Tony and Inii King talk us through King & Partners’ journey from boutique studio to global agency
Since their foundation in 2010, King & Partners carefully evolved from a boutique studio into a globally operating full-service agency; counting some of the world’s best know brands as their clients. Their teams across New York, Los Angeles, Miami and Paris are led by partners Tony and Inii King, who started the agency together having gained decades of experience working with fashion, hospitality, lifestyle and luxury brands. We caught up with them both to learn more about their work, process and plans.
EM Hi guys, how are you doing?
TK Very well, staying busy and creatively fulfilled!
IK The last few years brought us quite a few big changes. We moved from our office in Noho to the new space near Bryant Park. We celebrated the 10th year of King & Partners in 2020. We also got married after 12+ years of being together! All of these changes make us feel like we have moved into a second chapter with the agency. We don’t take ourselves too seriously and we always want to have fun, but we have some quite serious large engagements, things generally got a little more grown-up.
EM What inspired you to start the agency back in 2010?
TK Well, it was my second agency. My first agency, CreateThe Group, was very successful but purely in the digital and fashion space. When Inii and I started King & Partners we wanted to go beyond digital and to build an agency that delivers really good strategy, branding, content, digital and marketing – for a wider type of clients. Up to that point, to do all of that, to get all of those services you’d have to go to three different types of company, three separate agencies – branding, web design and marketing. We felt we could slowly get to the point where we do a great job with all of those services in one agency. But mostly we wanted to build a life being creative together.
IK Every day, we see things – places, brands or products – and talk about all the missed opportunities and how it could have possibly been better. King & Partners lets us do our favourite thing, which is to guide brands on how to be interesting, consistent yet fresh.
EM Being partners in both life and business, have you found the right balance or does work take over sometimes?
TK We have a lovely blend of business/creativity/work/travel/life all morphed into our life – sometimes ‘work’ takes over but only if we let it, and even then our ‘work’ is fun to us. We make an effort to have quite low-key analogue weekends, staying away from our computers, spending time outdoors, lots of time in the countryside – and that always resets things.
IK The best part is that we are always in sync. We know when we need to give full attention to work, when we need to make some time for ourselves.
EM How did you go about getting your first clients?
TK I had an agency prior to K&P called CreateThe Group, I ran that for a number of years, it grew into quite a large business and I worked hard to build a good reputation. When I sold my piece of that company and left, there were quite a few brands waiting to see what I/we did next so we were lucky enough to have a few brands ready and waiting, but as with every startup, you never know if anyone will actually hire you, you have to take that leap of faith, and also get out there and talk to people.
EM How has King & Partners evolved since then?
TK In two ways.
Firstly, we’ve built out all the services we set out to.
Secondly, we’ve gone from luxury, lifestyle and fashion clients to opening up to a really wide range of client categories – from DTC products, CPG, hospitality, beauty, wellness.
Nowadays a typical engagement for us is...
Working with founders to position and strategise where a brand lives, name it, give it a visual identity and personality. Come up with customer experience ideas, design packaging, collateral, etc. – deliver a full digital and marketing strategy, design and develop an eCommerce site, and then commence ongoing agency of record retainer – content, design, IDEAS, marketing, social media and in some cases eCommerce management (actually running their store).
WE ARE NOT IN A RUSH TO EXPAND AND EXIT.
EM What’s been the most memorable lesson that you’ve learnt along the way?
TK I think a couple of things that really stand out.
Firstly – never stop delivering ideas. At the end of the day, lots of people can execute, they can deliver a logo or a website. There aren’t that many people who can consistently deliver great ideas so we always try to be proactive with our creative thinking, even if the ideas are way beyond the guard rails of what we are supposed to be doing.
Secondly, don’t be afraid to say no. If it feels wrong, or you know you don’t love the team or brand then don’t take on the work. Say no.
IK The healthy growth comes from talent, not from demands for projects or pure revenue growth. We’ve only expanded the team or services when we find the right people, which means saying no to a lot of opportunities. Tony and I experienced how valuable things can be lost with overwhelming growth at his previous agency. We want the agency and our team to be part of our lives for a long time. We are not in a rush to expand and exit.
TK This is not a numbers game for us.
EM Is it difficult to hire the right people?
IK Incredibly difficult. We spend a lot of time talking to potential new team members. There are some technically brilliant people out there, but we need to balance that with having the right personality to fit in with our team, being nice, ability to deliver appropriate ideas and the right taste level.
EM Tony, what are the main differences between running your own agency and leading design for a huge company like the Gucci Group?
TK My days at Gucci Group were amazing, I had a dream job. Overseeing creative and digital work for all the various brands (Gucci, YSL, Bottega Veneta, Stella McCartney, Alexander McQueen, etc) working directly with all of the incredible creative directors. But at the end of the day, I didn’t have much of a say in their business strategy and direction of the brands. I did some breakthrough beautiful work and learned so much, but running an agency is wildly different from being brand side. We get to closely partner with brand owners on a more equal level because we’ve either led them through a huge transformation or helped create the brand from scratch.
