by Liz Wolstenholme
September 1st, 2014

So much has been written about the ‘land-grab’ that’s currently taking place between different communications agencies, but most of the articles I’ve read focus on the brutal – and brutal is the word – battle for media channels. Hardly any cover the topic of who should own brand strategy going forward.

This I find bizarre. Owning the brand strategy is the gateway to owning the lion’s share of the communications mix – or at least having first dibs at it. In my ad agency days, it was such a simple sell, along the lines of ‘…and would Sir/Madam care for a little digital or social to go with that?’

Why, then, are the other agencies not going all-out for the ad agency strategic jugular? It certainly seems to me that brand strategy is just as ‘up for grabs’ as anything else.

Yes, it’s true that ad agencies invented it back in the 1960s and their ‘strategy to own strategy’ has been pretty persuasive for the wannabe strategist until very recently. Think about it. They fostered an environment that welcomed strategic perambulation, mood boards, mind maps, scribbly circles and 300-page data files with open arms, graced it with its own special language and honoured the end result with planner-specific, shiny awards.  But, cosy though this may be, planners want to be where the exciting challenges are and those exciting challenges are increasingly elsewhere.

Yes, it’s true that ad agencies were the natural first port of call for strategy because they owned the lion’s share of the media budget. But again, now, that isn’t necessarily so. As budgets shift to digital, social and PR, as consumers demand that brands put them in the driving seat and stop pushing so many messages out to them, it no longer follows that everything starts with ATL.

Yes, it’s true that ad agencies could more easily bring a strategy to life visually to get client buy-in, as in ‘here’s the strategy and here’s what it will look like as a beautiful anthemic ad. Of course you’re sold, Mr or Mrs Client, we’ve moved you and your family to tears.’ Again, though, this is no more the exclusive remit of the ad agency. Today, anyone can make an anthemic video and throw a Coldplay soundtrack over it.

The time is ripe for all those other agencies to swoop in and claim the brand strategy prize. So what’s stopping them? They can get the talent, they can foster the right environment, they can do the rousing anthemic sell-ins and they can also now increasingly get air-time with the CMOs who call the strategic shots.

I think the reason is this. A love of brands is not naturally in their agency blood. In their agency gut. And therefore, the desire to own the accompanying strategy is not there. This is not the case for all agencies (and thankfully, is not the case for the one I work for), but it’s certainly the way for many of the non-ATL agencies out there.

Everyone going to a graduate interview for an ad agency has a passion for brands. That’s the sole reason for wanting to get into advertising. Always. For every single grad. You love brands and so you long to understand how they work, why they work and to develop campaigns that will work even better. Not so, for every grad going through the doors of, say, a digital agency or a social agency or a PR one. They have different passions – equally valuable, equally valued – but just different. It might be a passion for coding or a passion for technology. It might be a passion for politics or storytelling. It might be a passion for analytics or algorithms, healthcare or change management. These agencies have a blend of employees with an incredible array of passions, their genetic make-up is exciting and dynamic. But it’s a very different DNA from the typical ad agency.

Surely that’s an advantage, I hear you cry? Yes, don’t get me wrong, I think that’s absolutely what it is. If these agencies went all-out to claim brand strategy, they would create brand platforms that are arguably far more dynamic and fresh than the often-regurgitated ones emerging from many ad agencies these days. Mixed genes make for more original thinking. It’s a real plus.

The trouble is, if that fundamental love of brands is lacking, they won’t have the appetite to want to claim that space. If it’s not in the gut of an agency, the hunger to really achieve it will never be there.

So many of these agencies are focused on getting their employees up to speed on things like digital and measurement and Big Data and algorithms – believing these things will help them win the land-grab. And I agree, they’ll certainly help. But without that fundamental love of brands that drives the desire to want to own the gateway brand strategy, I fear they’ll fail in the long-term.

It’s time for these agencies to get their people to love brands – to put brand love at the heart of everything they do. They need to foster a curiosity about brands, encourage people to read the latest brand books, spend time understanding the underlying strategies behind campaigns, educate them about brand theory, open up debates about brands and campaigns. They need to live and breathe brands like the ad agencies do. The agencies that achieve this will be the agencies that ultimately win and win big.

Liz Wolstenholme is head of Brand Strategy, Weber Shandwick UK

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