Skulls, Snakes and Warhol: Behind This S.F. Agency’s Hardcore Self-Promo Posters

Odysseus Arms goes back to the basics of 'key art'

Headshot of Angela Natividad

To emphasize its agency tenets—and reclaim the tactile graphic arts for ad land—Odysseus Arms is building a collection of self-promo posters worth framing. 

"We're using the posters to raise craft level at OA, connect to our community of designers, typos and craftsmen, and have fun making posters," says chief creative Franklin Tipton.

The San Francisco agency has made nine posters so far; the plan is to create 50 total. Of the one you see above, Tipton says, "This is a poster that no holding-company ad agency could ever make. This is why you partner with an indie agency." 

The imagery is a treat, bringing to mind '70s albums, the Nouvelle Vague, early-'90s tech aesthetics, even Sailor Jerry tattoos. Below is our interview with Tipton, followed by the other eight posters that exist so far. Some have liner notes, so watch for those.

AdFreak: Tells us where the name Odysseus Arms comes from.

Franklin Tipton: We're into big storytelling. Odysseus was the hero of the greatest story ever told. We're taking our best shot at killing off that stupid notion that misogynistic, scotch-soaked Donald Draper-types work in our industry. Everyone we know works their asses off to make their clients famous and dynamic (and profitable). We see branding as an elegant pursuit.

"Arms" just telegraphs the modern agency model; there are so many vertical disciplines out there, you need to have a multitude of specialty partners, or arms, to service the modern contract. Every agency has arms. 

Also, we know about naming; Libby [Brockhoff, agency partner and co-founder] named Mother in London back in 1996—which is a whole different story you can ask her about. Also, just something we've noticed—a good name is worth nothing without a strong commitment to doing good work. (When I was at CP+B, nobody could pronounce "Bogusky" correctly … until we started ruling the Gunn Report.) 

What inspiration did you draw from to produce the posters?

The posters do a bunch of things at the same time. First, the world has been "Tinder-ized": We swipe through content at a blindingly fast rate. Stopping people and fascinating them is often down to powerful "key art." Posts on Instagram and Facebook, movie posters, cover art for games, retail signage and, of course, display media owe any attention they get to singularly stunning images. So we use the poster series to teach, experiment with and practice "key art" craft. 

The other thing posters do is connect us to new talent. The project is populated by a constellation of young street artists, designers, letterers and old-schoolers. Before the MP3, there was Tower Records, which, looking back, was closer to a museum gallery of album art rather than merely a retail space. We're trying to achieve the visual variety of an old record shop.

Would you say these constitute a series of fixed agency values?

Definitely. Media is far more interesting than it was 10 years ago, but we see craft and copy suffering from things like HTML fonts and project economy timelines. Our values push back on these pressures, reinforce the importance of our industry and artfully express best practices.

One of the most curious things that we've been exposed to through working with Facebook in Menlo Park is their Analog Research Laboratory; it's a cold type print shop located right across from Oculus. One of the largest technology companies on earth appreciates the tactile quality of a hand-printed poster. We see our posters as a stab at permanence in a world where content disappears into the cybersphere in a flick.

How did you choose the values to highlight?

The values are a mix of "carpe diem for creative people," old-school advice and amazing quotes we've collected from doing advertising on three continents. We have quotes from media masters like James Patterson, Alex Bogusky, Paul Arden, Paul Silburn, Robert Saville, Rich Silverstein, Jeff Goodby, Craig Davis and Graham Wills. People we've worked with; quotes to live by.

When it's not a direct quote, the line is fretted over Carmichael Lynch-style [Libby ran Ikea at CL].  The lines are allegorical and cautionary at times.

What's with all the death and snake symbolism?

Snakes symbolize small, powerful badass-ness. But we did look at that colonial "Join, or Die" poster when we expressed the importance of maintaining respect for your fellow creatives in poster No. 3, "Ego." The skull in poster No. 2, "You're Dead a Long Time," is a FOMO warning.

Finally, we re-wrote The Odyssey with a Harvard grad when we first started. It's 25 pages and is designed for modern, shorter attention spans. 

What are you guys doing next?

We're working with Mark Zuckerberg to fire up his 13,000 people and get them to join a cause. And … there's posters! 

The agency posters—and a few handy notes—appear below.




Tipton on the poster below: "We were working on TV spots for Ubisoft's The Division last year, which prompted Libby to pen this for her One Show Mentor session in Phoenix." 




The quote below, "Creativity is a positive form of stress," comes from Benjamin Franklin, says Tipton. "Great creative departments thrive on this notion. DXTR in Berlin imagined what goes on inside an artist's head." 


This next poster includes an intentional typo. "If you've ever presented work to a room of people with a flaw on the screen, you probably realize that your good word is pretty much shot. Proofreaders protect us from ourselves," Tipton says. 

The next one is going to be good, the creative chief promises, and will revolve around the notion of difficulty. "To live in S.F., as you know, takes a certain ability to keep trying stuff. It's scrappy, the tech world has disrupted adland—and there's earthquakes. Kevin Cantrell is going to do the lettering."

Odysseus Arms also engaged the Designer's Republic in Sheffield for a treatment on Saatchi's Paul Silburn quote, "Digital Media: Never before have so many been bullshitted by so few about so much." Watch this space.

@luckthelady Angela Natividad is a frequent contributor to Adweek's creativity blog, AdFreak. She is also the author of Generation Creation and co-founder of Hurrah, an esports agency. She lives in Paris and when she isn't writing, she can be found picking food off your plate.
Publish date: February 23, 2016 © 2020 Adweek, LLC. - All Rights Reserved and NOT FOR REPRINT