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Business + Strategy

Creating a brand. Creating Cousin.

Chrissy Birtwistle
May 5, 2020

Creating a brand is hard, building a brand is even harder. And doing it for yourself brings its own set of challenges. Through a series of articles, one on each step of our process, I’m sharing our journey to shed light on how and why we do things slightly differently at Cousin.

The Cousin way / Our process

Creating a brand from scratch, or developing an existing brand, the process is the same. Each step feeds into the next. The only difference is that when evolving a brand that already exists, we can use the data, knowledge and insights acquired from already being in market.

In each article, I’ll explain each step of our brand creation process, using our own Cousin brand as the example.

Illuminate the opportunity

This is the starting point for any project – a combination of immersion, discovery and diagnosis. We work together to illuminate the business opportunity you are creating a brand for, or the opportunity we are looking to evolve the brand to meet.

Always as an extension of a client team, we need to come up to speed quickly so we can add tangible value. Though others often skip this work, for us it’s the most important stage of the project, and if done well, will ultimately lead to far greater success.

Let’s draw a comparison. If a new CEO joins a company and starts throwing their weight around, making recommendations, restructuring, before getting the lay of the land, it would likely cause real uproar among the troops. Similarly, if we saunter in and make recommendations without fully understanding the landscape, we would be wasting everyone’s time.

Only by understanding your business, challenges and goals can we determine what will move the needle and why – to frame the opportunity, define your desired future state and align behind a set of clear objectives and outcomes.

We’ll ask key questions about who you are, what makes you different and visualise who you will become. Often starting with why the company was founded, we’ll go back to the beginning to unearth the core idea and mission.

Here’s my story.

Why Cousin was founded…the founder story.

Cousin was born out of believing there must be a better way to benefit talent, brands and business leaders.

The catalyst for creating Cousin came in September 2017. I had joined Brand Union, the strategy led WPP global Brand Agency the year prior. We were just closing out an impressive year of new client wins to turn the business London around. 16 client wins bringing in £1.6m of new revenue for London. We had confidence, momentum and clarity of culture. We were soaring. Then came the top down directive that WPP was merging five of the design businesses within the group – Brand Union, The Partners, Lambie Nairn, AddisonGroup and VBAT. It was a chance to create a new type of agency with a broad offer, leveraging the strengths of all the founding agencies. In London this meant 4 of the 5 agencies were going to merge under one roof within 3 months, with the new agency to be launched publicly early 2018. I was excited, inspired and motivated. Our business development team would quadruple in size. We could help more clients with a broader offer. It was an opportunity to learn from new peers and experts in their field. It was the chance to be part of creating anew global agency brand. A clean slate, a fresh start and a new beginning. Anew name, a new brand, and new website, a whole new set of tools and collateral, and an internal and external launch event. A new agency.

Sounds simple…but not so fast…

In parallel the global leadership team were looking at the internal structure, roles and responsibilities. There was uncertainty, a new culture, new terminology, a different way of doing things, a lack of clarity on how we would operate, our internal behaviours and how we were going to take existing clients on the journey to retain and grow existing business. Looking back, it was in many ways an impossible task within the timeframe. It was an enlightening process watching 4 businesses with different cultures, beliefs and behaviours come together.

In my experience, mergers and acquisitions are usually driven by driving cost efficiencies, accessing new markets or broadening the offer. But they are always time sensitive, and the implications on internal and external brand communications need to fit in with the process, not the other way around. This almost always presents challenges, causes many sleepless nights, and usually collateral damage and personnel casualties.

It’s totally normal. People start to question, “Am I safe? AmI valued? What aren’t they telling me? Will my role change? Will I be happy?” This kind of cultural disruption and uncertainty usually results in the first wave of leavers. And so the ripple effect begins until only a small team of people remain– people who either can’t leave or are biding their time. During this period, the business can’t hire because they don’t know their new story. And besides, saving money on overheads means more budget for new brand and comms. It’s a cautionary tale where confidence, momentum and clarity of momentum were all lost.

On a personal level…

I was asking myself some fundamental life questions – Why doI do what I do? What makes me happy? Why do I work so hard? What motivates me? What do I want my future to look like? What is my WHY?

