Last Wednesday was bookended by two talks and events from a couple of my favourite creative disciplines; Advertising and Branding. Both face profound challenges in addressing the shifting marketing and business landscape they roam. There are many other places and posts that deal with those challenges in greater detail, so I’ll leave that for other more relevant voices to cover. But the happy coincidence of these two on the same day allowed me personally to assess where each discipline is at. The results where both inspiring and frustrating.
The morning saw Albion’s The Albion Society run the ‘Hacking Advertising‘ event. One presentation stood out as the most timely and well considered presentations I have seen yet on the state of Advertising. Presented by Gustav Von Sydow, CEO of Burt (and former CPB Europe alum), his presentation, F**k The Future was a hugely compelling argument for Advertising to deal with the ‘now’, to reduce it’s obsession at predicting the future of advertising, but instead, create ‘agile advertising’ that is iterative, and adaptable, focussed on long term business problems, (KPI’s instead of ROI). It was packed full of challenging thinking, that reminded me very much of the things that I have read and seen coming out of Made By Many, and the guys at BDWCU, as well as an article that James Cooper wrote for AdWeek on the need to build, not just talk, and build ideas fast, small and iterative.
While a process of Agile Advertising has it’s problems, (and it still feels like a niche argument). It does illustrate a willingness, indeed, an excitable energy that pervades much of the leading thinkers of the Advertising industry to rethink, remake, and ‘hack’ their industry. Advertising as a discipline, has rethought itself time and again. It might take a while for those evolutions to bear fruit, as Von Sydow pointed out in the Q&A after, but once they do, the work reflects this shift, and becomes better than ever as a result. It strikes me now more than ever that that evolution is not only underway, but we are fast approaching a tipping point where this goal of an evolved Advertising discourse is fully underway, the uncertainty that the last half decade has wrought, is breeding excitement and innovation that makes me excited to work in whatever ‘Advertising is these days.
The provocative, but thoughtful (and exciting) tone of the morning presentation, focussed my thinking on what my other favourite discipline is up to these days. What Brand Consultancies were doing to respond to similar challenges to their industry model. As a veteran of one of a Brand Consultancy with considerable clout and experience, and now working away from one, I was interested to see if the big (and small) agencies were willing to show off new thinking and new approaches on building and ‘designing’ Brands, as well as embracing the possibilities and challenges that a digitally connected populace would demand of their brands and the work they create for clients. That they were ‘kicking the tyres’ (As Moderator Simon Manchipp noted) of the Brand Consultancy model.
Unlike Advertising, the discipline of ‘Branding’ is a relatively recent development. With a history of evolutions, not revolutions. Most of the venerable Brand Consultancies, evolved out of the world of Corporate Identity. Adopting the term ‘Branding’ allowed more diverse projects other than design and implementation to pass through the Consultancies. Strategic thinking, the ‘Big Idea’ distributed through a series of defined implementation channels, became the bread and butter of Consultancies. Branding, was not the most agile of disciplines. A brand could wait 18 months for it’s new brand strategy, and eventually new Identity system, rolled out in a methodical manner, with consistency, order, and discipline shot through it like a rod of iron.
With this discipline in it’s relative infancy, you would expect that the ability and energy to absorb changing models and relish innovation would be abundance. Alas, the Branding 2.0 event illustrated that while Design itself is in rude health, the relationships between what that Identity should do and how much it actually impacts on the Brand day to day was as far away as ever. Indeed, the revolution and impact of the web, on how Consultancies approach projects was reduced to seemingly a passing fad, a website, as opposed to a fundamental communication shift.
The discussion had me questioning what a Brand Consultancy is in 2011. What it’s principal focus should be, and how it delivers it. Identity design and delivery is one facet of what an Consultancy does. If an Identity is considered the natural conclusion of a Brand Consultancies work, then are they just not design agencies that happen to have a strategy department? With over 10,000 Consultancies/Agencies in the UK claiming that they do ‘Brand’ It seems clear that the role of Branding 2.0 should be about defining and arguing for a wider role for Brand Consultancies, taking in UX, community management to name just two, and using Design thinking and making through every single platform, and touchpoint be they internal or external tools and platforms.
Fundamentally, I was taught that a great Brand is every single touchpoint of a consumer’s experience, regardless of industry or sector, consumer facing or not. It is not, and never should be just an identity. That Identity should be a symbol of change, not the concluding output of a job. Great Brand Consultancies use Strategy and Design in harmony to solve large scale business issues. In an age where as Marina Willer rightly pointed out; ‘Your Brand Is Only As Good As Google Says It Is’, a Brand Consultancy has to be much more than just an Identity roll out.
If the outputs, or yardsticks we measure Brand Consultancies must change , then another thing that struck me was the of discussion on the models of business that underpin a Consultancy. Why for example, are not more Brand Consultancies investing in the Brands themselves? This has always puzzled me, if you are a Brand Consultancy, charged with creating new ones, or refreshing moribund ones, why would you not build compensation models that tie reward to that Brands’ success? Is that not an ultimate validation of your ability to build them in the first place? Anomaly, an ‘Ad Agency’, has been doing this for years, so where’s the Brand Consultancies innovation here? Marketing chaos is spawning other interesting models like Co:, which from here, looks very much like a model that Brand Consultancies should have embraced some time ago. Or maybe really got their hands dirty with product innovation, pursued by the likes of Red Scout or IDEO.
One of the reasons I have moved away from Branding as a discipline is this lack of innovation (and having mostly it’s digital head in the sand). Brand Consultancies should be at the cutting edge of Brand innovation conversations, and delivering on them. They should be places of experimentation and bravery, not conservatism and timidity.
To be fair, Brand Consultancies may well be doing much of this, and I would love for agencies to show more of this. But, to truly talk about Branding 2.0, then these innovations should be championed, less pushed to the side to repackage old thinking as brave new worlds. The morning’s event showed one creative industries response to change, to innovate and to tear up conventions and practices, to create better work. In contrast, Branding 2.0, looks alot like Branding 1.0, and that just won’t do anymore. I for one am glad that the debate has kicked off. I believe passionately in the work these agencies do. Because in doing so, it revealed far more fundmental issues that just sticking your head in the sand and shaping the conversation around the whether the logo moves or not. Lets hope the next talk is about looking forward, not just shaping the past to look like the future.