Failure at Lloyds TSB exposes the Naked truth

Naked is an enigma in the media agency world. The five-year-old communications strategy specialist tends to provoke the harshest criticism or the highest praise, and not a lot in between.

Last week’s announcement by Lloyds TSB that it was calling off its communications strategy review, and that neither of the agencies involved in the pitch – Naked and incumbent media agency Zenith Optimedia – had prevailed, sparked the usual crowing among Naked’s detractors, and championing from its fans. Lloyds TSB head of marketing Alan Gilmour released a guarded statement about changing business priorities: “I would like to stress that this in no way represents a victory or failure for the participating agencies.” Naked was tipped to win, but rumours abound that Lloyds TSB got cold feet about using an agency as “trendy” as Naked. Sources also claim there was a lack of understanding among senior management at Lloyds TSB about what Naked actually does.

Following Naked’s pitch, the shift at Orange to a broader communications role and the loss of its planning position on the Campbell’s roster (MW June 23), some industry observers have started to question Naked’s purpose and its ability to handle large planning accounts. It remains an issue as hotly debated now as it was when the agency launched. Many in the industry believe that Naked’s offer lacks substance.

One agency insider says: “I think that it is a remarkable triumph of positioning over substance. Rather than aim at a space and create it, it went one notch higher than what already existed. To say that it is doing something no one else is doing is not true.” He adds that while the major media agencies may have lagged behind on communications planning and strategy when Naked first launched, they have caught up.

But this view is not shared across the industry. One marketer, who has used Naked for campaigns, says that most clients do not understand how to use the agency, and other agencies are threatened by it. He says: “You can use Naked in different ways on different projects. It has no vested interest in any particular media. It works out who you are trying to target with your product and then how you should do it.”

Others believe Naked will have to change to continue winning business as it can no longer be the small, sparky agency of its infancy, but a rather more established part of the media world. One insider says: “It needs to build a stronger sense of gravity and have a more strategically profound offer.”

John Harlow, one of Naked’s three founders, agrees that the agency is changing, but says it is becoming more globally focused, working more broadly with clients and undertaking less planning work. He says: “Communications marketing has grown up and clients realise they need to do things differently, so we are doing less planning. We are involved in broader marketing, which is where we always saw ourselves.”

Naked is involved in joint ventures, including Naked Inside with Clemmow Hornby Inge, and Element with WCRS. It has a presence in eight countries and is launching in the US imminently. Harlow says big networks have started to take notice of the Naked model. “The difference is that you can be objective only if you are not anchored. Every other agency is predicated on a revenue stream such as planning or buying.”

While some believe Naked will reach a natural glass ceiling with its current positioning, others believe all media and creative agencies need to move up a notch.

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