Is the game all in the name?

Agencies with trendy, single-word names have fared well in this year’s survey, but clients can recognise strong work, whatever name agencies have decided to adopt. By David Reed

The names have changed, but does the game remain the same? The Promotional Marketing Agency Reputations survey throws up a critical question about agency branding each year – how long does an old name maintain its status and how long before a new one gains recognition?

It is four years now since IMP changed its name to Arc and the brand finally seems to have stuck well enough to win it the top spot by a clear margin. Yet a strong name can stay alive even when the agency is undergoing a radical transformation. Carlson Marketing Group has climbed into third position although, following the merger between Peppers and Rogers Group, its identity is still being clarified. Perhaps the headlines about the merger and its strategic merits have stayed in clients’ memories.

For agencies betting on breaking through by adopting highly fashionable, single-word names, the news is good. Iris has continued its relentless march up to second place, while Swordfish, Angel and Elvis all make their first appearance.

New name, new confidence

So just how long does it take to translate a new name into a new reputation? Simon Darwell Taylor, chief creative officer at Arc, says that next year the agency will show its real qualities even more clearly. “It takes a while for things to settle down. Now they have and next year will see the brand really establish itself. We have great confidence among the staff and now we need to take that outside the agency,” he says.

How Arc’s reputation could improve is not clear, bearing in mind its primacy in this year’s survey. Perhaps it can lay claim to the top slot in all seven criteria, instead of just the three it has achieved this year.

Or perhaps it will become clearer whether “Integrated Marketing” is part of the brand name or not. Respondents routinely add those words, but the agency trades either as Arc or Arc Worldwide. Taylor notes: “We have always been very good at direct marketing – we are just not very big in it.”

The year started with Arc being picked by the Marketing Communication Consultants Association and the Institute of Sales Promotion as agency of the year. Strong work for major clients probably yielded the double dividend, with a new campaign for Pampers and a fourth year of the Ariel “Championship Whites” campaign. “Supermarkets are now prepared to book that in their schedules, which is rare,” says Taylor.

For Pampers, the agency created the “World of Children” brand experience, which puts parents into the world as seen by their offspring. An overscale kitchen set highlights the perils for little people, while an in-store programme with Tesco points out things such as the need for a child to take four steps for every adult’s pace.

“We are very good at creating big ideas year on year and following up those programmes,” notes Taylor. The agency has experienced strong organic growth over the past 12 months as a result. But new business is also positive, with one significant account win due to be announced within weeks.

Taylor is one of two major hirings made by Arc this year – the other being head of planning Verity Johnson. A former film script writer and in-house creative at The Body Shop, Johnson says joining the agency is a continuation of his quest for creative challenges. He also hopes that a strong reputation will help the agency to recruit yet more talent.

A fresh eye for business

Recruitment has also been one of the biggest challenges facing Iris. “For the past four years, we have grown by 50 per cent each year,” says managing director Ian Millner. The agency now has 180 staff and a blue-chip client list – a long way from its early days as a Manchester-based independent with free-thinking principles.

“We set up because we didn’t like working with the fairly mediocre people you find in network-owned agencies,” says Millner. Those networks continue to court Iris, attracted by its continuous growth and the strength of the agency’s culture. “That is most definitely not in our thoughts. And the way we run [the agency] is by trying to build something that has never been done before. We have created a co-operative model for an agency where ownership is spread across the company and profits are distributed to the people who create them,” says Millner.

A growing culture

Maintaining that culture is a challenge when the agency is recruiting 40 to 50 people each year. Yet it comes across strongly in everything it does, not least via its website, Iris Nation. (Incidentally, Iris’s is one of the few agency sites that tops a Google search by name.)

Spin-off divisions covering marketing to women (Iris Female) and cause-related marketing (I Care) have been created, as well as operations in New York and Singapore. The company has also ventured into PR this year.

