‘People thought I was crazy’: Working with DTC brands inspired former agency director to found a DTC skincare brand amid the pandemic

maes face

Last July, Maddie Fantle left digital marketing agency Direct Agents with the goal of starting her own direct-to-consumer brand. In her role as an associate director of creative and marketing at Direct Agents, 28-year-old Fantle had worked with DTC brand founders and entrepreneurs, many of whom were also in their late twenties, and that served as inspiration to her. 

For Fantle, becoming an entrepreneur was a long-time goal that was accelerated by the pandemic. Hearing from other entrepreneurs and working with brand founders to help them accomplish their goals made Fantle reevaluate her own and ultimately led her to take the leap to leave the agency and bring her own brand to the market. By January of 2021, Fantle did just that with a DTC skincare brand, Maes Face, putting her savings as well as funding from a friends and family round of financing into building the brand. 

“I wanted to become an entrepreneur and build something like they built,” said Fantle, adding working from home amid the pandemic made her reevaluate her goals. “No matter when you start a business, there’s a type of risk associated with it. In my case, it was during a pandemic … people thought I was crazy.” 

Maes Face now has four employees and sells four colorful vegan face masks; Fantle is intentionally starting small with one type of product, but hopes to grow into a larger wellness beauty brand in the coming years and aims to produce a new product within the next six months.

Fantle is one of a number of agency execs looking to go from working with brands to become a brand founder. Former DTC creative shop Gin Lane famously pivoted to become Pattern, a DTC brand holding company. As previously reported by Digiday, former Huge CEO Aaron Shapiro is using his agency chops to bolster a DTC life insurance start-up, Dayforward. And performance marketing shops have also been wading into the DTC space, building their own brands while continuing to work with them. 

“We have all learned how precious and short our lives can be and that’s part of why I believe there is going to be a talent drain this summer and into fall,” said Christie Cordes, a talent recruiter for ad agencies, of the impact of the pandemic and why agency talent may be eyeing creating their own brands. “The agencies who drive mass content work and productivity based on lowest price are fighting their way in a race to the bottom.”  

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The pivot from DTC agency to DTC founder may also be due to agency employees’ close ties with those brands. “I’ve observed that DTC brands have a more intimate relationship dynamic with their agencies than, say, Fortune 500 brands have with their AORs,” said Michael Miraflor,  independent consultant at Third City Advisory. “There’s more of an understanding of the business model, the levers to pull from a performance media perspective, and how it all works together with brand building.” 

Miraflor continued: “Also it’s known that some DTC agencies have retainer/ equity relationships with the brands they help launch and grow, so there’s more of an entrepreneurial bent in general that I think gives DTC [agency] executives a base of knowledge and confidence to launch their own brands.” 

While Fantle had a passion for skin care — her college roommates made fun of her use of avocado and manuka honey on her face — she took a data-driven approach to brand creation. “The truth is I thought of the consumer first, and then I compared it with things I do like,” said Fantle, adding that the popularity of self-care and selfies with Gen-Z and millennials led her to create Maes Face. “You can have interests, but that doesn’t always translate to a business.” 

As for marketing, Fantle spent the first month building up an audience for the brand on Facebook and Instagram organically. Since then, the brand has started to use paid advertising — Fantle declined to share marketing budget figures — primarily on Facebook and Instagram. However, with the privacy changes and iOS 14 update looming, Fantle plans to diversify that spending to other channels like TikTok shortly. 

“We’re still in our learning period,” said Fantle, adding that the brand is only in month three of existence.

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