Top Agencies for Startups: 2014 Edition
There are very few agencies that wouldn’t jump at the chance to land a blue chip brand — a well-recognized and successful company that maybe needs a brand refresh or a new campaign to boost its Q4 sales.
This is the gold standard for many eager, young agencies.
But what if you had the chance to transform a nobody — a company without name recognition or even customers, a startup that is just trying to keep things running until the end of the first quarter.
Working with a startup with a good product — or even a good idea — is attracting more and more agencies. There’s more on the line, and there’s more opportunity to make an actual difference. And agencies are using small budgets to jumpstart these brands, provide market validation, and build a customer or user base.
This year’s Top Agencies for Startups do more than marketing: They provide guidance on business issues and educate founders on how and why marketing matters. They craft stories and images that are compelling to both journalists and potential customers.
These agencies understand the type of action-oriented and results-focused marketing startups need.
Here are the 2014 top 10 agencies for startups:
Agencies are listed in no particular order.
Based in Denver, Colorado, 104 West is a public relations firm that has worked with startups such as HiveLive, Webroot, GoldieBlox, Digital Chocolate, and 3Crowd. The company provides a wide range of services, including media training, strategy and messaging development, product or service launches, influencer campaigns, and analyst relations. The staff finds working with startups exciting as it gives them the chance to shape a company’s story.
When asked what type of relationship is necessary for a startup-agency partnership, Patrick Ward, CEO, stated that trust is the most important element.
“A founder or founding team has their vision blurred by their own ambition and confidence,” Ward said. “Their PR partner has to tell them truths that aren’t always what they want to hear. If a relationship of trust hasn’t been established, valuable counsel may never be heard.”
He also emphasized that agencies need to be open to changing as a startup’s budget, needs, and even its market changes — often.
104 West recently worked to reposition video software company Magisto, which found itself competing with Instagram and Twitter (Vine) when the social media giants added video capabilities. By creating a story about Magisto’s long-form video capabilities and the need for more features and customization, the agency helped the service attract more than 45 million users.
On the difference between traditional and startup clients, Ward pointed out the difference between maintenance and creation. “Think of the difference as a motor boat versus a sailboat,” Ward said. “With one, you have a good idea of the speed and the distance you can cover. It’s a question of management. A startup is more like a sailboat: The market winds are sometimes predictable, but often not, and it takes creativity and ingenuity to get where you’re going.”
Odysseus Arms uses freelance creative and specialists to create a stellar team for each brand project. The agency prides itself on being cost-efficient, agile, and spending time sourcing talent, not shopping for chandeliers. Located in San Francisco, the hotbed of the startup industry, Odysseus Arms has also worked with more established companies, and it partners with agencies on projects.
“You have to be somewhat radical or partially nuts to do a startup, so there’s rarely a dull moment,” said Franklin Tipton, a founder of the agency. “The startup momentum and enthusiasm is intoxicating. When we work with a big company, the marketing budget and the overall process is part of an automated process. When you partner with a startup, the money is much more dear.”
OUYA, an open-sourced game console, raised $8.5 million through a Kickstarter campaign in 2012. It then worked with Odysseus Arms to spark a conversation among hardcore gamers and encourage the development of new games. The agency created an animated test video that attacked the leading video game consoles and released it to an insider audience first. With more than 1 million blog impressions in less than 48 hours, the video ignited a conversation about OUYA and the gaming industry.
On building a relationship with startups, Tipton said: “Empathy is really important. You need to break the mission or product down to find that which is true — that which will rock the universe. We spend a bunch of time doing this, which leads to high levels of trust. That trust leads to certainty when we propose an idea that may be so bold, so disruptive, it can be difficult to buy off on. But the trust is there, along with track record, so we find the courage to do what needs to be done.”
Onboardly works specifically with startups to plan and execute content marketing and PR campaigns to drive customer growth through online channels. The agency has created a specific process, outlined in its startup Adventure Map.
It labels itself as the “startup for startups,” and has worked with clients such as Clarity, Zaptap, BeauCoo, and Influitive.
