In this interview from September 2020, Ivellisse discusses her path as an agency founder navigating through creative challenges, a pandemic, and reimagining the agency model. This interview, conducted by Michael Freedman at Float, was originally published as part of the interview series "Agency Founders," which features founders of independent creative studios who are breaking the status quo.
In one sentence, can you tell us about your agency?
We are bombilla, a creative agency on a mission to move hearts and minds through branding and design.
What's the story behind your name?
Bombilla (bom-bee-yah) means lightbulb in Puerto Rican Spanish. It's symbolic of the power we all have to make the world brighter. It's also hard to say without a smile on your face.
Our theory of change is that the more creatives conspire towards the greater good, the sooner we can accelerate the changes we need as humans. That's why we focus on systems-changing organizations—from serving women and Black & Brown-owned businesses to social enterprises and nonprofits who are addressing issues like federal paid leave policy, racial & gender equity, and access to educational and economic opportunity.
Can you tell us more about that?
We're the creative directors of our shared future on this beautiful blue planet we call home. How are we going to step up to solve the great social, political, and environmental crises of our time? I'm doing what I can from where I am by mobilizing creatives for justice and serving entrepreneurs and leaders who are leading the charge.
We need everybody to be #litonpurpose; to embody the change the world needs by focusing on how our individual gifts can collectively make the world brighter. Change starts with you (us).
In the words of Dr. Howard Thurman, "Don't ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive."
How large is your team now? As a fully remote team since day one, has your work routine changed much during COVID-19?
Right now, we're rocking and rolling as a team of nine, including me. At one point, we had colleagues actively working from Tacoma, Washington; Natchez, Mississippi; Boston, Massachusetts; Austin, Texas; San Francisco and Oakland, California. We have visual designers, strategists, web developers/designers, project managers, and communicators who range from moonlighters and freelancers to fellow creative studios and (soon-to-be) employees. I'm proud to share that our network is primarily filled with folks who identify as women, Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) and LGBTQ+.
Honestly, the biggest challenge in our daily routine is reminding ourselves that we're human. This requires trust and vulnerability to share struggles, prioritize care for oneself and one's team, and stay realistic with timelines and commitments.
Thankfully, we have the culture and trust to be honest about how we're feeling and to discuss what's working and what's not. We recognize that sometimes we just need to take a break from it all. That's one positive aspect of this all—we're a little bit more real with each other about our human experience.
The pandemic had had a profound impact on businesses both big and small. What's it been like for your business?
When I signed myself up to be an entrepreneur, I wasn't expecting to deal with all of this! Between apocalyptic fears, low cash flow, mental health issues, social distancing, and the political climate, it's all a bit much. I'm grateful we've been able to sustain the business through small budget projects, the support of government loans, and a recent surge in demand.
My vision is to build the Pixar for progress. I'm inspired by the magic that happens in a collective of creatives with different perspectives, identities, and lived experiences. I believe in the power of storytelling for human transformation. I want to build a creative workforce that's truly representative of the United States of America. Our workplaces need to reflect us as people. This means teams that are multi-racial, multicultural, and multi-generational. We're making space for different identities, with perspectives all anchored in the same values, which is what makes "team" work and the dream work.
How about the impact on the industry as a whole?
With community, communication, and collaboration (and adjusting), I think the creative industry will bounce back stronger than ever. The playing field is leveled now that we're all at home. We're going to see the rise of thriving creative collectives, especially as unemployment continues to rise.
I believe that the agencies that survive will be the creatively nimble ones, with the team dynamics and humility to learn and learn from each other.
You've said you want to build an agency that's anti-oppressive and anti-racist, and one that goes beyond the billable hour. How do you achieve that?
First things first, there is no blueprint, and I don't have all of the answers. I'm learning and navigating as I go.
What I do know is that the traditional agency model is broken. I'm trying to avoid the toxic culture, the stressful lifestyle, and the expectations and structures that uphold white supremacy (perfectionism, urgency, hierarchy, etc.). This is why we all end up getting burnt out at one point or another in our careers.
We obviously need the billable hour as a unit of our inventory to measure work hours for payment, and as a standard hourly rate to present to clients. Where it gets dangerous is when humans are treated as billable hours on paper, without regard for their full lives and full selves. In my early days, I remember being told I would be "overbooked" with no regard for my personal life or my well-being. Like, what?
With the support of my accountant, tax preparer, and business mentors, we're building a financial model that'll allow us to lean towards values-based pricing. If anyone has figured this out/is exploring this as well, please let me know! I'd love to connect.
What can other agencies do to improve the work-life balance?
One thing agencies can immediately start doing is asking their team how they're doing and what they need from them to be their best human selves. We're all working from home with reduced productivity, dealing with the uncertainty of a global pandemic, and how it intersects with systemic racism and the climate crisis.
The pandemic is inviting us to revisit these business norms that were never human to begin with. We are humans, not robots!
We all need to level set and recognize what's realistic. We have the power to push back, reset expectations and prove that high-quality, well-informed work takes time.
What does a typical project look like at bombilla?
We begin all projects with a discovery phase where we immerse ourselves in our client's brand. This includes an in-depth brand audit, getting smart on their industry, evaluating and comparing alternatives in the marketplace, customer interviews, and (my favorite part) strategic brandstorms where it all comes together.
From there, we head into design & development, where we make magic happen using the organization's strategic goals and our informed work to cook up something good—whether it's a communications strategy or a new visual identity system. This is the phase that can get a little bit chaotic with feedback sessions and ongoing refinement. Then we arrive at the delivery phase, where we finalize and package everything up.
Our process is nothing new. What makes us different is the perspectives, lived experiences, and talent we bring to the process and the team. We enjoy building real human relationships with our clients and with each other. Creativity, community, and collaboration are our key ingredients in making this dream work!
