Let me guess… This morning, you sprang out of bed and threw open the window like a Disney princess. After shaking out your long, lustrous tresses, you proclaimed to the neighborhood, yea, the the entire kingdom, “The world needs another branding agency!”
What? You didn’t? That’s not part of the morning routine you stole from Tim Ferriss?
I suppose I can relate. For nearly nine years I believed the world needed many things but another agency was not one of them.
I even went so far as to publish a blog post entitled “The Unagency Model.”
(Clearly, I didn’t have any mental hangups and wasn’t running from anything.)
Fast forward to February 2018 when a number of seismic shifts happened in my mind and heart. On a Monday afternoon my friend Jordan asked, “Why did you never start an agency?”
I reached up to the shelf for one of my carefully concocted excuses, but this time, the shelf was empty. I could think of nothing to say. My mouth opened and closed like a goldfish’s.
Later that night, Jordan shared this gem of wisdom: “‘Agency’ is just a word. You can make it mean whatever you want.” He saw me getting tangled up in semantics and making mental contortions, and he helped me realize that I can redefine words and business models.
I can also become the kind of leader I would want to follow. I already knew that, but I needed a reminder.
A beautiful moment occurs at many of life’s crossroads. You realize that you are, simply, afraid. Lions, tigers, and bears, oh my!
Soon after that, you realize that fear is so common and unremarkable a boogeyman that you can put it in its place, “Oh, it’s you again. If you must be here, sit in the corner and shut up.”
Fear may be a regular actor in human experience, but being afraid is a stupid reason to not try.
It’s not like fear and self-doubt are going to leave, never to return. They put on new costumes and disguises. In fact, I was just listening to Tim Ferriss interview Seth Godin, and toward the end, both of these thought leaders and accomplished businessmen talked about how they must proactively combat limiting beliefs and the false narratives playing in their heads, particularly in the morning.
New levels bring new devils. Certain of my wealthier friends have admitted to me that they now worry about losing their money.
The worse question is, “What will you do when you’re not afraid anymore?” That day may never come. The better question is, “What would you do right now if you weren’t afraid?” I decided to invite Chris Conley to co-found a branding and marketing studio with me.
Does the world need yet another branding agency? Perhaps not. Does the world need Balernum? Yes. I believe so. Here are the three reasons why that have been the most meaningful to us:
- Island of Calm
- True Assumptions
- Brand-First Philosophy
Reason #1 – Island of Calm
Creatives and agencies (that is, brief confederacies of creatives) face a fundamental challenge: The critical faculty that enables us to produce excellent work can also produce rotten culture.
All day, every day, we get paid to amp our fault-finding up to 11. We probe for weaknesses. We critique. We scrutinize our own and our colleagues’ work the way a jeweler pores over diamonds. “Are they counterfeit or not?”
We break down designs, copy, ads, campaigns, whole brands, into their constituent parts because our job is to polish those parts and reassemble them into a better whole.
When we’re good, baby, we’re so good. We’re the connoisseurs of cool (or so we think). We define what is fresh and what is cliché, what pops and what sags, what the latest bastion of art-meets-commerce will be and what is so last year’s avocado toast.
Such pressures, real or self-imposed, come with a cost. We certainly need ego to create, but we need to toggle it off as soon as we ship our work. The focus can and should shift from being a prima donna whose genius the world needs to serving the client’s best interest and protecting a positive outcome.
That’s easier said than done. Too often, we don’t handle one another’s work with care. Too often, we keep ego front and center, and we trod on one another’s feels. The errant dart of cheap criticism causes a fit of pique. We quickly turn our weapons of creativity and fault-finding on one another.
Many creatives are deeply sensitive people, and what can accrete over time among us is a cultural detritus of passive-aggressive sarcasm, gossip, badmouthing clients, badmouthing colleagues, badmouthing anyone who doesn’t affirm the undeniable prerogative of MY ART.
Why can’t these idiots see that this illustration of an eggplant is indeed a satirical masterpiece of Swiftian proportions? Why should you have to put up with the Philistine who asks a banal question like, “Are eggplants on brand?”
“Why does it matter?!” you shoot back, squaring off for a duel.
