2020 will be a year that no one will ever forget, but will try to because of the unexpected turn of events caused by COVID-19. For us at NinetyEight, this year will represent the year we all took a leap of faith and took matters into our own hands. We weren’t able to walk across the stage and celebrate our graduation as we had envisioned, but we did come together to form this creative advertising agency you’ve come to know today: NinetyEight.
I’m going to take you through a trip down memory lane, back to April when NinetyEight began as an idea!
PART ONE: THE EMAIL
Professor Rohm’s Email: 4/29/2020
On April 29, 2020, Professor Andy Rohm sent all of us at the M-School an email with the subject line reading “Start an Agency.” I initially thought, “Hm, this would be pretty cool to do.” I had already envisioned myself starting my own company in the future, but with COVID I didn’t think jumping the gun was a smart move.
Professor Rohm then sent another email on the same day, this time mentioning that adjunct professor Eric Johnson, Founder & President of Ignited, was available to support this idea and mentor the students if they were indeed interested.
And well, I was interested! I followed up via email, asked if other students in our class had reached out, and Professor Rohm brought up Bryant.
Bryant’s Text: 5/1/2020
I texted Bryant, and we began planning our next steps. We both had no idea on how to start a business, but we knew that setting up a meeting with professors Rohm, Matt Stefl (co-director of the M-School), and Eric was the first step.
Eric/Matt/Andy Meeting: 5/5/2020
This meeting was an interesting one. I look back and I remember it as “the three dads with different opinions.” One said, “Keep your job, it’s COVID!” The second dad said, “Keep your job, and do this on the side.” The other said, “If you can, do it. It’s worth the risk.”
M-School Farewell & The Team Grows: 5/6/2020
No one in the M-School expected to say goodbye in the manner that we did. It was sad. It didn’t feel right. Had we all known that the last class session we had was going to be our last, things would have been different. Nevertheless, Rohm, Stefl and Noriko organized a memorable online ceremony to bid the graduating cohort farewell.
Towards the end, Rohm announced that there was a strong interest in starting an agency, and that’s when the rest of the family joined. Fran, Celine, Gia, and Sammy all sent me a text saying they were interested in joining the team and getting this going. The following week we began to get to work!
First Team Meeting: 5/12/2020
I got an email from Eric early in the week saying he had a lead he wanted to brief me on, so we scheduled a call to discuss. He wanted to see if the team and I could come up with a couple of creative ideas for us to collaborate on.
We met as a team, grinded hard for the next two days, and presented a full-blown marketing campaign after only 48 hours. Little did we know, Eric’s ask allowed us to develop the blueprint for how we would work together.
Our First Pitch: 5/27/2020
Oh man, we were nervous. We had just graduated a few weeks ago, had no idea on how to run an advertising agency, and yet here we were giving a pitch of a lifetime to a CEO of an international health food brand. We were all nervous, but confident in the quality of our work.
PART TWO: THIS IS LEGIT
El Camp - First Day at the Office: 6/1/2020
In June, Eric offered us an opportunity to work at El Camp, a coworking space, and we decided to meet in-person for the first time since Spring Break. It was nice to see everyone after such a long time, but the most important element was that it made our effort feel REAL.
It allowed us to step out of our college mindset and recognize that we were no longer students doing semester long projects, but marketing professionals starting our very own creative advertising agency.
LLC Registration: 6/3/2020
And so we got to work. Bit by bit, our agency slowly began to come to life: we confirmed a name, created a logo, defined roles that we would need - all the while figuring out how to properly register ourselves as an official business.
As marketing professionals, branding comes second nature to us. It was the legalities and “grunt work” of starting a business that was difficult for us to learn. EIN? General Liability Insurance? Operating Agreements? Articles of Incorporation? We had no clue what these things were at all. But, we learned.
Soon enough, we were officially registered as “NinetyEight LLC,” operating as a business under the State of California.
NinetyEight Launch Party: 6/12/2020
In the following weeks we planned our “NinetyEight Launch Party.” We wanted to celebrate this accomplishment with our biggest supporters, and also ask them to spread the word about NinetyEight. If this company was to survive through COVID, we would need all the help it could get. We invited our families, friends, mentors, LMU professors and everyone we could think of in our professional networks.
(Re)introducing H.U.G: 6/16/2020
In our early discussions, all founders agreed that incorporating a social initiative in our company was going to be an important pillar of ours. We came up with a list of values and social causes we were all passionate about, and then decided to bring an old project of Fran and Bryant’s back: Hygiene U Give.
H.U.G is our initiative aimed at alleviating one of the most overlooked problems faced by the homeless population and low income communities: access to menstrual care. We immediately sought out organizations that aligned with our values and partnered up with SUMMAEVERTHANG. Since we began, we were able to donate over 100 H.U.G packs which included pads, tampons, and wet wipes!
Our First Clients - M-School & Dr. Ellen Ensher: 7/10/2020
In early July, we were able to secure our first wave of clients: the M-School and Dr. Ellen Ensher. They were very excited to work with us, and we couldn’t have had better clients to kick off our business. Our existing relationship with them allowed for us to feel more comfortable familiarizing ourselves with professionally delivering a project from pitch to execution.
CBA Webinar - Impact Insights: 7/16/2020
Our first opportunity to position ourselves as the “Gen-Z experts” came via our alma mater, Loyola Marymount University. The College of Business Administration invited us to participate in their summer webinar series and give a presentation titled “Decoding the New Generation: How Brands Can Better Speak To and With Gen-Z”. Fran, Celine, and I shared to the professionals in attendance relevant Gen-Z topics, terms, and offered strategies on how to communicate in ways that resonate with this audience.
PART THREE: THE GRIND
Racking Up Clients: September through December
Once we got the ball rolling, we began throwing our time and energy at generating new business. The team and I started sending cold emails to different companies, sending LinkedIn messages to industry professionals seeking advertising services, and even used our creativity to create mock-up ads to gain the attention of our favorite brands. We were able to get Billie, Oatly, Sharpie, Truly, and Besito to notice our work!
Bit by bit we began to rack up clients. Given that we didn’t have much industry experience to show, we leveraged our creativity to win over the trust of our prospects. KAA Design, an architectural firm, was our first big client and the rest followed.
After the books started reflecting more profitable margins of revenue, we were able to finally pay ourselves our first round of checks. This was a proud moment for us because it was the first tangible metric of progress that showed our growth. All the hard work was paying off!
The Argonaut Feature: 11/11/2020
As the months continued and word started spreading, we were soon asked to be interviewed by The Argonaut - a West LA newspaper.
Given that we were all in quarantine and isolated from the outside world, it was rewarding for us to see that our work was being noticed by others outside of our network. This provided us with the motivation to continue working at a time where COVID has made it difficult to plan for our business’ future.
As I finish writing this today, I look back at all that we’ve come to learn and feel proud of what we’ve accomplished. We are not millionaires, nor are we the perfect example to follow. However, we’re all passionate about what we do and have the desire to continue to bring life to our company. We all want to make an impact in the world, and for the time being NinetyEight is allowing us to do just that. Cheers to the start of NinetyEight! And cheers to that email Professor Rohm sent on April 29, 2020!