New brooms’ clean sweep

The 2003 Promotional Marketing Agency Reputations Survey has shown that a total rethink can pay dividends for established companies during turbulent times, says David Reed

What’s in a name? The promotional marketing industry has been pondering this question for the past couple of years. The results of this year’s Promotional Marketing Agency Reputations Survey suggest that how you answer that question is very important.

Two long-established players in the promotional marketing world have seen a dramatic rise in their position in the table. Both adopted new names in the past year – ARC Integrated Marketing (formerly IMP Group), which is the highest-ranked agency, and The Reef (formerly Marketing Drive Worldwide London), which moved from tenth to fourth place.

Newer names have also made a significant impact, rising to the middle ranks for the first time. BD-Ntwk, Billington Cartmell and Iris are now knocking on the door of the top ten. They have reached the point where awareness in the broader market suddenly catches up with their progress of the past few years.

For ARC, this is an important return to the top, as the agency was last rated number one back in 2000. Since then, it has undergone significant changes, from its senior management and creative department, through to its global alignment with Leo Burnett and the new branding.

Managing director Mike Spicer, who took over the role three months ago, points out that the new name only had a soft launch in July last year. This was because of changes at group level. He believes the groundwork for the new perception of the agency was really laid in January 2002.

“We recruited a new creative team to lead the agency. They came in with a brief to raise our creative standards after several barren years where we didn’t feature in the awards. They were given the task of making a step change, raise our direct marketing capability, and we also threw into the mix the need for a new brand within six months,” says Spicer.

Transatlantic relaunch

This new global identity was created in London with some input from New York. It helps to reflect the “breath of fresh air” from which Spicer says the agency has benefited. “I think we have got the best creative department we have had for years,” he says.

In fact, there is nobody left from the previous creative department. Awards have followed, with a Gold from the Institute of Sales Promotion and the most nominations for any agency in the Marketing Communication Consultants Association awards. As part of the new culture, there is a monthly internal competition to choose the best work the agency has produced. “We can see that people want to be their most creative,” says Spicer.

IMP had a high profile and a strong reputation. It also produced one of the highest-flying former promotional marketing agency figures in former chairman John Farrell, president of D’Arcy Worldwide.

But the agency is “demanding a higher spot at the table”, according to Spicer. That has meant new skills and a greater investment in understanding clients’ business, summarised in the strapline “Creating Live Connections”.

ARC has benefited from these changes by being ranked first in the survey for creativity, account handling, full service, evaluation techniques and international expertise. (It should be noted that overall scores in this year’s survey were lower than in previous years. However, this is more a reflection of the general climate in the marketing sector than any weakening of reputations.)

While new brands have clearly helped in boosting reputations, they do not tell the whole story. In fact, the top seven agencies are all well-established promotional marketing services providers. Whatever they might now be called, these are also the agencies that the most clients have used over the past five years.

Triangular growth

Triangle Communications managing director Nick Hoadley says: “Long-term reputation helps in the sense that we get put on the list before a pitch even starts.” That also extends to organic growth within big clients. The agency has handled Guinness for Diageo for some time and has now picked up the Baileys and Gordon’s accounts. Similarly, Britvic Soft Drinks has handed the agency its adult brand accounts Améand Aqua Libra, alongside Tango.

This has helped to offset the fact that new business in the industry has generally been slow. “What were once three-way pitches have become five- or six-way. Clients are often using pitches to decide whether or not to spend the money,” says Hoadley.

A good reputation, though, can be a double-edged sword. Hoadley is aware that many clients view Triangle as purely a promotional marketing agency, even though the group also offers face-to-face, digital and events marketing. The upside of such a reputation can be that clients have a settled and informed understanding of an agency.

“People know what we are about,” says Hugh Treacy, managing director of KLP Euro RSCG. That is a strong argument against the sort of rebranding that competitors have carried out. “In fact, because of the awareness of our core skills, the last thing we would want to do is change our brand,” he says.

Maintaining a position in the top three is a strong achievement for KLP Euro RSCG during a flat year for the industry and one in which the agency has focused chiefly on existing clients. “New business has been slow, particularly in DM. What has come through has often turned out not to be as big or as lucrative as it was first felt to be,” says Treacy.

If it isn’t broken…

For BD-Ntwk, arrival on the outskirts of the top ten is something of a surprise. “It is a strange one – we have not done that much different this year compared with the previous one,” says managing director John Donnelly.

Winning the accolade of MCCA Agency of the Year has clearly helped. One result is that it is rated sixth when clients are asked which agencies they have heard about, just one percentage point behind Saatchi & Saatchi. Yet it is only five years ago that the Glasgow-based agency opened in London with just eight employees. Now it has 25 in its Scottish office and more than 80 in London.

“Large wins have brought us to people’s attention, like Coca-Cola and parts of Orange coming through. The perception used to be that we were a small, new agency, but we are not really. That view helps, but it can also hinder you,” says Donnelly.

Heavy investment in the planning function has also helped to change how the agency is viewed. “We put in a lot of heavy thinking when we go to pitches. It also means we can do a lot of deep thought for existing clients. We can really understand what a brand is about and how we can communicate those values. We are being asked to do that more and more,” he says.

Billington Cartmell (BC) is another agency whose reputation has caught up with its growth. Big account wins have played an important part. Two years ago, the agency won Vodafone from the above-the-line incumbent Zurich, which had held the contract for 16 years, and has recently been appointed by Royal Mail.

As a result, BC is no longer one of the industry’s best kept secrets. “Other than clients we work for, we have never publicised ourselves before,” says managing partner Ian Billington. In an independent survey, the agency was placed in the top 30 best marketing employers, alongside blue-chip client organisations such as Virgin Mobile, Buena Vista, Lever Fabergéand Unilever.

Last year, the agency grew by 42 per cent. “That has led to a significant amount of recruitment – we have taken on more than ten people since the start of the year,” says Billington. Revenue from promotional marketing is now only half of its income stream, with DM contributing the other half.

“Sales promotion is the ultimate objective of every commercial business. The term has been misused for a particular discipline. There is so much cross-over. Nestléis a good example. It has seen the changed environment and advertising is no longer viewed as the primary communication,” he says. In work for another client, Lucozade, the agency has been running a common creative theme through advertising, design, events and on-pack promotions.

Growth has also propelled Iris into the limelight, taking 13th place on the back of a 70 per cent increase in revenues during the past year. The four-year-old agency has reached “critical mass”, according to joint managing director Ian Millner. “We have definitely been finding it easier to attract people and clients,” he says.

A series of enormous wins has helped, such as the consolidation into Iris of T-Mobile’s UK channel marketing, plus other highly visible accounts, such as Ben Sherman. The agency has grown from 50 to 90 staff, yet still maintains a unique attitude. Think Oasis, but with marketing campaigns instead of albums.

“We see Iris as a lifestyle, rather than a business. Almost all the profits are distributed to the people who work here. A lot of agencies talk about being a people business, but they don’t mean it. We have a different opinion about what an agency should be,” says Millner.

Talking about a revolution? Not quite yet, but the new names and the new kids on the block are all discussing how to make changes to their proposition. One clear result of this is that they are winning clients’ attention – and increasingly more of their business, too.

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Tom Fishburne is founder of Marketoon Studios. Follow his work at marketoonist.com or on Twitter @tomfishburne See more of the Marketoonist here

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