No funding? No experience? No team? No worries!

Article originally featured on Virgin’s entrepreneur blog… 

Charlie Thuillier, founder of new healthy ice cream ‘Oppo’, explains how to ask a global agency to articulate your brand for you without having to stump up a hefty fee…
Most entrepreneurs know your brand isn’t just your logo and a collection of pantone colours. It’s what other people think or say about you when you’re not in the room. And that depends on absolutely everything you and your company does.

So what perception do you want your audience to have? Can you sum up your essence and reason for being in three words? If you’re not totally clear on this (and I wasn’t), you need to work on what your brand really is to make sure you have the best chance of resonating with the people you want to buy your product.

I quit my graduate job at Diageo in September 2012, aged 23, and decided to start a company making healthy ice cream. I found myself needing to speak to a branding agency who could distill our passion and ethos into something our audience would relate to. But agencies are usually expensive. And I didn’t have any money. Actually at that point I didn’t have a product either, and no team. I just had an idea, lots of enthusiasm, and a large dose of innocent naivety. I needed a brand to help focus my product development and show to potential buyers and investors I was serious. Here’s how I approached it and the lessons learnt.

I selected seven of the UK’s most respected agencies and cold-called them all. I spoke to each decision maker and explained my concept, the founding story (Kite Buggy Adventure), my current position, and just asked for a meeting. Incredibly, four said yes. So I put on a suit, travelled down to London and pitched.

Having no cash turns the sales job round to you. I realized that it was my job to understand how I could help to solve any needs the agency had. My approach was to ask lots of questions: what were their goals? What would they love to have creatively but don’t? What would their ideal client be? It’s not always appropriate to ask all these questions, but you’ll want to learn as much as you can.

You can never actually expect to get everything for ‘free’ – that’s unrealistic and rude. Think what you can offer in return, if not money. What might the agency want – what do their existing clients lack? As a start-up you’re lucky – you have opportunities no other business has. My negotiation arsenal was: equity, future dividend payments, flexible working, future paid work, PR for the agency, opportunity for complete autonomy over the project design and therefore design awards.

There was also chemistry – some agencies seemed to be open to the idea of helping a young entrepreneur with massive passion. I was asking for help, and they were in a position to give it.

I found my favourite one agency:
1. Only had large clients. Clients who had many creative directors and managers standing over the agency’s shoulders suggesting, tweaking, and watering down their creations. The agency said how amazing it would be if they felt they could be creative (what they are good at!) and explore all options.
2. Found it a luxury to build a brand from the ground and design around that, not design around an existing brand.
3. Didn’t always see profit as the primary concern.
4. Wanted a refreshing project.
5. Wanted to win design awards.

Once I understood their needs, I knew what I could offer in return.

I couldn’t offer upfront payment so we agreed a percentage of dividend payments over the next few years, with no equity. I allowed them to do some pretty radical stuff with the packaging and experiment – and obviously take all credit in design awards.

I felt I wanted to do the copy/brand identity, but they could do the visuals. In return the agency ended up giving they gave me a desk in their office for a few months, articulated the Oppo story and ethos into a recognizable brand, designed the tubs, and logo, design, and let me bounce far too many ideas off them and annoy them around the office! It was a fantastic relationship that still works today and I’m eternally grateful for that. They were fantastic.

Remember, you’re doing something that you’re deadly passionate about, that you love, and that you massively really believe in. When you’re speaking to an agency you should be able to enthuse them and get people to believe in your idea just as much as you do. You should be aiming to get the decision maker to a stage where they can’t wait to start.

The most important point to remember is that you’re a start-up with no money. The absolute worst thing you can do is act like a conventional client who does have money – think outside the box and imagine yourself in the agency’s shoes: why might they want to work with you? Good luck!