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Thrive is set up by Funding London, a venture capital company bridging the finance gap for early stage businesses based in London. With over a decade’s experience in supporting the startups of London through a variety of funding vehicles, Funding London sensed a need to illuminate the ever-evolving scenario of London’s early stage businesses.

Thrive features interviews with and opinion from budding entrepreneurs, investors and industry experts. A mix of contributors from all areas of the industry is desired in order to spark genuine discussion about ongoing critical issues. While it showcases the effectiveness of successful ventures, it also encourages sharing lessons learned from missteps and unsuccessful projects.

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Perceptions · 5 June '18

Spot the difference: global mega-brand vs the disruptive start-up

Ask Us For Ideas, also known as AUFI, is a business that helps brands of all scales connect with best-in-class creative agencies for projects of an almost infinite nature. A creative broker, if you like, who knows the agency landscape better than anyone else.

As an SME or ambitious start-up, DIY branding no longer cuts it. The good news? Engaging with a world class design agency is not quite as out of reach as you might think.

At AUFI we’ve been lucky enough to have worked with a mammoth array of companies, from market defining brands like Google, Spotify and Casper, through to industry-challenging start-ups like Voyage, Burst Oral Care, and the beat-making wizards Roli.

On paper these companies are all immeasurably different: They likely have often contrasting cultural agendas, operate in very different markets and have employee rosters ranging in size from 8 to 88,000. Spotting the difference isn’t that hard. There is one thing however that unifies the most successful of them: they value the power of a well-crafted creative solution and arrive at our door with the same question — which agencies are the best, and how do we connect with them?

Both these types of companies want access to the same design teams, the A-Team, yet one can seemingly afford them and has engaged them for years, and the other may feel they can’t. A top-tier design firm’s fees for a properly considered piece of brand strategy and identity work may start at £25,000 and often scale to ten times that number. Surely this is out of reach for a start-up, particularly at seed level? This question has lit a fire in us.

Prove yourself and install confidence in a creative Agency Partner as early as possible.

Geoff Cook, partner at Base Design is cowboy-quick to point out the power of design as a genuine business differentiator: ‘Something that is being discussed a great deal here in NYC is the importance for early-stage companies to establish their own voices. Many underestimate this and are getting generic solutions that are not reflective of their brands. It is important for companies to express themselves through unique identities, personalities, and attitudes as, like with people, every company is different.’

Geoff also gets that this newer breed of company can’t always match the budgets or cash-flow flexibility of the more established brands but recognises top-class branding is no longer a luxury afforded only by household brands. It’s becoming something actually required by anyone truly looking to disrupt or define a market — “What IBM’s Thomas Watson said in 1973 holds true today: ‘Good design is good business.’ We believe the earlier that design is part of a company’s DNA, the better. If founders and CEOs believe in the value of good design, the compensation can always be figured out.”

Everyone’s a winner

Seeing a company with huge potential not be able to work with the agencies we know will be the best partner, is both heart-breaking and clearly a missed opportunity in equal measure. It’s exactly this conundrum that lead us to explore whether there’s another way – a modern way – that looks at how Agencies and these disruptive-mega-brands-of-tomorrow can engage as early as possible and both still benefit.

To our delight, it was already happening.

A small number of these particularly innovative agencies are using their creativity to produce a win-win situation for both their clients and themselves. These agencies are already making a huge difference to several smart start-ups – helping to define a brand’s purpose, strategy, personality, and in the process asking the difficult questions that turn a good idea into a great one.

To do this, agencies have to look beyond the need for a straight fees-for-service swap and view the bigger picture: Can equity be swapped for design time in-lieu of a part of their fee? If done right it means the agency will share in the success of the brand they’ve built, and therefore are more incentivised than ever to do great work.

Some agencies have embraced this model wholeheartedly and are reaping the rewards. Gin Lane, an NY based Brand and Digital studio have taken small, strategic equity positions in over two dozen start-ups, of whom have a current collective market value over $5b USD.

To them though, as important as the ‘who’ they’ll invest in is the ‘when’ — “We almost never engage with a business pre-raise, as it’s too risky. We believe the entrepreneurs should have a vetted business model before we dedicate months of our time and resources towards their concept. If they can do this, they can raise enough [through investors] to work with a business of our calibre, and we can then focus on building out world-class branding, communication and products.”

Niall Henry, Founder of London based icoDesign takes this partnership model one step further, or rather earlier, and has proven numerous times that there is an opportunity to work with these brands ahead of a raise, rather than afterwards.

“Success depends on many factors — credibility, speed to market, funding, R&D and strong branding. Convincing investors to back your idea before acquiring a single customer, requires considerable effort. Whilst private equity firms are flush with funds, ironically it is a lack of finances that encourages start-ups to focus on having an Investor Deck made, not a brand. This is often a false economy and short sighted. Why give away 20% for £80,000 when, with a more developed investment case and a brand in place, one could lower this to 10% for £100,000?”

A great case study for this is Burst, an Oral Care Subscription service that partnered with icoDesign ahead of seeking funds. The result of this collaboration was a robust and challenged business plan, an ownable and unique identity, a sharpened user journey and finally – a considerably accelerated market valuation by their new investors. The risk Niall and his team took in carrying out the work before being paid in full has paid out in spades (soon to be dividends) as they’re now partners in the business themselves.

Picking the right agency is not easy, but it is heroically important. It can be both daunting and confusing to start an agency search process with no real handle on where to price a budget, and even more so when you get knocked back by agencies repeatedly for being underfunded. We’ve spent time building relationships with a collection of the world’s best creative agencies and believe we have the right agency for everyone. Whether it be one who works most effectively with the Fortune 500, or one that is flexible enough to build a relationship with a challenger brand. ‘Good Design is Good Business’ – so don’t spend time on a flashy investor deck to convince people you’ve got a brand – partner smartly with an agency to build a solid offering and a considered identity – then go raise real money, with a real product and real, tangible value.