Element Six Media is one of those start-ups you can’t imagine starting up in the predigital age. It’s both virtual and global. Its nerve center and headquarters is a heavy oak table at the Open Book coffeehouse on South Washington Avenue in Minneapolis, a few blocks from the shores of the Mississippi. The table has an appealing sturdiness, and looks older than it actually is—it was originally built for the Magers & Quinn bookstore in Uptown, which sold the table to Open Book a few years back.
In any case, it’s where Element Six’s founders and sole employees, Maikel van de Mortel and Björgvin Sævarsson, spend most of their working hours. There they ponder their laptop screens, make phone calls, tap their keyboards. Every so often, one of them goes to the counter for a beverage, a sandwich, or a pastry. Van de Mortel describes these purchases as Element Six’s rent payments for both the table and the Wi-Fi.
Element Six has a distinctive specialty—“green marketing,” the partners call it. The firm creates messages using elements like dust, snow, sand, and moss, as well as biodegradable media for streets and sidewalks. To Sævarsson and van de Mortel, the message is more than just the medium, or just the brand. Green marketing, they believe, can enrich how a brand presents itself. And because of the low carbon footprint and high aesthetic sensibility of the media it uses, Element Six can also enrich the community by providing images to enjoy, discuss, and gather around, literally and electronically. What’s more, it can show companies that they don’t need vinyl and polluting paint to create striking messages. The agency raises consciousness not only about a brand, but also how we “consume” products and messages.
“We know what we do is perceived as out of the ordinary,” van de Mortel says. And what many businesses need now, he and Sævarsson argue, is something out of the ordinary. Yet, “we want to make this mainstream,” van de Mortel adds. The partners don’t expect green techniques to take over, but they do think it could make up nearly 20 percent of marketing work. Still, will enough businesses get the message so that Element Six blossoms?
Where They’re Coming From
Sævarsson and van de Mortel are green urbanophiles and experienced entrepreneurs. They’re also a lot of fun, and play off each other like a comedy team. (Van de Mortel’s usually the straight man to Sævarsson’s exuberance, though one with a wry wit.) They grew up in small towns in small countries: van de Mortel in the Netherlands, Sævarsson in Iceland. These were communities without an abundance of resources. Being “green”—conserving, repairing, eating mostly what was in season, taking paper and other items to the local recycling station—wasn’t a lifestyle choice. It was simply how people there lived, and mostly still do.
For circuitous personal reasons, they both ended up in the Twin Cities in the late 1990s. Once here, Sævarsson started a sustainable food processing and distribution business, which he left to investors in 2004; he then worked as a mergers and acquisitions advisor. Meanwhile, van de Mortel worked in advertising; in 2001, he opened a Minneapolis marketing firm called Frêsh. Mutual friends introduced them a few years back. Not long after that (as Sævarsson tells it), van de Mortel was trying to cast the seeds of his green-marketing ideas into his new friend’s mind. “Maikel was always saying, ‘Björgvin, check this out,’” he recalls, laughing. “And I’d say, “Maikel, I’m busy! Leave me alone!’”
In any case, van de Mortel was able to weave his spell, and Element Six got off the ground (so to speak) in mid-2009. These days, when Sævarsson and van de Mortel talk about what inspires them, they point to work they’ve seen overseas—billboards made from moss instead of vinyl, product patterns “engraved” in wood using sunlight and optics. Using and building out their network of contacts in the Midwest and worldwide, they’ve put together “green teams” of artists—snow sculptors, designers who use natural materials to create images. Element Six deploys these teams worldwide. As of late September, the company has completed more than 50 projects here and abroad.
Each green team typically has about three or four members. The company hasn’t tried creating crop-circle images yet—such a project would require a different set of artists.
“Aliens are so small,” Sævarsson notes.
“And they require long travel times,” van de Mortel adds.
But as Element Six has discovered, many businesses do see the shop’s approach as exactly that—designed by aliens.
