Time to start taking the lead

Branding is too important to be left in the hands of advertising agencies, says Christian Schroeder. Designers should market their strategic skills better

Not so long ago I was sitting in a large meeting room at an all-agency review for a major international client. After a lot of discussion about campaigns, tactics and implementation, the client asked who was actually responsible for the long-term strategic direction of their brand. The resultant raising of hands from every person in the room led to laughter, but also highlighted the conundrum facing many clients: for the first time in many years, there is a vacuum in terms of brand leadership at consultancy level, and we, as an industry, are not coming to the fore in terms of filling that space.

For as long as I can remember, the perceived wisdom has been that the strategic direction of any given brand resides with the advertising agency. The simple reason for this is that, for many years, they were the only option and provided a full-service offer. However, for decades this has not been the case, but – based on the size of budget, the reach of TV commercials, the ability to extrapolate return on investment using any number of objective or subjective measures – the place of ‘the agency’ at the top of the communications tree was firmly cemented. Irrespective of any criteria, the fact is that the advertising industry simply assumed that role because no alternative was offered.

Times, however, are changing. The advertising industry is in disarray as it struggles to come to terms with diverse media, platforms and channels. Clients are increasingly looking at new and innovative ways of attracting consumers and brands are no longer producing products and services – they are meeting needs, goals and motivations. Consumer behaviour is changing so rapidly that the old ways of communication are no longer relevant. But still no one is standing up and challenging the position of the advertising agency, even though the campaigns are becoming increasingly tactical and short-term, and this position is less tenable than ever.

Surely this should be the natural realm of the branding and design industry. Do we not create the visual and strategic frameworks that define how a brand looks, feels and behaves? Do we not provide the platform on which all subsequent communication is built? Brands such as Apple, Sony, O2, BP, Nike, Google and Coca-Cola are successful not just because of what they say, but largely because of what they stand for – visually, verbally and virtually. But does our industry have the hunger, quality and, moreover, the confidence to fill this vacuum?

When Design Week published its 2009 Hot 50, I was disappointed. Rather than reading about ‘hot’ designers and brand strategists who were challenging the norm and delivering breakthrough ideas and innovative solutions, I largely read the names that have graced these pages for decades. Of course, these stalwarts of our industry must be recognised for their achievements, but they are our legacy and not our future. We need to be confident, and foster and nurture talent from colleges from within consultanncies. We should also be brave enough to look outside our immediate sector and finally understand that we are in the business of ideas that make a commercial difference, and not the business of design for the sake of design.

I believe that the branding and design industry is perfectly placed to take on a more central role in the future of communications, but we are only going to earn that position if we can show that we have the hunger to claim it, the quality of people to maintain it and, most importantly, the confidence to own it.

Last year was tough for all of us, but some sectors and some consultancies have come out of this stronger than others and they are the ones that have long-term strategic partnerships with clients. We need to build on this position as trusted advisers and work collectively to claim the seat at the top table that has been reserved for the advertising agency. Perhaps it is not so much a question of usurping them, but collaborating with them and reinforcing the importance of design in the minds of their bosses, as well as collaborating with our clients.

If you look at emerging markets – China, India, Eastern Europe, Latin America and the Middle East – our immediate clients are often chairmen, chief executives and owners of companies. For them, branding and design is paramount to success, perhaps even more so than advertising.

If we want to claim our ‘rightful’ place, rather than be perceived as the ‘people who did the logo’, we need to be influencing chief executives and chief financial officers as well as marketing directors, to highlight that we are going to make a difference to their most valuable intangible asset – the brand.

Boardroom blitz

  • Designers should strive to influence chairmen and chief executives
  • Media fragmentation offers an opening for usurping the lead role of advertising agencies on branding issues
  • Promote the notion that our industry is a business of ideas, not just logos
  • Collaboration is the best way forward

Christian Schroeder, Chief executive, Lambie-Nairn

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