The startup wants to go fast and break things. The agency has a process. How they navigate the relationship takes a steady hand, communication and, according to serial founder and startup consultant Shane Reilly, a keen awareness of where you are in the process. We sat down with Shane to discuss this tricky dance and how agencies and startups can get into that mutually beneficial groove.
- It is critical for startups to be keenly aware of where they are in the life cycle of their brands.
- For startups, where there is so much to build out for the first time, the best client-agency relationships develop when the client can specify their single most important goal for the agency, and the agency specializes in that particular area.
- The best relationships start with the startup writing down their point of view, in words, ahead of time.
- As an operating model, agencies are usually best suited to work on defined projects leveraging their organization’s established methodologies, whereas consultants can flex their approach and deliver specific deliverables to meet a business’s needs.
- Friction between agencies and startups can occur when the startup needs a consultant when in fact they hired an agency.
- For agency owners, it might be worthwhile to deconstruct your best relationships and see what worked and then try to apply that to startup clients going forward.
Todd Anthony: So tell me a little about your startup experience.
Shane Reilly: I founded and sold two startups -- I founded Decorati which was bought by Gilt Groupe and co-founded Guildery, which was acquired by Minted. I’ve also worked at a variety of high-growth startups and also a large public company. But all of my roles have been entrepreneurial at fast-growth companies where we’re starting something new. I like bringing new ideas to market.
What’s the difference between being a startup founder and merely working for one?
I get excited by ideas. If I have a good one (and at least twice I’ve been in that position), great. But a lot of other people have good ideas, too and I enjoy working with strong founders. I just think it’s fun to innovate and do things in new ways. I’m driven more by that than by ownership.
What’s your experience been like working with creative agencies at startups or at a large company?
I’ve worked with creative agencies at every company I’ve either started or joined. Big global agencies as well as tiny one- or two-person shops. I do think there’s an important distinction between an agency and a paid consultant in terms of mindset. You could argue that a 1-2 person shop is more like a consultant. Have you thought about the difference between the two?
I probably should. I feel like if we act as a consultancy, and we sometimes do, we still operate as an agency and present it as an agency service. Partly because I don’t want to confuse my clients, but also because I want to offer more to them and the term “agency” tends to imply a broader set of services. I could be wrong.
Well, I wonder if that’s where the rub is between agencies and startups. A startup might hire an agency that has a particular way of operating, plans, deadlines, rollouts, multiple clients and an established methodology for how to take the client from A to B. But a client might THINK they’ve hired consultants that are at their beck-and-call and will do whatever they need at whatever hour as their needs shift - which they often do. I think sometimes startups don’t know how to define their needs.
YES! Startups often imagine that they are your only client. I don’t know how they could think that we could live on $5,000 over a three-month period or whatever, but they do. Can you reflect back on the agency experiences that were positive?
The times that it’s worked the best has been when there’s been work done upfront, internally, to figure out the goal for the agency and the startup’s unique value proposition – the thinking that goes behind what we’re actually hiring the agency for and why they should be successful. And actually having that written out. Yes, the live, verbal download is helpful, but that can be misinterpreted and can take the agency a lot of time in meetings to transcribe and analyze to figure out. So forcing yourself, as a client, to be specific about strategy, type of content, or any work you want the agency to execute for you is often going to get you to a better place and be faster.
Another thing I’ve seen work really well is when the person who’s managing the agency does their job, stays on top of things, is a good partner from brief to final deliverable, and really brokers that relationship. On the client side, it’s giving the agency the space to do their job and providing them with the information they need, about what’s going well and what’s not going well, so they can shift their focus as needed.
So, when that doesn’t work is when that person managing the agency either A) checks out of the relationship and lets the team do everything or B) takes in the information, gets it wrong, and the client gets something back that’s totally off?
Yes. And I think sometimes the client lead may not even know what their company is trying to achieve because there may be competing voices within the company, or the product is new to the market or hasn’t been invented yet and so it’s totally subjective how it should be presented. On the client side, it can be challenging to manage an agency relationship in these circumstances.
In a way, it’s much easier at a traditional CPG company because they have 50 years behind them and they have things well documented and institutionalized. And while execution may evolve, there’s a brand playbook to fall back on. Your typical brand manager coming out of business school is only in the role for a year or two. That person isn’t reinventing anything and the agency knows the brand even better than they do. But in “startup land,” you’re forging new ground all the time. So it’s a matter of, “How will this startup handle that decision?” Do you put someone strong in that role who knows how to work with an agency and can lead internal decision-making? Do you have the founder run it and the marketing person is really just a go-between? All of those things have to be sorted out for the relationship to be successful.
I would think. I see a lot of founders trying to do it themselves and they’re in a weird position because they’re the decision-maker, they’re driving the company forward and yet may not have the skills, background and tools to be able to give the agency what they need. On top of that, they’re a huge bottleneck... and they know it.
