In 2004, Raoul Davis launched Ascendant after being prompted by two speakers at a Speakers bureau he worked for to start his own business. Those speakers NY Times Best Seller Omar Tyree and wealth manager Arthur Wylie quickly became his first clients and it was off to the races for Davis.
Ascendant Group helps CEOs, thought leaders, and C-level executive leaders build a brand that goes beyond B2B and B2C to H2H (human to human), with a focus on increasing their top line revenue. By using brand strategy, public relations, book deals, social media, and brand design, companies and executives can grow their images.
Since 2009, Ascendant Group has specialized in CEO branding, becoming experts in the industry, defining the model. Davis’s early definition and model for CEO branding have been cited by other authors on Forbes, in book publications, and other sources worldwide.
Although the industry has grown to include more agencies today, Ascendant Group remains one of the sector’s elite companies. Ascendant Group has a team around the world in the United States, Canada, Belgium, Netherlands, Austria, Poland, and Lebanon.
Raoul, Ascendant Group has been in business since 2004 making its pivot to being a CEO Branding agency in 2008. What led you into the industry of helping CEOs increase their brand image?
Ascendant was actually born unplanned. I started in my undergrad, working as an intern for a booking agency that booked speaking engagements across the country. I worked remotely for them throughout my graduate studies, becoming one of their top salespeople. Towards the end of my graduate studies at the University of Delaware, two clients I had worked with at my job at the booking agency approached me and said, “Hey Raoul, we love working with you, why don’t you make your own company and we’ll be your first two clients?” I seized the opportunity and decided to do it. After a couple of years of working as a sort of distribution channel for speaker bureaus, we asked ourselves “what determines how much our clients speak? Is it their popularity or their brand?” After we asked ourselves this question we ended up moving into personal branding, utilizing PR and securing book deals as our specialization. By 2008, we redefined our company and began specializing in CEO branding specifically.
How does Ascendant help CEOs improve their branding and image? Do you work with CEOs of new companies, existing businesses, or long-time CEOs looking for a fresh brand look?
We work with all the above. Our team has experts in several facets from, literary agents, world-renowned photographers, social media gurus, etc. We all do our part to help hyper-emphasize the client’s individuality and personify them to their target audience which is essentially their differentiation from the competition. A product is one thing to promote, but a brand is entirely different. Products come and go but brands have longevity and pave the way for the perception of the company to the public.
An executive’s image is incredibly important. Modern business executives are seeing the impact of “well known CEO’s” like Elon Musk and Richard Branson and realizing that their image is deeply connected to their company’s success. Davis has worked with executives from every industry seeking to reshape the marketplace, but before they can, they must reshape their image.
This may seem like a simple question, but I’m sure even plenty of CEOs and business executives ask it. Why does a CEO, thought leader, or executive leader need branding and why should it come from Ascendant Group?
In today’s day and age, a company’s executive image is just as important as the company’s image itself. And my mentor Chris Collins told me that we all have two choices: we can get branded or we can get labeled? Do you want to help shape the marketplace’s understanding of you or do you want it to happen to you? By shaping your image and your company’s image, you can also increase your topline revenue and margins and build your legacy. As to why Ascendant Group? We were the second company in the space to focus on CEO branding, we helped shape the space into what it is today and we continue to take on more clients and cultivate strong brands for them and their companies, ultimately bringing them profit.
According to Ascendant Group’s official website, clients are “current executives from Walgreens, Dell, Universal, Fox, Formula One, Monster, Mahindra, BET, former professional Olympians and NFL and NBA stars transitioning to entrepreneurship”. What is the ideal client in your opinion? Is there any one sector you prefer to work with?
There are two types: Mid-Market CEOs which are defined as broadly as $5 million to $1 billion in revenue. The second client is C-level execs and VPs at fortune 500 companies looking to advance their careers. While there’s no one sector we prefer to work with, the ones we worked with most historically have been tech and real estate. We recently launched a vertical of the business with long-time collaborator Chris Collins called Executive Branding Agency to specifically focus on the unique needs of C-level executives at fortune 500 companies (execbranding.com).
Ascendant Group is now in its 16th year of business. With nearly two decades of business under its belt, Ascendant Group continues to grow. Thanks to the company’s great reputation from working with major global brands, Ascendant Group can expect to continue its rise in the industry.
Having begun in 2004, what were some of the challenges you faced early on? Was CEO Branding even something widely used by business executives when you made the pivot in 2008?
