazine, or on the billboard, or on the TV ad, I couldn’t necessarily say was totally mine, because so many people were involved. I didn’t feel like I was being put to use. The light bulb wasn’t going on for me every day. That whole satisfaction of getting something done and pushed out in the world was missing.
You’re not allowed to talk to business owners or decision makers. An art director or project manager will take your work and pass it on, and you don’t get to see the expressions on their face when they look at your stuff. I wanted all of that. So my thought was that if I started Rev Pop, I could work with smaller businesses, startups, restaurants, people that couldn’t necessarily afford big agency work, but I could bring that mentality into a smaller setting. All the things that I did in that world, I could bring down into a smaller thing, working individually with people and having relationships with clients. That was the thing that really drove that whole dream.
Why have you decided to stay in Milwaukee? What makes it such a special city?
I thought I wanted to go to the big city. I realized that there, it was easy to get sucked up in the bigness, and [with] the people trying to climb the ladder. Everybody’s trying to climb the same ladder at the same time. Whereas Milwaukee is “The Small City That Could”— it’s like Cheers. You can be the big fish in a small pond. It’s easy to know people, to make noise and be heard. And at that point, Milwaukee didn’t have many smaller design studios or smaller agencies. Everybody went to Chicago, or there are bigger agencies here. So I think I came in at the right time; that was around 2006. It was kind of a new thing then. It was easy to get clients because they couldn’t afford the bigger companies, nor were they looking to go to Chicago, or Minneapolis, or LA. They wanted that small-time thing.
I don’t want to say I got stuck here, but I got stuck loving it here. Everything that you look for in a big city was in Milwaukee, but small. It was also more affordable to live here than in Chicago or LA. When I was looking at moving to LA, I just couldn’t afford it. I was like, “Wow, to be able to do this, I’m going to have to have like three different jobs. And where do I find time to do my hobby?” So it just felt impossible.
How has COVID affected your small agency that primarily works with small businesses?
The majority of our clients are restaurants, distilleries, and breweries. So when COVID hit, all of our social media marketing, all of our printing, all of our copywriting, it just kind of went out the window within a couple of weeks. It was just gone. So I had to switch into emergency mode, helping the same restaurants that we had been printing these beautiful menus and booklets for, come up with QR codes for their tables. No one knew what they were doing.
But there were a lot of bittersweet, come-to-Jesus moments within COVID where I realized that I didn’t want Rev Pop to be that big. We had grown so fast in such a small amount of time; I never thought we’d be 15 people— I was thinking eight tops. But clients just kept coming at us, and we just kept getting bigger, to the point where I was losing everything I loved about my job. I didn’t even know it until that happened. I was like, “Holy shit, I’ve been a manager for the last two years.”
Now I’m finally back where I’m actually doing work. I’m designing and I’m not having to art direct as much, because the people I have are very self-motivated. It’s a better, more focused team. So to me, it just reiterates the whole smaller is better idea. We’re not taking on massive clients, but the clients we do have are the right clients. It’s not about the money as much— it’s about us making really cool stuff, and working with really cool people.
It sounds like COVID triggered an important shock to your system that helped you recenter and restructure what you wanted Rev Pop to be.
You can’t just change on a dime. I was most successful with it due to COVID. I was starting from scratch. If I had walked in the office one day and said, “Hey guys, four-day work week, a salary, you’re going to be given profit sharing”— it would have been a little jarring. And I don’t think people would have been able to quickly change how they work, because it is a different workday, working Monday through Thursday. Even though you’re working less hours, you’re having to get more stuff done because you still have to meet expectations and deliver. You’re just pacing yourself differently.
I recently spoke to the founders of the agency Six Cinquième in Montreal, Ash Phillips and Miro LaFlaga, who are definitely aligned with a lot of what you’re saying about breaking the mold of that agency grind culture. We chatted about how COVID has thrown work structures out of whack and provided us with a new perspective of our jobs and lives. It’s clear the same can be said for its effect on Rev Pop.
I think it’s good to kick the puzzle over and start putting it back together the right way.
How do you define growth for Rev Pop, if not in terms of size, money, and magnitude of clients?
It’s more about honing in on the things that we’re really good at as a group right now, and getting better at those things. It’s chiseling away at the things that we really want to do every day. It’s making sure that the clients that we are saying yes to are only those clients that we’re enjoying working with. We already say no to projects, but we want to say no to more clients. I want to be even more particular about the work that we do to make sure that our livelihoods here are entirely a vocation.
Our four-day work week was a decision that I made coming out of COVID. I’ve been traveling to Europe for the past 12 years with a client of mine, and their mentality and the slowness of things there is refreshing. I hate saying “work-life-balance.” I think it’s overused, and it’s all one in the same to me. I think life is work, and work is life. You should enjoy going to work. You should enjoy everything about what you do. That’s the most important thing for me. For my mental stability and mental health, as well as for the friends that I have working here, I want us to be happy doing what we’re doing. That’s the growth mentality: to make sure that we’re continuing that process.
Rev Pop is also home to an impressive seven other ancillary brands that you’ve created over the years, each with certain specialities, so you’ve clearly grown in that respect too. Why did you decide to splinter off like this and create these separate entities within Rev Pop?
We used to have our copywriting and PR in house, but I didn’t want to attach it to the Rev Pop brand because I felt like it was convoluting what we do. So breaking that off into its own thing, Press N’ Release, made sense so that when people did ask us for that I could push them that way, rather than saying we are everything in one box.
Super Volta is our full photo and video studio here. But to me, again, it was muddying the brand. We had so many people coming to us for photography and video; I felt like it deserved its own branch. We have a lot of design firms that hire us to do photo and video, which was weird for them to have to hire another design firm. So having Super Volta, they can tell their clients that they’re hiring a film production company.
It’s the same thing with Manifold Printery, our in-house print shop. For me, that was more for fun, plus we had bought a very expensive printer, so I needed to start an LLC. We’re not a print shop that’s advertising to the public; it’s not like people are coming in here to print resumés. It’s for local businesses printing menus, posters, books. 80% of it is our clients that are printing on a day-to-day basis. So instead of them going to a print company, or having us send out stuff, we’re able to just print it right here. We have a courier that comes by everyday to pick up prints and deliver them around the city.
One of the printers we have is a RISO, which is essentially a digital screen printer. It’s got a unique look to it that reminds me of back in the day, when I was learning how to make posters on a copy machine. We also have a large press that does book-binding and glue, staple stitching. We print a lot on synthetic paper that can be washed, so instead of recycling paper all the time, a lot of our clients can wash their menus or posters.
Where does your insatiable drive to keep moving and creating come from? How are you able to juggle all of this?
It’s a little like ADD, I need like 10 things going on at once. But it doesn’t feel like work to me. Work sounds like just doing something for money. People say to me a lot, “I want to do what you’re doing, how do I do it?” And it’s just like, go do it!
When I heard the term “fake it until you make it” in a class, I thought there was something to that. How do you start doing something unless you just start doing it? If I waited for somebody to tell me that I’m successful, I think I’d still be waiting. I never feel like I’m satisfied in any one thing. I’m constantly trying to make it better and better, but you’ve got to start somewhere.