In the months after Matt Williams left The Martin Agency as its CEO, he started doing some independent marketing consulting work.
That work led him to Richmond advertising and branding veteran Kelly O’Keefe, who was starting a new venture to connect independent branding and marketing specialists across the country with companies that need their skills for temporary, project-specific work.
Williams became Brand Federation’s first freelance specialist, or what the company calls a consultant.
“I said I would be a guinea pig for you guys and talk about how the experience goes, talk about what I valued from it and what’s good about it. I looked at it from the outside looking in as an independent consultant,” said Williams, who had been the CEO of The Martin Agency from 2013 until late 2017. He left the agency in March 2018 after 26 years.
Williams worked on that first project and loved the concept behind Brand Federation — essentially it matches independent branding professionals with companies wanting to find specific marketing and branding expertise. Brand Federation helps the professionals find work and then manages accounting and billing for those jobs.
“The project went great and the more we talked about Brand Federation, the more excited I became to be part of it,” Williams said.
Earlier this month, Williams became an equity partner and managing partner at Brand Federation.
He joins O’Keefe and the company’s other co-founder Dennis Duffy as managing partners of the budding Richmond-based company. The other equity partners in Brand Federation are Keith Middleton and Rich Reinecke, founders of Fahrenheit Advisors, a Richmond-based management consulting and professional services firm that provides such services as fractional chief financial officer work.
“This model has a ton of potential,” Williams said about Brand Federation.
“That’s when I decided I’m not going to do the independent consulting thing but I am going to go with Brand Federation,” he said. “The idea of being able to connect up these incredibly talented freelancers with marketers and agencies who need them more than ever is a great business opportunity.”
Brand Federation began in September. It now has about 30 professionals across the country — plus one in Canada — who have gone through its screening and vetting process. The company also has an additional 75 people on a wait list.
All of the consultants are independent contractors.
Its clients locally include Dominion Energy, ColonialWebb, Harris Williams, SingleComm, ChildFund International and Moseley Architects. The number of Brand Federation’s clients fluctuates because the company is hired for a specific project for a specific time period.
Brand Federation should generate between $1 million and $2 million in billings in its first year, O’Keefe said.
“I have started a few companies before and this company has started up with a lot more speed than is traditional,” said O’Keefe, the well-known professor of creative brand strategy at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Brandcenter.
Brand Federation got its start with the idea of helping independent marketing professionals.
The company is tapping into the gig economy but in a different way by helping to overcome some of the challenges independent workers have by giving them a support system.
“We saw an opportunity to unite a large group of independent consultants who are the best of breed in their categories and provide them with the business support system that they left behind so they can be more successful,” O’Keefe said.
“There are really outstanding people who are leaving the traditional ad agency or client side roles and moving into working independently because they like interaction with the client and they like the work and they like to be free of some of the trappings of an ad agency as well as to avoid the potential layoff risk that comes even in the most stable of corporations,” he said.
Brand Federation finds the clients and matches the needs with one of its consultants. The company then works with the consultants, giving them access to research, collaboration and oversight and then handles the billings, payments and collections.
Paul Ayers, a freelancer in Massachusetts who has been part of the company’s consulting ranks since last fall, said Brand Federation tackles the “pain points” that independent professionals have.
“One of the challenges when freelancing is doing a lot of the hustling to get work,” Ayers said. “The opportunity to hook up and be part of a flexible team and you know that if you get stretched too thin you could tap into those resources.”
Plus, he said Brand Federation takes the procurement and payment process out of the mix and lets the freelancer focus on a project. “They take a lot of the headaches out.”
Ayers, a 2007 Brandcenter graduate, left his job at a New York City ad agency in the fall to become a freelancer and joined the consulting ranks of Brand Federation.
“Brand Federation is set up to alleviate some of the concerns some might have in doing this,” Ayers said. “Knowing that Kelly [O’Keefe] was pursuing this path was a nice confidence booster to another avenue to pursue to keep the lights on. And I am still free to pursue some of my relationships to do work for others.”
The focus for Brand Federation is on the strategic and branding side of the business, not the creative side, O’Keefe said.
“The world of marketing and branding has become incredibly complex,” O’Keefe said. “There is no freelance resource that can do it all. That’s why we have unique specialties.”
That specialization has allowed Brand Federation to put together teams that are more effective than clients could put together on their own, he said. “It is also impossible for an agency or a consultancy to keep on staff that sort of expertise to pull from on a project.”
Part of Brand Federation’s business is coming from ad agencies who need expertise to supplement a project, O’Keefe said.
“They might be weak because either they are so busy and they don’t have the capacity or they are weak because they have been asked by a client to handle a type of project that they really don’t have experience in,” he said.
