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Sarah Gross & Cass Mackenzie: Founding a Purpose-driven Agency

There’s a new breed of agency on the horizon and two female founders are at the forefront of this change. Introducing Storyfolk, a purpose-driven design agency partnering with like-minded brands who want to make an impact. That’s not to say the Melbourne-based studio aren’t delivering commercial results (they most certainly are!), it simply means there’s a bigger thought behind the work. Mavens caught up with the founders to find out more.

Sarah Gross and Cass Mackenzie. You both have the kind of commercial experience that would make a larger agency lucky to have you. Why did you choose to start your own business?

SG: *laughs* thank you. I started in the industry as a photographer and writer before studying graphic design. Working across various creative mediums (photography, writing, graphic design, fashion design, brand development, campaign ideation, packaging) was a double-edged sword to some degree. On the one hand, I loved the diversity, but I also felt somewhat trapped when I was in a specialist role working on a small slice of the pie, so to speak. I like to understand the “why” of a project, so seeing it through from start-to-finish suits me. This led me to freelance, which led me to work on a range of fantastic projects, including collaborations with Cass, which allowed us to go “all in” and open Storyfolk.

Another reason we went into business for ourselves is because of the lack of representation of women in leadership roles within the design, advertising, and creative industry. Women hold only 5-11% of creative director positions, with only 0.1% of creative agencies female-owned. 0.1%. Hopefully, we can inspire the next generation of creative gals to pursue their dreams in the industry by breaking down some barriers by showcasing the possibilities.

CM: The idea started as a seed back when I studied in 2011 - a loose future goal. I said to myself in 7 to 10 years time after graduating, I would start a studio that I could call my own. 9 years on and I am lucky to share that dream with Sarah. Having spent the years prior to launching Storyfolk working for large agencies in Australia and overseas, leading the design teams and collecting a diverse skill set from studio to studio, I found myself feeling like it was time. I needed more and I had a real desire to create a women-founded studio!

Storyfolk has incredible output for a boutique agency. Can you tell us about your complementary skills that make it possible?

SG: While we both come from a graphic design background, we’ve had very different industry experiences and specialisations. Over time, I’ve fallen in love with creative direction, strategic thinking, and the storytelling within design. Cass is one of the best designers I’ve worked with, her passion for the craft of design and attention to detail is second-to-none. She is a freaking superstar. If Wonder Woman was a graphic designer, that would be Cass Mackenzie *laughs* I feel incredibly fortunate to have Cass by my side as a friend and business partner.

CM: *Laughs* wow, she is a delight. I also feel incredibly fortunate to have an absolute strategic queen as a business partner. Sarah has an almost intuitive, deep understanding for brands and an organic flare for human-centered design that cannot be taught. Her innate understanding of people and insight into businesses on a psychological level is unparalleled. Together with our varied skill set and experiences, I feel like we have become an unstoppable force.

You’ve worked on a range of client categories from FMCG to medical, government, fashion and not-for-profit. What’s your favourite type of client work and why?

SG: Ohh, this is a hard question. We love working with purpose-driven clients and those that positively impact the community. This is really rewarding for us to see our work go on to have its own life that can make a meaningful difference in the world. This purpose-driven component can be pretty diverse, but this ensures we are aligned with our clients and their values, from ethical clothing to mental health to renewable energy.

It’s a win-win for everyone. We get to partner with like-minded brands that we are passionate about, allowing us to create our best work. Our clients have a creative studio that understands their goals, is genuinely interested in their brand, and willing to invest some TLC to amplify their impact.

CM: I love the variety in clients we have attracted and feel very fortunate to collaborate with such incredible companies and organisations. A common theme that inspires me is the passion that our clients have. Combining our passions with my love for design makes me excited to get to work in the morning.

You recently helped a general practice launch during COVID-19, but the timing called for a pandemic pivot (pardon the buzzword)! Can you tell us what you learned from the project?

SG: I think 2020 was the year of learning *laughs*. We helped our client Alto Health transition from face-to-face consultation to Telehealth consultations.

A couple of key learnings we took away from this project:

1. Authentic communication is everything: Alto did an incredible job of engaging, reassuring, and connecting with their patients. I think being able to talk to your audience in a non-jargon, compassionate and natural way really does goes a long way... especially in a time of crisis.

2. While things might not have gone to plan with the physical launch, Alto now has the capability to work with patients in Sydney as well as help more patients around Australia removing geographical limitations. This is pretty amazing as it’s giving rural and remote people access to the same quality healthcare that was typically reserved for the cities. That in itself is pretty incredible.

CM: It could have been incredibly difficult to launch and sustain a General Practice at a time when everyone was scared to go to the doctor. Luckily we have great contacts and a digital team that could really make this project happen. To ensure their successful launch and pivot the strategy entirely, including a comprehensive online service, within a 3-week turnaround would seem impossible for some. My learnings are to always partner yourself with an equally passionate problem-solving team, and you can make the impossible possible.

You’ve described purpose-driven design as one of Storyfolk’s passions. Can you tell us about a recent project that fits this brief?

SG: Last year, we were selected to rebrand and evolve a pretty incredible not-for-profit organisation, Sparkways (Formally known as TRY Australia). Sparkways has a long history of supporting vulnerable and at-risk children and young people through access to early learning, mentoring for vulnerable and employment opportunities for those wanting to enter the workforce but have not had the chance. This was a special project and incredibly rewarding, knowing that we will help Sparkways continue having such a significant impact in the community for many years to come.

CM: A standout for me was working on the Dutch renewable energy company Horizon NL’s brand identity. Renewable energy is exciting, innovative and aims to disrupt the traditional energy sector completely. It’s a pleasure to be a part of the solution.

What goals do you have for Storyfolk in 2021?

SG: Our goal is to showcase that we are a go-to design agency within the purpose-driven space. Being purpose-driven is no longer a niche. Consumers want sustainable brands that align with their values, and we want to work with brands that align with our values so it’s a good fit for our clients. We are excited to already be working within this space where design is at the forefront of change.

…. Oh, we also want to go on a team holiday… perhaps by the beach... with a margarita.

CM: I couldn’t have said it better myself. Both on the purpose-driven direction for Storyfolk in 2021 and sitting by a beach drinking a margarita with the team *laughs.*

To partner with Storyfolk for your next design, illustration or branding project, contact Sarah and Cass here.


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