Absolutely. The way I think about working with agencies is starting with understanding where a brand is in its life cycle. That’s a framework I’ve leaned on to figure out what we want out of the agency relationship and what constraints are appropriate. Most founders, unless they’ve been in marketing or creative for a long time, instantly jump to, “I want to be Nike or Apple.” They want that high quality and cohesiveness that comes across with sophisticated brands like that. And what they generally underestimate is the many years, thousands of iterations and hundreds of people who have worked on those brands. All those hours in the conference rooms to make the brand feel authentic from many angles, right? What founders see and want is the final product.
For me as a brand leader, it’s about starting with an understanding of where you are in the brand’s history.
I ask, “Well, where are we? What’s the reality of what we need to do right now?” Obviously, we want to be the best we can and push the big vision, but let’s cap it. Let’s decide what we need to get done in this phase, and then, knowing that you’re going to do it again, evolve it from there. The constraint may be time, it may be budget, it may be that you don’t have all the features you need or the engineers. But creativity without constraint by a startup team building a brand leads to lack of focus, wasted time and could ultimately threaten the life of the business.
In order to understand where you are, you need to understand that whole picture. The big map with the “you are here” - you need to know the map to know where “there” is.
Absolutely. I’ve started bringing that map idea into projects. The brand journey starts with a founder or founders sitting around a table with their laptops - a cold start. Then the timeline goes all the way out to being a well-established brand. There are phases, but the key is with startups you are building the brand while doing the activities, at high-speed.
Each piece of work carries the extra burden of being the “first of” - such as the first homepage, the first blog article, the first video… and they are always needed yesterday. With each piece of work the brand takes further shape for the team and the subsequent pieces of work get just a bit easier. Eventually, the brand is ready to produce the first set of Brand Guidelines, Style Guide, and other industry-standard tools used to build efficiencies for larger creative teams. And, of course, there is some market feedback and rapid iteration happening all along.
Yeah, exactly. You can’t start with two founders around a table and suddenly become Apple or Nike, there are many stages in between that you have to go through to develop. You can’t have a baby in a month. You have to go through the process.
Yes. For startups, I believe there are five phases of early brand-building from Phase 0 - Phase 4. I use this simple sketch as a discussion tool, placing a “you are here” flag where appropriate, to give perspective in decision-making and evaluating deliverables. A startup and agency relationship can get strained if the startup is truly at Phase 1 or so but expects the output of Phase 4.
A lot of times the expectations are crazy big and antithetical to what the constraints would actually allow. Is there a founder-friendly/startup-friendly way to explain the disconnect between expectations and reality?
Yes, look at the data. At each phase of building the brand there are constraints, like time or budget, and you can step back and ask, “Well, did it perform?” This approach can help clarify whether you are talking about a founder’s opinion about the brand vs. how the brand is resonating out in the marketplace. Part of the role of the person managing the agency is managing internal expectations and grounding them in tangible results. In startup land most of what you are doing is unproven, so you need to get your offering out in the marketplace and see if it lands as you expected.
As one example, at my second company, Guildery, we assumed that the unlimited flexibility of our awesome tech platform, which enabled endless choices of colors and patterns for print-on-demand home decor like pillows and bedding, would resonate with consumers who were struggling to create a sophisticated, color-coordinated look. Sounds reasonable, right? All of our early brand messaging was built on “endless aisle” and “empowering consumers” concepts. But the feedback showed we were wrong, consumers did not want that much choice or power, in fact, they preferred to just be shown what to buy. So we created featured collections of products that did the work for the consumers, and retooled our messaging across all touchpoints. I mention this journey because this type of rapid iteration is common in startups entering a market for the first time, and at every step of the way the updated brand positioning trickles down into many work streams, from the homepage to emails, to landing pages, to social media etc, and all this creative heavy lifting occurs while under the unrelenting ticking clock of venture funding. So when building a brand at high-speed, agencies can help guide their startup clients to balance the opposing forces of moving fast without overinvesting (or over-thinking) where unnecessary.
Are there some agencies that do a better job of explaining what they offer than others and what are the things that a founder would be looking for them to explain at the beginning stages of the relationship?
Founders rarely know how to do everything. They’re hiring an agency either because they do not have the capacity to do the work or are not as skilled with the kind of work needed, or they don’t have the internal credibility to do the work directly. Also, founders are busy, they have a million things going on. So, right off the bat you’re talking about a situation where it would naturally be better to simplify the agency’s core competencies transparent so founders can quickly assess if the agency is a good match for them. I always find it very helpful when an agency is very straightforward about what their strengths are versus what they might not be as strong at today, but hope to expand into. Startups get it - we are literally in the business of punching above our weight. But there are few agencies that truly do everything well, and the ones that do tend to be big, expensive, global agencies that actually outsource execution to specialists – and startups will never hire them. I respect agencies that are forthcoming and simplify the vetting process for me. This saves me valuable time and money.
