Megan Stephens: President & Co-Owner of One of the City’s Most Iconic Brand Agencies

Photo by Aaron Leimkuehler

Women in Business series presented by UMB Women and Wealth

Whenever Megan Stephens is out and about, inevitably she’ll spy a product or brand or two (or ten) that her talented team at Willoughby Design created—including work on the Kansas City streetcars. “When I walk around KC, I see logos we worked on, packaging, billboards,” she says. “I can see the work we’re doing is making our world a better place. And that’s success for me—seeing that work and ultimately having a great team committed to what we do.”

Willoughby Design was nearly 20 years old when Stephens joined the brigade as a fresh-faced account coordinator. Her mentor, Anne Willoughby, opened the design firm in Westport in 1978. “She had a lot of ideas and designs she wanted to do—and didn’t want to do them for other people. She wanted to start her own thing,” says Stephens. “And she was a mom and wanted something flexible.”

Stephens diligently worked her way up the ranks, ultimately becoming the company’s president in 2008. She and her business partner, Nicole Satterwhite, purchased the company in 2016. “Nicole and I have been ‘words and pictures’ for over 20 years,” she says. “She’s the principal over design. I’m managing principal over strategy. Together, we’re yin and yang.”

The company has evolved over the years. They’ve tackled a slew of well-known local and national brands—including Kohl’s, Panera Bread, and Hershey’s—honing their identities. “At our core, we believe great design truly has the power to delight, inspire, and inform the world around us,” she says. “When companies take the time to really understand what their values are and why they exist, that leads to success in both business and culture. When you have a strong brand strategy and strong reason for being, people want to be a part of that. From there, that needs to be communicated—and the best way to do that is through images, storytelling, and design. That’s what we do well and have been doing well for over 40 years—putting it in a language that audiences and customers can be inspired by.”

She has surrounded herself with the perfect team—“the world’s best graphic designers,” she says—and created a loyal culture many companies would be jealous of. “We’re a nimble, small, and close-knit team,” Stephens says. “The culture at Willoughby from Day One was set up so you don’t have to choose between your family and having a business. We’re very family-oriented. We were able to go remote immediately when the pandemic happened. As a team, we value family and watch out for each other. I’m able to be a mom, be part of my family, and do great work with great people.”

Continuing the legacy of being a woman-helmed company is important to Stephens, who says she is forever inspired by her mom. “She’s an amazing artist. I grew up around creativity my whole life,” she says. “I was always told I could do whatever I wanted to do and follow my dreams. That was a great foundation. And when I met Anne, she was all about girl power,” says Stephens. “I knew immediately it would be a great place for me to work. I started as an account coordinator and now I own the company. I’ve been fortunate to be surrounded by women who are mentors and want to support other women.

In the spirit of philanthropy, the civic-minded team at Willoughby Design does about 20 percent of their work pro bono. “It’s very much been focused on women, children, and community,” says Stephens, who mentions many team members serve on boards and volunteer.

And when it came time for the company to rebrand itself in 2017, they picked an easily recognizable icon—one that would create plenty of buzz, so to speak. “We made the change to our bee since we’ve always been called the bees because of the Willough-Bees. Plus, with the culture of the hive, the way bees work together and being female-centric, it just made sense with our brand. By relaunching a communal brand around the bee community, it was a symbol that we’re moving to the next generation.”

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