Can creativity boost a startup?

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A London-based creative agency has launched a venture arm to help targeted, pre-seed companies with branding and strategic planning. But at what stage should startups enlist the services of brand strategists?

To be honest, it’s not a topic that comes up often. A 40-minute video call or a face-to-face meeting over a cup of coffee can go a long way. Business models, marketing strategy, growth plans and fundraising. These are all topics founders usually like to discuss when I interview them for this column.

Discussions about branding and brand strategy are much less common and perhaps that is not surprising. Hiring the services of a creative agency to help with branding and strategic planning costs money. And for very early-stage companies, getting in touch with an agency may not be a priority, especially if they’re struggling to pay staff and keep the lights on.

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A creative “supercharge”

“There are a lot of consultants and VCs out there,” says Will Whiting, co-founder of creative agency, Justified studio. “And many people can put creativity low on the list. But creativity can give a startup a boost.”

Earlier this month — May 15, to be exact — the agency announced plans to bring its services within reach of a greater number of pre-seed startups. With the launch of a new division – called Justified Ventures – the company offers brand strategy support in exchange for equity.

When I caught up with Whiting and co-founder, Luke Patton, I was eager to discuss the role creative agencies can play in helping startup companies connect with their target markets.

As Whiting explains, Justified Studio was founded four years ago to leverage the disciplines of strategy, design, and technology to support “disruptive” organizations. That doesn’t necessarily mean the agency focuses entirely on early-stage companies — Google Labs is one of its clients — but Patton and Whiting have a particular interest in working with founders. Hence the foundation of Justified Ventures.

“We believe in a lot of the founders out there,” he says. “But many start-up companies lack capital.” Hence the brand strategy equity offering – an approach the company quietly developed prior to the official launch of Justified Ventures.

How does it work? Well, candidates are judged on their leadership teams, product, market and return potential. However, Whiting and Patton also say they are looking for startups with targeted business models.

Goal oriented

What does purpose mean in this context? Patton says there are a number of criteria. “Does it have a social impact? Does it have an impact on the environment? Does it have an educational impact?” he says. “That’s what we’re looking for. It is up to us to evaluate the impact.”

As Patton and Whiting see it, the creative process can extend to product ideation. In other cases, a founder already has a clear idea of ​​the product and its commercial potential. It is then the role of the creative agency to help articulate the problem and solution by developing a story or manifesto. “Then you go on to develop the brand,” adds Patton.

An example of early stage development is the video-first apparel marketplace, finds, which was supported by Justified in terms of concept development, design and branding.

Help with financing

In addition to paving the way to market, Whiting says the work of a brand strategy firm can also help pre-seed startups secure the funding they need by crafting a plan that grabs the attention of VCs.

Indeed, as Patton explains, Justified encourages founders to ask themselves some of the questions that will later be asked by venture capitalists. For example, is the value proposition fully understood and is the right team present? And what about the market? Is it already saturated and if so, how do you get a grip?

Fair enough, but equality is not given away lightly. As a startup grows, successive rounds of investment inevitably dilute the shareholding of the original founders, and that’s not always a comfortable process. Yes, everyone knows the logic. Half a share in a large company is better than 100 percent in a small company, but founders don’t want to give up more equity than they need to.

So what about trading equity for creativity? “There has been a lot of back and forth discussion about how much equity the founders want to give away,” says Whiting. “But if the value we add offsets the cost,” then it’s a good deal.

“This is a mutually beneficial situation,” Patton added. “We are invested in the companies and we want them to succeed.”

Whether a startup benefits from the early involvement of a creative strategy and branding agency probably depends on the circumstances. Many founders will be clear about the product, branding, and go-to-market strategy from the start. Execution on these fronts may indeed represent a personal superpower. Others could benefit from some thorough strategic planning and design work. Whatever the circumstances, the branding and strategy issues that agencies like Justified are tackling are worth considering as soon as possible for future planning.