Meet the direct-to-consumer brands shunning traditional agency relationships

Direct-to-consumer brands are taking control of their creative, digital and social campaigns, in many cases preferring to nurture talent in-house, rather than outsource to agencies.

Eve mattress
The Eve Hybrid mattress is delivered to consumers’ door in a box to trial at home.

Direct-to-consumer brands are more than comfortable disrupting traditional sectors and cutting out retailers to get closer to customers, but they are also confidently shaking up traditional agency relationships in a bid to find new models that work for them.

Nurturing talent in-house by building fully-fledged marketing teams is helping these disruptive players take control of their creative, digital and social campaigns as they seek to maintain high levels of authenticity.

“One thing direct-to-consumer brands are best at doing is building their own brand. We’ve got such a strong brand proposition here, which an agency will never get because it’s part of our DNA,” explains Kuba Wieczorek, co-founder and chief brand officer of Eve, the sleep brand which delivers mattresses to direct to consumers’ doors.

Wieczorek comes from a creative advertising background, having spent 18 years working at agencies including JWT, WCRS, Fallon, BBH and McCann, before becoming head of sports marketing at Channel 4 and helping to run Channel 4’s in-house creative agency 4Creative. He also worked as a photographer for eight years, giving him a clear perspective on how to create a visual identity.

As a result, Eve commissions all its creative work, photography and digital campaigns internally. While it used to work with a digital agency in San Francisco, the brand chose to bring the work back in-house to achieve the flexibility and pace needed, as well as create campaigns that are totally on-brand.

It’s hard to outsource that type of flexibility and even harder to do it in a way that’s true to your brand.

Selena Kalvaria, Away

The business positions itself as a sleep brand, creating a lifestyle around the energy generated by a good night’s sleep. Wieczorek believes this concept is not something agencies necessarily always get.

“I created the brand here and I continue to police it all. We launched with a really simple proposition: we believe everybody deserves the perfect start, perfect mornings and energy. All other sleep brands talk about sleep, we talk about what a great night’s sleep does,” he says.

“All this stuff is very hard for an agency to assimilate into their thinking, so we’ve ended up just doing it all ourselves. We execute everything so it comes across as much more authentic. ‘Authentic’ marketing is such a buzzword at the moment, but if a brand is able to execute in-house it will always come across as more authentic than if an agency does it.”

READ MORE: How direct-to-consumer brands are reshaping marketing

Eve baby mattress
Eve has expanded its sleep brand to include a children’s mattress range.

Wieczorek’s advice to any emerging direct-to-consumer brand is to do as much in-house as they can and try not to outsource unless absolutely necessary.

That being said, Eve has fostered a close relationship with its media planning and buying agency Good Stuff. One of the agency’s account directors is currently seconded for four months working from the Eve offices.

The closeness of the relationship comes not only from the high degree of communication – Eve and Good Stuff have twice weekly meetings to discuss strategy – but because they have worked together since the brand’s inception in 2015.

“We were lucky Channel 4 invested in the business, so we’ve been advertising on TV since we were 10-months-old, which I think is quite unheard of for many other brands,” Wieczorek explains. “We’ve been working with a media agency from when we were very young, so it feels like they are part of Eve.”

Building a strong talent base

The ability to be nimble is one of the biggest advantages for US luggage lifestyle brand Away, particularly when it needs to take a creative campaign from concept to execution in a matter of days.

“It’s hard to outsource that type of flexibility and even harder to do it in a way that’s true to your brand,” explains vice-president of brand marketing, Selena Kalvaria.

“We’ve made building a team of experts in-house our first priority. Our internal team will always have the advantage of having all of the relevant context needed to make the best decisions and the ability to solve problems the ‘Away way’.”

She explains that Away works with agencies for “very specific functions”, such as tactical offline media buying, but everything from the creative concept to production and strategy comes from the in-house team.

READ MORE: PepsiCo on the launch of its first ecommerce-only brand Drinkfinity

Away luggage
Building in-house talent is the first priority for luggage lifestyle brand Away.

A similar approach is taken by US direct-to-consumer vitamin brand Ritual, which manages all its creative and social media in-house, while using an agency for media buying to operate at scale.

Founder and CEO Katerina Schneider explains that for the most part Ritual tries to do everything in-house in order to develop the expertise it needs in a constantly evolving marketing landscape.

If a brand is able to execute in-house it will always come across as more authentic than if an agency does it.

Kuba Wieczorek, Eve

The way a direct-to-consumer brand interacts with its agencies has less to do with being a digital native and is more about the type of talent that is hired, according to Mario Rauter, brand and communications director at rival mattress and sleep brand Simba.

“For us it’s been really key that we’ve got top talent in-house, but that we also have really strong strategic partners, which sometimes come from the network we have of amazing private investors. What we’re trying to do is get the best brains on the job and whether they’re internal or external is sort of secondary,” says Rauter.

Simba mattress
All strategic leadership comes directly from the Simba in-house team

While the strategic leadership across most of the marketing disciplines comes directly from the in-house team at Simba, the company works with partners who provide strategic advice in areas where the brand does not yet have the internal skills or where additional manpower is needed to deliver at scale.

Hiring top talent has never been a problem for Simba due to the disruptive nature of the brand and the fact it has a solid growth story, says Rauter. New marketers join the business to work on projects and may encounter challenges they would never have experienced in bigger businesses, key factors Simba believes will help it retain talent going forward.