“Ermm…,” the Philistine whose name is Christina says. “Because, thanks to emojis, the eggplant has become a phallic reference? Is that reason enough?”
Your inner realist winces. Christina has just saved you from a potentially embarrassing client presentation. But she still needs to learn who she’s dealing with. You will henceforth respond to her everyone Slack message with Grade A Snark.
A creative director once quipped, after I made a design suggestion, “Oh, so you’re a designer now too?” Creatives can be territorial and savage.
Thankfully, that isn’t always the case. My goal here isn’t to make generalizations but rather to give those of you who aren’t creatives and who have never worked at an agency insight into the difficult road that creatives often walk.
We’re supposed to dial up our critical faculties so that we can understand your market, brand, goal, and project. We’re supposed to give our egos a long lease while we create something new for you and help you push it into the world. Soon after, we’re supposed to take pride off the table and stay open-minded as our colleagues (and later, you, the client) pass around the microphone and point out the baby’s flaws.
Don’t worry: We’re not carrying around eggs on spoons here. Most of us develop thicker skin. However, we need safe places to create, places that honor both the vulnerability of the creative process and the client’s need to receive value. We need not Lord of the Flies but an Island of Calm.
Chris and I want Balernum to be an Island of Calm. The concept of “psychological safety” holds particular significance for us. Put simply, the best teams are comprised of people who trust one another.
Do you know what erodes trust? Snark. Lobbing lazy, self-gratifying mortars of facetiousness when an arrow of sincerity would have been healthier, more effective, and honestly, more enjoyable.
How is trust built on creative teams? What do we creatives need in order to consistently produce our best work?
Here’s what we’re working on so far:
- Sensitive leadership (which usually involves more listening than talking)
- Psychological safety
- Verbal and public affirmation
- Warm, radical honesty and an iron-sharpens-iron mindset about feedback
- Constant reminders to protect positive outcomes (rather than our own ideas) and to serve clients (rather than badmouth them or engage in fake mental dialogues where we blast them with withering arguments)
- Assuming positive intent
As our team grows, I imagine the cracks will show. But still, Chris and I are trying to be the bosses we always wanted. We’re trying to create an Innisfree where disgustingly beautiful and effective work grows out of a soil of trust.
Reason #2 – True Assumptions
Peter Thiel is fond of asking this interview question: “What important truth do very few people agree with you on?” That question helped me uncover two half-true, half-false assumptions that drive many agencies:
- More time produces positive outcomes.
- Brilliant creatives produce positive outcomes.
Enough false positives have led many creatives to believe that feeding a project more hours will fix it: “If I just keep producing logo concepts, eventually the client will like one.”
Reliance on talented creatives also drives a lot of decision-making. A brilliant identity designer will capture lightning in a bottle more often than a colleague with less raw talent. There’s no denying that, which is why agency owners (and clients too) work from the assumption that hiring a better, more experienced designer will fix the problem of creative concepts that miss the mark.
The fault often lies not with the boneheaded junior designer who just can’t get the composition and kerning right but with a broken process. Closer examination of similar projects with a successful outcome would have turned up a better sequence of checks and balances.
Rather than hop straight into Illustrator, the designer should spend an hour or two hand sketching. Afterwards, a one-on-one coaching session would give the creative director a chance to do a course correction.
What can and should replace the two assumptions above? Better process and better training. What creatives really need to produce their best work is akin to apprenticeship. Skill accumulates over time.
A junior designer needs direction and tutelage from a creative director not once during a project but five times. Those extra consultations and critiques may require extra time, but they’re still more effective than thirty-five hours spent on design concepts a client will ultimately reject.
Creatives waste a lot of time because they think they have to. Good craftsmanship does take more time but not exponentially more time than poor craftsmanship—20% more not 200%.
Poor craftsmanship ends up being more time-expensive because of all the retroactive fixes that become necessary. The lead designer or creative director must swoop in and pull a late night and early morning in order to salvage the junior designer’s work and have something presentable before the client meeting.
I believe a “festina lente” approach is better. The phrase means “make haste slowly.” You can’t rush good craftsmanship, but neither can any of us afford to pour time through the sieve of bad process. Let’s strike a balance between effectiveness and efficiency.
