Wanted: brand champions

Agencies are so blinkered by pitches and attempts to win new business that they are neglecting their existing brand relationships, says David Wethey

London now emulates Paris, shutting shop for August. For me, holidays mean getting up at a reasonable time, swapping pigeons for herring gulls, and reading Wilbur Smith as a reminder of what real heroes are like. One enterprising agency is throwing a party to celebrate La Rentrée – the universal return to work/school/reality. As we gird our loins for the run-up to Christmas, let’s not forget that holidays provide a welcome opportunity to reflect on how busy and intense our business has become.

However, I want to focus on one aspect of behaviour – and it’s agency behaviour – that is a good deal less intense than it once was: the degree to which agencies identify and align with clients and the brands entrusted to their care.

Putting it bluntly, I question whether agencies are brand champions to anything like the extent they should or used to be.

What has gone wrong? Turning to clients first, the well-documented decline in marketing’s attractiveness as a career hasn’t helped. Short-lived marketing directors do not make effective brand guardians. Then again, many brands aren’t what they used to be. Numerous brands have passed to private equity owners; countless others have been sold off and traded like footballers – no wonder agencies find it harder to champion brands. But there are endemic problems on the agency side.

The huge emphasis on new business in nearly all agencies has much to answer for. The origin of agencies was in almost complete alignment to the future of client brands. Agencies were stakeholders in brand success. Media, and especially television, was remarkably effective. The commission system ensured that the better brands performed, the more clients invested and the more revenue agencies received. Existing clients delivered agency profit and the corporate aspect of the agency business was much simpler. With the fee system, however, agencies can only maximise revenue by selling more and more time, so new clients are disproportionately attractive. Winning new business is only possible by putting the emphasis on developing strategic and creative solutions. Account handling – essentially rooted in established client relationships – has become less important and less respected. Problem solving seems to be all that matters. Living a brand 24/7 is impossible if you are working on half a dozen accounts and a couple of pitches.

Brand champions have become few and far between. Does it matter? Is it just another aspect of the new world where there are multiple relationships for agencies to juggle, while clients have to manage anything up to ten agencies? It does. Profoundly.

The fee system is going to catch out agencies if they don’t perform. Sensible clients will make big retainers conditional. The agency will not survive a rigorous evaluation unless it can demonstrate brand championship. In such a competitive market, there is always going to be a shortlist of other agencies prepared to drop everything to win the account. Selection criteria in pitches will also change. Agencies will have to go beyond the achievement of transformations. Ongoing brand championship will become a must. And the relentless churn at client-side puts the onus on the agency to take more responsibility.

What does an agency have to do to be-come a brand champion once more? First, train people to build up their stamina. Agencies have encouraged sprinters and done little to attract and value middleand long-distance runners. Second, invest in account handling. Recruit people prepared to dedicate themselves to living clients’ brands. They must be commercially savvy – not just facilitators and organisers.

Encourage creatives to come up with insights and ideas throughout the year, not just at the outset of creative development. Be continuously proactive, not just be reactive to briefs. Also, adopt a “team” attitude towards clients’ agencies. Unless a client’s roster works in a co-operative fashion, the brand will lose out.

Finally, be more critical about what you pitch for. Some challenges are essentially project-based and short-term, but an agency will not prosper unless it has a client base to which it can deliver solutions and service in the middleand long-term. Sell your best ideas to the clients who are paying you, not to other people’s clients who aren’t.

David Wethey is founder and chairman of Agency Assessments International

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