For some high-growth startups with several different goals, it may make the most sense to hire more than one agency to take the pressure off any one agency to achieve everything at once.. The work each agency delivers will likely be stronger and be delivered faster if concentrated on one key goal. Examples of complementary, but different goals may be brand identity, long-form content, and conversion.
What about styles that agencies use in their pitching process? Are there some that sit back and listen versus pitching? What do you prefer style-wise from a new prospective agency?
It depends on what the project is or what I’m looking for. If I’m looking for something specific, then I just want them to tell me how long it’s going to take and what it’s going to cost. But sometimes you’re sort of exploring or you’re debating whether to do it internally or externally. And in those situations, you kind of want to be led a little and shown new ideas. That’s what agencies are really good at. Being fresh.
If and when you’ve had agency relationships that have been a little bumpy, why has that been?
Generally, it’s been that we on the client side have not been prepared. So we might’ve decided to bring in an agency for a project, we got the vetting process going (which is a lot of work in itself), and then selected an agency. Then when it’s time to jump in with the timeline that we all originally talked about, the founder isn’t available or the product isn’t available or the strategy has shifted or something like this. It can be hard for the agency to come across as successful if the client is not actually ready for them. Startups are notorious for getting ahead of their skis. So the agency is in a tricky situation and it can all lead to finger-pointing later on. It’s not great to start that way.
Do you have any advice for agencies who want to work with startups?
If you pick the right startup client, the opportunity for agencies is that both the client and the agency can grow really big - together. If you manage the relationship well, stay with them for a long time and they can become a really big account for you. You have to pick your time wisely and you probably shouldn’t work with every startup that knocks on your door. Look for signs such as how the client responds to your work and how the founders conduct themselves with their own teams before you mentally sign-on for the long term. But if you gel well with the team, are excited about the product, and most importantly, can help the founders understand what part of the brand lifecycle they are in and apply constraints accordingly – such as, “I don’t recommend that you spend more than X time on this or more than $X budget at this stage of your life, let’s do that in three to six months" – then it can work out well. You’ll be on your way to turning a new, young startup into a big client.
Yeah, that’s an exciting possibility for sure.
And for the very special clients, you might bend to “think like a consultant” and be just as agile as the startup team is. Accelerate timelines, pull people off other projects if you have to, change up the talent that’s working on the account or whatever. Startups respond to that energy and commitment. That’s the world where they’re coming from. Everyone’s working all the time and not using standard timelines or anything like that. Look, I don’t think that’s sustainable and it may not be healthy for managing the relationship well in the long run, but if you can at least adopt that mindset, while setting some boundaries, I think that will get you further with certain high-growth startup clients.
You nailed it. It’s all those things. Figuring out how to be agile, manage the relationship, manage expectations, work within the constraints, do great work and blow them away.
One recent good agency experience I should mention is that they came in with a playbook. It was, “We meet once a week, this is what we send out on Fridays, here are the two platforms we use, we know what we’re doing.” And if I look back on the whole vetting process we went through before bringing them on board, I realize that their answers about how they manage the relationship in a tactical way was completely consistent from my first meeting with them all the way through to after we signed the contract and we were working with them on projects. It was, “OK, this is what we’ve been telling you for the past six weeks through the pitch process, this is how we work.” You can’t say, oh we want something different or we want to meet three times a week. They knew their own best way of working, and the owner of the agency manages her people that way too. Those kind of steady guardrails are very helpful when the startup client zigzags.
And transparent... and they set your expectations.
Right. Which is totally opposite from what I just said to you about being agile and flexible (laughs). Sorry.
Well, maybe there’s a happy medium in there. There’s something to be said for both styles. Maybe they’re just too different styles that are both viable.
Yes, I’ve worked with so many different kinds of agencies. For real creative agencies like yours that might be harder to be more rigid. Or it might be harder for the client to understand that some rigidity is healthy. It might be worthwhile to deconstruct your best relationships and see what worked and then try to apply that to startups.
Yeah, well even having something like a guide when you first start the relationship that says, “Here’s how we work.” I haven’t heard of agencies doing this, but it would be helpful.
And as you know, startups are so chaotic, they may rise to the occasion and appreciate the consistency. The weekly status meeting is a good example of that. At first it might feel like, “Wow, I can’t talk to our account manager again until next week?” But then the weeks go by so fast, the company is gaining momentum and the weekly meeting gets built into the company’s weekly cadence and you start to plan around it - which is a natural way for a startup to build out its flesh and bones. And that helps the agency become part of the startup’s natural rhythm.
Fantastic. Well, thanks so much for talking with me today.
Shane Reilly is an entrepreneurial leader who’s spent her career bringing new products to market and building new brands from scratch. She has founded, scaled and sold two ecommerce/ marketplace startups with both online and offline experiences. She has also served as a marketing leader at high-growth technology companies. Shane lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and kids.