Emotive Brand Co-Founder on Evolving a Business and the Challenge of Change

A little over nine years ago, Bella Banbury and I started Emotive Brand on a bit of a whim. Now, almost 10 years later, we have 20 people in our company. We’re recognized as a top agency in the strategy and branding world. CEOs of companies seek us out to achieve transformative shifts in their business. People hire us because they’ve been reading our content for years. Agencies around the world cite our content as smart and forward thinking. We didn’t expect all of this. We just started our agency and that was that.

The cobbler’s children DO have shoes

As we reach our double-digits, we’re turning the tables. It’s time for us to do some reflection and strategy work of our own. So we’re putting ourselves through the very methodology we use with our clients and we’re eager to see what shakes out. Our agency has become the client.

The first feeling I had was, “Holy shit. This is tough!” It’s hard to face the realities of change and the future. It’s hard to decide what you want, where you want to be, and how you will get there. I have more empathy for our clients right now than I ever have.

Along this journey, I’ll be sharing some thoughts with you. We’ll no doubt glean new insights about ourselves, but also learn things that we want our clients to know, too. Here’s where I’m at 2 months in.

Change is hard

Until someone asks you to question some fundamental things about your business, you don’t know what ‘hard’ really means. I get it now. The rational brain wants to analyze. Look at the numbers. Understand the trends. For me, this is the easy part. The numbers don’t lie and it’s important to take the time to really understand what they are saying. So I naturally thought this was the end. I was ready to start making the change.

But even when the facts tell a very clear story, your emotions can stand in the way of change. Yes, I am talking about fear, uncertainty, and doubt. It’s easy to focus on the rational needs for change. I didn’t realize the major role emotions play in any change process. It’s human nature. If I felt this way, our clients for sure must feel the same way.

We talk a lot about empathy at Emotive Brand. This process we are undergoing is opening my eyes to what it takes to have the courage to initiate changes in your business. I see now that we also need to help our clients get through the emotional hurdles to change. We need to give them the time and the emotional support they need to evolve their business and themselves.

Being agile is not as easy as it appears

Our clients’ timelines are shrinking. They need their projects completed faster than seems reasonable. So we’ve adapted. We’ve created a methodology that is agile. We work in sprints. We’ve realized we can develop strategy and branding at a pace we never thought possible – and still deliver smart work. But, what is always interesting, is that when we hear our clients say “fast”, intentions don’t always equal reality. Working quickly isn’t just a challenge for us, it’s really difficult for our clients too. They struggle to meet their own high-pressured deadlines. In the end, it’s difficult for some of them to keep pace with our agency and our ability to move quickly.

So it was pretty funny when, during our first sprint on our own internal project, we ourselves got in the way of delivering on our own “agile” project. The second lesson learned: moving fast is hard. More than twice, we put our own strategy project on hold to focus on our clients’ strategy projects. It begs the question: “How do we help our clients do their job, meet their own business deadlines, and move their strategy project forward?”

We’ve created a process to help our clients understand the time they need to devote to work with us, from meetings and workshops, to rounds of review and circulating deliverables internally for approval. When we develop a project plan, we always ask our clients about major events in their world that may impact our work together. We know we can enable clients to move at the speed they want. It just takes time – devoted time. Wish we had taken our own advice on this one. Without a solid project plan in place, almost everything can stop it in its tracks.

Building alignment is personal

We know firsthand change is hard. And moving fast is not always easy. But how do we manage these speed bumps and, at the same time, align a leadership team around the difficult shifts that transformation requires? Iteration. Putting the cycles in. We’ll go backward and forward as much as is needed to build consensus. We work to ensure everyone feels that their voices were heard to reach agreement and, ultimately, alignment.

How? We’ve developed frameworks that surface up gaps in alignment and facilitate discussions to hammer things out. This allows us to appeal to individual personalities and ensure people are truly honest with their feelings and opinions. We’ve excelled at doing this with our clients. In fact, we’ve built our reputation and agency on this activity.

But, again, it was much harder to do for ourselves. While tools and frameworks help facilitate available options and reinforce smart strategy, they don’t take into account the human side. People process things differently and at different speeds. They require different ways to evaluate options and opportunities. Sometimes their role in the organization can create blind spots. And people in different roles can easily view things through a siloed lens.

Only when we acknowledge these lenses and map personal roles back up the organization’s overall needs can we facilitate the group and reach full alignment. Without the alignment of a leadership team, there’s nothing. No moving forward. No change. And no successful transformation.

Strategy and branding moving forward

As we look to evolve our own agency, I’ll keep you updated on our progress. I’ll share what I learn and how that affects the experience, tools, and processes we use in the future with our clients. What we do for our clients is hard work. But now we know firsthand what the struggles our clients endure feel like. And I’m trying to use this experience to do better, be better, and deliver better on behalf of our clients.

Stay tuned.

Emotive Brand is a San Francisco strategy and branding agency.

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