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Ad agencies: Image makers or brand sustainers?

09-September-2004
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Ad agencies: Image makers or brand sustainers?

Nothing much has changed in the last 15 years or so regarding what a client expects from an advertising agency. What has changed, however, is the way agencies have evolved themselves to ensure that the right things are done to support the client’s business.

The continuous extension of the role of communication into wider roles encompassing public relations (PR), direct marketing, promotions, events etc., have only gone on to prove what agencies have done over the last decade to address the brands’ macro and micro needs effectively.

The smart ones have branded these offerings calling them Orchestration, 360 degrees, integrated marketing, etc., but all offer the same old propositions in a new bottle, with varied hues. What has become apparent is the need to ascertain what is right for a brand in a given situation, rather than fit a solution into an undefined or a sketchy problem.

The ever-increasing competition in the marketplace, changing consumer preferences and benchmarks, evolving needs and desires, and closer interaction with the world outside has placed a renewed set of consumers in the marketers’ hands. Every learning, presumably every insight, gets questioned, every action relooked and every task redefined. The small luxury of using an altered adage ‘Mistakes can be stepping stones to success’ is completely eliminated.

In such a tough, dynamic marketplace, who is indeed responsible for a brand’s bloodline? Building its rich ancestry and improving its breed for a healthy progeny? Who takes the onus? Who takes the ownership of the brand? Clients define a marketing task and expect the agency to have the most potent creative solution. It could be a promotion campaign, a small or large scale event/s, a simple press advertisement or an endearing television commercial, to entice the consumer to think of his brand constantly.

Herein is the biggest trap a client and agency walk into. Both sides are looking at generating additional revenues for their business — the client to increase his sales and the agency to increase its revenue. This premise has not changed a bit till date.

The point that needs to be driven home is, who takes care of the real need of the brand? Is it an unwritten rule that the agency automatically becomes the brand custodian? Or, does it rest with the company whose entire personnel and manufacturing capacity has given a brand its tangible face? Or is it the prerogative of the nouveau silos of consultancy houses who attempt to be the company’s conscience-keepers?

Why is this question arising today? Does it explain why there are just a handful of brands that have lasted over 100 years? Everyone is into maximising the present — and there goes the long-term vision for the brand.

Brand ownership has been debated quite a bit in the recent years. The conflict between who is responsible for a brand’s long-term health and who is responsible for its growth is a never-ending battle in corporate board rooms. Cases abound from corporates like Coca-Cola to newer entities like GAP.

There isn’t a clearly defined model for the role of a brand owner. This is because the power centre rests with whosoever controls the stakes of an organisation. In an entrepreneur-driven organisation, it’s clearly with the owner. In a trading corporation, it shakes hands with many in the marketing team, the sales team or the finance team, depending on who is a majority power in the board.

However, it would be interesting to ask, can there be a neutral arbitrator who is purely interested in the existence and the growth of a brand, despite changing ownership and corporate structures? One who is purely driven by protecting brand health and growth? More than anything else, staying with the brand with its ups and downs. One who has struck the perfect balance to ensure delivery of the corporate shareholder value and also ensure longevity of a brand till eternity. Could that be an advertising agency? Does an agency have in it the soul and courage to be the real brand owner, to help sustain the long-term value for a brand? Can an advertising agency take on the role of being perceived as not just an image-maker, but a brand sustainer?

In the midst of these myriad silos of experts, it is time to revisit the very building blocks of advertising agencies, which have always been considered brand owners.

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