Brandish launches investment division

Winnipeg-based Brandish has introduced a new investment development arm called Brandish Ventures, accompanied by the launch of two companies and an equity investment in a new business offshoot launched by one of its AOR clients.

Launched by Brandish co-founders/managing partners Morley MacDougall and Lee Waltham with an initial investment of $1.5 million, Brandish Ventures operates independently of the agency. It is built around four investment offerings: capital, service-based, incubation and composition (a combination of capital and service-based investments).

Waltham said they refer to Brandish Ventures as an “opportunity engine,” providing them with greater leeway in terms of the brands they work with and the type of work they produce. “A lot of agencies take on projects that don’t necessarily align with their values, or have to make decisions based on client direction and do work they don’t necessarily believe in,” he said.

It can also safeguard against one of the biggest business challenges for traditional agencies, particularly small independents: The loss of a key account (something that happened to Brandish just as the pandemic hit).

Waltham said the pandemic provided something of a reset for the agency, allowing the principals to take a step back from focusing on continuing its growth trajectory—which included establishing a Toronto foothold last year—and instead focusing on optimizing the business.

“When the pandemic came and we lost this anchor account… it was a good moment to stop and say ‘This is why this other thing is incredibly important, and we need to focus on that,'” he said.

There are currently three entities under the Brandish Ventures umbrella, including Tilt, a wholly owned sales acceleration and lead generator for the automotive sector. It currently has annual revenue of just under $300,000, is working with 65 dealerships across Canada, and is starting a Series A funding round.

Brandish Ventures has also acquired a 50% service-based stake in LaFortune Home, a landscaping, decking and home maintenance company. “[They’ve] bought into our vision to take their business… and apply a marketing playbook to grow it,” said Waltham. “Our plan for that business is to grow a big national business as fast as we can.”

The agency has also made a capital and service-based investment in Robertson Online, a new digital learning platform developed by Robertson College, an AOR client for the past three years. “For me that’s a testament to the work we’re doing on the agency side,” said Waltham. “The relationship has been incredibly successful, so much so that they invited us to buy in to the company.”

While Ventures is a new strategy for Brandish, other agencies have undertaken similar initiatives in recent years to take equity in some of the brands they are supporting. In January, for example, Toronto’s Zulu Alpha Kilo announced that it had taken a stake in the natural skincare brand Consonant Skin + Care, and would act as the brand’s in-house agency.

And in May, longtime advertising entrepreneur Arlene Dickinson announced the launch of Venturepark, a group of five distinct companies providing “capital, marketing, programming, innovation, commercialization and media amplification” for CPG businesses.

In the U.S., the agency Bullish identifies itself as an “investment firm + brand agency,” offering early stage investment and branding. Its clients include grooming brand Harry’s, mattress brand Casper and the eyewear company Warby Parker.

One of the main benefits of the business model is that there is “less friction” when it comes to developing marketing and advertising, said Waltham. “You can work with the best clients in the world, and there’s still a lot of rationalization that has to happen: ‘Here’s why we have to do this, here’s our recommendation.’ When we remove the client from the equation, so to speak, we’re able to move more quickly.”

The goal for Brandish, said Waltham, is to incubate and build “enduring” companies. “Every week I’m talking to people about potential ventures,” he said. “We haven’t found anything yet, but if the right opportunity comes along, we’ve got the playbook to make it happen.”

Chris Powell