Style counsel

People in the fashion industry are not known for their unassuming ways and, when they get together with the less than gentle souls of the advertising world, egos tend to clash – a fact which has led many fashion companies to create their own ad campaigns.

However, fashion house Paul Smith’s search for an agency to develop an international campaign shows that this situation is likely to change (MW October 1).

The agency hunt comes after nine years with design, photographic and advertising agency Aboud Sodano. The fashion designer is understood to have taken on consultant Brenda Young to review all aspects of the company’s marketing. She is believed to have contacted a handful of advertising agencies, including Griffin Bacal and St Luke’s. It is understood that Aboud Sodano will not be pitching for the business.

Fashion houses from Calvin Klein to Gucci create their advertising in-house, as do mass-market retailers such as Arcadia’s Dorothy Perkins and Oasis. A common formula is to hire a model, clothe him or her in the appropriate garments, and then use a well-known photographer to take some pictures. Paul Smith is using photographer Mario Testino for its latest campaign.

This seems logical enough. Why employ another company to come up with creative ideas when you already employ creative minds to invent fashion designs? What is more, an outside organisation could misunderstand your core brand values.

As Sammi Harari at Travis Sully Harari, whose fashion clients include Harvey Nichols and Paul Costelloe, says: “Fashion people say agencies don’t understand the mood and tone of their products.”

His opinion is in keeping with the thinking at Calvin Klein. Robert Triefus, senior vice-president of communications worldwide, explains his company’s motives for keeping its advertising in-house: “It is the close control of the creative work which has facilitated what Calvin Klein is. It protects the integrity of the brand.”

Department chain C&A comes up with its own advertising strategies and then uses design agency The Mike Handley Partnership to develop the creative work.

Mary Sangster, C&A national advertising manager, comments: “We decide internally because we are experts. We are a private company and we don’t discuss our figures with an outside agency.”

She says cost is not the most important consideration, though for the smaller fashion houses, cost obviously plays a part in decisions on hiring advertising agencies. A spokeswoman for Paul Smith says: “Fashion companies haven’t got a huge amount of money. It’s expensive enough hiring Mario Testino.”

Harari says: “Fashion companies’ ad budgets are low. They tend to get by with using a movie photographer and putting a logo on the bottom. But unless they have a big budget, they can’t build brand values.”

However, agencies are experts at communicating with consumers. A good agency claims to understand how to create an image for a product which differentiates it from its rivals. Harari believes that if you took an ad for Prada and an ad for one of its closest rivals Gucci, and swapped their logos, the consumer would not notice.

It is an argument which must ring true with French Connection. TBWA GGT Simons Palmer creative director Trevor Beattie conducted a convincing experiment to illustrate the need for an advertising agency, using French Connection founder Steven Marks and press officer Lili Anderson as guinea pigs. He showed them six fashion ads, but removed their logos. According to Anderson, Marks correctly identified one fashion brand whereas she identified three.

Marta Brnicevic, account director on French Connection at TBWA, says: “What most fashion companies call advertising is not what we do for French Connection. They take a picture from their latest catalogue, stick a logo on the bottom of it and put it in a magazine.

“It doesn’t give an emotional reason to buy the brand. On the high street, fashion outlets sell similar products, so you need to make an emotional distinction.”

The company is doing something which makes it stand out from its rivals, and believes the ads may have contributed to its recent healthy performance. While most fashion companies are suffering from poor sales, French Connection raised its half-year profits by 16 per cent to 3.5m, according to its September results. It has sold 100,000 T-shirts carrying the controversial Fcuk logo, which has featured strongly in its advertising.

But building a relationship between an advertising agency and a fashion company is hard work. Harari says: “Fashion people say agencies don’t understand mood and tone, and agencies say fashion companies don’t have a strategy with brand values. With Harvey Nichols we have struck a happy medium.”

Robert Bean, of Bean Andrews Norway Cramphorn which creates advertising for Firetrap and Sonetti, dwells on the issue of ego conflict: “The client must understand that the agency is adapting the brand’s message and tone into a single hit. But the agency must accept that meticulous thought has gone into why the client chooses a particular lighting, shade and model.”

Not all companies that create their own advertising fall into the trap of reproducing straight fashion shots. Benetton’s Oliviero Toscani has produced a world-famous campaign, featuring Aids victims and dead soldiers, which talks more about the brand’s attitude than its clothes.

Bean says: “The campaign has personality and attitude, which are some of the principles that an advertising agency might adopt.”

Paul Smith’s search for an agency comes at a time when the world is teetering on the brink of recession, and fashion companies are already suffering downturns in sales. A large chunk of Paul Smith’s business is in Japan. Indeed, he was unable to speak to Marketing Week because he was visiting the troubled Asian country last week. Perhaps it is precisely on account of the pressure on the Japanese market that Smith has decided to take the plunge and develop a full-blown branding campaign.

Looking at French Connection, Smith may have decided that an advertising agency is just the weapon he needs to combat a world of cheap imitations and falling prices.

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