When Jenna Zilincar and Shannon Furey first met, both were working as freelance entrepreneurs, doing exactly what it was the other needed in order to increase business.
So the duo joined forces to create the dream team responsible for M studio, a women-owned – and women-run – design, marketing and public relations agency in Asbury Park.
Business suddenly boomed.
“It was challenging at times for two young women to say, yes, we can do this, we swear,” Zilincar, founder and creative director, said. “But the work that we have produced and the exposure that we have gotten is what really helped us to grow.”
From creating logos for local businesses to working with clients such as Whole Foods Market, Bristol-Myers Squibb, the cities of Hoboken and Red Bank, Anthropologie and Shell Oil, M studio has proven how “small” often can be more successful.
Especially when nearly 90 percent of its staff members are women.
“The majority of resumes that we receive are from women who are excited about the opportunity to work with us,” Shannon Furey, public relations director, said. “And I think the more mentor opportunities that are made available to women in business, the better.”
Zilincar was 24 and working as a graphic designer when she began M studio in 2004 as a side hustle, working to produce logos and graphics for a handful of clients.
She met Furey while working on a project for Marilyn Schlossbach, executive chef and owner of the Marilyn Schlossbach Group, a collection of Jersey Shore-based restaurants and retail environments.
Trained as a journalist, Furey was working as a freelancer in marketing, after moving back home to Normandy Beach from Arizona, where she had worked for an advertising agency.
“So, while I was doing marketing work for Marilyn, Jenna was doing all of the design work, and we would always have meetings,” Furey said. “That’s when we started to realize that our services were extremely complimentary.”
Furey joined up with Zilincar to make M studio into a fully-integrated boutique public relations and design agency focused especially on digital marketing.
“Shortly after, sometime between 2008 and 2009, we were awarded a two-year contract to handle all of the marketing and public relations for the city of Asbury Park,” Furey said. “That’s when we were really able to first execute our full-service approach, with Jenna and her team creating all of the visual assets and my team handling all of the press and communications.”
M studio’s involvement in such a high-profile project put not only Asbury Park, but also the agency, on the map.
“We then had business owners in Red Bank reaching out to us because they had noticed how Asbury Park’s (communications) suddenly had a different look and feel, and that the city’s Facebook page was getting so much attention,” Furey said.
Within three years of landing that account, M studio was competing on a global level.
“For example, Liquitex, Winsor & Newton (asked) us to work with their U.K. headquarters to take on a global product launch and create an (artists) ambassador program on their behalf,” Furey said.
“We were able to help them grow the brand and spread their message through the use of both emerging and established artists, who already were brand loyalists, by capturing the right assets of them and using those in our digital marketing strategies,” Zilincar said.
Zilincar added that she has more frequently seen larger companies partnering with smaller agencies for more affordable and diverse marketing campaigns.
“Sometimes people think ‘boutique’ often means small and incapable, but in fact, we’ve really seen a shift within the last year and a half where larger brands are now looking for those smaller agencies and more personal relationships,” she said.
“People often look to the larger agencies first because they want those contacts, they think that will give them the quickest road to success by increasing their chances of exposure,” Furey said. “But while contacts are great, if you don’t have a relevant and visually compelling story to tell, and if you are not approaching people in the right way, you’re not going to get coverage.”
For M studio, everything begins and ends with a strong concept, Furey said.
“We reverse engineer all of our concepts by figuring out where our clients are looking to go and how we think we can help them get there,” she said. “And in that way, no two clients end up with the same look or feel.”
“We often are asked, ‘Can you just send us your package (options)?’ ” Zilincar said. “We don’t have those. We need to have a conversation with you in order to establish what your goals are and what we can do to achieve those through the services we provide.”
M studio typically handles all initial development in-house among its team of eight.
“We’re all under one roof so that our communications and creative teams can work together, always inspiring the other,” Zilincar said. “That’s really exciting and energizing for us on a day-to-day basis, and it shows in the results we’ve received for our clients.”
Then, when applicable, M studio will begin to pull in outside resources.
“Every client has a different need, direction and audience, so we bring in subcontractors based on the goals of a particular project,” Zilincar said. “We say, ‘Okay, if this is our vision, who is going to be able to help us capture that best?’”
M studio is therefore able to take a project from concept to completion, whether that includes public relations and communications, brand development, social media and video production, or visual assets, such as photography and design.
Often times, it’s all of the above.
“Which is why we communicate with our clients so often,” Zilincar said. “With other organizations, there may be more steps in that chain.”
Retainers for most all-inclusive projects begin at $15,000. Furey said the cost ensures that clients are getting what they pay for – high levels of creativity and knowledge.
“We are really big on professional development,” Furey said. “For example, we sent a team member out to a digital summit in Los Angeles earlier this year to learn how content development is affecting public relations, and we make sure that our team members are all inbound certified through HubSpot.
“We also have put a real emphasis on staying ahead of what’s going to happen in our industry so that we can remain agile in our approach and deliver the best, most progressive approaches for our clients, especially on digital platforms. Just in the past week, for example, we’ve spoken with two prospective clients who have been underwhelmed with the agencies they’ve been working with. One was told that the agency would provide digital marketing, but found that they were not driving traffic to their website or adding digital components to their communications. The other was told that they could handle social media, but then didn’t understand the advertising components and the creative assets needed to test how the public is responding.
“This is why we make sure that we always are ahead of what the lasting trends are – we will do anything to continually educate ourselves and our team to make sure we are progressing.”
Zilincar said continued education also should, as frequently as possible, happen elsewhere.
“Getting out and experiencing new things, from the creative perspective, is really important,” she said. “Concept inspiration can come from anywhere.”
Though M studio is working on at least 10 projects at any given time, Furey said she would like to see the agency take on three additional full-service contracts over the next year.
“I also would like us to be considered as thought leaders in the industry,” she said.
M studio, Furey added, is therefore developing ways in which to educate the community, especially for those who may not be able to afford or do not have the resources to hire the agency.
“We especially want to help women business owners learn how they can do some of the things that we do for themselves in order to grow their businesses,” Zilincar said.
“As women business owners, we have realized our responsibility in making an impact beyond providing a paycheck,” Furey said. “Jenna, for example, has spoken for the networking organization Babes in Business, and I joined a national advisory council for women in public relations, with the overall mission to address the gender gap when it comes to leadership roles.
“We now are trying to cultivate the next generation of leaders in the industry.”
For Zilincar, that especially hits close to home.
“I just had a baby nearly eight months ago,” she said. “But work always will be part of my life. Yes, sometimes we have to hit the pause button and come back to it – but for us, this is not a nine to five job. We care about our business and we want it to succeed.”