Clients clearly like what Iris is doing. “This year is the first where people have gone out of their way to get us involved in pitches. For years, we were just knocking on doors and getting them slammed in our faces. Now that has changed and there is a real demand for our proposition,” says Millner. The agency is converting pitches to business at the rate of 70 per cent.

Long-term clients are expanding their involvement with Iris. The agency came up with music-related propositions for Sony Ericsson that are being played out across Europe, for instance. “That is the thing about Iris – we have an entrepreneurial DNA,” he says.

Elsewhere in the top ten, there is a swapping around of positions that reflects yearly changes in the respondent profile more than significant changes in the agencies concerned. Aside from the rise to third position of Carlson Marketing Group, bd-ntwk, Tequila/London and Joshua consolidated their places in the upper ranks, while four agencies saw a softening of their status.

Tangible qualities

In the next ten, things look more dynamic. Dynamo Marketing Group leapt to 12th position, having spent three years lingering at the foot of the top 20. Managing director Roger Marriott is clear that this success is a direct result of a straightforward attitude in the agency. “Our reputation is purely due to the way we offer the tangible qualities that marketers value. It is definitely about delivery and commercial reality and always with strategy and planning at its heart,” he says.

Planning has been beefed up at the agency this year with the appointment of a new director and an upweighting of its staff. Dynamo also operates a professional career development programme for its account managers, which gives it real stability among key staff.

Although this year’s survey sees stronger recognition for the agency, it is celebrating its 15th birthday. “We foster long-term relationships with clients. We have worked for Coca-Cola since we began, and have held Budweiser and Heinz for four years,” says Marriott.

This has delivered good organic growth that reflects an ability to innovate continually. “We are an established agency providing fresh thinking,” says Marriott. He typifies the culture within Dynamo as “passion, energy and fun”. This is exemplified in the Action Kids programme it created for Sainsbury’s, which was adopted by 83 per cent of UK schools.

Making a similar leap to just outside the top ten is Claydon Heeley Jones Mason. Having previously lurked outside the top 20, this is an important breakthrough. Yet the agency will only grudgingly say: “We think the market is only just catching up with our true status – we deserve to be in the top five.”

More positively, Hicklin Slade & Partners has jumped from 80th in 2003 and 30th last year to hit 15th in 2005. Fuelled by award-winning work for Honda and Camelot, as well as highly focused activity for Diageo and Coors, this data-driven agency is now making its mark in promotional marketing. “It is about things that we have been doing for a while coming together,” says chief executive Justin Hicklin. “It is not about any one thing or any one particular piece of business. Clients just like to see an agency doing well and consistently producing good work.”

Responsibility for client relationships has been devolved to account directors, rather than jealously guarded by an autocratic leadership. The three partners then contribute their skills where they can add value. “I get great pleasure out of seeing people develop and get better,” says Hicklin.

The agency offers an interesting mix of skills and is especially strong in retail planning. This comes through in work for Camelot, where Hicklin Slade runs retail relationship management programmes, but also produces consumer-focused work to acquire subscribers and syndicates. “We are one of only two agencies that are members of the Institute of Grocery Distribution,” he says. “The trade marketing element is fundamentally important and retailers are critical. So we place a lot of emphasis on that.”

One example of how this drives creative work was for Grolsch, where a hospitality barge moored in Docklands was used to demonstrate how the beer should be served. Giving drinks retailers a brand experience is still surprisingly rare.

With old names changing, new names rising to the top, and established agencies altering their proposition, reputations have never been more in flux. But whether they simply offer sales promotions or something more is what is driving change. And if they do, is that best covered by a brand name that says

Methodology

Market Management Services interviewed a sample of 301 respondents chosen from Marketing Week‘s circulation list. To be eligible for inclusion in the survey, respondents had to be marketers with responsibility for selecting or reviewing a promotional marketing agency – working within one of the UK’s top 500 spenders on advertising as measured by MMS.

Copies of the full survey are available at £95 (incl. p&p) from Marva Hudson on 020 7970 6301.

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