Seven things every startup should demand from its branding agency
Camillia BenBassat, Founder and Creative Director at Avec, highlights seven things startups should demand from branding agencies.
In today’s competitive startup space brand can make the difference between success and failure. If you can craft a brand experience that engages with consumers and communicates your values successfully across all key touchpoints, you are far more likely to stand out from rivals and build market share.
Kate Shillo Beardsley, Managing Director at Upslope Ventures, specializes in advising fast-growth firms. She says: “It doesn’t matter whether your audience is consumers or businesses, you need to think of design as an essential part of your scaffolding. We as humans respond to well-designed products. We’ve been trained by Apple, Google, Mailchimp, Slack and Instagram, and expectations are high for new products. Founders that understand and value the importance of design in terms of visuals and functionality are ahead of the game.”
Once you’ve made the all-important decision to invest in design, you have two more decisions to make: who to help design that brand and how to manage the relationship? There’s no end of advice out there on how to choose the right design partner, so in short: find one that understands your audience, you get what you pay for and, most importantly, be certain you’ll enjoy working with them!
At the same time, there are plenty of people lining up to tell you how to behave towards your agency: trust their expertise, treat them as a strategic partner (not a production supplier), communicate any concerns, respect their time. It’s all good advice. But what about what you should expect from them? Here are seven things that we believe every buyer of design services should expect from their agency partner.
1.The ability to say no
At a fundamental level, we believe that every company can benefit from a well-designed brand, but, for startups, timing matters. Make sure your agency partner isn’t so eager to win the work that they’re advising you to invest your time and resources in the wrong place. For example, when a tech company approached us to help develop the brand for an app they were building for real estate agents, it was way too early in the product lifecycle. We advised them to focus their energies on the product first and foremost—it doesn’t matter how beautiful it is if it doesn’t work. On the flip side, when a client came to us with a new DTC skincare line, we knew if they weren’t noticed, they’d fail, so investing in their brand and packaging was crucial to stand out in a crowded field.
2. Not just a logo
“In my experience, founders of startups or small companies tend to equate branding with creating a logo,” says Shillo Beardsley. “In fact, this is just the tip of the iceberg and they should expect far more.” Your brand is the external representation of your company’s mission and values, and as it’s the overall narrative for every aspect of the customer experience (including the messaging, packaging, website and social) that visual story must be considered and consistent across each touchpoint.
3. The A-team
If on day one of the project kickoff you meet a completely different team than the people you bought the service from, it should ring alarm bells. Make sure you have the agency’s best people working on your account, and that they stay part of the process throughout the duration.
4. Communication that’s frequent, proactive and honest
It shouldn’t be you chasing for updates. Your agency partner should be keeping you up to speed with everything that’s happening. If something isn’t happening the way you expected they should make sure you know about it and explain their plan for getting things back on track. Simultaneously, be sure to keep your agency in the loop as your product evolves through the course of the engagement in order to ensure that the brand development is responding to any future or changing needs of the business.
5. Great expectations
You should be under no illusions about what you can expect for your budget. One of the important early tasks for an agency is to set realistic expectations about what’s possible with the available budget as well as to understand what may come up down the line and how to plan for them. Daphne Hoppenot of The Vendry says: “I would make sure that the agency seems aligned with your business objectives rather than trying to push you in the direction of the type of work that they want to do. Secondly, I'd be prepared to spend more with the agency than the initial scope of work you commit to. If you like them, you will likely value their ongoing input and involvement as your product evolves so even if you move to an hourly retainer, I would be prepared to think about the overall relationship as extending beyond the first phase.”
This might be your first experience with branding or digital design. Don’t be intimidated by impenetrable language, technical terms, and complex processes. Be sure to ask questions at every stage in order to understand exactly what is happening and why it is being done that way.
Consider whether you want your agency to build in a future dependency to its solution. If they’re designing your website, make sure you talk through what happens post launch or ongoing maintenance. You should expect easy access to all code and artwork files too.
Pick the right partner, work with them in the right way, and expect them to give you all seven of those points in return and your design project will almost certainly deliver what you need. What’s more, it will be the foundation of your brand and business’ long term success.
