The art of brand resurrection can work for ad agencies too

With help from an ad agency, a brand can reinvent itself. But is it not time for ad agencies themselves to do the same? Charles Stewart Smith is joint managing director of media consultancy Luther Pendragon

It is exactly two years since I last wrote this page. I described three brands that had been through a rough time and then returned to their former glory. But that’s about as far as it went. Some recent developments – and George’s absence – allow me to return to my theme with more analysis and less glibness.

Let us first take three brands that have, over the past two years, been promoted out of the marketing doldrums: IBM, Radio 1 and The Labour Party.

It is not enough merely to point out that these brands have got lucky and regained a long-lost strength. It would be like saying that the Norman Conquest was a success because some archer got lucky with an arrow. Things like the Battle of Hastings are won for reasons other than the loss of a blinded king.

The glib view would be the politician’s one: the brands have not changed, merely the communication of policy. They just look better. There is no doubt that both IBM and Radio 1 have done some excellent advertising over the past two years; Tony Blair has not communicated policy with charm and effectiveness.

But it is both simpler and more complicated than that. What these three brand turnarounds make clear is that communication, be it through advertising, marketing or editorial coverage, is no longer just a bit of froth on the top. Marketing goes right to the heart of a business.

Any organisation is handling a series of issues, and the management of those issues, rather than just producing witty advertising.

IBM has become strong again not because of elderly or holy French people saying subtitled words like “bummer”. The company fundamentally re-examined how it went about its business. It looked at breaking the IBM tradition of wearing only white shirts; it became the largest software owner in the world. As it reinvented itself, it gave strength to the brand.

Radio 1 has not become youthfully heroic again because we know that the finance director talks about “blagging CDs”. It is because the station looked at what it was playing, saw that it was not right for the audience it wanted and ditched Dave Lee Travis and Simon Bates as a result.

I am not entirely certain what the Labour Party has done. But I do know the brand is different, and it has rather more to do with Clause Four than with Tony Blair’s smile or Ken Livingstone’s silence.

The reason that it is worth those involved in marketing and communications examining such things now is because of an intriguing event last week. The advertising agency Chiat/Day relaunched itself as St Luke’s, having bought itself out of Omnicom.

Most of the media interest was in the change to a slightly odd name. But this distracted us from two things that might have been of greater importance. First, the agency did not seem to be just relaunching a brand for itself; it was almost relaunching the brand known as “Ad Agency”. My view is that this brand has been in a pretty bad state for some time. This was something to do with the precious egos of those who ran it. The Saatchi débâcle was surely the most obvious manifestation of this.

St Luke’s has redefined the brand by looking hard at the fundamentals of the business; it has decided to be a different kind of agency in the hope that the brand will become stronger. There are no founding directors waiting to pick up loads of kudos and dosh. The likes of Andy Law and David Abraham, alongside whom I have worked, decided to hand over the equity to all the staff in equal measure. This was a genuine attempt to reassess their own brand and turn it around.

But they went further. Advertising agencies spend a lot of time telling clients about positioning themselves, never examining their own position. Other than the people, can you tell me what differentiates Saatchi (old or new) from Howell Henry or BMP DDB Needham? Too many names, not enough USPs.

St Luke’s, however, has announced it will only undertake work in the area of what it calls “turnaround creativity”. In other words, it will only take on clients who have got a serious brand issue to be managed. If you’re in trouble, call St Luke’s. Thunderbirds might be go.

The problem with this is not that no one will admit to being in a crisis, but that everyone should. The point is surely this: as the world changes faster and becomes more competitive, nothing is safe for very long. St Luke’s says it will not work for companies such as Sainsbury’s, Virgin or Coca-Cola. Perhaps these are just the sort of companies they should be helping. It is the mighty who have furthest to fall.

My hunch is that it is the agencies who realise this and structure themselves accordingly that will be handling the hottest accounts over the next two years.

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