True-Crime Fanatic Michelle Nguyen Kills It in the Branding World

Meet the co-founder and CCO of Salty Studios

While Nguyen has worked with major companies like Motorola, she wants to widen the pool and take on smaller accounts in the future. Michelle Nguyen

Crime is a passion for Michelle Nguyen. The crimes that other people commit, that is. “Earlier this year, I actually went to a true-crime convention. It was the best thing ever,” she said.

Growing up in San Jose, Calif., Nguyen toyed with forensic art, but she went down a more traditional art-nerd trail instead, ending up in the agency biz. “A lot of Asian parents would rather have their children be doctors or lawyers,” she said. “But luckily, my sister ended up going to med school.”

Nguyen’s worked her way up the food chain from an initial graphic designer post. A few years ago, she was the in-house creative director at Brit + Co. She then helped launch the agency Scout Lab. After a year and a half there, she created Salty Studios, a creative operation and influencer-marketing agency in San Francisco that she co-founded about a year ago with director of creative production Tiffany Tran.

“Tiffany is a different type of creative that’s really refreshing to me,” Nguyen said of Tran, who specializes in product, lifestyle and food styling. “Having a partner that hadn’t necessarily worked in [an ad agency] before, but was a really creative person, was really interesting to me.”

Both Nguyen and Tran are under 35, tech savvy and focused on branding for millennial-targeted products. “We understand that market and the purchasing patterns really well,” Nguyen explained. “We tend to push our clients to launch more on social media, and we have an influencer-marketing program. A lot of agencies I’ve worked with will hire a third-party vendor to help with that, or hire one person for a specific project just to do the social strategy. But we’re moving full force with what’s in trend right now.”

Motorola was a client during a past gig, and the brand followed Nguyen to Salty Studios. But while she’s worked with major companies, in the future, she wants to widen the pool and take on smaller accounts. As the “mom” of a pug and a chow chow, she’s been excited about client Heed Foods, a canine brand that custom-mixes meals for specific pets. “The owner is a female millennial, so she fits within our target,” Nguyen said.

Big Mistake

Nguyen recalled the time she underestimated the amount of time a project would take, and the team “went into a little bit of a crisis where we realized it was taking a lot longer than expected.” When Nguyen discussed it with her client, she didn’t make this underestimation clear, so the client was “blindsided” when the invoice was received. “The relationship with the client was worth so much more than just a few thousand dollars,” she said. “So we met them and said, ‘It’s our mistake, so we’ll just bill you for what we originally scoped.’”

Lesson Learned

The client was Motorola—which has continued working with Nguyen to this day. “I now know to be a little bit more transparent. And I’m now better at scoping and handling that kind of situation,” she said. “Having that relationship is really meaningful to us.”

How She Got the Gig

Salty Studios was conceived as Nguyen and Tran explored different ways of extending their business relationship. Nguyen says that many times, people in the ad world are “a little jaded” and grounded in established ways of doing their jobs. That’s not the case with Tran. “Tiffany and I have worked together a lot in the past,” she explained. “She’s incredibly talented.”

Pro Tip

Nguyen said it’s important to ask for help with confidence. “You might be surprised who is willing to help and reach out to you,” she said. “Even if you don’t get any work from them, clients are always interested to just hear what else is out there.”

This story first appeared in the Jan. 7, 2019, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

Janet Stilson is a freelance writer for Adweek.