The world of marketing has evolved, and today the companies that supply marketing communications and brand strategy are very different. There was a time when ad agencies were also the chief brand builders for their clients. It was called the 20th century. But that era is over and even big and brilliant agencies are no longer qualified to work on brand strategy.
Ad agencies should do what it says on their tin – be agents for the creation of advertising – and accept that the strategy work that feeds their creativity will be devised elsewhere and without their involvement.
As brand has become more central to the success of most major clients, it has moved further away from the core competencies of advertising agencies.
Niall FitzGerald identified this separation while he was chief executive officer at Unilever. Sixteen years ago, he gave the keynote speech to the European Association of Advertising Agencies and noted the ‘alarming discrepancy developing between what our brands are going to need and what contemporary agencies are good at’. His prediction has proved to be accurate.
Today, brand strategy requires a fundamental knowledge of business operations, finances, employees and internal culture – subjects most ad agencies, which often struggle even to understand how their clients make money, are ignorant of.
There are whole subsets of brand strategy that most agencies are completely unaware of. Consider brand architecture, for example. It is probably the single-most important brand issue for most major branded companies, yet most ad agencies would have trouble even identifying what the concept means, let alone advising their client on a major brand consolidation or co-branding strategy.
This is not to deride or diminish advertising agencies. There is plenty of money to be made and work to be done in the area of marketing communications. Indeed, with the gradual disintegration of terrestrial TV advertising and the fragmentation of the market, there has arguably never been a more challenging or interesting time to work in advertising.
But it is time for agencies to recognize that brand consultancies offer inherently superior systems, people and solutions when it comes to branding. Just as I would never recommend that a client work with a brand consultant to create a communications campaign, I would be equally aghast if they asked an ad agency to work on their brand strategy.
In the long and twisting journey to building a brand, the external communications stage usually occurs late in the day, if at all. Consequently, the initial research, positioning and engagement work will always occur long before an ad agency has any reason to become involved.
30 SECONDS ON… AD AGENCIES AS BRAND CONSULTANTS
– Pat Stafford, former marketing director of BUPA, once said: ‘I have never found a lack of willingness by agencies to get involved, perhaps just a lack of skill.’
– A survey by Farmer & Co in 2001 showed that clients rated their agencies highly for their traditional skills. However, while 75% wanted their agency to give them more strategic business advice, 46% were not satisfied with the strategic services provided.
– Cheryl Giovannoni, managing director of Landor London, has said: ‘With ad agencies it is about short-lived campaigns, but brand consultancies’ work is more enduring because it has to transcend a series of campaigns.’
– Jim Thornton, executive creative director of Leo Burnett, said: ‘When the branding consultancy works in isolation from the ad agency, it is insulting. I don’t understand why clients do it.’
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Branding Strategy Insider is a service of The Blake Project: A strategic brand consultancy specializing in Brand Research, Brand Strategy, Brand Licensing and Brand Education
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