One of our issues, in the beginning, was the inability to scale quickly enough. For a few years, in the beginning, we had to bunker down and focus on the clients that we had and had to stop taking on new clients so we could focus on building ourselves up before we could take on any more clientele. We may have missed out on profit but it was integral for us to do so for our company to be what it is today. As for CEO branding being a thing 12 years ago, it definitely wasn’t in a formal way. You had people like Jack Welch, Martha Stewart, and Magic Johnson that were examples of it, but it wasn’t a formal discipline. When we re-established ourselves as a CEO branding company in 2008, there was only one other company in this space and they came at it more from a coaching angle. Our early work and contribution to the space has been really defining what CEO branding is and playing a key role in the birth of the industry. Two books came out on the topic Suzanne Bates pivotal book “Discover Your CEO Brand” and later “CEO Branding: Theory and Practice” by Professor Marc Fetscherin which I contributed two chapters to. Over the past decade, the concept and practice of CEO branding has increased exponentially as people see the value of it in action.
Obviously, you cannot give us the tricks of the trade. But can you tell us some ways that Ascendant Group works to raise the profile and brand of an individual?
With our small team of experts in their respective fields, we collaborate with one another based on our expertise. With department heads in charge of social media, having an in house literary/film agent that heads up publishing, PR, design, creative services like video and photography, and our congressional thought leadership practice. With everyone doing their part we have a lot of creative ways to promote our clients. Our real focus is not putting our clients in a box, but discovering their strengths that coincide with their business and amplifying those attributes. It is all tailored towards them, custom towards each client.
Ascendant has opened offices around the world. The company has also launched its global practice helping CEOs in China, Switzerland, Peru, West Africa, and the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region. Having offices around the world shows the power and growth the company has had since 2004. Raoul, in your view, what led to the growth and expansion of Ascendant Group over the last 16 years?
It is all about crafting unique positioning and trying to master it. We found our niche with CEO branding, but our journey involves continual innovation. For example, during this past year, it was all about “how do we reposition our clients during COVID?” We focused on client renewals as business development was basically shut down for a few months.
Ascendant Group has a boutique staff around the globe of around 25 individuals. Have you made a conscious effort to keep the team small to provide services at a very high level?
Yes, we’ve leaned on having a high level of expertise in our relevant verticals of the business. We infuse that with having younger talent that we cultivate and pushes us to ensure we are constantly on the cutting-edge.
With nearly two decades under your belt as an entrepreneur. What is next for the company and how has the COVID-19 pandemic changed the way Ascendant Group has operated this year?
Ascendant from an organizational level has always had a strong virtual component with our team in different locations across the country and world so there isn’t much change there. As we’ve brought in younger talent to cultivate we have made more of an effort to expand our headquarters location in Delaware. As to how we function with our clients, our biggest change is that we have traded in-person conferences, brand strategy sessions, and events to virtual forums hosted and joined by our clients.
Raoul, what is a day in your life like?
I wake up between 5:15 and 6:00, pray in the morning, set the agenda for the day, get my kid ready for school. Come into work at around 9:30 or 10:00 and take client calls throughout the day. Also, I take a small break and walk outside to get some fresh air and food from across the street from where I work. I wrap up with work around 6:30, go to the gym and spend time with family, play games with my son then put him to bed, take a half an hour of down time for myself and go to sleep.
What is something most people don’t know about you?
I lived in Hawaii and got my master’s in public administration. This skillset has come in handy working with nonprofits, understanding how we position clients looking to become Congressional advisors, and most recently on a project for a client that developed a preventive treatment for Covid 19 and needed to navigate the FDA.
Can you share two of your favorite quotes with us?
“You can have excuses or you can have victory but you can’t have both” – John Berry
“Success isn’t final, failure isn’t fatal, it’s the courage to continue that counts” – Winston Churchill
If you had the power to change just one thing in the world what would it be?
I would want to increase the amount of empathy in the world. There has been a big disconnect in the last several years with the way people communicate with each other, like on social media. Part of what we communicate to clients is the importance of authenticity and connection. If we can increase that globally and make the world care again, it would advance society forward.
Ascendant Group has come a long way in 16 years. Although there were issues with scaling the business early on, Davis was able to reach incredible heights early on and continue building.
Davis started the company at a time in which there were few companies in the branding industry. Thanks to the agency’s track record, it remains at the top in the sector in spite of more branding companies popping up. With offices all over the world, Ascendant Group continues to grow and build executives seeking to create a strong brand image.
Journalist and author. Contributor