Lessons from BrandActive’s 25 years of success: A conversation with our managing partners

Lessons from BrandActive’s 25 years of success: A conversation with our managing partners



In 1998, BrandActive’s founding partners saw an unmet need in the marketplace based on work being done in Europe by Nijkamp Nijboer. For years, they’d worked closely with marketing leaders on the creative aspects of brand change. What they noticed was that beyond strategy and creative, brands also needed a plan for how to effectively bring their reconceptualized identities to life internally and in the marketplace. This realization was the catalyst that prompted Robynne and James to create a service that would do just that. Together, with an entrepreneurial approach, a leap of faith and a ton of grit, they launched a new business focused solely on the financial analysis, planning, and logistics of rebrand implementation.

Now in its 25th year, BrandActive is a flourishing organization with offices and employees across North America that serves Fortune 500 clients around the globe.

Remarkably, two-thirds of small businesses fail before they reach the ten-year mark and a mere one in five make it to their third decade. Against these odds, BrandActive, at the 25-year mark, has become one of the few rather than the many. In light of that, there are lessons to be shared in how the firm has not only survived, but also thrived, especially during periods of economic uncertainty.

To support others who are on their own business journey and looking to achieve longevity, as well as those thinking about hanging up their shingle for the first time, the partners sat down to discuss their thoughts on what got them where they are today.  James Burn, Robynne Budish, and Philip Giuliano share these thoughts below.

Why do you think BrandActive has succeeded when other businesses have not?

BrandActive occupies a tightly defined niche in the branding and management consulting space – knowing what we do well and what the market needs from us, we put all of our energy into being the best at that. Robynne suggested that through providing rebrand implementation services, we were able to distinguish ourselves as a unique management consulting firm that could help companies undergo “smarter, faster, better brand change.”

“We have a business that tends to do well when things are good economically and when things are bad economically,” James says. “I don’t like the term ‘recession-proof’ because it feels like tempting fate, but I think part of our success can be attributed to the fact that we’ve leaned into our unique value proposition. Because of that, we inherently occupy a good space.”

“That’s true, James,” Robynne responds. “Some might say we got lucky finding the market opportunity we did. But then again, the harder you work, the luckier you get — and we work as hard, if not harder, than anyone.”

Philip noted that it’s worth emphasizing that BrandActive doesn’t edge into the strategic and conceptual space that creative branding agencies already fill. Rather, “we work alongside them to guide clients through bringing a new brand to life in all the places and spaces it appears.”

Sometimes you have to take your best shot at what you think will work. Nine times out of ten, if you stay focused and do the right thing, it will work out. - Robynne Budish

Leaning into — and expanding on — a unique value proposition

“We play in the most focused niche of focused niches that I’ve ever experienced, and we’ve stuck to that niche even when we could have expanded into new service offerings or markets,” Philip adds. “We’ve grown a company doing something no one else does. There have certainly been times we could have branched off into other areas, but we never have. Of course, we’ve absolutely grown and we’re always agile in the face of change, but we grow inside of our skills and core competencies. And then we expand our capabilities out of that.”

This ethos was put to the test when the COVID-19 pandemic began.

“We immediately looked for opportunities to serve existing and prospective clients in new ways that addressed the uniqueness of their business situation while still staying true to our niche,” Robynne explains. “We knew rebranding activity was likely to slow down during the pandemic and that it would negatively impact revenue. But rather than resort to slash-and-burn cost reduction tactics, we banked on our expertise. We moved quickly to launch a new service offering that helps marketing leaders optimize their brand and marketing operations and realize much-needed efficiencies. This allowed us to weather the storm while continuing to protect our number one asset — our people.”

Robynne continues, “Sometimes you just have to take your best shot at what you think will work. It’s about staying focused and keeping the faith. Nine times out of ten, if you keep doing the right thing, it will work out.”

What does it mean to “do the right thing” for the business?

“It’s about showing up every day and doing our best for our people and our clients. We focus on doing the right activities, but we’re attached to the experience and behaviors, not the results,” Philip says. “We also really listen — not just with our ears, but with our hearts and our intuition. I think that’s played a key role in our success.”

“Exactly,” James agrees. “If you do the right thing and prioritize the right things, the good stuff comes on its own. We’ve built our business around trust and taking care of our people, not just chasing traditional capitalist priorities like sales growth and profitability. And we’ve achieved success every year for as many years as we can remember. Our top and bottom-line outcomes are as good as any business our size — and better than most businesses of any size. But we know it’s a mistake to prioritize profit at the cost of all else, which means we make decisions from a different lens.”

“The mentality James and Robynne operate from is such a great mix of prudence and trust,” Philip says. “We’ve never been like a lot of other entrepreneurial companies that hire a bunch of staff because things are great and then need to let people go when times are tough. We’ve always been very measured in how we bring resources in and the mix of contractors we rely on versus full-time employees.”