EM Earlier Inii, you mentioned that you see brands every day that you think could’ve been done better – any there any that you’d particularly like to get your hands on?
IK I’d love to get a chance to rethink a national restaurant chain, something like Cheesecake Factory! To me, Cheesecake Factory represents my first impression of America when I came here in the early 2000s – abundance, size and quantity over quality, something for everyone… It is interesting and crazy to me that it has not evolved or changed since then. I think there’s a huge opportunity to turn it into something that represents a modern, evolved version of one of America’s most beloved family restaurants.
EM How does your team, process and communications work between New York, Los Angeles and Miami?
TK Our LA and FL teams are relatively small still and we also have other team members spread out all over the country. We even have a design director in Paris. We’ve always trusted the team and have had a pretty flexible way of working, we were already used to using Zoom, Slack, shared documents pre-COVID, and we make sure that there’s a good amount of communication and regular meetings. Inii and I split our time between NY and Miami – we don’t get to LA as much as we should. It all works well.
IK We emphasise nurturing good communication and use of intuition instead of enforcing rigid processes and rules. Most team members at K&P are excellent communicators, plus Tony, myself and our leadership team are very hands-on with everything – it’s a well-run organisation for sure.
With more people being remote, we make more effort to build our culture and create more opportunities to connect at individual, team, company level – online and offline. We had a three day offsite with the entire team this summer, we had an itinerary filled with just fun stuff, no work – eating, drinking, karaoke, axe throwing, clay shooting, zip line and a pool party – It was the most fun we had in a long time and we can’t wait for the next one.
EM How much have you had to adapt your creative process as the team has grown?
TK A little. Inii and I are still involved in almost every project but we’ve built a super strong leadership team underneath us that represent each service we deliver, so we also rely on that team to make sure every piece of work is as good as it can possibly be. When we can’t be on every client call or meeting we can check in with our leadership team once a week and get updated on everything and see where we might need to jump in. In terms of actual creative process, it hasn’t changed too much, we still sit down at the start and think about ideas, our approach, any inspiration and discuss how it all applies to the engagement.
EM Do you think remote working is here to stay?
TK Yes. In some ways I absolutely love it, the freedom to go beyond an office and work in different places, the healthier balance of work and life. In other ways it creates a lot of extra steps – I really miss the impromptu discussions and ideas that came out of these when we all work together, and I get frustrated when a piece of work has gone off in the wrong direction because I haven’t seen it for a few days. I find myself having to write very long messages with feedback on work in place of having a 10 min in-person conversation.
At the very start of COVID we were proactive.
EM How did COVID impact your business and processes in general?
TK It accelerated growth, and we had to be careful to control that, we didn’t want to just double overnight, we wanted to carefully say yes to the right opportunities and hire the right team members. At the very start of COVID we were proactive and sent out a series of ‘Think Strategically’ white papers with ideas on how to create revenue and keep a brand running well during a pandemic, we were also very supportive of some clients that had to reduce spend briefly. We have brave clients who invest in ideas because they know that’s how you keep your brand/hotel/service top of consumers minds. So K&P is in a good place.
EM Do you have a project you’re most proud of?
TK I really love what we did for The Boca Raton. MSD trusted us with a billion dollar asset, a property almost 100 years old. To their credit they had us sit in the pitches from all of the architects and interior designers, and they listened to our thoughts and point of view. This assignment was almost like creating a town – there are five hotels, almost a dozen F&B brands, dozens of experiences, hundreds of guest and club member touchpoints. I loved that we got to completely reinvent and transform such an iconic property, but most of all, I like the level of involvement. I get phone calls asking me about what colour to paint the hotel and what car and retail brands they should partner with. It’s really rewarding and fulfilling.
We are just starting on something similar for Rio Vegas which I am excited about.
I also love the work we did for SKIMS.
IK The Cosabella rebrand was the most rewarding project for me personally. There are too many brands that are focused on marketing, more than products these days. It was refreshing to work with a brand that’s focused on making better products and remembered for the exceptional quality. We are very proud of the new voice and branding we created for the next generation of Cosabella.
EM Who would you both say are your biggest creative influences?
TK Living in the countryside, looking at art, reading magazines, but mostly when we travel together. It sparks ideas and opens our minds to new things and just gets us thinking differently. We also have a passion for cars, so being around the classic vehicles we own can be quite inspiring.
IK Experiencing and learning about different cultures. Having access to diverse cultures is the biggest privilege of living in the US. It’s fascinating to see different ways of thinking and living. Seeing what makes people think a certain way helps me to approach subjects with a fresh point of view.
EM With more than three decades of experience between you, how do you make sure your work continues to evolve, and most importantly, keep you interested?
IK Staying open-minded and making sure we have diverse clients lets us organically branch out to new territories, and we’re always facing new exciting challenges. Tony and I both can’t stand being stagnant.
EM With over a decade down as an agency, what would you like the next 10 years to look like for King & Partners?
TK Ten more years of good ideas.
IK Continuing our healthy, meaningful growth. Continued evolution to always stay fresh.