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‘VCs tell founders to work with us’: how TwentyFirstCenturyBrand is winning with startups

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By Sam Bradley | Senior Reporter

July 12, 2022 | 8 min read

In turbulent times, the startup and venture capital sector is proving to be the safest bet for TwentyFirstCenturyBrand, the agency set up by ex-Airbnb and TBWA\Chiat\Day execs.

Young office workers brainstorm in the boardroom of a start-up

Neil Barrie and Jonathan Mildenhall’s brand consultancy deals with many startup clients / Unsplash

For agencies that know how to solve their problems, and that understand the mentality of a fast-growth business, the startup and venture capital sector can be a source of quality clientele. And increasingly, those businesses are looking to the services of specialist agencies set up not just with their needs in mind, but with similar guiding principles at their foundation.

Take TwentyFirstCenturyBrand, the agency set up by former Airbnb chief marketing officer Jonathan Mildenhall and former chief strategy officer of TBWA\Chiat\Day Neil Barrie. Their mission statement shares the evangelistic tone of many would-be disruptors.

”We set up with a very simple mission ... to create the most influential brands of our time. We believe the brands that define their categories also influence culture on a much broader scale,” Mildenhall tells The Drum.

The two founders have some experience working for a sector-warping disruptor themselves – having met during Mildenhall’s time at Airbnb. ”I called Chiat\Day and said can you pitch for this business – I will help and collaborate with you through the pitch process, but I want the boldest, most provocative pitch that you’ve ever done,” he recalls.

Barrie says Mildenhall told him: “’We’re going to make the most famous work together you’ll ever have in your career; we’re going to be in the Harvard Business Review; we’re going to win all the Effies and all the Cannes Lions; we’re going to start a revolution. And we’re not going to pay you nearly as much as your other lead clients, but you’ll make reputation-changing work with it.’ It was so refreshing.“

In 2018, the pair set up their own shop to work with other startups and founders, with Uber as its founding client. Since then, business has been strong. It’s worked with Depop, Headspace and Bumble, as well as with major established brands attempting to modernize. The company grew 60% in 2021 and is on track for 30% growth in 2022, Mildenhall and Barrie claim.

TwentyFirstCenturyBrand isn’t the only agency to prioritize this area. Superunion Ventures, a studio launched by WPP’s design arm Superunion back in May, came out of the gates targeting startup clients. Holly Maguire, Superunion’s British boss, told The Drum that it is ”creating a new stream of growth that empowers investors, founders and their brands, [and] cuts out the traditional financial and equity considerations.” And WPP’s recently-launched Everymile also has startup clients, as well as retailers modernizing to compete with younger rivals, as targets.

Specialist approach

Part of Superunion Ventures’ offering included a new client framework dubbed ’Hype Hack,’ which would engage a startup’s entire staff in the process of creating its marketing strategy. ”We take these communities on the journey with us – consulting, co-creating and eventually transacting with them,” said chief innovation officer Matt Boffey. ”We believe to stand a chance in a crowded market, you need a community to champion and be championed by – and this needs to be baked into your business from day one.”

Rosa Paris’s new Joia agency platform is also aimed at startup companies unused to dealing with traditional agency partners. The first clients to use the service are businesses that have never released an advertising campaign before, said Jean-Patrick Chiquiar, the agency’s co-founder. ”We wanted to develop a more collaborative approach with clients, more immersive, to go to where they are, with a commando state of mind to solve a particular problem.”

Emmanuel Werba, co-founder of Joia client Transmissio, said: ”We’re a startup. We didn’t want a classic format where you go through a pitch competition, brief an agency, they work in a room for a month, we make them work again for a month, and we take another three months to produce the campaign.” Instead, the agency’s specialist approach meant that ”in two months we briefed, designed, produced and broadcast our first campaign.”

TwentyFirstCenturyBrand offers clients a ”brand blueprint” and a ”brand playbook” to help them continue the development of the strategy derived with the agency. Both are based on a thesis regarding the value of brand-building. ”Brand is the foundation upon which a company stands,” explains Mildenhall. ”It’s not an adjunct to the company or the remit of the marketing department.”

While the former helps align company leaders and founders on the fundamentals of their brand strategy, the latter provides a roadmap to new initiatives and activations that chime flawlessly with the brand itself. Both lead business leaders to buy into their thesis on the value of brand. Mildenhall says the consultancy wants to combine the ”inspiration” of Wieden+Kennedy with the ”competence” of McKinsey.

Finding and choosing clients

Rather than wait for an RFP, Mildenhall and Barrie prioritize referrals from within the VC and startup community. ”The thing I’m most proud of is that our biggest source of referrals and legitimacy actually comes from the investor community. Just as a company is getting ready to go through IPO or a company’s just got a huge cash injection, then it’s quite often the VCs who are whispering in a founder’s ear going, ’You need to work with TwentyFirstCenturyBrand, because they will help you build the growth strategy for the company,’” says Mildenhall.

The consultancy chooses its clients carefully, though. Barrie tells The Drum that it ensures prospective clients meet three criteria – the social impact of the product, the personality of the founder and whether the business itself has a chance of thriving. ”What is the net impact of 1 billion people doing whatever this thing is? We know the leaders are disproportionally powerful in these companies, so do we think they’re good people? Is there a business inflection point here?”

The pair say they turned down a gig with Juul six months after the business began because of concerns about the addictiveness of its nicotine products. Mildenhall says: ”From a values perspective, based on the first criteria that Neil put down ... if we get 100 million people doing this thing, is the world a better place? Actually, no.”

The company has found success by participating in the startup community itself, Barrie says. ”We’re terrible at RFPs. So our new business strategy is all about community building. We’ve run workshops on inclusive brand-building or on the investment case for brand. We’ll do that for free, but we’ll get a lot of recommendations and relationships trickling in.”

Persuading founders and those at the top of fast-growth businesses of the value of branding is a major part of that work. Many of their clients come to them prior to an IPO – at which point, Mildenhall says, ”[Branding] is not a nice to have, it’s an essential to have, depending on when the company is thinking about becoming a public company.”

He notes that bringing in founders to the marketing process helps stress its importance as an investment, not an afterthought. ”A founder would rarely delegate investor relationships, they’d rarely delegate product strategy. But they delegate communications. I believe brand product and investor narrative are things that the most talented and progressive founders understand that they cannot delegate.”

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