For the launch of 15Five, a SaaS company that gives managers the ability to ask for weekly reports that take the employee no more than 15 minutes to answer and require no more than 5 minutes of reading for the manager, Onboardly worked with 15Five founder David Hassell to position him as a thought leader on productivity and employee engagement. It helped grow the company’s blog and landed high-profile guest contributors.
“Startups are looking for ways to prove traction to investors and are generally operating on borrowed capital with a short runway — time is always of the essence and results are imperative for their survival,” said Renee Warren, co-founder of Onboardly.
It’s also important for agencies to have a deep understanding of the business side of the startup: customer acquisition costs, churn, monthly recurring revenue, and ROI.
“It’s not just about ‘spending this year’s marketing budget,’” Warren said. “It’s about getting and keeping paying customers first.”
Located in New York, Avec focuses on design to bring products and services to life.
“In the startup world, the brand is primarily rooted in how a product works and feels, then how it looks,” said Camillia BenBassat, founder and creative director of Avec. “The product experience design and the brand are one in the same.”
The studio has worked with clients such as Fathom, Guest of a Guest, Zola, Thrillist, GroupMe, and Bauble Bar.
Avec worked with Food52, a website that brings together home cooks and artisans who share recipes and exchange ideas, to transform the site’s digital presence. It was originally focused on recipe searching, and the team wanted to build a digital presence that would foster community involvement and conversation. The James Beard Foundation named Food52 Publication of the Year in 2012.
“For us, working with startups feels like a return to the ‘maker movement’ — meaning that we actually get to be a part of making something: building a product, a business, a brand,” BenBassat said. “As a company that works closely alongside our clients, we see the working relationship as a partnership, and we want to cultivate a deep understanding of the business, finding the critical spot where strategy and concept connect. This is where innovation grows.”
You might not believe that a 62-year-old agency would attract the startup entrepreneurs of today, but good branding and design are timeless, and founders are looking for expertise and advice. The agency has worked with startups around the country, including Keen IO, Tie Society, Screwpulp, Quire, and Wannado. By offering reduced fees or securing equity in the company, early-stage brands are able to tap into the expertise of a talented agency staff at a price they can afford.
“There’s a fascinating overlap in what startups need for success and what agencies have historically been great at doing,” said Patrick Woods, director of archer>malmo ventures. “Developing a brand, going to market, and driving user acquisition are all massively important to a startup’s success. As it turns out, agencies are good not only at those activities, but also at generating big, creative ideas that have tangible impact on a startup’s bottom line.”
Archer>malmo ventures worked with Tie Society on its visual identity and positioning so that it can “own” the necktie. And it used more traditional methods – direct mailers and drop-ship cards — along with a call-to-action to visit the brand’s site to generate interest and acquire customers.
Startups are just like most other clients, but there is a key difference:
“A crucial reality agency partners must understand about working with startups is that the agency’s work can literally be the difference between a startup succeeding and failing,” Woods said. “Personality, voice, key messages, and go-to-market strategies are crucial for clarifying competitive positions and building loyalty with early users. If an agency’s campaign for a startup is successful, that could mean the realization of much-needed revenue, or landing a meeting with a key investor to fund the next stage of growth.”
With offices in Atlanta, Georgia, and Austin, Texas, Write2Market specializes in B2B public relations in a variety of industries — including technology, venture and private equity, healthcare, and ecommerce and retail.
Lisa Calhoun founded the company in 2003 and serves as CEO. On working with startups, Calhoun said: “Startups express the soul of what’s changing the world in a pure way. They do not have long-term reference clients and multi-levels of management red tape, so you can deliver a message and a market vision in its purest form, and even measure it from a pure baseline.”
Write2Market’s client list includes startups such as CallRail, InfoTycoon, Variable Technologies, FaceDeals, and Visible Health.