Two brilliant books – definitely worth reading. Or just skip over to Simon Sineks' YouTube channel & Instagram

At this point I was firmly on the hamster wheel. A normal day was up at 5:00, CrossFit/gym/training 5:30-6:30, at the office by 7:30, shower and at my desk by 8:00, work through to 19:00 eating lunch at my desk and sometimes dinner, avoid the rush hour commute, getting home at 20:00, pack a bag, watch some content, and get into bed by 21:30. This was normal. I describe that time as living under a rock, with focus but very little fulfilment.

How did I let that happen? Lots of reasons. I wanted to do a good job. I didn’t want to let people down. I wanted a promotion so I could save, buy a house, start a family, grow the business. And yes, I also wanted to be irreplaceable.Looking back, it had nothing to do with the job or the purpose behind the company, it was mostly about helping those around me to succeed.

Finding my purpose

After lots of contemplation, I realised my purpose in life is to help people or businesses reach their potential. I wanted to work for a purpose I believed in. To do that, I needed to work alongside the founder or business leader. I could apply my expertise in brand and marketing to take brilliant and innovative businesses to market, reach more people, and make a positive impact on the world around me.

In all that thinking, there was always one question – what would I do differently if I started my own agency?

Solving a problem

As a natural problem solver, when I see problems or processes that aren’t effective, I can’t help but look for a better way. Over the years, I’d collected a long list of things I’d change given the chance.

If I was going to start my own company, it would do things very differently. It would be my perfect solution. I wrote everything down and started to imagine what was possible. This was my own version of illuminating the opportunity, and the start of a business plan.

Here was my long list of problems/challenges explained:

The client / agency relationship (us and them) is not collaborative. This does not deliver the best work. I believe that when you hire someone internally, externally or otherwise, it should purely be the rules of engagement that differ. In each engagement you are saying, “I don’t have the skills I need, and I believe you are the best person/people for the job.” The only difference is the level of commitment, either full time internal, full time external, or part time or temporary or contract. The goal is always understanding if the skillset/capability is there, and then company culture alignment and common ground on values.

Talent burnout. Some of the best people in our industry are exploited because perfectionism is in their DNA. They would rather burnout than fail. Burnout isn’t talked about, but it is prolific. I wanted to find a way to address this, and provide a home for people who can’t help but over deliver and find the 1%s. After experiencing burnout twice in my career, I knew I had to create a working environment that was sustainable for me and people like me.  

Unmotivated people /complacency. I’ve seen a lot of people get comfortable, doing enough to get by but leaving others to do the heavy lifting. I wanted to provide a home for people with drive and determination by fostering a culture of personal growth.All that curiosity and passion can cause worry and overthinking. I know from experience that those superpowers can also be kryptonite.

Pigeon holing. Clients often ask to see where agencies have done it before through case studies. No agency has an endless list of exceptional client stories that solve every possible problem in every possible vertical. And if they do, the work is likely old or produced by employees that are long gone. For me, the emphasis should be on the team and their experience. After all, it is them who will deliver.

The pitch. I’ve always thought pitching is a waste of time. An outdated process that is a huge expense to agencies, produces work that rarely sees the light of day, and sets up the client / agency relationship as a polite battle for control. In the world of creativity, we give our ideas away freely one minute, and want to charge hundreds of thousands of pounds for them the next.

Ultimately, pitching is a huge overhead cost to the business that clients pay for eventually.Instead, clients would be served better by asking whether they trust the people on the team to deliver? Do they want to work with them day in day out?

Lack of choice on when, how and where we work. Many businesses impose rules to control people rather than empower them. Number of days holiday and standard working hours are not conducive to people feeling fulfilled and leads to all sorts of excuses for a day off/personal day. I’d prefer for people to take responsibility for their own time and work with integrity to meet project milestones. When and where makes no difference to me. It is the quality of the output that is important.

Lack of flexibility and understanding for parents. I hate the idea of one size fits all. Blanket rules where people feel they’re asking for special treatment to accommodate parenting duties or personal commitments. We are all adults and I prefer to treat people with empathy and respect.

