When I was in elementary school, we were regularly shown films designed to teach us life lessons, like the hazards of tobacco or how to be a good neighbor. Sometimes, I think I should make similar cautionary films for founders, to help them avoid the pitfalls and temptations they are likely to face. One film would definitely be about the perils of hiring a branding agency.
Sooner or later, if they’re moderately successful, most entrepreneurs get persuaded by their peers to seek the counsel of a higher power to help them define their brands, certain that only the superior wisdom of a branding and marketing agency can set them on the road to hockey-stick growth. (Higher powers would never use hackneyed terms like hockey-stick growth, but never mind.)
I’ve been roped into hiring them too, and each time I’ve paid dearly. At both my fan company and later at Unorthodox Ventures, where we brought in agencies for our partner firms, the result has been nothing but wasted time and outrageous invoices for endless revisions. That’s because these agencies, interested above all in promoting their own brand, could see only their own vision and hear only their own voice. Most have tried to mold us into their interpretation of our company. Any time we threw down a red flag and said, “That’s not who we are,” they’d tell us we weren’t thinking “big picture,” and that only they had the vision to see our potential.
This is how they operate, boys and girls, using pickup lines about how excited they are to get to work with you. If you don’t know any better, you might easily be flattered into believing them. And at that point–believe me–you’re in real trouble.
Whose Company Is It, Anyway?
Every entrepreneur, if asked, would probably agree that to build a brand, they need a strong, distinctive logo, a snappy tagline, and an attractive yet user-friendly website. Every marketing agency eschews such simple desires. They prefer to steer the conversation toward more esoteric realms, talking of “DNA,” “identity,” and “voice.” They refer to “assets,” “brand values,” and “color palettes,” while using “mood boards” and invoking “muses,” all to create the illusion that their expertise runs deep and their services are a steal at twice the price.
If you are an entrepreneur, at this point you should run, not walk, to the nearest exit. Otherwise, you’ll be forced to endure a series of excruciating meetings that will leave you questioning your own sanity. I’ve come up with an outline of those meetings for a cautionary film with the working title Whose Company Is It, Anyway?
The agency’s chief creative officer Exudes an air of superiority; exhibits a fondness for bespoke suits, not to mention the word bespoke.
Agency owners Approachable, folksy, but in an entitled sort of way. They exude confidence.
Agency reps Clearly believe they’re going places, and that flattery will get them there.
Agency liaison Young and earnest. Makes it clear that he won’t be happy until everyone else is.
Client Yearns to believe the agency can deliver “the deliverables,” but grows increasingly skeptical and concerned about the mounting price tag.
ACT I: Getting Hooked
Scene 1: The agency owners, chief creative officer, reps, and client are all present. There’s an air of bonhomie as the agency presents a deck loaded with glossy images of household-name brands, hoping to make potential clients believe the agency was vital to these companies’ success. Meanwhile, the client wonders why all the brands look so much alike.
Scene 2: The presentation reeks of expensive words like ethos and muse. The reps gush about how excited they are to get to know the client, and promise to create a unique brand voice and color palette that reflect the client’s identity–their DNA. The proposal, including two rounds of revisions, comes with a six-figure price tag. The client has misgivings and questions the price, but is curious about their DNA and therefore soldiers on.
Scene 3: The agency reps spend hours at the client’s offices, using a mood board and word associations in an attempt to discern the client’s DNA. They ask probing questions with an air of deep interest about the client’s goals and vision. The scene ends with the reps asking the only question they’re truly interested in: Where’s a good place for lunch?
The client hates everything, and the latest changes still don’t capture the company’s DNA. But there’s “good news,” the liaison says. The agency can provide “discounts” for additional social media strategies and “assets.” The Client flees the room.
ACT II: Reveal and Revision
Scene 1: Reveal of the agency’s branding plan. After the reps initially explain how the plan totally reflects the client, the client views a presentation that looks nothing like them. Instead, what’s on the screen looks a lot like those household-name brands featured in the first meeting. The reps proceed to show images of young women in trendy sneakers and use various forms of the word empowerment a lot. When the client points out that those trendy-sneakered women would probably have no interest in the company’s product, the reps sigh at the client’s limited understanding of the big picture. They assure the client that, thanks to the agency’s vast experience and infinite wisdom, they understand the company and see the big picture. By way of proof, when the client agrees to pick a favorite slide, the reps can barely contain their glee: Wouldn’t you know it? That slide is their favorite, too! The client stubbornly clings to the belief that because it’s their company, they know it best. The client suggests changes. The reps pretend to listen.
Scene 2: First revision, and first appearance of the liaison, who is determined to smooth things over and make things right. The liaison is so young and earnest that it’s impossible for the client to express “the essence” of how they feel, which is like a mime who is trapped in a box, a mime who’s growing more frustrated by the minute, because the revised plan is still no better.
Scene 3: At the agency office afterward, the liaison cheerfully informs colleagues: “We’re on the verge of a breakthrough.”
ACT III: Still No DNA
Scene 1: The chief creative officer returns in his bespoke attire to build excitement and quash negativity. Clearly, any enlightened person would appreciate the new plan, his demeanor implies. The reps then show the revision of 100 slides that is 20 percent the client’s DNA and 80 percent the agency’s. The reps demand feedback within 24 hours, and to please hand it to the liaison. Which means the client can’t tell the agency to go f–k itself, which is what the client now wants to do.
Scene 2: At the next meeting, an agency owner reappears to assure the client the updated version totally incorporates the feedback. In other words, it’s the client’s fault if they’re still unhappy. The client is still unhappy. The owner then says that despite being incredibly busy, the agency’s willing to free people up to do more revisions–for just $50,000.
Final scene: By now, the client hates everything, and the latest changes still don’t capture the company’s DNA. But there’s “good news,” the liaison says. The agency can provide “discounts” for additional social media strategies and “assets.” The client flees the room.
Founder Knows Best
When you’re young and inexperienced and don’t completely trust your instincts, it can be easy to fall into the trap of doing what others are doing. If I ever lose my senses and come close to using a branding agency again, I hope that someone will stuff my ears with wax, Ulysses-like, so that I cannot hear the voices of the Sirens that would lead me to believe an agency knows my business better than I do. And, rest assured: The world is full of talented writers and designers who don’t work for any agency, and who can deliver that logo you want, a “color palette” that suits your vision, and any other “deliverables” you’re seeking, far more cheaply than any agency. And with far less drama.
From the November 2021 issue of Inc. Magazine