Brand Strategist Jaci Russo of brandRusso, Making a Meaningful Difference Both Professionally and Personally
“I prioritize hiring and promoting women, aiming for a world where my daughters expect equal treatment. Our flexible work schedule and hybrid model stem from personal needs, and my approach is to extend these benefits to the entire team. This, I believe, fosters a better culture, work environment, and opportunities for everyone.”Jaci Russo
Jaci Russo is a passionate leader and advocate for women. As the co-founder and CEO of brandRUSSO, a strategic branding agency headquartered in Lafayette, LA, Jaci has been instrumental in establishing the company’s reputation for excellence in delivering reliable and high-quality results.
Beyond the boardroom, Jaci is a published author and highly respected speaker on branding and marketing. With over two decades of experience making a meaningful difference both professionally and personally., she brings a wealth of knowledge and a dynamic perspective to her topics. Jaci also conducts Brand Builder Workshops and produces brandRUSSO’s Razor Branding blog and podcast, offering guidance in today’s marketplace.
At brandRusso, Jaci fosters a culture of collaboration where fresh ideas and creative solutions thrive. Her dedication to education, equal opportunity, and economic empowerment extends beyond her professional life, positioning her as a community leader who inspires others. Find out more about Jaci and brandRusso in our Q&A below.
Can you start by introducing yourself and telling us in your words, about your inspiring story? We’d love to learn more about how you got to where you are today.
Hello, I’m Jaci Russo. I founded Brand Russo in February 2001, almost unintentionally, like many entrepreneurs. Originally from Lafayette, Louisiana, I moved to Los Angeles after college, worked at Creative Artists Agency, and played a role in starting a production company. Later, I joined Home Shopping Network during significant acquisitions. Returning to Louisiana, I worked as a regional marketing director but faced challenges balancing work and family. As a licensed media buyer, I opted for freelancing to have more time with my kids. While freelancing, the agency was born as my graphic designer husband and I collaborated to serve clients. As the workload increased, we hired employees, eventually expanding to a larger office. Over the years, we navigated changes, evolving from a media agency to a full-service agency and finally finding our niche as a strategic brand planning company executing plans for clients on a retainer basis. Despite challenges, we’ve grown steadily, contributing to our success and that of our clients year after year.
What are the three most important habits to be a successful high performer or leader?
You must embrace a continuous learning mindset, genuinely prioritize your team, and be willing to make sacrifices for the collective well-being.
What advice would you give to an entrepreneur or founder leading a team for the first time?
Be the initial person to arrive and the final one to leave. Understand that your early efforts will yield long-term benefits, and ensure you recruit individuals who surpass your own intelligence.
When did you know it was time to become a full-time entrepreneur?
During my second pregnancy within a span of two years, I found myself unable to take any breaks from my full-time job
We all face challenges, but looking back, what have been some of the biggest challenges and pitfalls you’ve had to navigate?
I categorize my challenges into two distinct types. First, there are the external hurdles I’ve had to navigate, such as 9-11, financial crises, and the impact of COVID. We’ve had to find our way around these external forces. Second, there are the crises of my own making. For instance, there were times when I opted to hire someone based on cost rather than following my own advice to hire the smartest person. There were instances when I, driven by a desire for growth, accepted clients that turned out to be a poor match. Additionally, during phases of learning and growth or metamorphosis, we faced internal challenges. Over the almost 24 years, we’ve weathered numerous storms, with approximately half stemming from external factors and the other half being self-created.
Can you share some of the most important lessons you’ve learned from your successes and failures in business?
For me, whether it’s a success or a failure, it doesn’t feel like a final outcome. I view them all as opportunities for growth and learning. Instead of labeling them as failures or regrets, I see them as lessons. The key question for me is, “What did I learn from this experience, and how can I use it to improve next time?” Whether the outcome was positive or negative, I see each opportunity as a chance to enhance myself. I acknowledge that I’ll continue to make mistakes, but my goal is to make new ones because each mistake teaches me something valuable that I can apply to become better in the future.
What business advice would you give your younger self?
While I wouldn’t necessarily wish to change anything, there are certainly moments where I could have been wiser. There were a few hires I regretted making, some clients I shouldn’t have taken, and instances when I let insignificant things bother me. The key realization for me is understanding that everything eventually falls into place, knowing that things improve over time, and recognizing that my decisions shape the future. If I desire more, I need to exert more effort, and if I aim for specific growth, I must acquire the necessary skills. Looking back, I would advise myself to journal more and be more mindful of the present, as each chapter in the book of life is worth savoring.
What do you think is the single most important quality in an entrepreneur?
Flexibility, adaptability, or any similar term—these capture the essence of the ability to pivot. In our dynamic world, there’s no “set it and forget it.” We must possess the capability to adapt, adjust, and grow continuously.
What initiatives or actions do you believe are crucial for fostering a more supportive and inclusive business environment for women?