Have you ever turned down a project because it didn't fit with what you do well or it went against what you believe in?
That's the beauty of being your own boss! You can select the clients and projects you want to work on. In the beginning, I said yes to everything and had to make ends meet. I had to learn the hard way that saying yes to more projects does not always lead to more profit.
As the CEO, it's my job to protect my team and myself. I'll only be hurting us if I accept projects we know we can't fulfill to the best of our ability. This means pushing back when necessary, standing in our value and worth, sticking to our process, and gracefully and confidently saying no.
It's very scary to say no to money, but we're also saying yes to peace and leaving space for the right opportunity that speaks to our sweet spot as a creative collective. It's super important to align team members on creative projects and social issues they care about. This is where we shine!
While the percentage of female creative directors has increased substantially over the past decade, women still account for less than one-third of all the CDs in the U.S. Why aren't there more female-led agencies?
There are systemic reasons why there are few female-led agencies. The industry started off as a boy's club. If anything, I'm inspired by the number of female-led startup agencies and studios in the last few years.
We're leaving to start our own companies, creating our own rules, leading with our own values, and designing the workplaces of the future.
What were some unexpected challenges you faced when you were first getting started?
I left my corporate job on January 31, 2018. By that summer, I was abundantly drowning in inbound demand. I started as a full-time freelancer and quickly built up the agency in months. I wasn't expecting to grow so soon and so fast. I was super optimistic with my time, saying yes to everything, fueled by a scarcity mindset, real financial responsibilities, and, of course, the eagerness to serve.
Thankfully, my days as an older sister, student group leader, and agency account manager have set me up to be a delegating queen!
Running a business is personal and professional development all in one. You will get tested. Your insecurities and areas of growth will be exposed for all to see. You will need people to talk to.
I started bringing in confidantes, friends, and independent contractors behind the scenes to support me. This is where the collective was born. Shout-out to Stephanie Derrick, Emily Seaman, Andrea Cameron, and Betsaida Dimas who supported me behind-the-scenes in the early days and for all of the family, friends, and mentors who've provided referrals, projects, encouragement and emotional support (and still do) since day one.
Can you tell us about a project you've worked on recently that you're particularly proud of?
We're very proud of birthing a new brand for a woman of color-owned small business in Oakland, California, called Birthland. Co-founders Anjali Sardeshmukh and Kiki Jordan are community midwives who are addressing a critical need to provide affordable and accessible birth services to families who are historically marginalized from quality care.
I met Anjali and Kiki as fellow students studying microfinancing in Uptima Business Bootcamp, a member-owned business accelerator that supports diverse entrepreneurs in creating thriving businesses. What an honor to work with and support the work of my community!
In our work together, we embodied: home and family, the feminine divine, strength and resilience, and the joys of new life. Our collaborative process started with hands-on branding exercises, research and reflections, and ended with a powerful look and feel that we're all equally proud of. It brought tears to my eyes to see our work come to life on their newly-minted storefront.
How do you measure progress as an agency?
We're not trying to be the "best" agency or the "most successful" design team. We're here to scale soulfully, sustainability, and slowly. What's most important to me is that we're making a living, making a difference, and having fun. The day this isn't fun anymore is when the quality of work, quality of life, and quality of engagement and commitment suffer. I measure this by how happy and fulfilled my team and clients feel.
And if we can also build creative spaces that celebrate diversity and justice, that would be progress not only for bombilla, but also for the design industry.
While brands typically like to play it safe, advertising can sometimes play an important role in shaping culture and promoting social change. How can agencies and brands work together to meet the current racial justice movement?
We're finally talking about anti-Blackness and racism directly, across industries and sectors. It's taken us centuries, generations, and multiple movements to get here, and we've still got a long way to go. We're in the biggest fight of our lifetimes! Dismantling white supremacy and decolonizing isn't easy. Transformative change isn't easy.
Change is messy, beautiful, painful, regenerative, violent, inspiring, powerful. What a time to be alive!
Before we talk about the content of advertising, we need to talk about the people at the agencies and brands producing the work. Both agencies and brands need to address their internal culture and the diversity of their teams. This is why we need to focus on diversifying who is behind the scenes. Who are the creative directors? The copywriters? The strategists and communicators? The media buyers? It boggles me when brands make insensitive gaffes that could've been prevented if they had the right members on their team at every stage of the production process.
A number of initiatives, programs, and communities exist to support underrepresented professionals and students in the creative & media industries. Some of these include, but are not limited to: ADCOLOR, The 3 Percent Movement, ColorComm, Six Hundred & Rising, Hold the PRess and Where Are the Black Designers? There is no excuse anymore on "where to find talent."
What advice would you give to someone who is considering starting their own agency?
Know your numbers.
You're in business to make a profit! Teach yourself basic accounting and bookkeeping, hire a CPA-certified accountant and/or bookkeeper, and invest in the right accounting software to set you up for success. I adopted some of these later in the game, which became more expensive than if I had invested in them sooner.
My accountant is currently helping me develop a custom cash flow and revenue spreadsheet to help inform project scopes and new hires. For once, I'm feeling geeky and excited about math!
Excel in your zone of genius.
As an agency, it's easy to say yes to projects outside of your wheelhouse or to be "full-service" and pretend to do it all. I've been burned by what happens when you fake it until you make it. Without the right team, systems, and capital, this can become very painful, very quickly.
You don't have to be everything for everybody. It's perfectly okay (and even ideal in the long-term) to niche and lean into your zone of genius. This is what you're uniquely talented in as an agency—that special "thing" that nobody else can emulate, no matter how hard they try!