Where They’re At
Before that metaphor goes too far, let’s be clear that this writer would never refer to those not born in the USA as “aliens,” as noncitizens were often described during his 1960s childhood. Van de Mortel and Sævarsson consider themselves happy Minnesotans now. They love the creative vibe here, as well as a sense of community that wouldn’t be out of place in northern Europe or a Nordic outpost like Iceland.
“How do you feel about Minnesota?” van de Mortel asks his associate.
“I love it! I love the snow,” Sævarsson says.
Still, the Element Six guys have to acknowledge a certain lack of risk taking here. They’ve pitched local companies, they’ve given talks to local marketing groups. They’re sensing growing interest. Fifty-plus projects for a start-up is nothing to sneeze out. But the U.S. projects have been mostly few and small so far.
Sævarsson is sympathetic: “We laugh about it all the time. A marketing director goes to the boss and says, ‘I have a great idea. Let’s do a snow stamping!’ ‘What? You’re fired! Get out of here!’”
“Marketers have been exposed to a toolbox that they’re very comfortable with, very familiar with,” van de Mortel adds. “They know how to utilize the information and the medium; they know how to report it back from an ROI perspective, and provide that information up the chain—CMO, CFO, vice president of marketing, whoever they might report to.”
Innovation consultants will tell you that an economic downturn is an excellent time to try new ideas. But many companies prefer to duck into a cellar and wait for the storm to pass.
But what more marketers need to do now, the Element Six fellas argue, is stand up and stand out. If you do something different, it can get a different kind of attention—say, from people who photograph natural-media campaigns and text about them to friends.
“So now the campaign goes viral by means of the consumer as well as through our doing—social media, press releases,” van de Mortel says. “And we can use our community to share with the greater world as to what now has taken place. And before you know it, you have a PR campaign that’s probably unlike anything else anybody has seen.”
The words “art” and “beauty” play heavily in the firm’s practice. The duo eschew the word “sustainability.” To them, it’s a broccoli kind of word: It may be good for you, but it doesn’t have a lot of appeal. They prefer the term “thrivability,” which they discovered through their friend Joshua Foss, a Minneapolis “green” interior designer who’s now studying and working in Sweden. Thrivability is about a low carbon footprint, but it’s not about asceticism: Thrivability entails fun, beauty, and pleasure as well as doing well by the environment. It’s about community as well as the common good. (It’s worth noting that van de Mortel grew up in a nation that’s currently developing a World Database of Happiness.)
Still, what about that ROI? What about the metrics known and loved by any mass-minded marketer? Van de Mortel asserts that “we can measure the foot traffic, we measure the online exposure as well as we can.” But he’ll admit that Element Six doesn’t have the software to measure all the media impressions: “As far as we know, nobody has.”
Element Six has executed most of its projects in North America, though it has received most of its inquiries from outside the U.S., mainly Europe. “It’s not that there’s a difference between Europe and America,” van de Mortel says. “We truly believe that there isn’t. It’s the way marketers think in Europe versus the United States that’s different.
“You ask about ROI. Sometimes, emotions are hard to measure,” he continues. “Whereas in Europe, marketers are given license to be a little bit more free with that, and to play off emotions, and to say: ‘OK, I’m going to take this risk—I don’t know exactly how it’s going to pan out. And we’re going to learn from it.’”
To Sævarsson and van de Mortel, there are larger questions here than simply getting companies to hire Element Six. The Great Recession has cracked the foundations of what had been solid business models. So do we patch up those models and hope for the best? Or do we build a newer, “thrivable” economy? If so, it would require businesses and customers to connect and engage with each other and their surroundings in ways that are mutually beneficial, in ways that go beyond mere consumption. If we don’t take that approach, van de Mortel believes, “we’re going to be in trouble for a long, long time. And we’re not talking a few years. Things are going to be really rough.”
Adds Sævarsson jovially: “You heard it from us first!”
Continue to the following pages to view some of Element Six's work.