Work life balance. People being defined by their work and professional experience, not by their life experience. I wanted to create a company and culture that celebrates the whole person with a family ethos. We are in the business of relating to people, creating brands that resonate, tapping into cultural trends and norms, and changing behaviour. How can we do that if we go to work in the same place every day, seethe same people, and don’t experience the world? To form new thoughts and new ideas we must be inspired by the world around us. I wanted to be present in the world not just move through it. It was time to get off the conveyer belt.

Big agencies aren’t setup to service ambitious start-ups or SMEs. For larger agencies it isn’t commercially viable to take on small projects. Partially down to the pitch process clients enforce, the significant overheads and a number to meet at the end of each month means they must focus on the more significant opportunities. ButI wanted to be able to help those most passionate and excited by what they do and see the impact of the work.

Small business owners don’t know who to trust. Without a background in brand and marketing, founders and business leaders are often experts in their field but not brand and marketing. They still need an agency they can trust with their baby. With a finite budget that is everything they have or can raise; they have a lot riding on the choice. One option might be a team of freelancers but managing them is time consuming and it takes real objectivity to see the big picture. The second might be an internal hire – but that is often too much of a commitment. The third would be an agency partner. But if they can’t go to a household name they know they can trust, where should they go? I wanted to be the household name for the small ambitious business.

A trend towards freelance / gig economy. Through lack of choice or design, a lot of creative talent is moving towards freelancing. It gives them greater control over projects and complete autonomy on who they work for, when they work and the fee they command for their time. In the current model they are outsiders on the inside of agencies – they don’t get treated the same, but the agency wouldn’t function without them. Why is this the case? Due to the transactional nature of the commercial arrangement, freelancers typically work harder. I will do X for Y. If they don’t successfully execute X, they don’t get Y. Plus a freelancer is most successful when they get asked to come back and people talk about how great they are, and they get recommendations. The work needs to speak for itself. No room for complacency. These are the people I wanted to work with, and provide a home for.


The start of an idea…

At this point, I started to chart my solution on to a canvas. It was the bones of a business plan but still very much a working hypothesis. On reflection, a lot of what I put down at the start still stands today.

Creating your own brand comes with its own challenges. You second guess yourself.  You need someone to sense check and validate your thinking. The first person, outside of friends and family I spoke to about my idea was Lynsay Biss, now Cousin Co-Founder. Happy to say, she liked my idea.

With Cousin we were creating a brand from scratch. Illuminating the opportunity didn’t include a review of the past or what we had already but focused on defining the company we wanted to be. We had to articulate the problem we were solving for clients and talent and get clarity on how we would be more relevant than everyone else.

This was our way of illuminating the opportunity we had in front of us. It gave us structure, focus and clear goals. The next step was to map the plan and do the groundwork. In other words, translate our business idea into a brand and decide what would get us there.


Why is ‘Illuminating the opportunity’ important for us and valuable to you?

•      Never has a client said they have infinite budget, time or resource. Therefore, we need to make decisions on the activities to prioritise.

•      It allows us to identify the gaps in a brand, or the key ingredients, to give the client what they actually need.

•      It is our opportunity to ask questions and understand the rationale behind the choices made in the past, enabling us to make informed recommendations for the future.

•      Often the most insightful information isn’t written down – we need to talk and discuss to unearth those moments of pure gold.

•      It helps us understand the team dynamic and how a client team works best. This allows us to structure a program of work built around our client - internal capabilities, ways of working and structure.

•      It ensures everyone is aligned on project requirements from the start.

•      It facilitates important conversations between internal teams in a non-confrontational, future focused and positive way.


Even though clients sometimes come to us telling us what they need, like a doctor we don’t take a self-diagnosis on face value. We never want to make assumptions; every brand and business is different. The people, the consumer, the competitors, the product, the culture, the mission –everything is unique, and so is our approach.

In my next article, I’ll introduce Map the Plan – second most important stage of our process.

Chrissy Birtwistle

Founder, CEO & Brand Director

With 10 years’ experience in account management at top global marketing and brand agencies, Chrissy has built a strong reputation for bringing a smart, informed perspective to every business project. She’s quick to size up the dynamics of an organisation and has an innate ability to see the right path forward. Her clear strategic thinking and honest advice make her a valued advisor to company leaders. When not wielding her magic at Cousin, you’ll find Chrissy killing it at the Crossfit gym.

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