Chris Donnelly is the founder and CEO of Verb Brands, a luxury digital agency he founded from his university bedroom in 2013.
He spoke to Econsultancy about how he came to found Verb Brands, his favourite tools for getting the job done, and his advice for marketers in luxury.
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Hi, Chris. Please describe your job: What do you do?
Chris Donnelly: I am the founder and CEO of Verb Brands, a luxury digital consultancy I founded in 2013 while at university.
My job essentially involves spearheading the agency into becoming the leading luxury digital agency worldwide. I attach great importance to creating a culture that thrives on innovation and personal development.
This means I spend fifty percent of my time on culture, the team and building the right environment for the agency to succeed; while the other fifty percent is spent with clients on their business strategy.
Whereabouts do you sit within the organisation?
Chris Donnelly: I feel it’s important for any business leader to sit and be visible among the team in the office. I focus on the business growth strategy and I try to avoid sitting on client meetings as much as possible in order to not miss my number one objective, which is leading the agency.
Who do you report to?
Chris Donnelly: I built an internal team to act as our board and I feel that they hold me to account for ideas and challenge me on my plans and what I want to do with the agency.
The team is comprised of a variety of team members of all seniority who are asked to support the growth of the business alongside their day-to-day roles.
After all, they’re invested in the business and understand it intimately, so who best to turn to for wider support.
What kind of skills do you need to be effective in your role?
Chris Donnelly: Assertiveness, influencing skills and most importantly of all, patience.
Empathy and being able to genuinely help people envision their career path and motivate to achieve it within the context of the agency journey are supplementary key skills.
Tell us about a typical working day…
Chris Donnelly: My typical working day consists of working with my leadership team to identify where efficiencies and improvements can be made and give them the tools and mentorship needed to achieve this.
I spend about a quarter of my time working with my lead teams and focusing on the future and growth. And for the other quarter of the time, I work directly with clients and new business. The remaining time, I aim to focus on developing culture and people.
I enjoy all of these areas, especially the latter one since it’s the most challenging but the most rewarding one at the same time.
What do you love about your job? What sucks?
Chris Donnelly: I am a very hands-on CEO in trying to foster a workplace culture people want to belong to, I am very hands-off with the operational side of the business as I trust the talent my teams possess.
What I love is that I am always inventing the next part of my job and delegating it to people better than me, as well as nurturing others to invent the next part of theirs.
There’s not much I dislike really about my job! The hours can be brutal which no-one can truly love but overall, I’m very happy.
What kind of goals do you have? What are the most useful metrics and KPIs for measuring success?
Chris Donnelly: I’ve learned to measure success based on results – as a one-person company, you realise what you get out is directly proportional to what you put in.
Each team lead has a series of KPIs that consist of sales targets, client relationships and team building and employee engagement.
Culture is one of the most important goals I have for Verb and everyone is responsible for it. Employee retention and satisfaction are two metrics that I constantly evaluate to analyse this.
What are your favourite tools to help you to get the job done?
Chris Donnelly: In order to pursue a greater sense of responsibility, we started The Growth Lab. The initiative helps to promote and develop some essential business issues at Verb internally, and it gives a greater sense of responsibility to the ones who are part of it.
This was created to help shape Verb’s strategy to achieve our two key missions; to become the leading luxury digital agency and to have one of the most progressive, inclusive and fulfilling agency cultures in the world.
The Growth Lab consists of selecting a hand-picked group of team members to be an integral part of the top-level decision-making process, focusing on the big projects required to scale across the areas of people, clients, sales & marketing, processes and corporate.
We have appointed a quasi-board that is made up of five high-performing team members and each of them has been tasked with a growth area to own. The board has no level of seniority and is drawn from all levels within the company.
How did you end up founding Verb Brands, and where might you go from here?
Chris Donnelly: Like many successful companies today, Verb was born in a university bedroom – sorry for the cliché!
I had, from a very young age, been involved in a variety of enterprises and start-ups. I therefore put those skills to use in consulting for companies on marketing and building websites.
At the end of 2013 I left university and alongside a bit of travel, I launched the business formally and took our first office to go full-time in 2014 with the mission of building the leading digital agency for luxury brands.
I chose the luxury sector because I realised it was truly lacking direction in digital and, in addition, is a fantastic industry to work on.
Which brands have impressed you lately?
Chris Donnelly: Calzedonia is one of the brands that I believe has a very strong strategy. They have been growing their reach month-on-month, trailing and testing new strategies that have proven to be a success with them, following a unique cross-channel approach that allowed them to increase sales in the UK. I’m proud that we’ve played a part in driving this success story.
More widely, Kering’s chief client and digital officer Grégory Boutté’s admission that there are no digitally-native luxury brands was an impressive remark to make in light of the fact the luxury sector has yet to be disrupted by DTC brands. His suggestion of retrofitting a digital strategy that achieves the same superb control its brands (which include Gucci, Saint Laurent and Bottega Venetta) have over their physical presence is a shrewd move, and one we should all be keeping eyes on.
Any advice for marketers in luxury?
Chris Donnelly: A lot.
But I would say as a priority, it’s vital to understand how your customers want to be approached and understand where they exist in the digital space.
To define the right digital strategy, understand your brand and your unique selling points, use all the tools available to capture data and turn it into insights for your brand.
Don’t ignore new markets like China and the emergence of fresh target audiences like Gen Z.