It’s crucial to support ourselves and each other. In interviews, I ask the same questions to men and women, revealing diverse perspectives. Embracing our unique qualities as assets, not liabilities, is vital. We should advocate for ourselves and promote inclusivity. I prioritize hiring and promoting women, aiming for a world where my daughters expect equal treatment. Our flexible work schedule and hybrid model stem from personal needs, and my approach is to extend these benefits to the entire team. This, I believe, fosters a better culture, work environment, and opportunities for everyone.
Which female leader do you admire, and why?
Michelle Ezell, an impressive entrepreneur who took the bold step of opening a sushi restaurant in a small Southern town where sushi was non-existent. Despite the region’s seafood abundance, it was traditionally prepared differently. Influenced by a Los Angeles sushi experience, Michelle envisioned its potential greatness. She dedicated years to crafting a business plan, overcoming 27 loan rejections. Her perseverance turned the restaurant into a regional powerhouse, a journey she led for over two decades before successfully selling it. I’m proud to call her a friend and feel honored to learn from her exceptional business management, team growth strategies, self-driven learning, and community contributions.
How do you leverage technology and innovation (like AI) to stay ahead in the rapidly evolving business landscape?
I have a passion for technology and embrace change not merely for its own sake but for the pursuit of improvement. Continual enhancement is my focus, and I am always assessing data to identify opportunities for refinement. To me, AI is like supercharged computers, a tool to enhance our capabilities. We’ve integrated AI into our operations for a while, not to replace humans, as they remain crucial to our processes. However, for repetitive and tedious tasks, AI automation and technological improvements are key. Recently, we cleared out an old storage area, realizing that items stored for potential future use were things technology had rendered obsolete. For instance, we’ve been paperless for years, eliminating the need for paper-related tools. Business growth necessitates adapting to change, and embracing technology is vital for ongoing improvement. While AI won’t replace people, those who master its use will surpass those who don’t.
How do you set your business apart from others in your industry?
That’s a fantastic question. BrandRusso stands out among advertising agencies for several reasons. When we began in 2001, I underestimated the challenge of distinguishing ourselves among 80,000 other agencies nationwide. After a few years, we found our strength in B2B marketing, developing a successful process known as Razor Branding to set clients apart in their industry. Our unique business practices include a flat retainer instead of hourly billing, ensuring transparency for clients. The founders remain actively involved in daily operations, exceeding client expectations. Additionally, our strong commitment to professional development sets us apart. Discovering that only 1% of ad agencies are led by women, and only half a percent are founded by women, made me realize the unique perspective and opportunities we bring as a woman-founded and led agency. Having a strong female perspective has proven advantageous, especially in reaching audiences where others might lack that insight.
Can you share any specific examples of how you have successfully built and maintained strategic partnerships or collaborations?
Certainly. We live in a collaborative world, embracing abundance rather than scarcity. Partnering is integral to our approach. I regularly refer client projects to other agencies that excel in areas outside our expertise. We’ve established strategic partnerships with external providers for technical executions and creative developments. Collaborative partnerships are essential for our continuous growth and expansion, and we strongly endorse this approach.
Do you have a favorite quote or motto that inspires you?
A quote I frequently refer to for guiding my business growth is from Richard Branson: “Train your people well enough so they can leave. Treat them well enough so they don’t want to.” This encapsulates my approach. I aim to foster a culture where my team experiences continuous growth and long-term success, even if it means their careers take different paths. While I provide extensive knowledge, information, and training to enhance our collective excellence, I also support and encourage their individual career growth in various directions.
Can you share a personal experience where embracing your unique leadership style, which might not align with traditional expectations, led to a significant positive impact on your organization or team?
I’d highlight our decision to close on Fridays as a bold move. Opting for a 4-day work week was a significant choice. Trusting in the maturity and responsibility of our team to ensure client needs were met, we recognized the mental health benefits. Despite our industry’s hesitation to embrace this level of freedom, we’ve experienced growth through this decision.
What’s coming up next for you and your business?
As Brand Russo expanded, we recognized that we were no longer a feasible option for small local businesses seeking a more affordable alternative. In the mid-teens, I initiated branding classes to empower these companies to enhance their strategies. In 2020, I transitioned these classes online, giving rise to Brand State U. Fueled by my commitment to professional development, I’ve enlisted four additional trainers. Together, we’re hosting the GrowthX small business conference in April and the second annual Women’s Summit at Sea in September. My focus remains on utilizing professional development to elevate everyone in our community.
Want more inspiring interviews?
Meet the Founder: Jenny Nuccio of Imani Collective. Read a Q&A with Entrepreneur Melissa Horvath of Sweet Water Decor or our Interview With Executive Coach Tania Friedlander. Get inspired by Entrepreneur Deanna Slamans who made over $10 million last year selling on Amazon or The “Fresh Princess of Email” Liz Wilcox Who Puts the Cha-Ching in Email Marketing. All of these and more are part of our interview series spotlighting successful women in business.
Melissa Stewart is the founder of SheOwnsIt.com. She is a Purveyor of Possibility, Entrepreneur Advocate and Coffee Addict. She believes that behind every successful woman is her story. What’s your story?