Agencies that obsess about their own brands are probing their own you know what.

January 29, 2009

Searching for your agency's brand.

Searching for your agency's brand.

One thing that has always driven me crazy about advertising is the grandiosity we agencies have when it comes to ourselves. As soon as I became part of an agency’s creative leadership I became part of the “Who are we?” discussion. This is the meeting where VIPs from all over the network argue passionately about the agency’s mission statement. The discussion can get pretty heated. To pinpoint the source of this frustration, one need only look at an agency’s credentials. Supposedly, these are the agency’s brand essence and what it stands for. Are we about ideas, client service, publicity or all of the above? In every creds piece (including ours), is some permutation of “building brands over time while selling product right away.”

Blah, blah, blah.

I need to call bullshit. With the possible exception of Crispin Porter & Bogusky, there are no agency brands. Not really. The venerable Carl Ally once said, “Clients make great agencies, not vice-versa.” More than a treatise about greatness, his statement suggests that an advertising agency is defined by its brands. For example Wieden & Kennedy is Nike. Its greatness is their greatness.

Let’s look at BBDO. This venerable agency used to be about big personalities. It was Phil Dusenberry, Joe Pytka, Michael Jackson and Pepsi Cola. What is the agency now? David Lubars and HBO? Probably. And that’s fine. Clients come to agencies for up to three reasons: it’s portfolio, creative leadership, and relationships. Doubtful a client ever chose a mission statement.

Seems obvious. But then why is this stuff so hotly debated? I’ll get to that. For me the “it” of an agency is the current and prevailing perception (of us) by those that give a damn, which, if we are honest, are precious few. The takeaway here is that an agency doesn’t really need a brand identity. We are people, places and things orbiting around a collection of clients. Each of these systems has gravity. If we are lucky and good, this gravity is strong and, therefore, highly attractive.

End of story. When I observe creative people fighting with business people for the “soul of their agency” I roll my eyes. At best, the argument is an interesting philosophical one. At worst, it becomes a divisive and political nightmare.

As suggested, the lone exception might be CP&B. Their “Fame” strategy is unique and has a self-serving component the rest of us cannot get away with. They regularly turn down business because it is not commensurate with their stated mission. Only agency I know to do so. Good for them.

Solving for our own brands seems immaterial. Yet, we are hell bent on doing so. When we put that energy into our clients the reflected glory trumps all rhetoric.


6 Responses to “Agencies that obsess about their own brands are probing their own you know what.”

  1. Barrett said

    What’s the alternative? You want your website (for example) to look good when clients come across it. To redesign, you need direction, and that seems to inevitably bring the question “Who are we?” You can’t say “We’re the agency who does those Nike spots you love,” because tomorrow you might not be. Right?

  2. Jason Fox said

    I think the key word here is “obsess.”

  3. SRP said

    You’re right in terms of website. But the way most agencies fuss and feud over the “who we are” rhetoric is obscene. My idea would be to let a great in-house writer and designer create the thing without endless tweaking…live with it for a while…modify based on inspiration, not fear.
    Thanks for reading the blog.

  4. Donnie said

    It’s not just the website, it goes through everything. “Who are we?” is as important internally as externally. Everyone in the company has to know what the company ‘is’ to give them direction.

    An in-house copywriter can’t define what the company is on their own as much as an agency can’t define who Nike is. The brief has to come from someone who’s setting the direction and that’s likely to be the founders or board.

    I think the obsessing is commendable – it’s important for a lot of reasons and perhaps the reason it takes so long is because it’s so important.

    (Or because client work gets in the way!)

  5. Noel Haan said

    For me, it’s about putting words into action. The better the work, (action) The less statements of bullshit (words) are needed. See
    “Our objective is effectiveness. Our strategy is creativity.” Simple.

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