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Brand Work Is No Job For Ad Agencies


Brand Work Is No Job For Ad Agencies

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. Eleven 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.


– 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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Jason Falls on March 24th, 2008 said

Speaking from the advertising agency perspective, I’d like to both agree and disagree with your post. Agree — smart brands should turn to strategic thinkers and planners to help sculpt the architecture and life evolution of their brands. Disagree — advertising agencies aren’t capable of this. Granted, there are a lot of fabulously creative agencies out there that miss completely on strategy and planning. There are those that don’t comprehend the totality of brand management. But there are many that do and your post discredits them.

Just because someone categorizes themselves as an “advertising agency” whether it be because that best describes what they do or that it’s just easier for potential clients to understand the general area in which they work, doesn’t mean that’s all they bring to the table.

Some of the best brand architects and strategic brand builders I’ve ever known work at agencies. Perhaps their firms are mislabeled, or perhaps you define them to absolutely. In either case, there are those who prove your theory incorrect. And there will always be some out there.

Mike Mirkil on March 24th, 2008 said

Here, here. The old model of advertising — fabricating an external image to broadcast to an audience unable to explore the inner culture of a corporation — is dead. Consumers can see inside an organization now, and actively want to know how that organization behaves in the world.

And Jason’s previous comment proves the old advertising model is dead. If an organization is truly providing brand strategy, brand architecture, etc., than it is an advertising agency no longer.

Not only is there a lack of awareness of the major differences between branding and advertising agencies amongst large, Fortune 500 clients, but it is an even larger dilemma with smaller clients and their agency partners. Once again, differentiation is key, and it is our job to educate our clients about exactly how we are different. Great post.

Derrick Daye on March 24th, 2008 said

Jason, Mike,

Thanks, you each make strong points. I want to emphasize that the best results are achievable when an agency and a brand consultant are working together. Mark did not mention this in his post. We (The Blake Project) work with agencies regularly and appreciate our relationships with them both as partners and clients.

To the readers here – many from respected agencies, do you agree with Mark, Jason and/or Mike?


Jason Falls on March 24th, 2008 said

Certainly a good point, Mike, but I would say the old advertising model isn’t dead, it just has to offer better services on the top end to compete. Let me illustrate my point a little differently: I know the local auto body shop can fix my Nissan Altima when it’s not running right, but I still take it to the dealer.

Lewis Green on March 24th, 2008 said


Having read the post carefully as well as the comments, there is a little bit of truth everywhere and lots of it in your post.

Look, the bottom line is that if a brand campaign is to be developed from scratch, the smart business will form a team likely made up of several outsourced consultancies, including branding, marketing and an ad agency. We likely would also include social media consultants. A brand campaign requires much expertise, seldom to be found in a single agency or firm.

adrian pritchard on September 29th, 2008 said

Just stumbled over this and whilst there are some valid points made, you have to ask the most fundamental question “why do brands exist”

The answer in its simplest form is, “because it makes the consumer purchase decision easier”

Now whilst the communications business has changed dramatically one thing that hasn’t is the fact that we all exist to help our clients sell more stuff at a better price. And we do that through brands. Strong brands have propositions and to be totally frank most stuff I see come out of branding companies is devoid of propositions.

I know its only one facet of total branding, but it is the most the critical thing a brand needs. Without a strong proposition creatives have nothing to work with. Brands stand for nothing and their advertising becomes vacuous.

Personally, I see a return to traditional brand skills, but executed in a non traditional way. And those brands skills like it or not still live inside mainstream ad agencies.

I’ll also add that I think, for a whole bunch of reasons, that the current model where a client has up to a dozen specialist agencies/ consultancies all grabbing for a piece of the marketing pie is simply ineffective. But that’s a topic for another time.

Aaron Templer
Twitter: aarontempler
on August 03rd, 2009 said

Great post. Two reasons why, in my opinion, some (not all) agencies are struggling to grasp the necessary business acumen to brand properly. (1) Their stubborn propensity to demand agency and agency experience only in their talent management pipeline, resulting in insular perspectives the degree to which you only see in a few other industries, and (2) advertising has always been a tactic, thus their knitting has always been tactical, thus strategy, conceptually, often proves a difficult transition. Nothing turns off executives (like Pat Stafford, quoted above) more than bringing tactics into the boardroom.

Jonathan Patterson on August 03rd, 2009 said

Wow, this is a good article. I work for a small agency where we do branding work when clients come to us with such projects. From my perspective, ad agencies can do branding, it just takes a lot of time and research. I suspect most ad agencies are accustomed to implementing and/or responding, rather than arduous strategy making that is required for a successful brand strategy. Although, I agree, there is a fundamental difference between branding and advertising agencies. Agencies who do poor branding work give other agencies who don’t specialize in branding (but are capable) a bad name.

Suzanne Tulien on June 06th, 2011 said

Love this article! Finally, a well scripted and thought-out explanation of the differences between the two functions; Branding vs. Marketing/Advertising. The first is INTERNALLY BASED — the second is EXTERNALLY focused. With the two working together in order, the organization can thrive! Brand-‘ing’ is about defining the core perception of the organization then implementing that definition into every facet of it (employees, leadership, systems, processes, etc.) so that it can show up consistently. Then and only then can the marketing/advertising truly be of benefit…Because the customer has to be able to EXPERIENCE the promise made in the advertising!!! Duh! 🙂 thanks The Blake Project, you rock!


  1. Anonymous - March 24, 2008

    Brand Work is No Job for Ad Agencies

    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 centu…

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