Should Agencies Work With Startups?

Most agencies that I know of, have been approached at one time or another by a startup, wishing or needing to have proper branding and marketing materials. And in most cases, the client does not have the funds that an established client, be they a private sector company or large not-for-profit, might have access to.

What does one do? How does one decide whether to enter into a relationship with this kind of client?

I don’t have the perfect or universal answer. Just a set of framing questions that might help both the agency and the startup decide whether this is the right fit.

  1. Passion:  Do you feel an innate passion for the idea?

 Last year, we were approached by a startup in Montreal led by a 19-year old tech prodigy, who had just returned from an investment-raising trip to Silicon Valley. Just his very youth and presumed brilliance were enough for us to take the meeting.

He came to our affiliate’s office in Montreal to meet with us, and sure enough, he was uniquely impressive. Sharp, impatient, kinetic — he could barely sit still and his eyes darted about the room as he spoke like he was recording every physical detail while being entirely present to our conversation. And he had done his homework, having researched and spoken to a number of the top agencies in Montreal before including a few from Toronto as well.

But the idea, a well-designed wearable technology, just didn’t captivate our attention. I can’t even tell you why; perhaps we were not discerning enough to see its potential. He had no real budget for strategy, messaging or branding – although he needed it badly. (Tech wizards are notoriously bad at speaking intelligibly to lesser humans like us, including investors.) But the meeting faded fairly quickly from our minds as we went onto other things. An idea you have passion for will not let go of you. It will tug at you, enter your conversations, distract you from less interesting topics…

  1. Trust: Do the people behind the idea pass the ‘smell test’?

Any smart agency or consulting firm will do its homework and research (both online and through professional networks) a startup that it’s interested in partnering up with. But even beyond that, we must trust our instincts. If you leave a meeting and get that ‘not quite right’ feeling, even though the idea sounds like a ‘game changer’ or license to print money, do not suppress that instinct. If it tells you to slow down or opt out, listen.

  1. Category Literacy: Do you or key members of your team have genuine competence in the category?

If the idea is, let’s say, an innovative new nutrition regimen based on coconut water that purports to fill a gap in the marketplace, then do you have team members or trusted advisors who have unequivocal expertise in the area of nutrition? Category literacy and familiarity is essential. Otherwise, you may believe claims that are not substantiated, or misinterpret terms and data that will adversely affect your decision-making.

  1. Strategy:  Are they willing to invest in strategy?

I would never, ever, take on a new startup client who is dismissive about the need for strategy – both brand strategy and a communications framework. Whether they have the money to pay full price for it or not, is less important than whether they deem it necessary or beneficial. Unless they have somehow done it themselves and done it well (I have never seen this happen, by the way), their investment and yours should be contingent upon conducting a disciplined strategy process to uncover their unique DNA and narrative. Any client who foregoes this kind of foundational work in today’s day and age deserves what they get.

Startups are often less well versed in how to work with an agency, require more serious hand-holding and often need you to cut your fees or make a financial arrangement where you exchange fees for points or some other kind of participation. In other words, they are high-risk endeavors. Manage the risk by insisting upon strategy. Strategy improves aim. Great aim wins tournaments.

In next week’s post, we’ll view this topic from the startup’s perspective, outlining a thought process for how an entrepreneur might go about choosing an agency…

– W.