Marketing matters: from IBM to Kyndryl
Prior to joining Kyndryl as Chief Marketing Officer, Maria had a 25-year career at IBM, most recently as the tech giant’s CMO where she oversaw all marketing professionals and activities across North America, Canada and Latin America. She has held senior global marketing positions in a variety of disciplines and business units across IBM, most notably strategic initiatives in Smarter Cities and Watson Customer Engagement, as well as leading teams in services, business analytics, and mobile and industry solutions. She is known for her work with teams to leverage data, analytics and cloud technologies to build deeper engagements with customers and partners.
With a passion for marketing, business and people, and a recognized expert in data-driven marketing and brand engagement, Maria talks to Business Chief about her new role, her leadership style and what success means to her.
You've recently moved from IBM to Kyndryl, joining as CMO. Tell us about this exciting new role?
I’m Chief Marketing Officer for Kyndryl, the independent company that will be created following the separation from IBM of its Managed Infrastructure Services business, expected to occur by the end of 2021. My role is to plan, develop, and execute Kyndryl's marketing and advertising initiatives. This includes building a company culture and brand identity on which we base our marketing and advertising strategy.
We have an amazing opportunity ahead at Kyndryl to create a company brand that will stand apart in the market by leading with our people first. Once we are an independent company, each Kyndryl employee will advance the vital systems that power human progress. Our people are devoted, restless, empathetic, and anticipatory – key qualities needed as we build on existing customer relationships and cultivate new ones. Our people are at the heart of this business and I am deeply hopeful and excited for our future.
What experiences have helped prepare you for this new opportunity?
I’ve had a very rich and diverse career history at IBM that has lasted 25+ years. I started out in sales but landed explored opportunities at IBM in different roles, business units, geographies, and functions. Marketing and business are my passions and I landed on Marketing because it allowed me to utilize both my left and right brain, bringing together art and science. In college, I was no tonly a business major, but an art major. I love marketing because I can leverage my extensive knowledge of business, while also being able to think openly and creatively.
The opportunities I was given during my time at IBM and my natural curiosity have led me to the path I’m on now and there’s no better next career step than a once-in-a-lifetime-opportunity to help launch a company. The core of my role at Kyndryl is to create a culture centered on our people and growing up in my career at IBM has allowed me to see first-hand how to prioritize people and ensure they are at the heart of progress in everything Kyndryl will do.
How would you describe your leadership style?
I believe that people aren't your greatest assets, they are your only assets. My platform and background for leadership has always been grounded in authenticity to who I am and centered on diversity and inclusion. I immigrated to the US from Chile when I was 10 years old and so I know the power and beauty that comes from leaning into what makes you different from other people, and that's what I want every person in my marketing organization to feel – the value in bringing their most authentic self to work every day. The way our employees feel when they show up for themselves authentically is how they will also show up for our customers, and strong relationships drive growth.
I think this is especially true in light of a world forever changed by the pandemic. Living through such an unprecedented time has reinforced that we are all humans. We can't lead or care for one another without empathy and I think leaders everywhere have been reminded of this.
What’s the best leadership advice you’ve received?
When I was growing up as an immigrant in North Carolina, I often wanted to be just like everyone else. But my mother always told me: Be unique, be memorable – you have an authentic view and experience of the world that no one else will ever have, so don't try to be anyone else but you.
What does success look like to you?
I think the concept of success is multi-faceted. From a career perspective, being in a job where you're respected and appreciated, and where you can see how your contributions are providing value by motivating your teams to be better – that's success! From a personal perspective, there is no greater accomplishment than investing in the next generation. I love mentoring younger professionals – they are the future. I want my legacy as a leader to include providing value in work culture, but also in leaving a personal impact on the lives of professionals who will carry the workforce forward. Finding a position in life with a job and company that offers me a chance at all of that is what success looks like to me.
What advice would you give to your younger self just starting out in the industry?
I've always been a naturally curious person and it's easy for me to over-commit to projects that pique my interest. I've learned over years of practice how to manage that, so to my younger self I’d say… prioritize the things that are most important, and then become amazing at those things.