Clients are moving away from having an advertising agency-of-record relationship toward having more of a project-based relationship, Williams said.
“What used to be agency-of-record relationship where one agency got everything, it is now a project based relationship where a big marketer can farm out individual projects to multiple agencies or people,” he said. “It is great flexibility for the marketers.”
Clients don’t want to hire an agency or a consultancy for a multi-year contract, Williams said.
“It is really hard for an agency to take on full-time staff in that situation. They need more flexible staff because they can’t carry the cost of full time staff. If I’m doing a project, what happens is I hire the right person for a project and three months later I’m wondering what to do with that person because I don’t have the revenue coming in anymore,” Williams said.
The agency then is forced to lay off workers.
As the client-agency relationship changes, agencies have a more flexible approach to staffing, Williams said.
Agencies “need a place to go to and say ‘here’s what I need for these projects that I don’t have on staff. I need the kinds of support systems. Tap into your independent network and provide them for me,’” he said.
“We’ve got to make use of this incredible pool of independent talent.”
The change taking place in the advertising industry are similar to what happened in the movie business decades ago,” O’Keefe said.
“Remember movie studios used to employ all of their talent and everyone working on a movie. The actors and actresses were all employed by the studios,” O’Keefe said. “Then the film making business became too complex for that, and now when you watch a movie and the credits roll, none of them are employed by studio. They are all independents.”
What that does is put together a great team to work on a film, he said. Once that movie is done, that group is disassembled and each member goes to work on another movie.
“Imagine if the studios had to employ all those people how much different the industry would be. The work wouldn’t be as good because you would be taking somebody who maybe is not so good at a romantic comedy and say, ‘well they are under my employ, so I’ve got to use them,’” O’Keefe said.
“Our industry is going in the same exact direction,” he said.
Brand Federation, Williams said, gives marketers and agencies some flexibility in the staffing model.
“It is more nimble, but it makes the work better because it gives marketers and agencies access to exactly the right talent for the project they’ve got at the moment. You don’t have to fit the square peg into the round hole for a project because that is who you happen to have on staff.”
Anne Lynam Goddard, president and CEO of ChildFund International, said using a freelance model works as long as the right people are picked for a project and there is proper oversight.
The Henrico County-based nonprofit is finishing up a project with Brand Federation now.
“They brought in Matt [Williams] and I couldn’t be happier,” Goddard said. “They are really good and experienced and credible in branding. Sometimes we have done work with big agencies. They walk in the room with 10 people. With Brand Federation, it was nice to work with two people to handle the breadth of the project.”
Brand Federation’s offices are within the offices for Fahrenheit Advisors in the renovated HandCraft Cleaners building in Scott’s Addition.
Fahrenheit Advisors, whose co-founders are equity partners in Brand Federation, is handling the back office accounting and billing functions.
The two businesses have similarities.
“When Kelly and I sat down and first started thinking about this concept, I looked at him and said this is a version of Fahrenheit with a different kind of expertise,” said Reinecke, the co-managing partner at Fahrenheit Advisors.
Fahrenheit Advisors started in 2010 mostly handling finance and accounting consulting by tapping into industry experts. It branched into offering a fractional chief financial officer to new ventures or midsize companies that cannot justify the expense of a full-time CFO.
Fahrenheit Advisors found super accomplished people and made them accessible to companies. Brand Federation, Reinecke said, is doing the same thing in the marketing world.
“If you look at that team, it is an all-star team that can be so impactful to so many organizations,” he said. “You look at Brand Federation and you see some exciting things. It is wow-factor stuff.”
Companies are learning there is a smarter way to work and are using independent contractors in a bunch of different sectors, he said.
“With Brand Federation you can work with a higher-caliber talent,” Reinecke said.
O’Keefe said the reception for Brand Federation has been better than expected.
“Dennis [Duffy] and I identified that we needed to grow our capacity and have more strength in the home office to handle the opportunities coming our way,” O’Keefe said. “As we got to planning the next phase of our growth, we knew we needed top notch individuals to augment our management team.”
Part of the business expansion strategy, he said, was bringing Williams on as an equity partner.
Williams and Duffy handle the day-to-day operations of the business and work with the consultants.
O’Keefe divides his time in the business with his duties as a professor at the VCU Brandcenter.
Brand Federation also recently hired Rian Chandler-Dovis as its director of marketing communications and senior brand strategist. She helps as a lead consultant for some of the company’s branding work for clients.
She had been a strategist with Sylvain Labs and was a graduate of the VCU Brandcenter’s program.
“I was seeing from each lens the need for this business model and the potential in it,” Chandler-Dovis said. “Knowing the partners involved and I knew that Matt was going to be involved as well... I saw the potential here.”