Equity in lieu of fee — what I’ve learnt

Why part owning a brand gives you a unique perspective on your own firm.

Recently we agreed a deal with Sam Trett to take a share in his gin brand Minus 33 (minus33.co.uk) in lieu of fee. It’s a big enough share to make us take it seriously. And we’re now involved in every decision around brand and marketing with Sam. In fact, I’m sure Sam wouldn't mind me saying that we’re pretty much the Marketing Department.

So, how it works is that I sit on the board with Sam and his investors and we’re (Good) responsible for all the brand marketing elements. From strategy and planning through to packaging and the website. 

It’s enjoyable (and beneficial) to get to the front lines of another business. To see things from another, broader perspective. One of the reasons we decided to do this in the first place (other than believing in Sam and his product) was the learnings we’ll get.  And how this will make us a better, more understanding and intuitive partner for clients in the future.

But something has stood out for me since taking the role on. Having ‘skin in the game’ gives you a different perspective on your own firm, and the work or advice you give to your clients.

Now, Minus 33 is a start up and is in that difficult loop of needing high quality brand and digital thinking, but without the budget to pay. So, although we’re happy to work in lieu of fee, we’re not absorbing the hard costs too. Many of the deliverables cost money too (e.g. packaging tubes) and that’s where we need to be creative about the decisions we make. You need to think twice as hard to avoid cost at every turn.

So, what have we learned?

1. You have to account for the money invested.

When we were planning some online advertising investment as a test, I found myself pushing the digital team for specifics. Asking them to commit to uplifts in online sales from an online spend. It was tricky. I could see the agency and client perspective. The agency wanted to avoid being held to a hard number, but the client wants (and needs) a number. It’s to go in a spreadsheet that will be presented at a meeting with the investors. I was at the same meeting. Everyone would look at me and ask questions of that number. 

We’re big believers in accounting for spend, and advocates for effective design - always have been. But that experience of dealing with small numbers with little margin for error, and a feeling that it’s my arse on the line, not the client’s. That's new. And it gives you a renewed respect for your clients that have to do it week in, week out.

2. The Taj Mahal syndrome is rife.

We have a saying for something that’s over worked. We call it Taj Mahal-ing. The saying came about from the fact that creative, passionate agency people often want to design and build the Taj Mahal. They do this even when the brief is for a garden shed. As an agency owner, it’s something you have to watch as it leads to over servicing and inefficiency. Not to mention inflated client expectations on the next project!

But, with my client hat on, I can see the agency still straining at the leash to deliver something of high quality. Even if the request is relatively insignificant, can be solved in no time and at next to no cost. My reflection here is; we’re still doing the same for clients on a daily basis. I suppose that might be the problem with running a consultancy that always aims to deliver great work. Sometimes good really is good enough.

3. The importance of focus.

When you’re new and the whole world looks like an opportunity, you have to remember you just can’t do it all. And, in our Minus 33 journey thus far, I think that this is the issue that has raised its head more than any other.

So, although we all rationally understand the process of prioritisation, we as an agency are insulated from the reality of it when offering this kind of cliched advice to our clients. For them, it’s a cold bath every time they have to force themselves and their team to turn away from potential opportunity. It’s the price they pay to ensure that the bigger picture priority is taken care of. Having co-founded the agency and now helping Sam do the same with Minus 33, I’m certain that this discipline of ‘focus’ is a key for success in getting any business off the ground.

In our case that meant dealing with the basics of creating one pack and secondary tube, along with a well-functioning website. At the time these priorities outranked sexy agency suggestions such as flavoured variants, cross category expansion and expensive trade show stands.

This focus will pay dividends later. When it comes to considering brand extensions, or NPD - we’ll have a clarity of thought and a roadmap for success. Happy days.

So, as we grow and develop Minus 33, I know that this experience is good for me and the agency clients. To twist a well known phrase: ‘don’t criticise a client, until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes’. I’m not at the mile marker quite yet, but I’ve certainly taken my first steps.