Fifteen talented creatives from the worlds of strategy, copy, and design. Five burgeoning startups vying for next-level awesomeness. What happens when they come together for one weekend, under the mentorship of top CMOs, creative directors and VCs at a buzzy technology campus in New York’s Soho neighborhood? It’s Brandathon, baby. Lines blur, relationships blossom and the best ideas are given a chance to shine.
ZeShan Malik, Brandathon founder and head of curtion (and revered karaoke king), just hosted his seventh Brandathon, which is essentially a hackathon for brand-building, but also so much more. Brandathon evolved out of Malik’s desire to move beyond some of the limitations he saw in agency life, having co-founded and run an experiential ad agency from 2010 to 2015. He wanted to work with the exciting early-stage companies he encountered in New York’s burgeoning startup scene—ones that can’t usually manage agency rates—and get away from some of the industry tropes he found troubling (sexism, racism, “middle-manning”).
So he started Brandathon with a lean team of still-dedicated cohorts. The idea was to curate a space where entrepreneurs and established creatives could collaborate on branding—often an afterthought for a startup—during a weekend-long work sprint.
Carefully-vetted industry creatives and consultants work in small teams with chosen startups on a tight menu of specific branding challenges to help the startup get to the next level. They get feedback from high-level brand and marketing execs (like Interbrand New York Executive Creative Director, Oliver Maltby, who was a Brandathon 5 mentor), and present their projects to be judged on day two. The winning team walks away with a cash prize and actionable insights, while everyone, hopefully, leaves with renewed inspiration and invaluable relationships.
More than a mini-accelerator for startups, Brandathon is a space where relationships are built organically, all participants are personally incentivized and a new model for working emerges—one that might apply to a number of industries. Malik talked about his vision and shared his thoughts on the importance of branding, the significance of Brandathon and what he’s learned from branding Brandathon.
How do you find the startups you work with at Brandathon, and why do you think caring about branding from the start is so important for early stagers?
Every company comes to Brandathon because it fits into their timing. Maybe they’re approaching a funding round and want to impress investors, or they just want to launch on the right foot. Others want a truly independent view of their work or business, and need an outside perspective. Sometimes these companies are struggling with top-level creative issues—design, strategy, copy, brand vision—and sometimes it’s really narrow, like creative direction on social media. Our judges help steer the companies and creatives in the direction they think is best for the brand and business.
The number one thing we look for is having passion as a company. Then second is need. Sometimes it’s a brand that’s fascinating to study; other times, they just really need our help. I also have a very keen sense of what our creative community likes to work on—we have awesome creatives that get involved with brand projects from all over the place—from really cool agencies and different kinds of companies. And I think about our mentors. We’ve now had mentors who’ve invested actual money into the startups we’ve had on-site. All of those mindsets kick in when I’m considering working with a company.
I’ve gotten to know the New York startup ecosystem very well. There’s tons of noise everywhere—it’s very hard to break through. Marketing and digital advertising—these are just tactics, they’re not truly brand-builders. Branding’s all about creating trust in the shortest time possible. I think having a brand from day one—or close to day one—is important, because there’s a lot of competition, and being different and memorable is the difference between repeat business and someone only trying you once.
Brandathon doesn’t just benefit startups—it’s enticing a lot of established agency creatives and industry mentors. Can you speak a little more about this synergy and what both sides gain from the event?
Many of our creatives come from the big agency world. Some of them have dreams of getting involved in the startup scene but have no real “in” because they’re so busy. Some come from smaller boutique agencies. They’re interested in meeting creative people—they come on-site and they make relationships with some of the best copywriters and strategists in New York. Then there are our mentors and judges—they’re always really cool people and we highly encourage people keep working with each other.
We also involve people who don’t work for an agency and don’t work for a brand directly. Sometimes these people own their own brands or they’re so good at doing something like design, copy or strategy that they’ll want to be involved. Maybe it’s some of the angels or VCs or CMOs and investors that they’ll want to meet. These are people who want to come on-site and milk Brandathon for all it’s worth. And that’s totally cool, I love it.
If you could concentrate all the best things about advertising and branding into one time and space, it would probably look something like Brandathon. The thing that makes it really unique is that everyone chooses to be there: This is what we love doing, and it shows, from the incredible work all the way through to the energy of each conversation.
– Kurt Slawitscha, Copywriter at Havas (Creative)
There was one event where I was talking to someone who worked at a big agency, and he said, “Man, I really love Brandathon, because it reminds me of why I got into this industry in the first place.” So whether you work at a big agency or a big brand, hopefully you’re reminded of why you like this thing in the first place. It’s so stripped down, there’s no bureaucracy and it’s all about accountability and collaboration.
In terms of what they get out of it—some people want to sharpen their tool kits, some people just want to be engaged in their work, some people want to build more relationships in the scene, some people are looking for clients. We also have a cash prize for the winning creative team, but I don’t think that’s the biggest thing. It’s everything else that makes them want to come on site.
Beyond expanding to more cities, what’s your vision for the future of Brandathon?
I’m trying to find a word for it. Right now I’m calling our events “independent” Brandathons, because the four to five companies we bring on site have different backgrounds that are rarely connected—and it’s not like we’re working directly with VCs or angel investors.
In terms of streamlining things, thankfully, partnerships are emerging. We’re now talking to certain VCs and accelerators that would give us more companies to work with. I do expect a food-focused Brandathon and a healthcare-focused Brandathon in the near future. We have the word out in LA and San Francisco, but before I go there I want this to be as well-oiled a machine as possible so we can grow.
Long term, I’m starting to notice that this model we created can apply to many different industries and can be tweaked to accomplish different things. One thing that’s on my mind is doing something for the art community—essentially creating an accelerator program for artists. Because it’s a really tough world for artists out there—especially young artists. I think we can provide some help to that scene with what we’ve developed here, and maybe by tweaking it quite a bit.
How does the Brandathon brand play into growing that vision?
The brand of Brandathon is not perfect by any means. Through doing Brandathon, I’ve learned a lot about being myself and living a very transparent life. I started realizing that the only way to get people to really trust Brandathon is to be myself pretty much all of the time—first find that true self, and then just be it. Hopefully, when you know me I can help build trust in Brandathon.
I try to create a certain environment at Brandathon. We try to make it silly, one that’s grounded in respect, and we try to create a safe space. Whoever’s creating a safe space needs to be fairly in tune with themselves and not have a big ego. I’ve tried to really enforce that at Brandathon.
What have you personally learned about branding from running this event?
It’s a weird thing that we’re doing, and I think you need to trust the person that’s curating the experience. I try to be realistic and not do the hard sell, ever. Look at the testimonials. Look at the work. Either you have faith and the stuff that we’re doing speaks to you, or it really doesn’t—and that’s cool too. Hopefully, it speaks to you.
This article first appeared in www.brandchannel.com
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