“We don’t know what we don’t know:” How Free Range Studios’ Amy Hartzler successfully transforms brands

I had a sentence stuck in my head for weeks: “you’re not the hero, your audience is.” It was just one of the nuggets of marketing wisdom that Free Range Studios’ Studio Director, Amy Hartzler, left the audience with at November 20th’s Power of True Stories conference. Unable to get her words out of my mind, I knew I wanted to follow up with Hartzler to get a better understanding of how she and Free Range coax out the “great stories [that] make great change possible.” Hartzler, perhaps due to her warm midwestern roots, graciously offered to talk me through her approach.

amyhartzlerWhere it all began

It takes just a few seconds to realize that Amy is a naturally savvy, strategic, and creative thinker – the perfect fit for the problem-solving work she does with the Rockefeller Foundations, Greenpeaces, and ACLUs of the world.  Along with her demeanor, she also brings a varied and deep set of experiences to the table.  Marked by a desire to understand the best way to tell a story from every angle, Amy’s career took her from a publishing world undergoing massive transformation, to overseeing corporate advertising accounts at established design firms, to wearing many hats at “younger, scrappier, arts-based studios.”  Once she knew how the big and little guys worked, she knew she needed the fulfillment of applying her skills to issues she really cared about.


Enter Free Range Studios, one of the leading firms specializing in mission (or, as they might say, storytelling) -driven messaging. Joining Free Range in 2008 meant that Amy got to jump in to a new and forward-thinking entity. Free Range was mostly made up of people wanting to make the world a better place.  Amy was quick to dive in to the task of crafting the bedrock of the studio’s branding philosophy with founder Jonah Sachs. Over the years, Sachs and Hartzler worked to outline their approach to effective storytelling, so that not only could they give great advice to clients, they could also put it in a coherent and cohesive context.  Amy’s talk at the Power of True Stories conference does a great job of explaining many of these tenets, so I won’t try my hand at paraphrasing her here (but make sure to watch the video).  Once they had an articulated vision, I was curious about how they have gone about applying it with their clients.

Ask, Ask, Ask

When a client approaches Amy and her team, the most important thing, Amy emphasized, is to ask the right questions. Her team always does a significant amount of research before meeting with a client, so they have an idea of what the landscape looks like. At the same time, in addition to the visible context, it’s mostly about finding out where a client is coming from. Some groups come in saying “we have this problem and we need you to fix it,” but others look further to say “we don’t know what we don’t know.  Help us explore.” For Amy, the most exciting projects fall into the latter bucket. It’s when clients want to make sure to dig deep enough to see what they need and what they’re up against that the really creative and effective solutions make it to the table.

When those opportunities do arise, finding the best storytelling approach is all about applying the Free Range philosophy while asking the right questions, carefully teasing out the less obvious answers, and asking the follow-up questions that matter. It’s also about listening to what the client asks for and distilling it down to basic needs.  If a client says “I want a website,” does that mean they just want a website, or do they need effective communication channels? She is less interested in taking on a project where the t’s have already been crossed than when the issue is pressing and how to “move the needle” is far from obvious.

Having worked on Amy’s end of the table in the past, I know how tricky it can be to make sure that these relationships are based on strong mutual trust, and how much the success of partnerships can depend on that trust. Luckily, Free Range has the advantage of a sterling reputation. Many clients come to them saying “I can see the integrity in your portfolio” and are assured that Free Range’s work is driven by purpose, not just dollar bills.

Nontraditional clients, nontraditional metrics

Dart Goal

At the same time, Amy is quick to point out that that initial trust only gets you so far. Once they’ve asked their questions, the real foundation for trust is built by setting the project’s goals and working backward to determine scope, strategy, and tactics, along with meaningful metrics for each.  When I asked Amy about how their measure of success might differ from a traditional consumption-driven marketing firm’s, she emphasized that any project has goals, and that the right metrics flow from a solid project framework.  If they’ve asked the right questions, they know if a client really needs a viral video, or if the desire for a viral video is misplaced.  In the case of the Rainforest Action Network, a viral video about the dangers of palm oil made sense, and did well, but that’s because the client came in knowing that this was an issue their audience cared about and would be an effective way of presenting information.

With their track record of crafting effective strategies, Free Range has a unique position in their field. They don’t need to seek out new business.  Amy told me that they are fortunate to have more demand than supply.  Yet, I was curious if they ever sought out work with specific organizations, given all of their experience and their deep understanding of how today’s important issues are being communicated. For example, do they ever want to take the reins from groups doing great work but using ineffective strategies? “Funny you should ask – that’s something we’re just starting,” she replied. They care deeply about forwarding key messages, so, especially with the launch of Sachs’ book, Winning the Story Wars, they have begun approaching organizations with their own ideas. It’s not because they need the work. It’s because they want to catalyze good work. When I asked her if she ever wanted to hop ship and join her clients’ campaigns, though, she said that it never crossed her mind. She gets her energy and drive from the variety of her topics and projects, but, since she has worked with many of the same clients for years, just because she is on the other side of the table, doesn’t mean that she isn’t personally invested in the projects.  She simply doesn’t need to change her affiliation to show that dedication.

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