Letting organizational values guide decisions

Ultimately, James, Robynne and Philip make decisions through a lens that focuses firmly on three core values. BrandActive employees are also expected to align their actions with these values. The firm is committed to operating from a place of:

  • Trust. At BrandActive, trust is everything. “As partners, we have each other’s backs,” Robynne says. “Absolutely,” James adds. “We keep the promises we make to each other and to our people.” And as a larger team, we all commit to a set of shared behaviors so we don’t get caught up in internal politics or waste time hiding mistakes and weaknesses.
  • Agility. We don’t fear uncertainty. Rather, we look at challenges as an opportunity to provide new solutions and alternatives, and we course correct quickly if a given approach isn’t as successful as we want it to be. “That’s not to say we always agree,” Robynne says. “We certainly debate and disagree. But once a decision is made, we commit to moving forward together, knowing there’s more than one viable way to solve a problem.” At BrandActive we use the phrase “disagree and commit” which affirms that once a decision is made everyone is firmly committed to that decision even if you did not agree with it.
  • Growth. At BrandActive Growth is primarily about the growth of every team member, it isn’t about increasing our company’s profits at all costs. “This is one of the things I love most about BrandActive,” Philip adds. “We continually push the boundaries of our capabilities as a company and as individuals. But unlike a lot of entrepreneurs, when we were first starting out, we didn’t have specific revenue targets we were trying to reach. That allowed us to stay very optimistic about where we were going. It was never about hitting $10M or $20M revenue thresholds. It was about building the kind of business we all wanted to be part of. And that optimism continues to fuel a holistic growth mindset among our employees today.”

This shared ethos helps the entire organization remain optimistic in the face of change, proactively challenge the business, our clients, and our people, and achieve the financial results that sustain us all.

How do you keep BrandActive financially stable amid economic ups and downs?

Of course, it’s only possible to do the right thing for our clients and our people if we also take the right steps financially. Engaging in rigorous financial planning and modeling exercises gives James, Robynne and Philip the confidence they need to make wise decisions that align with the core values.

James explains it this way: “Robynne and I have spent our whole lives in business and we’re very clear about how to run a good business, a prudent business, a low-risk business. But we’d never show our employees the door for purely financial reasons.”

Philip jokes, “I have to say, as the person responsible for business development, there were times I was worried you’d kick me out the door if I wasn’t performing to a high enough standard.”

“Oh, you came close, baby,” Robynne retorts. “But in all seriousness, we always play the long game. We’re not reactive.”

“Yes, that’s so true,” James agrees. “Plus, we’ve always been a zero-debt company and that gives us a ton of freedom and flexibility when hard times press in.”

“Right,” Robynne responds. “We know there will always be blips, so we plan accordingly. With no debt, we have the luxury of not having monthly or quarterly targets we have to meet with the bank or loan terms we need to satisfy. We’re not a public company that has to release quarterly results. But even so, I attribute a lot of our success to the absolute rigor we apply to our finances.”

It’s when things get tough that sticking to your vision can feel the hardest. But staying true will bring rewards in time. - James Burn

The importance of scrupulous financial management

As BrandActive’s functional CFO, Robynne puts together detailed financial forecasts on a 90-day rolling basis that allow the partners to project revenue, expenses, and profit margin to know exactly where the business stands at all times.

“Basically, we apply the same rigor and precision to our own finances as we do when conducting scenario modeling and financial forecasting exercises for our clients,” Robynne says. “We do this so we’re never taken by surprise. And if there’s ever a time we won’t reach our projections, we can adjust.”

“Again, our number one priority is keeping our commitments to our people and the clients we serve,” Philip emphasizes. “The way we manage our finances reflects our commitment to doing right by those who are counting on us.”

What advice do you have for marketing leaders guiding their organizations through hard times?

“Adjust on the fly. Be agile. Focus on solving the problem, identifying opportunities, and sharing knowledge openly,” says Philip. “Be who you are — show up with humanity, honesty, and vulnerability while standing in your strength. There is no limit to what you can achieve if you don’t care who gets the credit.”

Robynne adds, “Trust is everything. It’s important to carefully manage your finances, but if you focus on the right things, financial success will follow. And who you work with is just as important as your work — so choose your employees and external partners wisely.

Do the right thing,” implores James. “Not just from a technical or practical point of view, but from a human point of view. It’s when things get tough that sticking to your vision and your highest ideals can feel the hardest. But staying true to them will bring rewards in time. Remember that your employees are ’human beings’ not ‘human doings.’ And don’t forget to have fun along the way!

This article is one in a series celebrating BrandActive’s 25th anniversary. If you’d like to learn more about BrandActive or explore how we can help your organization maximize the impact of brand implementation, contact our VP of Client Solutions, n.adzentoivich@brandactive.com or visit our website for useful information on how to successfully manage a rebrand implementation.

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