Interview with Emily Penny

1. When did you realise you wanted to be a brand strategist?

I chose to study Fine Art and Art History at uni and while I loved it, my big learning was that I didn’t want to be an artist. Design looked more interesting and I landed a job in client services. A few years in, I discovered brand strategy and was smitten.

Over the years, I’ve met a few strategists who started out studying art. My husband, who I met on my art degree course, eventually became a strategist too. I guess if you love decoding images and understanding culture, it’s not such a huge leap.

2. How did you get started and what was the biggest hurdle you overcame?

My route into brand strategy came via an MA in marketing and jumping in at the deep end with a job as a consultant at management consultancy Circus.

Navigating a career around children has been the biggest hurdle. I set up Becolourful so I could work for myself and have the flexibility I needed. If I am honest, I was never good at being an employee in any case, so doing my own thing suited me well. I think it’s very wrong that there are so few women in leadership positions in the design industry, and that has to change. There’s a conversation to be had around why those positions aren’t attractive to them.

It turned out running a business was hard too. Initially, it was difficult to find enough work, now the challenge is resourcing it. I’m growing Becolourful – spending time working on my systems and processes – and building a team of brilliant people around me to increase capacity and do even better work. I work with five associate writers and strategists and I have sanity-saving admin support too.

Another big challenge for me is switching off. I love what I do so it doesn’t feel like work. I try to make time for regular yoga, take long holidays in the summer and never work weekends. But when I am in work mode, it can be pretty intense!

3. What’s been your most successful way of getting clients?

People buy from people, that’s what they say. And it’s true. I’m naturally curious and love meeting people. Nearly all my projects come to me through my network, or by referral. I’ve never got work from web search. (Well maybe once. But it wasn’t good.)

The great thing about getting work through your network is they match-make you with clients who are a great fit.

I don’t do pitches. Not the ‘free creative’ pitches – which would be unthinkable – I mean any pitches. The whole beauty parade process is soul-destroying and starts relationships in the wrong way. I’d rather work with people who come to me because they want to work with me.

4. How do you get clients to stay with you and use you for more work?

Most of my work doesn’t naturally repeat because I deliver strategies and message platforms for people to implement themselves. It means I spend lots of time on new business calls and proposals. For me, it works. I love that I am always working on new things.

Having said that, clients will sometimes move jobs and then get back in touch. The reason we keep in touch is the relationship. I work hard to deliver outstanding work, and I’m also brutally honest with them. They know they’ll get my true opinion, so they tend to come back when they next need advice.

5. Do you ever have issues with clients paying late? How do you manage that?

Payment problems are very rare. I invoice a deposit upfront (which no one has ever grumbled about). And I make sure I send clear terms and payment schedules with proposals.

I’ve learned that the most important thing is to listen to my gut. And check out companies’ finances on Companies House. I walk away from lots of opportunities that don’t pass the sniff test.

6. What does your typical workday look like?

My days are a caffeinated blur of Zoom calls and Google docs. I work in a lovely coworking office in the centre of Chichester. From there I work remotely with client teams all over the world. You’ll find me there filling a large cafetiere or hiding in a booth trying to think of another way to say ‘innovative solution’. I’m a big fan of physical notebooks and fill pages with notes and ideas before the real writing starts. I’m famous for typing loudly and wearing out keyboards in weeks.

7. Any piece of advice/wisdom that you’d like to give the readers at This Design Life?

I’ve been doing this a long time, and made plenty of mistakes along the way. Honestly, loads! Mistakes are good for you but it is annoying that you have to go through them. My advice is that you need to find your people – not people who are the same as you, but people who bring out the best in you. Who appreciate what you do. That goes for clients and teammates. If it’s not making you feel good, move along, fast!

Also, it’s a marathon, not a sprint. Oh, and you’re most probably not charging enough.

Connect with
Emily Penny

Follow Emily on Instagram

And check out her website here:

Emily has worked in branding for 25 years. She set up brand voice consultancy Becolourful in 2013. With her team of associates she partners with brand owners and creative agencies to boost their capabilities in brand strategy, brand naming and copywriting. She has worked with Conran Design Group, Decide, Fiasco, Family (& Friends), Filthy Media, Interbrand, Johnson Banks, Motto, Mucho and Vault49.

Interview published on: Jul 11, 2022

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