Variable Technologies hired Write2Market to market its wireless sensor platform for smart devices — NODE. Within a week, David Pogue of Yahoo Tech and Steven Levy of Wired were interviewing the founder, George Yu. The agency also built up buzz around the product at the Consumer Electronics Show, where CNN Money declared the product as the “coolest gizmo at 2013 CES.”
Calhoun stressed that “messaging has to come ‘fast and furious’” when working with startups, as market feedback often determines the direction of the company, and this isn’t always aligned with pre-determined media and messaging plans.
“It’s like building Camelot instead of another Chicago suburb,” Calhoun said.
Command Partners is a digital marketing agency in Charlotte, North Carolina. One of its specialties is working with startups to develop and launch crowdfunding campaigns on Kickstarter or Indiegogo. The agency has worked with COOKOO watch, Glowing Plant, and Elroy.
“Helping our clients launch their new endeavors reminds us that passion can bring great ideas to the public, and if we market them correctly, we can bring that passion to life,” said Roy Morejon, president of Command Partners.
HEXO+, an intelligent drone that connects to a mobile device, had already raised the $50,000 it needed to build the drones. Command Partners was engaged in the project to manage media requests, build awareness, and gain the momentum of the campaign. The HEXO+ crowdfunding campaign raised more than $1.3 million, which is 2,613% of its original goal.
“Startups are looking for two things: an agency that has been successful with new launches and new ideas in the past, and an agency that understands the startup life,” Morejon said. “Bringing both of these together provides startups with something that a traditional agency can’t provide: a partner who will help them through each step of the marketing climb.
Awesome’s focus is on creating user interfaces and digital products for startups. The New York-based agency has worked with more than 80 startups, including Art Binder, Waderfly, Udemy, Skift, and Thought Catalog.
“The two most important parts of our client relationships are transparency and collaboration,” said Firat Parlak, president of Awesome. “Our engagements thrive on open communication and a constant flow of ideas. We never stifle a client’s creativity, and encourage all teams to work together to be successful.”
Datemyschool’s founders worked with Awesome to create the desktop, iOS, Android, and tablet design for the dating site. Since it’s launch, the community has more than 880,000 users.
Parlak enjoys working with lean, agile companies, saying, “Larger agencies do not always get to see their work implemented, but the startup cycle lends to a quick turnaround time and usable metrics. Seeing post-design user acquisition increase is how we know we have created a successful product.”
With a client roster that includes Aereo, Coursera, iHeartRadio, Acquia, and American Giant, LaunchSquad has a proven history of helping brands become household names.
“While the narratives range far and wide, the one common thread is that all of our clients have compelling stories to share,” said founder Jason Throckmorton. “We love working with startups because they are filled with the passion, drive, and determination to improve their industry — and sometimes, to create an entirely new one.”
LaunchSquad worked with Evernote from its launch through 2012, helping to grow the platform to serve more than 100 million users and earning it the title of Inc. Magazine’s “Company of the Year” in 2011.
“PR agencies can and should offer more than just earned media execution for startups; a core part of the relationship should be about educating them about the when, why, and how,” Throckmorton said. “Startups need to look holistically at the market and see where they fit in, and an agency serves as the guiding light for them along this journey.
Condensed is a branding agency for startups, helping them to develop or refine their identity. Located in Brooklyn, New York, the agency developed the visuals for Aqua Aid, BOLLYX, and Once Upon A Holiday.
Condensed also worked with Tough Mudder — an extreme athletic event where mud- and sweat-covered participants climb walls and shimmy through tubes. But this obstacle-style fitness event wasn’t always so popular. The agency worked with Will Dean and Guy Livingstone, two Harvard School Business graduates, to sketch logo concepts in 2010. It’s now a well-known and very profitable business: 3.5 million people raced the obstacle course in 2013. Condensed was the company’s AOR for four years.
“Our main goal with each startup is to become a part of their team. If they succeed, we succeed,” said Teresa Lagerman, founder and director of operations. “At times we end up being the voice of reason, offering a solution that has worked for us in the past. Other times we push startups to do something more innovative than what they had in mind. Because we have been with our clients from their very beginning stages, the relationships that we build are very special.”