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Ad Agencies Vs. Consultancies: Weighing the Difference Borat Vs. Kazakhstan Ad Agencies Vs. Consultancies: Weighing the Difference

The golden age

There was a time when advertising was indisputably acknowledged to be the highest form of marketing – indeed, for many brand owners, advertising and branding were synonymous. But today, the situation has changed. As Niall Fitzgerald, CEO of Unilever, famously said a few years ago: “There is an alarming discrepancy between what our brands are going to need and what agencies are good at.”

The concept of “branding” has moved far beyond communicating product differences and building “image.” In order to improve brand performance, marketing experts need to consider product re-design, overhauling the supply chain, reducing costs, introducing loyalty rewards for customers and many other variables. Yes, advertising still has an important role to play, but it is not the driver of branded businesses that it once was. Indeed, in an American Advertising Federation survey only 10% of senior executives put advertising at the top of their priority list.

So, if clients don’t need traditional advertising, do they need traditional advertising agencies? Ad agencies have, after all, developed in order to fulfil their core purpose – making ads. Does this mean that they are unsuited to providing the broader branding advice that today’s clients need?


The limits of the ad agency

Some would argue that, if advertising agencies are to continue to occupy a central role in their client’s lives, they need to shift from creating advertising to providing high-end strategic advice about not only marketing, but the business as a whole. But studies suggest that brand owners do not yet believe that agencies are delivering at that higher level.

A survey by Farmer & Co, a consultancy which specialises in the advertising sector, shows that clients still rate their agencies highly for their traditional skills, notably the creation of brand advertising. However, while nearly 75% of those interviewed wanted their agency to give them more strategic business advice, 46% were not satisfied with the strategic services provided – specific areas of weakness cited were failing to help identify or acquire new brands or services, and failing to develop new channels. Michael Farmer, MD of Farmer & Co, thinks the origins of the problem lie in the way agencies have historically been paid: “The commission system means that many agencies are uncomfortable pitching for work that doesn’t have an advertising outcome”

Some believe that advertising agencies have too little general marketing knowledge to help clients at a wider strategic level; Pat Stafford, marketing director of BUPA, has been quoted as saying, “I have never found a lack of willingness by agencies to get involved, perhaps just a lack of skill.” Other observers do not trust agencies to be objective; after all, making advertisements has historically been the source of their big money, so it is counter-intuitive to believe that they could recommend solutions that do not involve commercials.

Pretenders to the throne?

So if agencies are failing to deliver at the higher strategic level that clients would like to see, who is stepping into the breach? A survey of Europe’s top marketing executives by Media and Marketing Magazine found that 60% of respondents believe that management consultants are a significant threat.

But are management consultancies really equipped to take over where advertising agencies have failed to go? Critics would argue that such consultancies have numerous skills, but understanding consumer relationships and brand building are not among them. Traditionally, management consultancies have excelled at data processing and organisational consultancy, while not being highly rated for the creativity of their solutions. Management consultancies focus on stripping out costs rather than adding value. As Raoul Pinnell of Shell has been quoted as saying, management consultancies simply offer “analysis, not solutions.”

Filling the gap

While it is undeniably true that management consultancies are increasingly offering marketing consultancy, many would say that there is still a void. Many companies no longer call themselves design agencies – they have become “brand consultants”; some groups have renamed themselves to make their new focus clear. Companies like Wolff Olins and Interbrand routinely employ accountants and management consultants to boost their broader strategic capabilities. Design consultancy is now only one of the services offered by such groups, along with high level strategic advice, e-consultancy and internal communications strategies.

The power struggle

Among these diverse groups of agencies and consultancies, the question of who owns the high brand with the client can often be hotly contested. Indeed, brand consultancies and advertising agencies can scramble in an unhelpful way for “brand ownership,” frequently leading to feelings of tension and insecurity on both agency and client side. The big networks – Omnicom, WPP, Interpublic – all have their feet firmly in both camps, owning both world-renowned advertising agency groups, as well as international brand consultancies.

To some, the hierarchy of importance within the client company is as follows: marketing consultants (mostly management consultants) sitting at the top table with the CEO; next down, brand consultants; then, at the bottom of the pyramid, communications companies, who simply execute the strategies put in place by others. This is where some critics feel that advertising agencies currently sit.

The way back for ad agencies

So what, if anything, can advertising agencies do to reclaim the high ground? Most attempts to unbundle old-style ad agencies have focused on repackaging creative advertising, for example, splitting off the media functions, rather than recognising that advertising itself is not a critical element for all clients. Most agencies have additionally developed some kind of strategic offering, usually set up as a “shop within a shop.”

Some have identified a need for a new agency model – one which can build marketing partnerships with clients without needing to make adverts. Others would claim that this is precisely what the brand consultancies offer – though critics believe that many of these businesses are as biased toward offering design solutions as ad agencies are toward ads.

There have been suggestions that the way forward lies with “virtual” lead agencies, who advise at a strategic marketing level, and then bring in, as required, excellence in advertising, design or PR. Such a virtual agency would have the advantage of being objective about possible solutions.

The real brand guardians

Of course, to talk about conflict between different types of agency and to debate who owns the high ground today can be seen to be missing the point. After all, how much do brand owners really care about any of this debate? The real question must be this: Should the vital area of strategic business advice be placed outside the brand owner’s organisation in the first place? Shouldn’t the brand owner be guardian of the brand?