At Balernum we’ve been maniacs about process capture since Day 1. If we anticipate doing it more than once, we’ll take the time to document what we did.
The payoff has already been massive. Instead of having to train every member of our team, one at a time, we say, “Read this. Watch this. Have something for us to review together by 4pm ET.”
Our library of SOPs does our training for us, and we also experience less brain drain. Team members may need to move on from time to time, but not before they have helped us improve our processes. We still reap the benefits of their best ideas and improvements later.
A lot of these efficiencies I can now trace back to rejecting assumptions about how creativity happens and about how agencies operate.
I’m proud of what we have accomplished so far, and I believe that standardized process, instead of improvisation, will enable creatives to produce their best work more consistently.
Reason #3 – Brand-First Philosophy
Back in December 2012, at a conference called re:Invent, Amazon’s Founder and CEO Jeff Bezos made a statement about business strategy that profoundly shaped our philosophy on branding:
“I almost never get the question, ‘What’s not going to change in the next ten years?’ … You can build business strategy around the things that are stable in time…. In our retail business we know that customers want low prices, and I know that’s going to be true ten years from now. They want fast delivery. They want vast selection. It’s impossible to imagine a future ten years from now where a customer comes up to me and says, ‘Jeff, I love Amazon. I just wish the prices were a little higher. Or, ‘I love Amazon. I just wish you delivered a little more slowly.’ Impossible. The effort we put into those things, spinning those things up, we know the energy we put into it today will still be paying dividends for our customers ten years from now. When you have something that you know is true, even over the long-term, you can afford to put a lot of energy into it.”
We’re gung-ho about branding because we believe that ten years from now your brand will matter even more than it does now.
Markets will shift. Opportunities will appear and vanish. New competitors will arrive on the scene. What will stay constant? People will pay, tolerate, and evangelize more to support their favorite brands… Yeti. Patagonia. Apple. Insert yours here.
The importance of a real brand will remain stable over time. At Balernum we can confidently tell clients that making smart, strategic investments in building a brand people care about is the best way to future-proof their businesses.
Your brand should take precedence over any business development maneuver or marketing tactic. Your leaders must consider how their decisions will alter brand perceptions: “Will going after the downstream market with this new channel partner cause brand fragmentation? Do we run the risk of alienating our most loyal (and profitable) customers? How much brand equity will we sacrifice with these short-term revenues?”
This is easy to agree with in concept, but it’s hard to practice in the trenches. You may not be able to quantify ROI on your brand investments this month or this year. That would be like arriving at a dollar amount when someone asks, “How much is a good reputation worth?”
However, done right, deliberate branding can add immense value to a company.
Marketing consultant Margaret Mark and Young & Rubicam’s BrandAsset Group studied the connection between economic performance and brand archetypes.
They conducted the most extensive study of its kind in the world and evaluated consumer attitudes toward over 13,000 brands.
Margaret Mark then analyzed their Market Value Added (MVA) and Economic Value Added (EVA). She found that the MVA and EVA of brands with a single, identifiable archetype rose by 97% more than “confused brands.” Furthermore, “over a six-year period under study, the EVA of strongly aligned brands grew at a rate 66% greater than that of the EVA of weakly aligned brands.” (The Hero and the Outlaw, pp. 26-30.)
Deliberate branding also has intangible benefits:
- Increased customer loyalty
- Attracting the right customers
- Increasing the effectiveness of marketing
- Clarifying and simplifying communication
- Differentiation from competition
- Creating and building healthy culture
- Bringing transcendent purpose to work
- Enriching customers’ and team members’ lives
These benefits are why we have a brand-first philosophy at Balernum. We’re building the Balernum brand too. (Believe it or not, most branding agencies don’t have a real brand.)
A couple of weeks ago, I received this text message from one of our designers…
(Used with permission)
It is possible for your brand to make a positive impact in the lives of your customers and your team. People will stand with you because of what you stand for.
And text messages like the one above reassure me that the world did, in fact, need another branding agency. Maybe we need to act more like Disney princesses too.
If you’re a gutsy founder looking to launch a lifestyle or direct-to-consumer brand, then let’s chat. Our branding and marketing studio, our island of clam, would love to help you build a real brand that people care passionately about.