Julie Courtney and Jackie Roberto, Founders of Madison Design

Julie Courtney and Jackie Roberto, Co-founders, friends, and partners at Madison Design go way back — like, first-drawing-class-in-college back.

What started as a bond among two aspiring graphic designers at UC DAAP evolved over the years. Today Julie and Jackie have been business partners for over 20 years, serving clients big and small in brand-centric strategy and identity.

It all started a few years after college. “We were biking together one weekend when I suggested to Julie that we quit our jobs and travel around Europe together,” Jackie recalls. “She didn’t skip a beat. Julie just said ‘yes.’” The duo ended up spending five months traveling around Europe together. During their travels, their vision for what would eventually become Madison Design came to fruition.

Jackie reflects that traveling through foreign countries with little more than a backpack is a great way to test your friendship and your potential chemistry as business partners.

When they returned, they both freelanced, building up a client base, and eventually transitioning to the company they now run today. “This was before the days of Kickstarter,” says Jackie. “We bootstrapped the whole thing. It was a gradual build.”  

What started as a design firm, primarily growing by referral, has developed into a sophisticated and refined brand agency, focused on listening to clients. “We’re really passionate and committed to listening to the client. We believe we know the same (or more) about branding and marketing, but the client is the expert in their target audience and their service, which informs our work,” explains Jackie. With a focus on listening, Madison Design approaches its work with collaboration at the forefront.

One item they’ve heard time and time again is the call for more digital offerings. With 90% of consumers beginning their brand experience online, digital is more important than ever. Prior to the pandemic, Madison Design offered digital, but had yet to fully commit to the initiative. The global pause was an opportunity for Jackie and Julie’s team to refocus and move forward with intention.

After developing a plan of action, Jackie, Julie, and their partner, Jonathan Albers, identified three new positions they’d need to hire for their ‘Digital First’ initiative, but that proved easier said than done. It took Julie and Jonathan almost a year to find an experienced UI/UX designer that was also a good cultural fit for the company.

Julie and Jonathan found their perfect match in Matt Overwine, a UI/UX designer who Julie and Jackie had worked with about a decade prior. “He’s worked in UI/UX design for so many great companies — Everything But the House, P&G — but he also spent six years teaching at Northern Kentucky University,” says Julie. His combined skillset as an experienced and talented designer and teacher is what positions him not just to support Madison Design’s new digital initiative, but also to lead the rest of their team on the journey.

While some business owners would grow frustrated with such a long hiring process, Jackie believed in her partners because she’s seen how they work their hiring magic before. “Julie and Jonathan are very picky,” she says, “But I mean that in a good way!” The company has exceptionally high retention rates with its employees, which Julie and Jackie believe is a result of the front-end work and selectivity in their hiring process.

With Matt’s expertise, Madison Design is eager to bring digital fully in-house, providing brand-centric digital offerings to clients. The move allows the team to take a unique end-to-end approach by blending brand and content strategy, digital product design, and interactive content.

In addition to the company’s focus on digital, Julie is excited about the team’s heightened desire to become involved in the broader community. As purpose-driven individuals, the team is diving into community initiatives. Jackie serves on the Covington Business Council, while Julie serves on the board of the YWCA of Greater Cincinnati. Jonathan and Julie recently attended an event for a new, regional organization, Huenited Collective, spearheaded by Procter & Gamble’s Tysonn Betts. The project is focused on addressing the systemic causes of a widely homogenous industry — both are eager to get more involved.

“The lack of diverse representation in our industry is significant,” explains Julie. “And I’m excited by this organization’s strategy of how to change that. My role will involve spending time in schools and working with young people to help them realize that design can and is a viable and lucrative career path.”

Both Jackie and Julie have embraced their newfound energy in giving back to their company and their community. “Our kids are older,” says Jackie. “We have more time now. We’re in growth-mode again.”

Their eagerness to grow their purpose-driven business is how Madison Design ended up partnering with MACKEY. Julie knew Sarah Grace, MACKEY’s COO, through WE Lead and, during the uncertainty of the pandemic, started to take advantage of some of the free resources that MACKEY offered to business owners.

“MACKEY was putting out all of this really good information about PPP loans and what businesses should do during such a tough time,” says Julie.

Madison Design wasn’t dead in the water as a result of COVID. “About ¾ of our business was still intact,” says Julie, “But it was such a weird time. We all paused and starting questioning what was important.” It was during this period of reflection that Julie became eager to deepen her understanding of financials beyond tax planning and preparation. “At this point, we’d been in business for a little over 20 years. We’d reached the next level. I was craving a mature view of the business to the same degree that we had a mature view of design.”

It was the holistic view of financial strategy that particularly appealed to Julie. “I knew we had certain revenue goals to hit and I wanted to be able to plan for that better, so I reached out. With MACKEY, I felt supported not just in tax, but forecasting and a broader range of metrics. I like that there’s an entire team to support us and I feel more confident in decision-making based on reporting.”

Now, Madison Design is able to approach “growth-mode” with confidence, targeting large-scale companies like current clients EyeMed Vision Care and Procter and Gamble. “Some of these big corporate clients have medium- to large-sized internal marketing teams. They’re marketers, which isn’t the same as being an interactive designer, writer, or brand strategist. The internal team is setting the strategy, but we’re the really strong partner to support with that strategy and then handle the creation and implementation,” says Jackie. “Madison excels at that.”

Where they’ll go and how much they’ll grow remains to be seen, but Jackie and Julie are as enthusiastic as ever, and now also have financial confidence to match their design and brand strategy prowess.