It is arrogant of any of us to assume that we should be brand guardians, whatever our credentials. All brand owners want is people to work with who really understand their needs, and can provide workable solutions.

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Ad Agencies vs. Consultancies: Weighing the difference
 I think that eventually brand consultancies will absorb ad agencies. 
Robert Collins, Strategist - May 4, 2001
 Agencies need to better understand how business should be held in terms of variables that are part of marketing issues which would influence the whole communication strategy. Agencies have lack of knowledge about marketing in a complete view, having a focused vision based on communication only. This seems to be a risk for them in the near future. They should understand about a integrated communication and the best practices of business which include pricing, supply chain among other strategies. 
Amalia Sina, Marketing Director, American Home Products - Whitehall Laboratories - May 5, 2001
 Ad agencies are slowly evolving to adapt to a new world of client needs. As clients require a more sophisticated concept of the brand, ad agencies need to go beyond the :30 commercial and visual brand identity concepts. Large agency networks like WPP and IPG are developing the broader capabilities to deliver deeper strategic value to their clients. The issue remains whether all members of the agency team will work together to provide truly strategic guidance to their clients. 
Charlie Skuba, President, The Skuba Company - May 7, 2001
 Robert Collins, ill informed comments pre-suppose that ad agencies only make ads. Mr. Collins would be well-served by doing some research into what the more progressive agencies are doing--we are increasingly becoming cradle to grave brand development shop-in-shops, providing the full spectrum of brand managements services. Look out Mr. Collins, an agency might now be hunting your "strategist" work. 
KP Smith, Partner, Sr. Analyst, WPP - May 7, 2001
 I wrote an article on this subject in 1998:
BRANDWEEK: May 11, 1998

TREND SPOTTING: Whose Brand Is It, Anyway?
By Nick Shore

Have you noticed how lately everyone is jumping on the "brandwagon," as if it were some new nexus of enlightenment, as if "brand" hasn't somehow always been the most important word in the vernacular of marketingese? As it gets hot in the brand kitchen, it's unfortunately all boiling down to the key question: who owns the brand territory? Certainly, that was an issue at the recent 4A's meeting, where branding consultancies were criticized by some speakers for poaching on ad agencies' rightful turf. You've just heard one view of what agencies need to do to reclaim that turf. Well, here's a rather different opinion from one of the alleged poachers.

Before we opened our doors as a brand agency in 1994 we bounced our business plan off a few industry confidantes, most of whom speculated that it would never work because the clients would fight it. "You're taking away the brand bit, and that's their turf" was the general sentiment. Our experience thus far with clients like McDonald's, Coca-Cola, Lever Brothers, Motorola and Black & Decker has been quite the reverse. Clients are, it would seem, crying out for partnership with an entity (who isn't selling anything!) that can offer smart help wrangling with new and existing brand issues. Rather than fighting over turf, the client reaction has tended to run more like, "Finally, someone to help me focus on the brand from first principles, not just steps 93 through 100 in the process!"

As was seen at the 4A's, the reaction of the ad agencies to the brand agency concept has been somewhat less mature. For reasons that at first glance seem logical, when a client throws a brand agency into the mix, the ad agency folks start to get very territorial very quickly. Believe me when I say it gets ugly: in a supersaturated ad agency marketplace of hypermergers and megapitches, the brand "advantage" looks like the holy grail, the last stop before parity and commoditization. Just like "integrated" was a few years ago. Just like account planning was a few years before that.

But drawing the battle lines with brand agencies seems to be shortsightedness driven by panic. Advertising needs to take a piece of advice that it perpetually gives its clients: focus. Advertising agencies need to stop trying to own all of the marketing pie, stop trying to circumscribe everyone else's specialty, and focus on their own. Focus on the creation of great brand- and sales-building advertising, advertising that solves the business and brand problem in hand. It is, after all, a single tool (albeit expensive and complex), but a tool nonetheless, in a box full of tools at the disposal of the marketing world, each designed to solve different kinds of marketing issues.

For many years I worked in ad agencies here and in England, and I concluded that one of the single most frequent causes of frustration and rift between agency and client is that the agency is ill-briefed at the beginning of the relationship. Fundamental questions are left unanswered (and go unasked). What is the nature of our brand? What would we like it to be? What problem have we identified with the business or the brand for which we believe advertising is the appropriate solution? The best briefing we ever received was Nickelodeon, who gave us a suitcase full of stuff-Gak, videotapes, an orange foam brain-and said, "This is us. Don't try and change it."

Ad agencies need to recognize what clients already do, that the insertion of a brand agency into the equation can vastly improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the advertising process. By spending focused (that is, specialized) time wrestling with the nature of the brand and where it needs to go, and getting the client to buy into those conclusions, the brand agency is helping to clear the way for the ad agency to do what it does best, in a pointed and optimal way.

So who will own the brand turf? Of course, no one will, and everyone will. What we have to recognize is that there is the space and the need for all the players to be in there, not as warring factions but as collaborating specialists. Perhaps a better way to think about it is that the brand is client to us all: marketing people, advertising agencies, public relations agencies, brand agencies. In this "customer focused" age, we all need to ask ourselves, "What is the maximum value I can bring to my client, the brand?" 

nick shore, ceo, the WAY group - May 7, 2001
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